By Bob Halstead
October in Cairns is magnificent. The South-East trade winds loose their sting, the sky clears and is so blue that looking out over the beaches the sea looks sparkling and clear and blue too.
Fooled by all this, I went for a swim with some friends off Trinity Beach, one of Cairns’ Northern Beaches. We had a barbeque on one of the excellent free council barbeques, did not illegally consume a bottle or three of pink sparkling wine in a public place, and got wet.
Along the beach they had yellow flags but I do not enjoy swimming between the lifeguards. After all I could see Shark Nets a short way off-shore so it seems to me that any good citizen, recognising the constant killing of dugong, dolphin, turtles and, yes, sharks, in those nets, should at least be willing to take their chances and swim anywhere along the beach. There are no waves or currents this time of year.
Stinger season is over and the swimming enclosures have been removed, but the shark nets stay out all year even when swimmers are supposed to swim only in the enclosures. I do not understand the reason for this, apart from bureaucratic laziness, and when I enquired a few years back was given the “Don’t you worry about that” treatment.
Fortunately there is always the possibility of a rogue Crocodile and, let’s face it, you would never know because the water close to shore is filthy brown and zero visibility all year. But it was warm in the shallows, and, deluded by our “lemonade”, enjoyable.
But when I received a call from Nina at Diversion Dive Travel in Cairns that there was a last minute cancellation on a 6-night trip to the Cod Hole and Osprey Reef on Undersea Explorer I grabbed the opportunity. Explorer was sailing that evening, and out offshore the water is really blue, clear and full of interesting beasts, live and in your face, rather than dead in a net in the murk.
Diversion are a Cairns travel agency specialising in dive trips in North Queensland, PNG and the whole western Pacific/SE Asia area – and they are real divers. They know their stuff, and it is worth giving them a call if you are planning your next dive adventure. Contact them on 1800 607 913 or see their web site at www.diversionOZ.com
Undersea Explorer sails from Port Douglas so I loaded the Red Rocket, my 14-year-old 300 ZX, and zoomed along the beautiful coastal drive to “Port”, as the residents call it. I had a warm welcome at the office, and then drove alongside the ship to load my gear. Everyone was friendly and mysteriously happy to see me. I think they are just like that in Port. They even reminded me that BYO grog was the way to go if you drink wine, and I was able to nip over to a bottle shop and stock up.
This was going to be an important cruise for me in one very special way. Only 7 weeks previously I had my right hip “resurfaced” and this was to be the first ocean trial. If the leg did not work right with fins on I would just have to spend the time listening to the excellent onboard marine life lectures, eat the truly magnificent food, thanks to Emily, and read and drink. By the way, I do not think I have been on another dive boat that actually served Eggs Benedick for breakfast.
Underwater Explorer has a real graduate marine Biologist on board, Chris, an enthusiast and alarmingly energetic and informative. The vessel is involved in various scientific research programs. They collect data from target species observed by the guests on their dives, and also from Nautilus trapped in the deep (and released live), Plankton, Tiger Sharks and Minke Whales. The marine library was excellent and I was pleased to see well-thumbed copies of my Coral Sea Reef Guide aboard.
Undersea Explorer is not going to win any glamour prizes, but has design features that, quite frankly, are amazing, and work. Underwater, the hull is flat – just like a barge – with three long “keels” that fit large timber runners to protect the ship if it hit a reef (Dive boats all do, you know, sooner or later …). The engine keel coolers run along the underwater sides of the vessel, and the twin shafts, propellers and rudders are also perfectly protected by an angled step in the hull.
To my eyes it looked weird but in fact it is a brilliant solution to the problem that all other twin-screw vessels have of smashing the running gear whenever they bump a reef.
Then my concern switched to how comfortable the ship would be in a sea. I was amazed again – we had a beam sea running on the overnight to Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea and the boat hardly swayed. On other ships we would have been rolling around like a drunken sailor.
I established my niche on the Nitrox side of the boat and set up my tank and trusty pony bottle. Having the appropriate gear and experience I was able to sign off as a “Solo” diver. The hydraulic platform at the stern was lowered to sea level for easy entires and exits, but I was dismayed by a lack of space for my, admittedly bulky, camera gear. The Explorer was full with 20 divers. No matter, I just slept with my camera on my large bunk, and explained to my gracious cabin mate Matt that I do not usually do this. I am not sure he was convinced, especially when he caught me kissing my dome port.
Leaving Port that evening we proceeded through the night arriving on the Ribbon Reefs for the first dives, the third being at the Cod Hole. A forth dive at night was usually offered, but three is enough for me these days, and, since my leg was working just fine – I could even put on my booties unaided – I had less time to drink all that wine.
As far as Great Barrier Reef diving goes I have good news. Sites such as Challenger Bay and the Clam Gardens are saturated by a great variety of live healthy corals – and on a short swim at the Clam Gardens I counted 15 giant clams T. gigas. One site produced a rare “hairy” ghost pipefish and Globalunies should note the water was a cool 23deg C the whole trip.
At other sites, including reefs close to Port Douglas, there were large regions of coral regrowth, particularly in the shallows. If this regrowth continues we are only a couple of years away from getting the reefs back to pristine condition. It would seem that the “Clean Seas” initiative might be having an impact already. Undersea Explorer regularly samples water quality as another of its research projects.
The Cod Hole was as wonderful as ever with plenty of Potato Cod – including several young individuals – and good corals and visibility. But the highlight was understandably Osprey Reef. The water was fabulously clear. Raging Horn produced dozens of sharks and a large manta and North Horn a fabulous wall drift with some of the best soft coral and sea fan life I have ever seen. The shark “Attract” dive, where sharks are cruelly allowed to sniff the baits but not eat them (imagine if they had tried that with us at dinner!) attracted a mess of extraordinarily well-behaved White Tip and Grey Reef sharks. In fact these sharks are too well behaved. Perfect, I admit, for divers new to sharks, but I missed the wild action where sharks are still trying to sort the bait from the divers.
The last night aboard meant a barbeque on the top deck with entertainment from engineer Jon on guitar with various well-lubricated voices. The singing was not as harmonious as the crew who worked together superbly the whole trip. Clare gave magic dive briefings with such good humour we actually believed we were going to see all the critters she described! Vicki and Dimitri assisted admirably and before we knew it Skipper David had us safely tied up back at the Undersea Explorer’s wharf. Then we had the shocking job of suddenly saying goodbye to all our new friends. Luckily Ray and Bill live in Port so I will see them again.
So I hope your spring is as good as mine. My new hip works a treat, the reef looks great, and the Undersea Explorer comfortable, fun, enlightening, and worth returning to for many more adventures.