The Great Barrier Reef is always listed as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and as a diver it is one of the “bucket list” diving experiences.
When Jim and I were planning the trip to Australia we weighed our different scuba diving options (an Island Resort near the outer reef or a live-aboard diving boat). It became clear that an “authentic” reef experience required one of those two options because the best coral reefs are many miles off shore.
We thought hard about Lizard Island, but it was very expensive and it would limit our possible dive sites. As it turns out this was a good decision for many reasons. While we were in New Zealand a category 5 typhoon came through the area and directly hit Lizard Island. So, it would not have been an option. We got to see he damage yesterday because we flew back to Cairns from Lizard Island and, although the small airstrip was open, the resort itself was heavily damaged and will not open again for at least 6 months, probably more.
Regardless, we had such a fantastic experience on the Spirit of Freedom (a 120 ‘ long, 250 ton displacement dive boat) and now having seen both options we would have chosen it, especially for a pure scuba diving experience.
Our excursion began on Monday at noon. Once on board we were introduced to the crew, the other passengers and our room. We knew ahead of time that we didn’t have a great room. It was low and didn’t have any windows. We would soon learn it was actually a good choice.
The plan for the first day eat lunch, gather equipment, dive briefing and check out dive about here hours from Cairns, then dinner and bed while sailing overnight (12 hours to the reef). Sounded good at the time. But, when we left the protection of the inner waters the waves began.
The Spirit of Freedom is a beautiful 120 foot ship, but it’s narrow and although it has stabilizers to reduce rocking, it was a little rocky. I was not excited about going inside for the dive briefing. Jim had no problem, but I rallied and got through the briefing and the first dive pretty well. We learned how to use the “safety sausage” to attract attention at the surface if we had to come up early and also how to use the emergency radio all the divers carried in our pockets. We were checked in when we got on the boat had to sign ourselves back on board on the dive log. After that there was a final head count before the boat moved. No one was going to be left behind, which was reassuring.
But the waves and wind were getting worse and I was really beginning to feel sick. So I took one and then two sea sickness pills. The memories of childhood motion sickness and he icky effects of Dramamine quickly overcame me and I really got sick.
Dinner was a no go for me. I huddled in a ball on the back dive deck and tried to leave my body. I suggested that Jim go in for dinner. As his point I was thinking 3 things: “OMG what have I gotten us into, how am I going to survive 3 days of this, and this boat has lousy stabilizers!”
Meanwhile, I learned later that dinner was quite the adventure. Dishes, food and people were flying around and other passengers were joining me on the back deck. It turns out that earlier when we had briefly lost power that the stabilizers had turned off at the fuse even though the indicator lights at the ship’s helm told the captain, incorrectly, that the stabilizers were working.
As the night progressed, and the stabilizers came back online and the crew and Jim helped me make my way from the back dive deck to the dining room benches and finally to our room. I slept through the night and woke up a new person at our first dive site ready for breakfast and a new day.
We would soon learn the pattern of the live aboard routine. Wake up at 6:30 am and eat first breakfast ( yogurt, cereal, fruit juice and coffee); 1st dive and come up to the smells of 2nd “brekky”, bacons other meats, eggs, toast, veggie choices and more coffee and juice, 3rd dive followed by a hearty lunch; rest a bit and move the boat to another dive site followed by a 4th dive, and then a shower and dinner, followed by a night dive for those who were interested. The great part of diving other than the experience is that you burn a billion calories and can eat anything without gaining weight.
The crew were amazingly calm, knowledgeable and supportive. We experienced so much over our 8 dives in two days. The sites and experiences were almost too much to take in. I used my GoPro and the crew took fantastic pictures for us with great cameras. Everyone worked so hard.
Kaz our fantastic chef. She cooked amazing meals for 26 guests and 15 crew with unbelievable variety in a very small galley. By he end of the night everyone collapsed in bed by 10, except for Captain Sam, who guided the ship through the reefs to our next destination.
Our favorite dive the first day was Pinnacle Reef. A small pinnacle of coral that attracted all sorts of sea life, had great visibility and very pretty coral. It was also a simple dive around the pinnacle with no need for underwater navigation. So on our second dive Jim and I went on our own, instead of following a dive master. We went at our own pace and felt a great accomplishment and freedom.
It’s important to know that the safety steps and rules are very strict on the Spirit Freedom. Dive Masters are always in the water even if we aren’t following them. There are two lookouts from the boat tracing our bubbles and a tender in the water on all dives as well as very strict rules for decompression safety stops and depths.
By the second day we were ready for another great 4 dives beginning with the famous Cod Hole dive. This was why we came on the boat. There are only 2 boats that come out here. At Code Hole the water is clear, the coral lovely and you get to swim with the giant, gentle cod. We did two dives at Cod Hole and they were both amazing.
The next two dives were a bit different. First we did a drift dive which we usually enjoy a lot. But this was a tough one. We were dropped off by tender at the beginning of the dive in groups. Instead of our usual stepping off the dive platform, six of us set on the edge of the tender and on the count of three we tumbled back into the water navy seal style. It worked perfectly.
Once in the water we descended following a dive master, the reef on our left as we rode the current to a rope that then led us to the boat. The current was inconsistent as we swam pass the coral wall. It made it hard to get a rhythm and it was hard work making it back to the boat on the rope while fighting the current.
Unfortunately, this area had been effected by the typhoon. Most of the delicate coral had been destroyed by the storm, but of of course the fish were still there.
The moved once again for our final dive of the trip, Snake Pit. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do the last dive. It was getting late and Jim decided to pass. But Nick the lead diver said I should do it. The coral and sea life were spectacular and this was a very unusual spot to dive. So, on the final dive Nick and I paired up with Tom. His wife, Taryn stayed behind as well. We dove with them quite a bit on he trip and we knew our air consumption was about the same.
Snake Pit is in the middle of the ocean between the outer reefs and Lizard Island. It’s a deep pinnacle, so Nick suspected it was safe from the effects of the typhoon. When we got to the dive spot the stern of the boat and the platform faced the waves. It was a bit unnerving watching the waves crash on the back of the boat, but the crew were calm and positive. They were safety first people, so I figured I should just go for it!
Tom and I got to dive with Nick. For most of he trip Nick was busy doing a million things and he doesn’t lead many dives. I felt privileged to get the opportunity to dive with him. The sea is Nick’s sanctuary, much like our leader Hamish in the Hollyford Track. Nick was a calm, wonderful dive guide. Entering the water was pretty easy and we descended quickly. Nick led us through the ocean down to the pinnacle. There was no current so the visibility wasn’t as good, but the swimming was easy. Nick was right — the coral was diverse (fan, antler and others) and the sea life amazing (turtles, big angle fish, white tipped shark). We even saw a sea snake at the end of the dive.
When it was time to head back Nick expertly navigated us back through the open ocean to the boat. We did our decompression safety stop on the swim back (5 minutes at 5 meters) and he deposited Tom and me on a rope while we waited our turn to use the swim ladder at the back of the boat between the big waves that crashed against it. Nick wrote us a note on his underwater pad, “timing is very important”. Then he gently took my hand and positioned me I front of the ladder. He got a sense of the waves, counted to three with his fingers and then deposited me calmly on the bottom of the ladder and made sure my fins were safely in place as I climbed up. Piece of cake! Thank you Nick!
Taryn and Jim were waiting as we ascended on the ladder.
We all showered and did our final count before moving the boat to Lizard Island. The sky cleared and the stars came out as we waited for dinner. Jim and I headed to the bow of the boat and spent time with the captain as he and the crew set the heavy chain anchor with a 7-1 scope.
Our final night on the boat was a feast with prawns, kangaroo, other proteins and yummy salads. We shared stories and drank wine before some final briefings. Everyone was anxious to see the typhoon’s impact on Lizard Island and the resort in daylight. The day ended with us collapsing into bed by 10.
The next morning the early schedule was maintained even though we weren’t diving. We were to be packed and ready to go ashore by 7:00. We gathered for breakfast at 6:30 and the crew gathered our bags for transfer by tender to Lizard Island.
The effects of the typhoon were dramatic. The buildings were intact but heavily damaged. The trees were broken and stripped bare. Captain Sam had worked on the Island for two years and was shocked by the change.
We were all transferred to the Island by tender. Half of our group were leaving and half were staying on for three more days of diving and the boat trip back to Cairns.
Although the resort was closed, the park boardwalk was open and Nick led us through a tour explaining the history of the early settlers and the aborigines.
We walked along the beach as we waited for our small, 8-seated plane to arrive at the small airstrip. The plane was delivering new passengers and some new crew for the dive boat as well as flying us back to Cairns.