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Scuba Diving On Australia's Great Barrier Reef

By Douglas Bernon
Published: December 2012

They followed up their one-week Sunsail boat charter in the Whitsunday Islands with four days on an excursion dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef. What a way to see Australia!.

Realizing a dream is risky. First, it may not live up to the exquisite intensity of wanting it badly for a long time; and perhaps worse, you've then lost it as a prize to long for. That's how I'd always felt about diving on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. How could it possibility equal the many dives I'd taken there in my head? How could the water be that clear, the fish that plentiful and colorful? How could the feather coral undulate as seductively as it did in my mind's eye?


In the pictures we paint in our imaginations, sometimes we see the world we want to see, we see the fish we hope to discover, the coral and currents and sudden heart-grabbing moments when something new and large and otherworldly — something prehistoric and strange — struts across our stage, and we wonder if anything in reality can match that kind of dive. For years I'd imagined a trip to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, but feared that disappointment with a second-rate reality might crush my first-rate fantasies. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Welcome To The World Down Under

As a tourist, it's in the category of SERIOUSLY BIG that Australia finds its reason for being. In water and on land, culturally and artistically, this is a country that celebrates the large and rejoices in the pleasures of the remote, natural world, which makes it the right place for the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef there is. Actually, the GBR is a community of reef systems – almost 3,000 individual reefs stretching among hundreds of islands. If one end of the reef started in New York City, you'd reach the other end somewhere in the panhandle of Oklahoma! Located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia, satellite photos show the GBR to be the largest living organism that can be seen from outer space.

Until this trip to Australia, though I've been diving for about 50 years, I'd never set foot on a live-aboard, purpose-built, multi-day dive boat. I've lugged gear into ice-cold, visionless quarries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, signed up for a day's dive or two on vacations in the Caribbean, Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. But never did I dive more than once or twice in a day, and in the fullness of that time, sometimes the dives were spaced by weeks or even years. I'd never known the greater luxury of leisurely scuba diving, of suiting up and hopping in three or four times in one day, knowing the same treat would be available again tomorrow. And I surely didn't know about night dives.

In terms of scuba diving, I hadn't the slightest idea what it was like to be taken so well taken care of. I hadn't learned about the headache-less pleasures of Nitrox, and never expected the level of good — no, make that great — food prepared and served on dishes that then somebody swept away, washed, and dried! One night, on our four-day dive excursion, we were forced to choose between chicken breast stuffed with Camembert, and fresh red-spotted emperor fish encrusted in macadamia and dill drizzled with roasted shellfish sauce. The food on our boat was preposterously good, but better still was not having to even think about it. Total focus could be on the experience of the wet world and, after each and every dive, the novel and welcome comforts of hot showers and a swaddle of warm towels.

I hadn't known how much better a dive can be when it's preceded by a serious briefing from people who love the ocean, who know the currents, the fish, the coral, good routes to follow, and what to avoid. In short, I'd never dived with real pros.

Enter, Mike Ball

After researching the options from home in Rhode Island, and talking to the folks from the different GBR outfits over the phone (all toll free!), we decided to sign up with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions for their four-day excursion from Cairns, on the east coast of Australia. Once in Cairns, we were picked up from our hotel, and with our dive group flown eye-poppingly low over the reef to the dive boat Spoil Sport. Within hours, we were unpacked, briefed, in the water, and making our first dive.

We entered the water off the back deck of Spoil Sport at a famous spot called Cod Hole, and at 20 feet we were welcomed by scaled mammoths. Potato cods, Epinepelus tukula, are a goofy, lip-smacking, monster grouper (in Australia they call them gropers). There must have been a dozen of them, ranging in size from 1 to 2 meters and each weighing in the hundreds of pounds.

If a fish can be said to lumber, this is a lumbering fish, fearlessly accustomed to divers, generally being the king of the castle and in no particular rush. Why hurry? There's nowhere important to get to, and there's lunch all around. They were curious, friendly, and intimate, and came within inches of our masks, with lips that looked like they could lock onto a Volkswagen and suck the bumper right off it. When they made sounds — which they seemed to very much like doing — it wasn't some shy little squeak or pop. It was a rumbling thunder. In size and sound, this is one sousaphone of a fish. You won't find them anywhere in Ohio.

Back on board, at lunch, we were all in nonstop euphoria, talking about everything we'd seen on that first dive. After devouring chowder and pizza, fresh fruit and cookies, I decided to sign up for Nitrox training, in which many of my fellow divers were already certified. And we sat in on a practical lecture about underwater photography.

With all that blue around you, Laurence Buckingham, one of the dive masters and a master photographer, kept stressing, you've got to pay attention to the white balance. He was full of useful tips. There were brief lectures and slideshows everyday on some aspect of reef life, oceanography, and underwater photography. Spoil Sport has underwater cameras that could be rented, but most of us had our own, ranging from throwaways to some pretty serious looking rigs.

Before the second dive, I poured through one of the library's many fish books, trying to find the names of what we'd seen so far: diamond bracelet and ornamental sweet lips, speckled sand perch, spot nape butterfly fish, Myers butterfly fish, emperor angel fish, peacock groupers, gobies and blennies by the gazillion. Along with the potato cod, which is the biggest fish I've ever hung out with, I saw for the first time what came to be my favorite small creature: the nudibranch. They're exotic, rubbery-looking, neon-colored sea slugs. At only an inch or two, they might be harder to find, but the effort was worth it. They have hopelessly garish outfits, a peculiar lima-bean shape, and impish devil horns. To spend time with the giants and the miniatures, all within the same few minutes, catapulted diving beyond any dream I'd known.

Welcome Aboard Spoil Sport

Before every dive, the Mike Ball dive masters present a thorough briefing on the aft dive deck. They use a large white board and describe the contours of the dive, likely sightings, currents, and suggestions. The less-experienced divers have plenty of professional company from the masters, and the old-timers are free to go off more on their own, in pairs. There was a father and son from Germany on board for a week; they completed 30 dives together, and looked very happy. There were newlyweds, older folks, dive veterans, and newbies, and there were even folks who only snorkeled – they, too, were thrilled with all they could see up close on the reef.

Our boat was an impressive creature in its own right. It was spotlessly clean, rugged, and confidence inspiring. The cabins were large enough and comfortable, and there was every convenience one could hope for – a library of scientific books, paperbacks, and a slew of DVDs on all things natural. There were two decks from which we could enjoy the scenery. In the dining room, there was water, tea, coffee, lemonade, fruit and snacks available 24/7. Because the fabulous meals were served at long banquet-style tables, the trip was made richer by the on-going international discussions: there were 15 of us – from Britain, Germany, Japan, the US, New Zealand, and Korea.

Spoil Sport's aft dive deck was laid out with elegant and practical simplicity and worked smoothly. Each of us had our own assigned place to sit and suit up, each with a bin for our fins, mask, snorkel, and other dive equipment. Fresh, dry towels were placed above every seat for every dive. There were fresh-water wash-down areas; places to rinse cameras; places to rinse, dry, and safely hang gear; and areas to get drinking water. After every dive, we took off our tanks at our assigned seats, left them there, and when we returned for the next dive, the tanks would be filled for us. The whole experience was effort-free. Plus, the Mike Ball team was rigorous in logging each diver off and then back on the boat, and keeping spotters on the top deck, so they kept track of all of us at all times.

Into The Night

Every day I did multiple dives. I saw more fish clearly than I'd ever seen before, and a vaster variety – among the strangest being the large iridescent, blue-lipped clams, a profoundly psychedelic mollusk. But it was the night diving that made this trip for me. Before each night dive, my stomach tightened. Once I was geared up, I'd go through my usual check list several times with my eyes closed, feeling for everything I'd need because I knew I wouldn't see whatever I was likely to reach for later on. Then once in the water, I was panting, gulping down a major load of air before I equalized, but it wasn't about physical buoyancy as much as just calming down.

Despite practical and sometimes poetic briefings, despite a boat well lit below and easily found by its imbedded hull lights, despite each of us sporting a BCD with a light that was color-coded for each pair of buddies, despite the flashlights, despite all common-sense preparations, jumping into darkness is both scary and liberating — a fast track to a dream world. I came to love the energetic fright and freedom. As filmmaker Werner Herzog commented, "What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark?"

I saw no monsters on my night dives, but did watch a faster-paced, more narrowly focused world. Daytime diving offers the options of narrow and broad vision – hone in on a tiny nudibranch or take in the panorama, where hints from the periphery may draw us toward this or that. It's different at night. The day's broad, soft margins that give us a visual reference of where we are have been swallowed by darkness. At night, all we see is contained in a hard-edged and narrow beam of light. Life races across that tunneled beam in fine-point detail, but without a contiguous reference. What's behind it? Where's it going? Do we ever know really?

At night, the white tips on the sharks' dorsal fins seemed florescent, and so did the red stripes on the small cleaning shrimp. In daytime, their stripes always reminded me of old-time barber polls done in miniature, but watching them in action at night, buzzing around sharp teeth of much larger creatures, they didn't seem mundane at all. They became Technicolor dervishes, dental hygienists trusting that their patients wanted a good flossing more than a meager snack.

At night the food chain presents itself less ambiguously, a clear and brutal hierarchy. We saw large schools of Great Treavallies feeding easily on smaller fish. Our lights seem to aid their hunt. The rapidity with which they could gobble down a stream of small fry should not have surprised me. Any five-year-old can tell you, night is the predatory time for monsters.

The night also held a gentleness I hadn't expected and was relieved to find. There were sponges that resembled pulsating hearts with veins of purple, blue, gold, and red. I found myself lingering by them in silent awe. What would the rest of the body look like, I wondered. Perhaps it was just the novelty to me, but it seemed the fish's nocturnal activities were more determined and purposeful.

Take Me Back!

I'd do this Mike Ball dive trip again in a heartbeat. It rekindled in me in a passion for being underwater. The night diving, especially, reminded me what a privilege it is to descend into dark unknowns for the sheer pleasure of finding oneself there. As a little boy, what most attracted me to being below the surface was the silence. No one could shriek or make demands, and thoughtful reverie was as good a reason as any for being. Add to that a window on the strange and beautiful, and there's not a whole lot better.

Scuba diving requires faith and surrender. We trust that our gear will work and that, if there's a hitch, we'll handle it with a little help from our friends. We believe that animals will come our way but not attack us. We believe that we can ride the currents instinctively, leveling out here, rising there, and descending when we need to, all without much conscious thought. We believe we can pay critical attention to time, depth, and air supply, while simultaneously being absorbed in our search for the emphemeral. And it's all true.

Actually diving on the Great Barrier Reef proved much better than my dream. And now I want to do it again. I want more time to drift among the nudibranches and sweet lips. I want to see that strange heart beat some more.End of story marker


Douglas Bernon is a psychoanalyst in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He and his wife Bernadette, who's the Editorial Director of BoatUS Magazine, spent six years living aboard their 39-footer Ithaka. To read more, read the log of their voyage at www.BoatUS.com/cruising/ithaka.


More Information

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is well-known in Australia as the premier diving company operating on the Great Barrier Reef. They offer different length excursions on their impressive purpose-built boats, and different levels of cabins are available, from shared to private, at different budget levels. Families are welcome. www.mikeball.com.