FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND 2017

TRIP REPORT 

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the largest living thing on Earth, and is even visible from outer space. The 2,300km-long ecosystem comprises thousands of reefs and hundreds of islands. The reefs off Cairns and Port Douglas are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. I’ve dived the reefs close to Cairns four times during my twenty year diving career, and although it was great diving, I decided I wanted to explore an area of the GBR that very few divers have had the privilege to experience – The Far Northern Reefs. Due to the prevailing weather conditions (either strong trade winds or the monsoon season) there is only a small window (Nov/Dec) of opportunity each year when dive charter boats can access the sites safely, hence very few divers get to explore them because of their inaccessibility and remoteness.

I’ve dived in 12 different countries, including the Solomon Islands, Mexico, Philippines, and Micronesia to name a few, so when I was planning a group trip, I thought to myself, why do we travel overseas when the GBR is right on our doorstep? In order to offer a ‘diving trip of a lifetime’ on the GBR, I knew I needed an excellent operator and an experienced skipper. After a lot of research, I contacted Dave Stewart the owner of Affordable Charters. After a lengthy one hour chat, he convinced me that the knowledge he had built up over the last 25 years on the reef, would ensure the trip would be a huge success. Dave also hinted that he had a few secret sites that make his trips unique. Dave sent me a proposed itinerary, which had us completing 3-4 dives a day, over 11 days, between Cairns and Thursday Island. I sent him a deposit and locked in some dates!

The next step was to select a group of safe divers with a sense of adventure, after all there would be twelve divers plus six crew living in a confined space for ten nights together, in the middle of nowhere, with no internet or phone reception.

 

Left to Right (back row): David, Amy, Jason, Sonya, Steve B, Lynne, Magoo, Mike

Left to Right (front row): Sarah, Steve D, Kayla, Ian

We boarded the M.V Kalinda on Thursday 16th November 2017, in Cairns. I won’t lie, I think the group was a little hesitant jumping on board, after seeing the vessel for the first time, however, Dave assured me the M.V. Kalinda, though an oldie was a goody. We departed Cairns Marina around 3pm, steaming overnight to our first dive site on Friday morning, ‘Steve’s Bommie’. A few drinks on the top deck were in order as everyone got to know one another. The vibe onboard was excellent, everyone couldn’t wait to get into some serious diving!!

 

The rear top deck proved a popular spot to relax

 


Magoo and a Potato Cod (Cod Hole)

The first three days included dives at Ribbon Reef #3, #9 and #10. All great dives with visibility around 25 meters, the highlight was probably the world famous ‘Cod Hole’. On the third night, we anchored in Watson’s Bay, Lizard Island for a calm dinner onboard. The food prepared was wholesome and perfect for hungry divers. I guess I did a good job selecting the right group, because by the third night there was lots of drinking, chatting, laughing, and even some dancing!

Lizard Island

 

Day 4 and 5 had us diving south of Tijou Reef. Scooterboot, and Manu’s were two fantastic dive sites, ranging from 3m below the surface, with sloping walls that bottom out at 200m. The sites were filled with beautiful coral bommies with every species of coral you can imagine. The fish life was spectacular, everything from your tiny goby to your dog tooth tuna were encountered.

The coral gardens at Manu’s were beautiful

 

Day 6 we dived at Tijou Reef, at a site called Mr Walkers Caves. Dave the skipper had never taken divers here before, as the caves are situated in an ocean lagoon that is 50m deep between the East and West fringing reef systems. Access is only possible via a tender. Massive caverns and caves run for approx. 1km along the Western wall. What an incredible, unique dive that less than 100 people have probably experienced!

 

Day 7 we dived at Mantis Reef. This was one of the standout wall dives of the trip. We had 50 meters visibility, and encounter a Thresher Shark, Mobula Ray, cod, schools of barracuda, trevally, and too many tropical fish to list. The stories each diver had of their days experiences will become legendary and something to be treasured.

 

Day 8 we arrived at Great Detached Reef, I was assured by Dave that this was the pinnacle reef system on the GBR. He wasn’t wrong! Da Phat and Barry’s Bommie were two dive sites that the group rated as the most beautiful and diverse sites they have ever dived. Da Phat is two separate  pinnacles that rise up from 200m below to a depth of 20m and 16m below the surface. Every square inch of those pinnacles was covered in healthy, and vibrant hard and corals. I’ve never seen anemones so large, and there were 5 of them. Over hangs, swim throughs, and there were schools of every colour of tropical fish imaginable, it was simply spectacular! Barry’s Bommie was pretty much the same, absolutely stunning, so colourful and such a massive diversity of marine life.

Day 9 we completed the only dive on the ocean side of Great Detached – Captain Blood’s Wall of Terror! It was a live drift dive in which we encountered silver tip, white tip, and grey tip reef sharks. A school of almost 1000 trevally, turtles, a school of 30 massive bump head parrot fish, and so many species of tropical fish.

Day 10 we were lucky to dive Raine Island. A nesting ground for the Green Turtle. Each night in November, turtles in their thousands lay their eggs on the Island! Again, it was a live wall drift dive, and at one point we had eight massive green turtles in view at one time, it was amazing!

 

Lynne and Amy admiring a Green Turtle at Raine Island

 

After a 14 hour, overnight steam to our anchorage at Mt Aldophus Island, close to Cape York, we woke up and were crossing our fingers for a dive on the RMS Quetta, a wreck that sank in 1890 at a depth of 24 meters. 134 people died, making it Queensland’s biggest maritime catastrophe at the time. We anchored near the wreck and we got a window of an hour of slack water. The tides are very unpredictable, so we were very lucky. We had 15 metres visibility, which was excellent, 10 metres was considered a good day! The wreck sits on its port side and you can see the huge sheet of metal that was peeled back at the bow where it had struck an uncharted  submerged rock! The wreck was very accessible, and mostly intact. Big cod, and two large schools of fish were just chilling inside the wreck. What a great last dive to finish the trip!

RMS Quetta

 

We made our way to Thursday Island, where we were tendered to the mainland for a dinner at the local tavern, a big steak was definitely on the menu! Following a few drinks at the tavern the party was moved back to the top deck of the boat for our last night together. We were dropped off at Horn Island the next morning for our flight back to Cairns!


Heading to Horn Island – Steve, Sonya, David, and Ian (crew member)

 

There were some fantastic achievements on the trip! Jason and Sonya, who before the trip, had logged only about 30 dives each, and after the trip, had logged more than sixty dives, looked like divers who had completed a couple of hundred. Lynne and Doctor Dave had both recorded hundreds of dives before the trip. Their world wide diving experience was enhanced by the trip. Steve and Sarah hardly missed one planned dive. This is the same Sarah who almost never completed her Open Water Course because of her fear of the ocean. If a dive site as difficult and challenging as the wreck of the RMS Quetta didn’t faze her it speaks volumes for her determination. Magoo and Kayla are both seasoned divers and they had the biggest smiles on their faces whenever they climbed the ladder after each dive. Magoo and Lynne each logged their three hundredth dive on the trip. Kayla and Sarah were presented with their Century diver cards on the trip. Amy was presented with her SSI Master Diver Certification (50 dives and five specialties) early in the trip and went on to log an additional thirty dives. One of the dive sites discovered was named after her but why that occurred is a secret! She lost any fear she had diving with sharks. I was proud to have Dad along as well. With over 5000 dives logged around the world Dad had almost given up on exploring the Far Northern Reefs. The trip has rekindled his love of diving. Completing 31 of the 38 dives was a huge achievement.

Left to Right (rear): Mike, Sonya

Left to Right (front): Lynne, Sarah, Steve, Steve, Amy, David, Ian, Jason, Magoo, Kayla

Steve Bowtell and I were very privileged to have led this great group on a life changing experience. Steve was the only diver in the group to complete all thirty-eight dives! Well done mate!

We travelled in excess of five hundred nautical miles along the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns to Thursday Island. The sun shone all day every day, the visibility was between 20m and 50m and the seas were mostly smooth. What an unbelievable, mind-blowing holiday!! I will definitely be going back!!

Mike McKinnon