Scuba Diving through the Bountiful Great Barrier Reef
When people asked about my travels, I would deny having visited the Great Barrier Reef.
The truth is, I technically dived it a dozen years ago while on a dayboat out of Cairns, Australia. I had two dives on the world’s most famous reef with way too many divers and ugly sea conditions, so I didn’t feel I had properly experienced the reef.
As I drop down onto Steve’s Bommie and am engulfed by schools of anthias, chromis and damselfish, I realize that my assessment was absolutely correct. This is something different altogether.
Foraging among the colorful hard corals that adorn this seamount, I discover an elaborately decorated lacy scorpionfish, a brilliant pink-colored stonefish and a perfectly camouflaged yellow leaf scorpionfish.
During my safety stop, while hovering near the top of the pinnacle, I photograph a pair of percula clownfish living symbiotically in a tan magnificent anemone.
A fantastic first two dives kick off seven days of liveaboard diving on the northern portion of the Great Barrier Reef. Our divemaster and cruise director, Angus Rowe, promises that “we’re just getting warmed up.”
Spirit of Freedom
The Spirit of Freedom.
Stretching across 1,400-plus miles of the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral-reef ecosystem in the world.
It would take a lifetime to explore this bucket-list destination end to end, and so many of its iconic dive sites are best accessed via liveaboard yacht.
Spirit of Freedom departs Cairns harbor nearly every Monday afternoon on a seven-day round trip through the Northern Ribbon Reefs and — if the weather cooperates — the outer reefs of the Coral Sea. Up to 26 guests accompany 10 crew on three-, four- or seven-day cruise itineraries.
The three-day trip ends on Thursday at Lizard Island with a morning hike and lunch on the beach before departing travelers take a short flight back to Cairns.
Here also begins the four-day portion of the excursion, with new guests coming on board to join the seven-day adventurers for the duration of the cruise.
A weedy scorpionfish.
Living Up to its Reputation
While traversing up the Ribbon Reefs on the way to Lizard Island, we have the opportunity to dive sites such as Joanie’s Joy, Lighthouse Bommie, Snake Pit and the world-famous Cod Hole. Cuttlefish eggs the size of pingpong balls are tucked into branching corals, making the highlight reel at Joanie’s Joy along with a flyby from one of the egg’s protective parents.
Large schools of snapper and fusiliers demand most of my attention at Lighthouse Bommie, while a few of the other divers in our group are entertained by sea snakes gliding by the lower portion of the pinnacle.
More of the same is obviously on the menu at Snake Pit, along with a colossal green sea turtle, colorful giant clams and a rare sighting of a passing devil ray.
Large potato cod — or grouper, as they are known in the States — are the star attraction at Cod Hole. The dive starts with a semi-organized circle of divers kneeling on the bottom while the divemaster hand-feeds the cod around the perimeter. Each diver is afforded an up-close view of these beautiful spotted creatures as they come in for a snack. Once the feed is over, the cod linger for a while hoping for more handouts, which offers perhaps a better opportunity for photos because the sandy bottom gets pretty stirred up during the craziness of the feed.
Divemasters are underwater at every site during the trip, but each diver is responsible for their own dive profile and selected route. Following the leader is not required, and solo diving is possible for those with the proper certification and redundant gear.
In between the three to four dives per day, Spirit of Freedom provides three buffet-style meals, several snacks, and plenty of refreshments.
Its extensive bar offers a wide variety of local and regional beer and wine options, available on a self-serve honor system once your dive day has finished. There is an indoor lounge area with a large, plush sectional couch, a camera-charging station, a large-screen TV, and a huge selection of movies and shows. Upstairs, the sun deck has enough seating to double as an outdoor dining room, with a nice mix of sun and shade to keep everyone comfortable.
Clown anemonefish (left); Huge potato cod are the main attraction at Cod Hole.
Swimming with Sharks
Leaving Lizard Island, we embark on a 10-hour overnight crossing to Osprey Reef. Here we find sheer walls covered in hard and soft corals, pelagics swimming in the blue, and plenty of gray reef sharks.
Conditioned from years of shark feeds at the North Horn dive site, sharks were circling Spirit of Freedom before we cut our engines.
One of the beautiful things about liveaboard diving is being able to walk off the back deck of your hotel room and be instantly submerged at your dive site.
That giant stride is a little harder to make when you are jumping into a sea full of sharks, but those sharks are also a large part of why you make this trip. For the shark feed itself, divers are positioned in a semicircle around a pinnacle as the sharks swim past in anticipation.
A cage full of fish heads is pulled down from the surface by a line-and-pulley system, attracting the sharks into a tight group in front of the divers. Eventually the cage is sprung open, and the sharks tear at the bait in a frenzied ending to a spectacular and exhilarating dive.
Massive corals form at Bougainville Reef.
On the Outside
Except for select charters in November and December when wind and sea conditions permit, Spirit of Freedom typically returns to the Ribbon Reefs for its transit back down to Cairns.
The captain explains that “unless Mother Nature cooperates, it’s nearly impossible to anchor on these outer reefs without running aground.”
We were lucky to be able to stay outside, continuing south from Osprey to Bougainville Reef, to marvel at the incredible coral formations at Dungeons and Dragons. Massive hard corals the size and scope of which I had never seen exist here in giant pillars, domes, caverns and swim-throughs.
For the past 20 years, I have heard incredible tales about this place and, amazingly, it exceeds expectations. I suggest bringing a fisheye lens to take in the immense corals, and use either a model or the local wildlife to add scale to your photos.
I can say that the corals on the reef were much healthier than I expected.
Like anywhere else in the world these days, we did run into a few spots of bleaching and algae growth, but nothing compared to the accounts I had heard in advance of our trip.
The variety of weird and wonderful critters and of fish life was astounding, and I can now confidently say that I have been to the Great Barrier Reef.
5 Reasons to Dive Spirit of Freedom
Spirit of Freedom
For more information visit Spirit of Freedom.
1) Endless Variety: Spirit of Freedom offers three-, four- and seven-day trips in a multitude of cabin options for every budget. Encouraging, because liveaboard diving is the only way to explore the northern portion of the Great Barrier Reef.
2) Excellent Staff: The attentive staff expertly tended to our needs both on board and in the water, including the management of a guest’s medical emergency, with the utmost professionalism.
3) Free Wi-Fi: For those divers who can’t bear to be disconnected, free Wi-Fi is provided when in range. The router is next to the bar, with a large selection of drinks and a bottomless cookie jar.
4) Lots of Lounging: Spirit of Freedom has expansive lounge space both inside and out. Perfect for sun bathing, resting in the shade, or watching a movie from its huge entertainment library.
5) Delicious Cuisine: The chef prepares a wide assortment of delectable and plentiful entrees, while catering to numerous food allergies, sensitivities and preferences.
Need to Know
A banded coral shrimp.
When to Go: The Great Barrier Reef can be experienced any time of year. Dwarf minke whales can be found during June and July, while coral spawning may be observed in October or November. Calmer winds in November and December can allow access to rarely dived outer reefs.
Travelers Tips: Travel from the West Coast of the U.S. entails a 16- to 17-hour flight to either Sydney or Brisbane, followed by another short flight to Cairns. Arrive at least a day or two early to explore Cairns and the surrounding area, recover from jet lag, and allow time for possible lost bags to appear. Popular sites include the Kuranda Koala Gardens, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Daintree Rainforest.
Dive Conditions: The warmest water occurs during the monsoonal period from January to April, averaging 84ºF. Visibility ranges from 60 to 100 feet year-round. The dry season runs from May to December, with water temps averaging 75ºF through August and 80ºF through December. An SMB and Nautilus Lifeline (provided) are required.
Operator: Spirit of Freedom is a 122-foot-long metal-hull liveaboard with a 24-foot beam. A crew of 10 serves up to 26 guests spread out over 11 cabins, ranging from ocean-view deluxe to twin- and quad-share options.
Price Tag: The July 2018 through June 2019 price for a twin-share three-day trip starts around $1,600, with seven-day excursions coming in around $3,300 before a small marine-park fee. Rental gear, alcohol and nitrox are offered at an additional price.