Coral Sea - Osprey and Bougainville Reefs
To really understand Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea (180 miles from Cairns, Queensland), you need to imagine it as Tombstone, Arizona, in the gunslinging, rowdy cowboy, completely lawless days. It rises 3,000 feet from the seafloor in the middle of nowhere to within inches of the surface, so anything and everything uses this reef as a waypoint, a place to rest, get a scrub and find a meal — especially passing pelagics. On any given day you can snorkel with minke whales, see orcas, experience one of the dive world’s best shark feeds (at North Horn), take in giant mantas getting picked over at cleaning stations, then wind through swim-throughs to marvel at thickets of vivid soft corals and legions of small critters. One day (greatly abbreviated). Now multiply by five.
Like Osprey and Bougainville, remote Coco Island, 345 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, draws in the big guys from everywhere with current-swept diving and a water column full of hammerheads, whale sharks, jacks, marble rays and hunting packs of whitetips at night. The Undersea Hunter (www.underseahunter.com) and Okeanos Aggressor (www.aggressor.com) know the waters.
The most famous site on the reef, North Horn, sits at the convergence of two ocean currents, and the action here centers on the possibility of meeting the men in gray — big silvertips, tiger sharks, great hammerheads, and zippy gray, whitetip and gray whalers. But once you get past the wide-eyed gawking at the marquee characters, you’ll notice lovely fields of gorgonians, soft coral, sea whips, rods and several shades of deepwater sea fans, among which big groupers, rainbow runners and wildly colored nudibranchs roam about.
Osprey, about a half-day motor from Lizard Island, is strictly live-aboard country. Mike Ball and Spirit of Freedom book up fast, so you’ll need to plan ahead. To get to Bougainville Reef south of Osprey, you’ll have to pray to the weather gods. This ancient volcano, which, like Osprey (but much smaller), rises from 3,000 feet in the middle of the open ocean and has incredible caverns, drop-offs and one of the world’s largest sea fans at almost 25 feet across. Although you’ll see plenty of sharks, it’s the soft corals and topography that provide the drama here. If you make it out (wink), consider yourself lucky and start bragging about it to your friends at home right away. — TS
Need to Know
Getting There Fly Qantas to Cairns (CNS) in Queensland. Arrange transfers with your chosen live-aboard company.
When to Go September to January for calm water in Osprey; at any time there’s a calm weather window for Bougainville. The climate here is tropical, hot and humid.
Dive Season Water temps average 80°F in summer, with visibility well into the triple digits.
Operators This is live-aboard country. Mike Ball Dive Expeditions (www.mikeball.com), Spirit of Freedom live-aboard (www.spiritoffreedom.com.au) and Taka Dive (www.takadive.com.au). Mike Ball offers a seven-night exploratory itinerary through the Coral Sea with budget pricing (shared bathroom) starting $2,155 and premium cabins from $3,244.