By Bob Halstead
It’s interesting what catches your eye. I was reading about Tusa Dive’s brand new day dive boat due to start operating in Cairns in September 2007. On the brochure it explained that there would be a maximum of 60 guests on board “although comfortable lounge-style seating is provided for 120, which means there’s plenty of space with 2 seats for every person”.
This might initially seem silly – what are you going to do with 2 seats when you only have one bottom?
But this message spoke volumes to me. I have been on day boats where the guests have been crammed into the boat so that the inside, the only sheltered and air-conditioned area, rapidly becomes full and you find yourself trapped next to the overweight incompetent (who actually could fit in to two seats) who could not clear his ears and proceeds to tell you about it all the way home. Either that or you brave the outdoor area, which looks idyllic in calm-weather photos but in the traditional North Queensland South-East Season is wet , cold and uncomfortable in the spray from the bash and crash out and back. It can be utterly miserable, especially since many of your fellow travellers are leaning over the wrong side of the boat chumming for sharks, or something.
I decided to see if I could get on the new boat, Tusa 5, and check it out. So early in November friends Chris, Madi and Leigh, who was modelling for me, booked ourselves on, and turned up at the Marlin Marina downtown Cairns. Parking and lugging gear was not a problem as Leigh and I used the Tusa Dive pickup bus that took us straight to the dock.
This ride was an event in itself as we picked up a couple from California, Ian a scuba diver and Loes a glamorous and formidably voluptuous snorkeller. She was applying her lipstick as she boarded commenting that her mother had told her not to go anywhere without her lipstick and she reckoned that included the Great Barrier Reef. We were laughing and joking as the bus stopped and picked up Sergei from New York. Sergei was a very experienced hard-core diver who has dived the wreck of the Andrea Doria, considered by many to be diving’s Mount Everest, resting, as it does, deep in the cold current-swept North Atlantic. Sergei had already been out on Tusa 5 earlier in the week and this was a return trip since he had had such a great time. We were thrilled already.
The crew of Tusa 5 welcomed us all aboard, allocated a tank each (choice of sizes) and we were able to set up our gear while others boarded. Guests requiring hire gear had it set up for them and Nitrox was available if requested for $15 a fill. All gear is available for hire including “prescription” masks and digital cameras.
On Tusa 5 I could travel sitting outdoors if I wanted (and I did for some of the homeward trip) but there really was plenty of room inside to be comfortable and move around and sit next to various people as I chose. The 25 metre long boat was not full, so the 40 pax had 3 seats each to choose from!
We set off at 20 knots plus for the speedy run to the outer reef. My next test was on the back deck where on many fast vessels the engines are so noisy it is impossible to hold a conversation. Tusa 5 was quiet, the engines buzzed rather than roared, and chatting was easy. Our friendly and efficient dive supervisor, James, explained that we were off to Milln Reef and the journey would take just 90 minutes, which is good for the outer Barrier Reef.
In January 1973 I dived the GBR for the first time on Ed Kells’ “Reef Lady” a lovely old timber launch which took over three hours just to get to Michaelmas Cay. I saw some wonderful live reef with Ed, so it was a shock in 2001 to see how much the reef off Cairns and Port Douglas had deteriorated – but I have some good news, as I will explain. If anyone knows what happened to Ed I’d love to know, I will always remember my very first dives on the Reef.
The usual safety and dive briefings took place at the dock and underway (regrettably, as with all the Queensland dive boats I have been on, still with some silly errors perpetuated by the old Workplace legislation) and before we knew it we were moored at the first site “Three Sisters”, where we would have two dives. Using the convenient water -level hydraulic platform I was soon in the drink which was clear with 25 – 30 m viz and a slight current. The site had a series of bommies rising from a sandy bottom with interesting passages between, lined with sea fans and black corals. There was a mass of fishes swarming off the front of each bommie feeding on the plankton carried by the current, but my biggest surprise was to see how good the corals were. A few years ago on another outer reef I saw rafts of brown algae smothering a dead reef – but this reef was covered in healthy corals of all descriptions, mostly they were only a few years old, regenerating and vibrant and colourful. Just check the photos!
With lots of fishes, clear water, and good corals, I was soon out of film and back at the boat looking forward to our second dive here. This time I made it to the furthest bommie and saw a couple of Whitetip Reef sharks, and a large Flowery Cod as well as a chaotic confusion of Rudderfish, Fusiliers, and Shark mackerel. For those new to reef ecology, educational programs were shown through the day. The professional photographer aboard took photos of all the guests underwater, and prints were available for purchase before docking.
Back on board our charming hostess Lesley presented a smorgasbord of delights for lunch and Tusa 5 moved to moor at a different spot, still on Milln Reef, for the third dive. Since we had 5 hours out at the reef, instead of the four I had experienced on other boats, there was no rush, nor continued and annoying attempts to keep guests moving and cut short sensible dive times. For the third dive we moored on a reef slope with two big bommies to explore. One had a large but narrow crack through it and the usual sea fans, the other was surrounded by large staghorn corals on a sandy bottom. A couple of beautiful Thorny Rays allowed me a close approach and then a Maori Wrasse came to say hello, probably looking for a handout. The current had stopped and this really is an interesting and yet easy dive.
Apres-dive I had a shower in one of the magnificent spacious heads on board – complete with picture windows over the reef, and sufficient hand/foot-holds for exuberant couples wanting to try a different adventure. At least that is what the crew suspected the heads were often used for, and why not!
We certainly had many exuberant couples, and singles, on the trip home. Some had just had their first Scuba experience, some were more experienced divers and some were snorkellers. All were well looked after, and experienced qualified divers were allowed to dive without direct in-water supervision from the crew. Wine and beer was available after diving was completed and we enjoyed a merry cruise back to port.
I had a really fun day, and the diving and service was excellent. To the cynics I have to say Tusa Dive is not paying me to write these kind words. If you are in Cairns and can spend a day out on the reef, I can recommend Tusa 5 without hesitation.
May 2011 – HOT NEWS – Tusa 6 is on its way, Tusa 5 has been such a success Tusa 6 has been built with just a few cosmetic changes and should be in Cairns for operation in June 2011.