Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef is larger than the UK, Switzerland and Holland combined? At 2,300 kilometers long, it’s as long as the west coast of the USA—yea, Vancouver to Tijuana. That makes it the largest living structure on the planet, teeming with 600 types of corals, 1,625 species of fish, and 3,000 varieties of mollusks, and a quantity of sharks I don’t even want to know about. The Great Barrier Reef has always been a definite stop on the HoneyTrek and one we’d been training for. We got certified as open water scuba divers in 2007, with a distant dream of diving the GBR, and stepped it up to Advanced PADI divers so we could go deeper into this underwater world. The day had come and we were going to do it right with a three-day liveaboard scuba trip from Cairns to Lizard Island, exploring the far reaches of the Great Barrier Marine Park by boat and rubber fins.
The tricky thing about experiencing a place as famous as the Great Barrier Reef…the volume of tourists. How to avoid them? Go on a live-aboard scuba trip. We set out to sea with the ultra-fabulous Spirit of Freedom on their three-day Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs Dive Adventure. Somewhere between a Naval vessel and a yacht, it had a dive deck, sun deck, dining room, 11 cabins, and a staff of master divers, deep-sea captains, and a gourmet chef. It’s the ultimate way to take in the GBR.
Each morning we would wake up for a light breakfast, suit up, and get briefed on the day’s dives (as many as five per day). We focused on the Ribbon Reefs, ten string-shaped coral reefs in the remote northern sector of the protected park–hitting prime spots like Dynamite Pass, Pixie Pinnacle and the legendary Cod Hole. Rene, our spunky savvy dive leader (“Dive Time, guys!!!”), would explain each site’s unique terrain, visibility, maximum depths, bottom time, and most importantly the best sea life to spot.
We encountered literally hundreds of types of fish but here are a few of our favorites : White tip reef sharks, spotted sting ray, hawksbill turtles, sea snakes, giant clams, diagonal banded sweet lips, puffer fish, giant travally, Maori Wrasse, barracuda, and the always adorable Nemo the Clown Fish.
Photos can’t capture the way soft corals move with the tide, how quickly a shark can change direction, the grace of a sting ray, or the electric flashes of the disco clam (yes, the disco clam). You’ll just have to watch the video.
The liveaboard gave us access to so many incredible lesser-known dive sites…but when in the GBR, you have to see the world-famous Cod Hole. A family of Potato Cod like to hang out in Ribbon Reef #10 and swim up to scuba divers, especially when park-sanctioned fish food is on hand. This area is highly regulated but a small amount of divers are allowed to feed the cod each day. At the bottom of the sea floor, we sat in a circle while 200-pound fish (that can reach 8.5 feet in length) swam inches from our face, pursing their voluptuous lips. An wild encounter, for sure.
While on board with so many instructors and three days to dive, we decided it was time to up our game and get our Advanced Open Water Diver certification. To get certified, we had to take a series of written and physical tests, including a “deep dive” to the level where nitrogen narcosis sets in (essentially drunkenness from gases found at depths of 90+ feet), and underwater navigation. While getting loopy under ‘da sea was a hoot, navigation was where it got real. It’s hard to find a reference point in the blue abyss and easy to drift off when you don’t have a guide to follow, unless you have some training. We learned how to watch the wind for current cues, identify fixed objects to return to, and use an underwater compass to stay on track.
Imagine diving at night, when all the predators come out, with only a beam of a flashlight to cut through the dark water. A shark darts through your short-range light, then he disappears. You can’t see him, but he can see you….This is a night dive and the last key element of the Advanced Open Water course. A few things to remember: sharks don’t want to eat humans, they want the fish you illuminate. To avoid the open buffet and guilty conscience, keep your light moving and don’t cause more than one fish to become dinner.
To celebrate the newly advanced divers and our crew’s awesome trip through the Great Barrier Reef, Spirit of Freedom threw a great party. As a group, we had seen so many amazing sites and had grown to accept each other with unruly hair and goggle-dented faces. A bond had been formed and could only be sealed by dancing until the 2am.
Two-hundred and forty kilometers and three-days-at-sea later, we set foot on dry land. Lizard Island is a gorgeous place with just enough land for a few hikes and an airstrip. We flew back to Cairns, passing hundreds of islands, shoals, cays, and reefs we’d explored from below. If we weren’t divers, we would just look down and think, “That’s pretty,” but instead we felt a sense of pride, like we had keys to a whole new world.