You might have guessed by now that I’m a pretty keen diver. In fact, my reason for coming to Cairns was to see the Great Barrier Reef: supposedly the Holy Grail of diving. I was going to be staying on a liveaboard for four nights with a company called Reef Encounter. Liveaboards are the way to go: nothing beats floating on the sea for a good night’s sleep, nor does being able to jump into the sea first thing in the morning without the tedium of a long trip out to a dive site. Flying into Cairns, the contrast between the red, arid Outback and the lush coastal rainforests at Cairns couldn’t have been more stark.
Not only that, but Cairns itself was far removed from the quiet, sleepy vibe of the Outback. Cairns is full of bars, which are full of people looking to have a good time. On my first night there, I wasn’t looking for a big night: I had to be up at 5am to get to the dive boat the following morning. I sat down for a quiet beer and kangaroo burger at a place called the Green Ant Cantina. I was sitting outside, and behind me, a couple of guys were at the bar taking the “Wings of Death” challenge. This involved eating 300g of chicken wings in blistering hot chilli sauce. The rules stipulated that you had to be at the bar, not drinking any liquid, that the bones had to be sucked clean of meat and that no sauce should remain on the plate. Many brave souls tried and failed that night. Since I was sitting outside, I witnessed the result of their failure as it fought its way out of their sore bellies and onto the pavement outside. The chef strutted around the bar shouting out the score, “Chef 3 – Customers 0”.
I was up early the next morning to get to the liveaboard, and as a bonus, I caught the misty dawn over Cairns harbour. It turned out that the liveaboard was a near-permanent fixture at the Great Barrier Reef, and instead a transfer boat would take me to the liveaboard from Cairns. It took about a couple of hours to reach the liveaboard, and during this time we were treated to bacon and egg sandwiches grilled on the upper deck. Whilst munching on one of these sandwiches, I got chatting to Lisan, a traveller from the Netherlands.
During the transfer, we were briefed on the sea life we’d be seeing on the Reef. We were given a preview of all the usual wonderful things you’d expect: clownfish, rays, turtles, sharks, but we were also warned about the Crown of Thorns Starfish. This starfish is very fecund and also feeds on the coral, which threatens the survival of the Reef. In addition it has spines that can give you a nasty sting. To protect the reef, the authorities have implemented a culling programme, and we were asked to report any sightings to the guide.
On arrival at the mothership, we got a safety briefing and were escorted to our cabins by a “hostie”. A hostie is a traveller who has decided to work on the boat in exchange for food and board and a dive or two per day. It turned out that my new friend Lisan was going to work as a hostie the following day. After dropping my bags off in the enormous cabin, I took a wander around the boat. It was huge, with a big sundeck, massive, comfortable lounge/ dining area and even a hot tub! The dive deck was big and had a hydraulic platform with stairs that led into the water so there was no need to catch a awaying ladder to get back onto the boat: you could just walk up the stairs. The view of the reef from the top deck was impressive!
Without much ado, it was time to get in the water and see what made put the “Great” into the Great Barrier Reef. The gear we were issued with was of average quality. One thing I will do in future trips is pack some neoprene dive socks: no diving outfit I’ve been with so far on this trip offered boots and strap fins, and I find the slip-on fins really uncomfortable. The dive master on duty informed us that there would be no guide on any of the dives unless we wanted to pay extra. This was a bit of a surprise, since in my experience of liveaboards and shore-based dives a guide was always included. Still, it made things a little different and forced me to think a little about navigating the reef. I was due to dive with Lisan, whom I’d met on the transfer boat earlier. Lisan was a very new diver and was still getting the hang of equalising, so we stuck together and worked on a slow descent for the first few dives.
The coral was in a fairly good state. I’d definitely seen better, but then had been spoilt by some pretty incredible dive trips in the Caribbean, Red Sea and the Maldives. There were still plenty of fish and a moray or two, a dozing shark here and there, and some turtles. Most of the dives were no deeper than twenty meters.
Years and years ago, I dreamed of becoming a dive guide: dropping out of the rat race and living on a dive boat, meeting new guests and sharing in their wonder as they discovered the underwater world. To realise this dream, I did a few extra diving qualifications beyond the standard PADI Open Water course, but in the end decided to stick with my career. Some of this training definitely helped whilst guiding small groups of people, even though it was a long time since I’d taken the courses. Diving with a relatively new diver, like Lisan, was great as well, because her excitement about the dives gave me a bit of a vicarious thrill!
Probably the best diving was at the extremes of the day. For me, one of the best things about being on a liveaboard is the good routine you get into: 6am dive, breakfast, dive, nap, lunch, dive, etc. I especially loved the 6am starts: they were far better than a cup of coffee for waking up in the morning:
The other extreme is, of course, night. Night follows sunset, of course, and there were plenty of beautiful sunsets over the reef:
Night diving is exhilarating and a little spooky. Despite having done a fair few night dives, I never quite get control of my imagination, and always end up imagining that something is out there in the darkness about to eat me. Diving at night requires a torch and a glowstick so that you can signal for help if you surface far from the boat.
Dinner was usually around 6pm, and always delicious. The chef was a genius: I don’t think I’ve had a better rack of lamb in my life. Dessert would usually follow the night dive at 7pm. To get ready, we’d had a safety briefing before suiting up and jumping into the black sea.
Light is all-important. Interestingly enough, it’s often easier to navigate at night because the enormous lights on the back of the boat act like a beacon to help you find your way home. We were also briefed to stay relatively close to the boat so that we could be seen if we needed help. The water was lovely and warm, and I was able to control my stupid imagination. There was quite a bit to see, as a lot of marine life seems to be nocturnal.
We found that it we shone our torches at small fish, they would be dazzled and bigger fish would dart in to eat them. The larger fish were attracted by the lights of the boat. These fish attracted even larger predators. Thankfully we only noticed these sharks when we were safely aboard and having dessert.
I had a very relaxing time on the liveaboard. The staff, especially the chief steward, Shannon, were lovely. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d maybe missed out on the fully appreciating the Reef. There’s a saying that the reason they call it the “Great” Barrier Reef is due to its size, and not its quality. I don’t know if that is true because I saw so little of the reef during my five day stay there. One of the main advantages of a liveaboard is that it’s mobile, and you therefore expect a variety of dive sites during your time on one. There was very little variety during my time on the Reef Encounter: we only dived three different sites in five days, whereas on my first ever liveaboard, in the Red Sea, I dived 15 unique sites in 6 days.
Still, I came away with some great memories of the Reef and some new friends!