After steaming away through the evening and into the night, by sunrise we had reached the Coral Sea.
Waking up at 6:00am and stepping out, bleary eyed and yawning, onto the dive deck is a memory I’ll never forget. It was a beautiful sunrise, pastel pinks and oranges tinged the sky, I could see only calm purple seas in every direction, and best of all, I knew that this boat had a coffee machine. As a budgeting backpacker, the idea of a good coffee almost brought a tear to my eye.
I was lucky to have claimed one of the volunteer spots aboard Spoilsport. The live aboard dive boat used by Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, to carry passionate crew and avid divers to some of the most remote Northern reefs and also, to my monumental excitement, the Coral Sea.
I was a ‘domestic’ volunteer, helping out with kitchen and tidying duties. Chopping fruit and veg, cleaning, clearing plates and washing dishes! In return… I was allowed to dive, with all duties done, up to 4 times a day. For 7 days I would be out at sea, in a blur of washing dishes and throwing on my fins.
We departed Boxing Day at 6pm sharp, with a scheduled return of the 2nd January 2020, spending New Year moored on the Great Barrier Reef. Sweet as.
Each Mike Ball trip can differ, as weather dependency will influence where the captains deem safe to moor. But we were on their ‘Far North Coral Sea Exploratory‘ expedition. The plan was to head out to the Coral Sea first. Stopping at Bougainville, then Osprey Reef. Before curving back towards the Great Barrier Reef, stopping off at pristine, rarely visited moorings, stopping to stretch our legs on Stanley Island, before exploring Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs.
Best time of year to dive
The reefs sit off the coastline of North East Australia, in Tropical North Queensland. The weather here is warm year round, with water temperatures sitting between 23 and 29 degrees celsius. Diving is possible throughout the year, however each season has its pros and cons. The wet season (Dec-April) in Queensland for example, brings cyclones and can cause rough sea conditions which may effect mooring sites, or even the dive boats ability to reach the Coral Sea. From late May to August it’s generally the best season for whales, and from June to October the water will be warmer and the chance of rain/storms is lower.
I was here in late December/early January, and we had impeccable weather and conditions, as is always the case with Mother Nature, you never know what you’ll get!
Bougainville Reef, The Coral Sea
Dive sites: Middle Earth and MV Antonio Tarabocchia.
We were blessed with unbeatable visibility on the first mooring, as I have never seen anything like it since. Annoyingly my GoPro had ran out of battery (I’m sure I charged it, I find it pretty temperamental sometimes!). But still, I felt like I could see for miles, although really it was only 25m. The clarity and sharpness of the reef was incredible.
We stopped first at ‘Antonio Tarabocchia’, a fairly shallow reef with a gentle slope and the scattered remains of parts of the Italian cargo ship that gave the reef its name. You could tell it had been roughed around a little from a recent cyclone, likely because of its exposed location, but coral was re-grouping and re-forming, with angel and butterfly fish fluttering and hermit crabs scuttling around.
Next up was a site aptly named ‘Middle-Earth’, a steep coral wall with cavernous openings and overhangs, rays of sunlight pouring through them. And a drop on our right hand side that fell away into a deep fathomless blue, hundreds of meters down. We did out first night dive here, exploring the wall, observing how different species own the landscape, and watching how the corals come alive. Trevally used our torch light to hunt, and smaller fish cowered in cracks and amongst corals.
Osprey Reef, The Coral Sea
Dive sites: Around the Bend, North Horn, West Wall and Admiralty Anchor.
A shark haven. Sadly we were out of season to see hammerheads or whales, but the huge number of reef sharks (grey, white tip and black tip) was astonishing. Just like Bougainville, the visibility of Osprey is exquisite, these lone reefs out in the coral sea are far from any shoreline, and the deep trenches that surround them revitalise the sites constantly with nutrient rich water. Not only sharks hang out at these reefs; Whales, whale sharks, mantas and dolphins also frequent the area too.
If you’re here in Minke whale season (June-July) or Humpback whale season (May-August), keep your eyes peeled!
The visibility at ‘Around the bend’ was amazing, we did an early morning dive here at 8am. It’s usually done as a drift dive, so we were dropped off at the southern end of the site and followed a coral wall, our eyes constantly looking out into the blue to check for hammerheads. We eventually reached the lagoon area, and watched sleepy reef sharks rest at the bottom of a sandy clearing.
West wall was a beauty. Full of beautiful soft corals, lion fish and plenty of reef sharks too. The purple carnation coral and yellow sea fans were particularly breathtaking here, they contrasted beautifully, and contributed to the whole colourful aura of the site.
Along Admiralty Anchor, my dive buddy and I were followed for 20 minutes by a friendly remora, and we also stumbled upon what seemed to be a secret meeting of sharks below us that dispersed as we came into view. It’s a brilliant site, with a cave and swim-through where you can see the old anchor that gave the site its name. The site consists of sandy channels that you can weave in and out of, each full of beautifully healthy corals and a variety of fish species. These sandy lanes fall away into a steep drop off, where you’ll see reef sharks going about their day. Just make sure you scan out into the blue from time to time for anything large gliding by!
The Far Northern Great Barrier Reef
Dive sites: Spoils of Aladdin, Pirate’s Cove, Green Beret and Sandys.
Each site had its own beautifully unique features, and frequent wildlife visitors that the crew know will always be there. Pirate’s Cove and Spoils of Aladdin definitely lived up to the treasure trove inspired names. Starfish and brightly coloured nudibranchs and flatworms coated the area, like small little slow moving jewels. Whitetail Stingray, pipefish, giant clams and even an octopus that squeezed its way into a small bommie to hide from us, are just some of the beautiful marine animals that can be found here.
At Pirate’s Cove I did two dives. Whilst all sites along the Great Barrier Reef deserve more than one dive, this site definitely became one of my favourites. In the morning the current was strong enough for us to do a drift dive, so we were dropped off by the tender, and rolled in to the blue, descending down and immediately feeling the pull of the water. The dive site followed the side of a fairly narrow channel, with powerful currents forming during tidal changes.
We spotted reef sharks, and paused in small coral channels to admire nudibranchs and hermit crabs. The second dive site was my favourite part. We moved further around to the right side of the reef, as the tide had changed we would now drift slowly back to the boat. It was more sheltered here, and the area full of swim throughs and channels, it was like visiting the ruins of a great roman temple, tall pillars and little walkways in-between, it was breathtaking. The visibility was perfect, and we spent time in the company of a huge Maori wrasse and a shy, shoal of Yellowtail barracuda.
Heading back to the boat after a night dive, Gary took these incredibly beautiful photos at his safety stop. Tiny zooplankton floated past in the currents. They would gently sting you if they brushed past your face, but obviously had nothing on an irukandji (box jellyfish). In the light of his camera their translucent bodies glowed, giving them the aura of alien lifeforms. The ocean is full of amazing creatures.
That afternoon we moored in the bay at Stanley Island and took the tender to the shoreline. I’d love to say that it was a beautifully untouched and pristine coastline, but we found (and removed) plastic from the shoreline. Globalisation is always there.
The island though is beautiful, remote, and quiet. Only the rustling sound of insects and bird calls permeating through the air. We had time to follow a walking track that took us to a cliff face and rock overhang that had a beautiful display of old aboriginal rock art. There are images here depicting old sailing ships, which are thought to show signs of first sightings of Europeans in North East Australia.
The Ribbon Reefs
Dive sites: Lighthouse, Steve’s Bommie, Two Towers, Cod Hole, Crack’a’Jack, Flare Point.
The towering pinnacles of Lighthouse, Two Towers and Crack’a’Jack have every available surface covered in life. For those looking for micro species, you’ll find plenty of nudibranchs, cleaner shrimp and even a small electric clam at Crack’a’Jack. Larger species include turtles and olive sea snakes, barracuda and my favourite, oriental sweet lips fish. I found the sweet lips fish quite shy, but at Flare point on my last dive I managed to get up close and admire their patterns, they finally accepted me into the shoal!
The naming of Steve’s Bommie is a sad tale, said to have been named after a popular diver who died tragically in a motorbike accident (although stories do vary). It’s one heck of a bommie, reaching from 30m up to just 5m from the waters surface. Stonefish lurk at the top and even wobbegong make themselves at home in the cracks and folds of this coral mound.
Cod hole is fairly self explanatory, but there’s much more to discover here too. We saw shoals of striped eel catfish filtering through the sandy seabed, incredibly tiny pygmy seahorses clinging to a fan coral, and even a graceful manta ray.
The variety of dive sites and marine life along the ribbon reefs is incredible. Whilst moored at Two Towers we even spotted a whale shark. It appeared at the bow of the boat, this enormous beautifully patterned creature, curiously coming to explore who we were. How I managed to not take a photo I’ll never know, I’m assuming it was the immense shock and excitement of seeing such a magnificent and elusive creature. We had just enough time to jump into the water and see it glide past and disappear into the blue. Beautiful.
If you want to dive the Great Barrier Reef, I think Mike Ball is the company for you. It is a little on the pricey side, but if you love diving and want to experience a real adventure out on the reef, it’s more than worth saving up for. And if you’re travelling or backpacking in Australia, apply for the volunteering roles! Depending on the season there can be a high waiting list, but you might get lucky. Just to note that generally two volunteer roles are available for each trip, a domestic and dive deck role. For the domestic volunteer you need a minimum certification of Advanced Open Water, and the dive deck at least a Divemaster. But it’s best to check out their website for all the information if you’re keen!
The underwater photos are by the amazing underwater photographer and videographer Gary Farr (thanks Gary!) with a little post-editing from me.