Austalia and the Great Barrier Reef

Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.  Just say the name, and no matter who you are or where you’re from, images and emotions flood the mind.  In part, they tantalize because they are wild, beautiful and almost overwhelming in their grandeur.  While each has its own special appeal, give me the warm waters and marine life of the Great Barrier Reef.

 Our first journey to Australia was really just a trip thru Australia.  We may be some of the few people who traveled  +25hrs Down Under and didn’t visit Sydney, didn’t see a single kangaroo or koala bear, and never made it to the Outback.  Our excuse was time: 2 days there, 10 days on the Mike Ball Paradise Sport in incredible Milne Bay, and then 2 days home.  On the flight home from Papua New Guinea, we were already planning our return trip to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef.

In Sydney we stayed at the Sydney Harbor Marriot:
The hotel is less than a 5min walk to the Opera House, Sydney Bridge, Botanical Park and The Rocks with the art galleries and tourist oriented shops.  Form our location you can easily spend a day or two on self guided walking tours.  There are a wide range of dining options from reasonable cafes to very high end restaurants.
In Cairns , we stayed at the Cairns Colonial Club Hotel.  This is a comfortable hotel with nice pools and an ok restaurant.  It is quite a way from the Esplanade, so if you want to “just relax” it is  fine.  If you want to wander around Cairns ,I would choose one of the hotels downtown.

 Of course the Opera House is a mandatory stop.  There is an entry fee and guided tour that runs about 45minutes.  One note, check your backpack at the desk, for security you are not allowed to carry anything lager then a small purse inside.  The tour really drives home what a cutting edge design the Opera House is.  If we go again, we will make sure to try to get tickets to a performance,  but you have to plan ahead as they sell out well in advance.

We did a day long nature tour where you are picked up in a 4 wheel drive bus.  Our guide was excellent.  You start with a tour of a small “game reserve” where you get to see and pet the koalas,kangaroos, and wallabies.  It sounds corny, but was really fun.  Then you go off road and learn about the flora and fauna of the area.  You finish up with a stop in a park where the wild kangaroos roam.

We can heartily recommend doing one of the ½ day long bus tours of the Sydney area.  This was arranged through the concierge at the Marriot.  The tour gave you an excellent overview of the history of Sydney, its different districts and there were just enough stops to get out and stretch your legs.

In addition ,we did a dinner cruise of Sydney Harbor, which gave you lovely views of the city as you ate mediocre food while listing to a "boat band".   Some seemed to really enjoy it , but we would pass on this trip in the future

The Diving

After talking to the Mike Ball crew, we decided upon the 7 day Coral Sea and Ribbon Reef itinerary. Also available are a 3 day and 4 day itineraries where one groups gets on and off at Lizard Island , and the 7-day folks stay on. Most people we talked with wished they had booked the 7-day trip.  One suggestion, if you take the 7 day trip during the winter months , bring some "mal de-mer "medicine.  Our trip out had a few of us green around the gills.

Mike Ball runs and excellent operation with a very informative website.

They do need to update their “trip reports”.  Mike Ball runs large aluminum twin hull vessels which make for plenty of room and a stable dive and living platform.  The food was very good and plentiful.  Chef went out of his way to accommodate people’s likes; of course with advance notice, they can deal with just about any dietary needs.

Other notable plusses with Mike Ball are:   no cap on bottom time, a Solo Diver program , and an open dive deck where your computer is your only limitation.  The camera table is large with three tiers to store extra parts.  Compressed air and camera towels are available for servicing cameras.  The crew is wonderful, always on the spot to help and fun to be around.

 Dive Highlights

In general, all the jewels of the South Pacific are to be found here; sharks in abundance, a variety of clown and anemone species, giant cod/grouper, great corals and (confirmed on Julia's video) a school of hammerhead sharks.

Cod Hole

One of the feature dives on the trip and one we were happy to have the opportunity to dive several times.  We have dove  a fair number of places , but these were by far the largest grouper we have ever seen.  They are curious and far from shy.  They remind me of big dogs as the follow you about.  We saw more clams here than PNG, and the largest we have run across was at this site not far from the mooring.

Osprey Reef

This is one of those dives where you feel like you are in an aquarium.  Whitetip sharks are always about as well as lion fish.  There are some nice swim thrus were we saw “schools” of fire gobies and massive Napoleon wrasse.

Shark Dive

They have found a great spot for a well organized shark dive.  Excellent amphitheater setting.  We had about 15-16 good sized grey reef sharks show up, one massive grouper and a fleeting glimpse of a good sized silver tip.  The grouper was so big when a 3’ grey reef shark had a bit of the bait in its mouth the grouper tried to inhale the shark and the bait.  For photographers, you want to be on either of the far ends.  I think the far end closest to the mooring line would get pretty up close to the action.

Steve’s Bommie

At this site, 4 leafy scorpions are the highlight but there is much more to see.  Other species included schools of grunts, anthias, boxfish and more one very cute baby percula clown and its anemone.

Litehouse Bommie!!!

This site had it ALL!  From nudibranchs to passing sharks and resident turtles.  We were only scheduled to do two dives at this site but everyone on board voted to do all 5 dives there.  The base of the bommie was home to ribbon eels, twin spot gobbies, octopus, many species of nudibranch, and schools of  yellow snapper .  The top of the bommie could barely be seen through the dense shoals of glass sweepers.  But once you broke through the schools ,mantis shrimp, sleeping turtles and long nose hawks were found.

In the End

As divers we seek out the liquid wonders the world has to offer:  oceans, lakes, rivers and yes, even quarries.  While any dive is a good dive The Great Barrier Reef is one of those destinations that all others are measured against.

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