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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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