Getting Spoiled on Spoilsport

So it is really true, you do get warm towels after each dive on a Mike Ball liveaboard …This is a trip report of a recent 6 day Spoilsport expedition from Townsville to the Great Barrier Reef, Coral Sea and the wreck of the SS Yongala. My expectations were high. The reputation of Mike Ball’s liveaboards promised a week of diving indulgence. And I can’t say that I was disappointed.

Spoil SportIt is always an awkward moment when you step on a boat to meet the crew and fellow divers with whom you will have to share a very small space for almost a whole week. Well … on Spoilsport that very small space is not that small. The other thing I immediately noticed was that the crew was colour coordinated and when we arrived they were dressed in white Mike Ball shirts. And as if by some magic every time one of them changed into a different shirt during the week all other staff simultaneously appeared wearing the same new colour. From the start I was very impressed by the smooth team work of the nine crew - not on many boats will you see the captain helping to dry dishes in the galley. Everybody from deckhand to trip director was always helpful and never too tired for a friendly smile.

Spoilsport takes a maximum of 28 guests, however on this trip we were extremely lucky and there was only 9 of us. The other 19 might have been scared away by cyclone Fritz who brushed Far North Queensland only a week before. The remaining guest, a Spanish, British and an American couple, two single Canadians and me were in good spirits and quickly got to know each other. For the three couples it was their first liveaboard and they were a bit anxious on how to survive the rocking of the boat while trying to sleep. It turned out that we had one of the flattest seas ever for the whole week and not a single person got sick. This was a good thing considering the lush food we were presented with whenever we came up from a dive.

This brings me to what we were all here to do: the diving. The itinerary was to do a days worth of diving on the Outer Barrier Reef, two full days in the Coral Sea, another day on the Barrier Reef and a day and a half on the wreck of Yongala on our way back to Townsville. Sounded like a great plan!

Mike Ball promises unlimited diving, hence the coordination of dives is slightly different to other liveaboards I have been on. Upon arrival at a new dive site AJ, the trip director, delivered a very detailed dive brief on the dive deck after which the dive was declared open and everybody was free to do as many dives as they felt like – of course within the limits of their dive computer and without “reverse profiling”. For most of us that meant one dive before a fully cooked breakfast (of course there was fruit, cereals and yoghurts before the first dive if you could not face the idea of early morning diving on an empty stomach) and another dive before lunch, then moving to a different site for another open dive deck in the afternoon to do one or two more dives and on most days the possibility of a night dive. I did far too many dives to describe each site and it would make this trip report a very long story, but there are a few experiences I really have to highlight as they will stay with me for a long time to come.

Spoil SportOn the first couple of days the thing that struck me the most was the amount of huge gorgonian fans we saw on each and every dive site we visited, whether it was on Bowl Reef (GBR) or on Flinders Reef in the Coral Sea. It was only appropriate that one of the dive sites on Flinders Reef was named Fan Fair. It was at Fan Fair we watched a huge barracuda with his mouth and gills wide open just hanging there, being cleaned. At Two Up a large bommie on Flinders Reef we found the most amazing variety and sizes of soft coral trees in all colours.

That night in the middle of the Coral Sea, miles away from anything, we watched the sunset from a patch of sand sticking out of the water with nothing else on it than a remotely operated weather station. In true Mike Ball fashion we all held a glass of champagne as the sun set in the ocean. It was turtle hatching time that afternoon as well and we had to endure to see a few tiny little green turtles making their way into the ocean only to be instantly devoured by a hungry giant trevally mob splashing about in knee deep water, waiting for their dinner to walk straight into their mouths … a very disturbing experience. I felt helpless but also amazed to witness Charles Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” theory in action.

A trip to the Coral Sea would not be complete without visiting a bottomless dive site, the Cod Wall, where the ocean opens up inviting you to dive as deep as you feel like … quite tempting to just keep going when you can clearly see the surface from 40 metres and deeper. Large pelagics can be seen quite often cruising along the steep wall of sites like this, and we managed to spot a few Grey Reef Sharks as well as a Silvertip Shark.

Spoil Sport

The afternoon of that second day in the Coral Sea was reserved for another Mike Ball specialty, the world famous Scuba Zoo. No expenses were spared to put three permanent huge shark cages on the bottom of the ocean to ease the nerves of some nervous shark watchers. I felt pretty silly lying on top of the cage with my camera filming about 35 Grey Reef Sharks coming in … they knew their part of the show. It wasn’t until just before the lid of the big bin of fish heads on a string was lifted, that we were all told to move into the cages. The whole feeding frenzy that followed would have only lasted for a minute or two but it was quite a sight. Everybody was buzzing … In all honesty I have to say I prefer to observe sharks in their natural habitat, this felt more like going to the circus. A few fellow travellers agreed, but others thought it was the best thing ever.

Spoil SportBack to the Barrier Reef the next day we had some spectacular dives at Wheeler Reef, schools of Barracuda, loads of Giant Clams, all the reef fish you would expect and a Green Turtle cruising past. An encounter I will certainly never forget was when me and my by then trusted buddy Vickie swam along a huge “herd” of “grazing” Bumphead Parrotfish. There must have been more than 20 of these monsters, crunching every little piece of live coral in sight. Against the sunlight at times all you could see was a huge dust cloud of broken coral bits … and where they had been, there was nothing left standing. We watched this spectacle for at least 15 minutes and what we saw made me feel a little bit easier for a few times where I had unintentionally broken off a small piece of coral.

The weather had been good to us all week and things were looking good for diving the SS Yongala wreck over the next two days. I won’t go into the history of the wreck too much, because that will be covered in another article on very soon. This ex-passenger ship has been on the bottom of the ocean in about 30 metres of water for almost 100 years and really is more an artificial reef by now, but you can still make out a fair few features of the ship when you are down there. There are no reefs anywhere near the Yongala and winds and currents are often strong. Even on what seemed like a perfect day we still had to battle our way down the mooring line against some quite strong currents.
Once down there it is possible to hide from the currents and the dive really starts. My god, they didn’t promise too much … each time we made our way down that line we were immediately surrounded by a myriad of marine creatures, and most of them were BIG. There were giant trevallies hunting schools of millions of baitfish. The apparently resident shovelnose rays were racing up and down the top of the wreck, which is fully covered in soft and hard coral, ascidians and loads of other critters. And of course there was VW, a very appropriately named Queensland Grouper of about that size. Since there is nothing else to dive in this area, timing of your dive time becomes quite important as there can Spoil Sportbe 3-5 vessels diving the wreck at one time … hard to decide which line to come up on to make it back to YOUR boat. The Yongala also makes for an absolute magic night dive with loads of crabs, shells and shrimps and of course the occasional very BIG fish face appearing in your torch beam.

Sadly after two early morning dives on day 6 of our trip it was time to say goodbye to all the fish and the emotionally very tough job of rinsing and drying your gear made us all realise the trip had come to an end … but the bar was still open!

I was amazed that even after being stuck on a boat together for almost a week, everyone was keen to catch up for a meal and a fair few beers at the local Irish pub in Townsville only a few hours after leaving Spoilsport and no, the crew was not colour coordinated (or coordinated at all ..) that night.

All in all a very worthwhile expedition indeed and if any of my fellow guests on board or crew get to read this, thank you for making this trip a most memorable experience. I will be back!

Photos and story by Tim Hochgrebe -

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