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Monday, December 31, 2012

Potato Cod and Clown Anemonefish: Spirit of Freedom

In Cairns I joined the Spirit of Freedom for a seven-day liveaboard trip to the remoter Coral Sea Reefs, with notable dive sites such as Cod Hole and North Horn.

We boarded shortly before noon and were soon on our way to Saxon Reef, where we did two dives at Coral Gardens, which happens to be the home of two nesting Titan Triggerfish. Unfortunately, I managed to get too close to their nest in the second dive and the Triggerfish chased me away, biting my fin on the way! A tip for those not familiar with Titan Triggerfish territories: Their territory has a cone shape which expands upwards, so swimming down and away is the fastest way to get rid of them, however, in my case there was no down to swim to, so it took a while till I reached safety.

On the second day we reached the Ribbon Reefs with the well-known Cod Hole. Cod Hole is famous for its large Potato Cods. During the second dive we did a Cod Feeding and could get up close and personal with one of the Potato Cods.

The running theme for the first two days was Sharks. We spotted Whitetip Reef Sharks or Grey Reef Sharks on every single dive. The highlight being the night dive at Challenger Bay. Where we not only saw the Sharks hunting, but also a large number of Jacks. I have never experienced such a busy night dive before and ended up completely ignoring Shrimps and other smaller things! :)

Four more dives were on the agenda for the third day. This time we only spotted a couple Whitetip Reef Sharks on the fourth dive, but the highlight was the Olive Sea Snake which we encountered at Lighthouse Bommie.

In the evening we reached Lizard Island, home to an exclusive six-star island resort. The next morning we made a short expedition to the island and said our goodbyes to some of the guests, who were only doing the first part of this trip and were flying back to Cairns. A bit later new guests arrived and we were ready to continue on our way. Due to this we only did two dives at the Monolith, where I managed to spot a Common Reef Cuttlefish, but not much besides that.

After a long boat ride throughout the night we reached Osprey Reef the next morning. Here we met up with the Sharks again. Something else that was noticeable, was the improved visibility compared to the Ribbon Reef dive sites. Whereas the maximum visibility was 15 meters at the Ribbon Reefs, it reached up to 30 meters at the Osprey Reef. After four interesting dives, I was very much looking forward to another night dive, especially since other divers spotted a school of 20 Whitetip Reef Sharks at the dive site on the previous dive. With the experience from the last one, I expected a real show. However, we were sorely disappointed. The place was eerily quiet and we just managed to spot one Whitetip Reef Shark swimming away from us. Fortunately, we spotted a Reef Octopus, which hung around for a couple of minutes, before it was scared away by other divers.

On the sixth day of the trip (the third day of the shorter four day trip) marked the highlight of the Osprey Reef, diving North Horn, two Walls with dropoffs to more than 1'000 meters connecting in a point, famous for its Shark sightings. We did three dives here, first a drift dive at the left wall, then a Shark Feed in the center and then another drift dive at the right wall. We spotted many Sharks and the Shark Feed was a real frenzy, but the third dive was still the best one. The right wall had beautiful soft Corals and due to the previous Shark feeding there were still many Sharks hanging around (too many to count!)

Due to rough seas we weren't able to travel to Bougainville Reef, reputedly the best dive site at the Great Barrier Reef, but had to return to the Ribbon Reef, where we did two dives at Steve's Bommie. I loved this site, there was so much life on this small piece of rock. It was the first place I saw a Stonefish (and there were at least three different ones around) and the Clown Anemonefish (I've obviously seen hundreds of Anemonefish, but never the true Clownfish!). We also saw a Leaf Scorpionfish and three other types of Anemonefish. The last two dives of the trip were at Joanie's Joy and Flare Point, which were remarkable for it's man-sized Giant Clams and a nudibranch I had never seen before.

After 26 dives in 7 days this dive trip came to an end. I enjoyed it greatly. The crew was great, very friendly and professional and the boats no-limit safe-diving ruling enabled me to make 16 dives which lasted close to one hour (58 - 68 minutes). The only thing that bothered me a bit was the ratio of divers to dive guide, especially since many of the guides were busy giving courses (such as Advanced Open Water and Nitrox) and so I ended up diving unguided, because even though I do have lots of experience I still prefer to go with a guide who knows where the interesting things can be spotted. Fortunately, I found the perfect buddy on the second part of the trip. A very experienced instructor with an air-consumption that almost rivaled mine :), so we were able to get the most out of the dive sites.

I can highly recommend this trip. If you have to choose between one of the shorter parts, then I would recommend the second Coral Sea part. It had more fish live, better visibility and more Sharks! Even though the night dive on the Cod Hole part was unbelievably cool, the second part was still better.

More pictures can be found in my web album.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

SS Yongala - The most popular wreckdive in Queensland

After a full day of driving (650km), I arrived at sleepy Alva Beach. This little village is home to the dive shop closest to the wreck of the SS Yongala.

The SS Yongala was a passenger ship which sank in a cyclone in 1911. The wreck wasn't found and positively identified until 1958 when two skindivers retrieved a safe from the ship. Since 122 people died on board the site and some divers used to collect artifacts and pose with human remains, it is now protected under the Historic Shipwreck Act and penetrating the wreck is no longer allowed.

The trip out to the site took a bit longer than advertised because the sea was quite rough and many people weren't feeling too good, I myself was very glad to finally get off the boat and into the water. Since there are no reefs close to the wreck it attracts a lot of fishes, some of which grew very big, such as a Queensland Grouper over one meter in length! The animal I was most thrilled to see, however, was a Loggerhead Turtle. It rested close to the bottom of the wreck and it was the first of its kind I spotted under water!

After the first dive we were supposed to have a short surface interval before doing a second dive, however, one of the divers started to show slight symptoms of decompression sickness and the captain decided to head back to land to get her into treatment. After handing of the patient and refueling we headed out again for our second dive.

During the second dive we spotted an Eagle Ray swimming past the wreck and I had another run-in with the Loggerhead Turtle ;).

Diving the SS Yongala, was definitely worth the trip and I am glad that we were able to complete both dives, even though it meant that we got back rather late and I couldn't drive as far as I hoped.

On Sunday, I covered the remaining distance to Cairns where I dropped off the car and got ready for my next diving adventure :).

More pictures from Queensland can be found in my webalbum

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunset and Black Bull Ray: Discovery Coast

Agnes Water next to Town of 1770, was my next destination. Town of 1770 is famous for being the second place Captain Cook landed in Queensland in May of 1770, and thus the name. The village is still very small and offers some very nice lookouts and a beautiful sunset over the bay.

Town of 1770 is also the starting point for day trips to Lady Musgrave island, one of the southernmost parts of the Great Barrier Reef. And so I boarded the boat the next day for my first dives on the Great Barrier Reef.

The two best things that I saw were a giant Black Bull Ray and three Green Turtles (at first I saw only one swimming towards us, then I noticed another sitting on a boulder and then another sitting just next to the second one!).

Unfortunately, the time near the island was very limited and with doing two scuba dives, there wasn't time for a nature walk on the island. Considering the cost of the trip, I probably wouldn't do it again.

More pictures from Queensland can be found in my webalbum

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sand, Dingos and Loggerhead Turtles: Fraser Coast

Rainbow Beach marked the starting points for my next adventures. First we undertook a short walk to Carlo Sandblow, a huge sand dune just next to the village, for Sand-boarding and a wonderful Sunset.

One of the main attractions of Fraser Coast is Fraser Island. An island consisting completely of sand, but with rivers, lakes and a rainforest on top! The only way to get around this island is with a 4WD and so I ended up joining a day trip in a small off-road bus.

It was a very strange feeling, when the bus drove along the beach just shy of the water line. Our trip featured some of Fraser Islands most scenic places, such as Lake McKenzie, colorful sand piles, a shipwreck and two creeks.

Fraser island is also well known for its Dingo population, which due to it's isolation from the main land is the purest breed of Dingo in the wild. On our way back we spotted an individual who was walking along the beach. He wasn't intimidated by us at all and even lay down, pointedly ignoring us.

Due to strong winds my planned dive trip to Wolf Rock had to be cancelled and so I drove up to Bundaberg early for some Caching and to visit nearby Mon Repos Beach. That small stretch of land is a breeding ground for Loggerhead and other Turtles. The turtles come on land between November and January to lay eggs and the young turtles hatch between January and April. The trip started at 7pm with a breefing about the history of the site and the Turtles. After a short wait we were called to the beach, where a Loggerhead turtle was seen. We could get very close to the turtle and watch how she built the nest, laid the eggs and covered everything up again. "Our" turtle was a first time breeder, making her around 30 years old, and she got a tag from the rangers so that she could be recognized and monitored on further visits.

Even though it would have been great to see the turtles hatch, it was still an amazing experience.

More pictures from Queensland can be found in my webalbum.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Animals and a Wreck: Sunshine Coast

After two days on the Gold Coast I headed North again, this time for the Sunshine Coast. I stayed in a Hostel in Mooloolaba, from where I made a day trip to Australia Zoo, renowned as the former home of Steve Irwing, the Crocodile Hunter, and for its large collection of indigenous animals.

I had a great time patting a Koala, watching Cassowary, Kangaroos, Koalas, Dingos and other animals. The highlight was the Wildlife Show at noon, where they tried to feed a whole (dead) pig to Mossmann, one of the biggest Saltwater Crocodiles in the Zoo. However, Mossmann was not willing to feed in public and was instead playing with the pig! After a while the trainers got hold of the pig again and tried to simulate a death struggle with a rope tied to the pig, Mossmann did not give up there and showed us three death rolls, nevertheless, once the pig was "dead", he still wasn't willing to feed. Still, this was a great experience!

The second reason for staying at Mooloolaba was the wreck of the ex-HMAS Brisbane, a former warship sunk on purpose to form a natural reef. This means that it is possible to penetrate the wreck and explore its interior. Even though the visibility was very limited, only five meters in very murky water, we still saw many interesting features of the ship as well as marine life. The most surprising thing was that there were beautiful Soft Corals growing inside the wreck! Unfortunately, we had a very inexperienced diver with us, and thus we had to end the first dive after 30 minutes :( (I had more than half a tank left at the surface!). So for the second dive I buddied up with the third, more experienced diver, and we went our own way. And so I ended up leading my first dive, on a dive site I have only seen once! We penetrated the wreck in three separate places, unfortunately not finding the engine room, but I did find the way back to the correct mooring line and the boat (which in the poor visibility wasn't that easy) and even though the dive had to end after 40 minutes it was still a great experience! If I happen to visit Queensland again, then a trip to the ex-HMAS Brisbane will definitely be on my itinerary again!

More pictures can be found in my web album.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Thrills and Caches: Brisbane and the Gold Coast

My port of entry into Australia was Brisbane and I was very surprised how efficient the immigration process was, it was so quick I even had to wait for my bag to arrive!

On my first full day in Brisbane I explored the City Business District (CBD) looking for Geocaches as well as making a short sidetrip into Chinatown to visit The Antipodean Steampunk Show, a cool exhibit featuring Steampunk related items crafted by local artists.

The next day I collected my car rental and headed South to the Gold Coast and there I found a Geocacher's haven. All along the Gold Coast Caches are hidden as part of the Gold Coast Power Trail (GCPT). Each Cache introduces a critter indigenous to the Gold Coast and is hidden in an area said critter would like. Unfortunately, the weather was not on my side and after 90 minutes and 7 Caches heavy rain started, so I fled into a shopping mall. If I happen to return to the Gold Coast then I definitely know where to go Caching :).

Now we're coming to the reason for my trip to the Gold Coast, the theme parks! There are several of them and Dreamworld has the best reputation for rollercoasters whereas Wet'n'wild has the best reputation for water slides. So on the next day, I made my way to Dreamworld. I did spend a fun day there, even though the "thrill rides" were not quite as thrilling as the ones I experienced in Cedar Point. They especially had the same problem most rides in Europapark in Germany have, they were just too short. The best rides were The Tower of Terror II and the Buzzsaw, which I rode seven times!

Next I went to Wet'N'Wild, where I might have made a tactical error. The first waterslide I visited was the Aqualoop, a waterslide where the floor drops out under you and where, after a short period of almost free fall, you pass through a sideways looping. This was a truly breathtaking experience. After this, all other water slides seemed tame. So it may not surprise you that I spent the end of the day at Aqualoop, managing to get a total of seven rides, before the park closed. If you are in the area definitely check out this waterslide!

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