By Bob Halstead
Cairns has been my home for 14 years, and I like it here. The splendid re-developed airport provides the handy means to travel, both for me and for the many incoming visitors for whom “Reef and Rainforest” are the big attractions. Around the city, classic “Queenslander” homes and pubs are snuggled among the modern buildings. This small but rapidly expanding tropical city thrives on tourism. It is clean, lush and friendly, boasts of its rainforest resorts, backpacker pads, international hotels, and many first-rate dive operations. Fast catamarans, and even helicopters whiz out to the reef. They need to be fast as the best sites are on the Outer Great Barrier Reef some 50km off shore. Corals here are in good condition and responding to the Cairns “Cleaner Seas” initiative which has drastically reduced pollution.
With over 36 years experience, the Deep Sea Divers Den is Cairns longest established Great Barrier Reef dive operator. Their PADI 5 Star facility is complete with shop, classrooms and a large custom training pool. They train divers – who get their first ever dives on the Outer Great Barrier Reef – but also run reef trips for snorkellers and certified divers.
What is more they have a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority license to feed a small quantity of eco-friendly fish pellets (no more than one kg per day) to the local reef inhabitants. Some of the food is distributed to the baitfish and Giant Trevally that congregate by the dive platform under the powerful floodlights at night. This attracts up to a dozen Grey Reef Sharks and the crew lead groups of divers, some making their first ever night dives, under the boat to dive with the sharks on the way to and from the reef. Some prefer to watch the spectacle from the platform but, for all, this is a License to Thrill!
I make several trips a year out to the GBR. Diving with the Deep Sea Divers Den a complementary pick-up service in the Cairns area brings guests to the Divers Den for an 8am kick off. Once formalities are completed, transfer is provided to the dock, and guests board the fast catamaran Sea Quest. Sea Quest is both a day dive boat and a ferry. After a 90min cruise to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, guests may make three dives at two different dive sites, or are transferred to the 35m, 3 deck catamaran Ocean Quest that sleeps 48 guests in twin/double ensuite cabins for overnight stays on the reef. It is possible to spend several nights on the Ocean Quest which has a five dive a day schedule, returning to Cairns on the Sea Quest when your stay is over.
Visitors offered a Great Barrier Reef experience should realise that inshore reefs have never been as good as those bordering the blue waters of the Coral Sea, and know why they are paying a bit more to go to the Outer Barrier. It is worth the extra money.
There are several good reasons why I think visitors to Cairns should consider a night or so on Ocean Quest:
1. Visitors can maximise their GBR experience by staying on what is virtually a hotel actually on the Outer GBR.
2. Travel time is limited to 90 minutes at the beginning and end of the stay with only very short relocations once on the Ocean Quest.
3. The Quest vessels visit a variety of dive sites on adjacent Norman and Saxon Reefs, and moor in sheltered water for a comfortable stay. Great snorkelling as well as Scuba, is available with guides if requested.
4. Visitors will meet many of the GBR’s iconic creatures, including Giant Maori Wrasse, Giant clams, Green and Hawksbill Turtles, Harlequin Tuskfish, cuttlefish, cod, lionfish and Grey Reef Sharks. All the fish and turtles in the area are protected, and approach divers closely.
5. The night dive with sharks is extraordinary and an uncommon opportunity.
6. Special events are Coral Spawning in November, Minke Whales in June – July, and Humpback Whales in July – August.
Sea Quest and Ocean Quest list a total 20 distinct dive sites on Norman and Saxon Reefs. These patch reefs are on the outer GBR to the northeast of Cairns. Most diving takes place on the sheltered side of these isolated reefs where coral is exposed at extreme low tides. As the reefs are small they are often flushed by blue ocean water and visibility can be excellent, though is more usually in the 15- 20m range. The best coral growths are in the shallows and snorkelling is superb. Sand slopes predominate deeper with scattered healthy stands of staghorn corals. The technicolour and iconic Harlequin Tusk Fish is abundant in the shallow reef crevices along with turtles, cuttlefish and a multitude of reef fishes.
On Norman Reef at The Caves, several swim throughs and reef canyons burrow through the reef. Turtles like to rest here, and are interested in divers. One swam out from its shelter surprising my model by tasting her long blonde hair. We followed another turtle as it rose to a passing sea jelly and proceeded to feast on it.
The Playground is a beautifully sculptured reef with little walls and bommies and large staghorn corals. Nearby is Shark Mountain, a big coral mound separated from the main reef, with lovely hard and soft corals. Despite the name there actually are sharks here, hanging out ready for their night adventures around Ocean Quest. Barramundi Cod, and a Green Turtle, are resident.
Atlantic Clipper and Coral Gardens are sites at Saxon Reef that feature Maori Wrasse, batfish, cuttlefish and Giant clams in a variety of interesting coral settings. One Giant clam here is as big as I have ever seen. It is enormous.
For those wishing to dive the spectacular Northern GBR and magic waters of the Coral Sea, Deep Sea Divers Den has its own 30m live aboard, the Taka. This offers 3,4 or 7 night packages, and provides the very best diving in this more remote area.
North Horn at Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea is one of the world’s great dive sites. Sharks gather to be fed at a natural amphitheatre. Divers line along the curved slope while sharks are attracted to a convenient bommie. On my Taka trip I counted 60 Grey Reef and White Tip sharks at one time, and there are usually a few Silvertips as well. Hammerheads and Thresher Sharks may also be seen down the drop off. Soft corals are superb along the west wall and Manta Rays often play in the lagoon pass.
On board dive briefings with “mud-maps” are given before each dive on all the boats. Instructors and personal dive guides are available as are a multitude of different PADI courses. Buddy diving is usual. There is plenty of deck space for gear but space for large cameras is limited. Air fills are fast, but Nitrox available only on Taka. The crew are all friendly and professional, and make sure you have a great time. I’m going back soon.
Need to know
When to go:
Year round diving takes place with calmest seas October – December, whale sightings June – August. January – March is wet season with possibility of a cyclone. Target night for coral spawning is 5th night after full moon in November, though October and December are worth a try.
Water temperatures vary from 24 deg C. in August to 30 deg C. in January.
Visibility can be 30 m or more, but is typically in the 15 – 20m range. Currents are usually slight at most sites, stronger on the spring tides.
Ocean Quest is one of three boats in the Deep Sea Divers Den fleet. It is a 40 m, 3 deck catamaran that sleeps up to 48 guests in twin/double en-suite cabins. A second boat, Sea Quest, makes daily trips from Cairns Marlin Marina to Norman and Saxon reefs and provides transfers to the Ocean Quest. For those wishing to dive the spectacular Northern GBR and magic waters of the Coral Sea, DSDD has its own 30m live aboard, the Taka. This offers 3,4 or 7 night packages, and offers the very best diving in this more remote area.
Other operators that offer day trips out of Cairns to the Outer GBR are
and live-aboard trips to the Northern GBR
Ocean Quest’s 3D/2N Great Barrier Reef trip is around $620.00
For more information about Seasons, PADI courses, Vessels and costs go to
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