Still considered the gold standard in live-aboard diving in Australia is Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, a live-aboard venture started in 1969 by Mike Ball. Hence a trip to the northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea would not be complete without a journey on the 'Spoilsport' from Cairns.
Somehow I managed to pick the long straw as only one of us was able to be on the boat while the other had to look after the kids and experience the attractions of Cairns that were more 'young kids friendly' such as visiting the Hartley's Crocodile Farm and a day trip to Green Island.
I have to admit that after our first month and a half on the road on very tight quarters with two kids in constant need of something, I was more than a little bit looking forward to some 'peace on the reef'.
This was not my first Mike Ball experience, I had been on this boat before quite some years ago when it used to cruise the southern Great Barrier Reef from Townsville, which included a couple of days on the SS Yongala and I had also been on the Paradise Sport out of Kavieng in Papua New Guinea. All very memorable trips indeed.
Despite his 'legend' status, Mike keeps his business still very personal and hands-on and this started with him meeting all trip participants at a local restaurant in Cairns on the evening of the departure. Our trip was a very mixed bunch of guests from Europe, USA and Russia as well as a few Kiwis but to my surprise I was the only person from Australia onboard.
The itinerary of the next 7 nights would have us explore the prime Ribbon Reef dive sites, visit Lizard Island and also spend 2 days and one night at Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, a promising line-up indeed.
Diver safety and convenience is paramount with Mike Ball and for that he is one of the first live-aboard operators in Australia to introduce the new Nautilus Lifeline (link to our shop product) as a free service to all divers.
This fantastic new device is basically a dive-proof VHF radio with GPS and mini diver emergency beacon. You can use it on the surface to communicate with anyone that receives VHF signals in the area (including of course your live-aboard vessel in our case) and it has a 'panic button' to activate a full scale rescue mission where your GPS coordinates are communicated to any nearby rescue organisations. Not that anyone ever had to use this device on the boat yet, but I have to say it makes you feel a whole lot safer in the water and I am looking forward to have our own set on many of the dives we are planning around Australia.
After a not too rocky night steaming North, we arrived at the world famous Cod Hole, already with a view of Lizard Island in the distance. As the name suggests, Cod Hole is known for its aggregation of diver-size potato cods which over many years of visitation have become very much accustomed to the bubbles of scuba divers. We were greeted by a number of these curious fish as we descended for the very first time on this 7-night live aboard adventure. Naturally these close encounters make for great photographs and video and you could almost hear the clicking of shutter buttons throughout the fist two dives of the trip.
Cod hole is actually quite a fantastic dive site apart from the cods. Not only will you find the many giant clams for which this site is also known, I saw a grey reef shark in the distance, a hawksbill turtle and a few moray eels. We also found a normally very shy Coral Blenny that was reasonably easy to approach as it was protecting its patch of eggs in the coral.
Between dives we followed a pod of dolphins with mothers and calves jumping synchronised out of the water but unfortunately we were a few weeks too late to cross paths with the annual migration of the Dwarf Minke Whales which pass by the Ribbon Reefs in June and July each year. I found myself on the sun deck of the spacious 'Spoilsport' for many hours while we were in the area with remote hopes of a lucky late encounter with one of my favourite marine animals.
After another day and night dive on the Great Barrier Reef with eagle rays and olive sea snakes we were due to steam again overnight to Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea renown for big walls, sharks and great viz.
I was glad I took the two pills that were recommended before the crossing, but the night turned out much more peaceful than what I had feared. Waking up in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight and hearing the words 'dive brief' while I was still snug in my cabin excited me again and I was looking forward to the 'Big Blue' that the Coral Sea beholds.
I had been to Osprey Reef quite a few times but was very much looking forward to re-acquaint myself with the resident Grey Reef Sharks and I had high hopes to spot a hammerhead, silver tip or manta ray while out here for the next two days.
Amongst great dives at potentially unlimited depths my highlights at Osprey were naturally the shark encounters. The resident population of both White Tip Reef Sharks and Grey Reef Sharks have been studied here for quite some time. Many of the shark have been implanted with electronic tags to monitor their movements around Osprey Reef and the remoteness of this location ensures that the populations remain at the same reef. I have some great memories of previous trips to Osprey Reef onboard the now defunct Undersea Explorer, were we were catching Grey Reef and White Tip Reef Sharks by tail-roping to implant these devices.
After the Day One shark feed at North Horn where all live-aboard guests were watching the spectacle sitting down in the natural amphitheatre, I was one of the lucky ones that was allowed to swim with amongst the sharks while they were being attracted the next day.
Together with Jean-Marie Ghislain from Shark Revolution and two very talented free divers, including South African female free diving legend Hanli Prinsloo who were travelling with him, we hovered amongst dozens of Grey Reef Sharks as they honed in on the tuna heads that were protected by two milk crates.
Interestingly the sharks seemed to disappear anytime the free divers would visit us from the surface, it seemed that they were very much used to our bubbles, but the big silver mono-finned mermaid seemed to spook them.
Floating amongst a feeding frenzy of Grey Reef Sharks when the bait was finally release from its crates was a pretty special moment and I truly enjoyed being so close to these fantastic animals despite a slightly zoo-like setup.
That night we were treated to the first of two 'party nights' where the 4-night guests were sent off in style with a traditional Aussie BBQ including the obligatory 'shrimps on the barbie' and for most people onboard their very first taste of kangaroo.
The very musical boat crew made sure everyone got to sing along to a few classics… I was happy that I could stay on the boat for another 3 nights to do it all again on the very last night.
The next morning the guests who had another 3 nights ahead of them spent discovering Lizard Island. Those people that had booked the 4-night trip flew back to Cairns.
The plane returned with a whole bunch of new divers who would be joining us for the remaining 3 days on the journey back on the inside of the Ribbon Reefs back to Cairns.
We then made our way back to the world famous Cod Hole for the pre-lunch dive and to Challenger Bay for afternoon and night dives.
The next morning it was off to one of the new 'hot' dive sites on the Ribbon Reefs called Acropolis and like the name suggests this was packed with an enormous variety of Staghorn Corals (Acropora sp.). Despite unfortunate weather conditions with not much light to do this dive site real justice (and the video I was trying to capture), I could see the beauty of this site and this was one of my favourite dives of the trip.
At Lighthouse Bommie later that day we found the resident Green turtle, loads of Lion Fish, Coral Trout, big school of Yellow Snapper, schooling Barracuda, a Leopard Moray and quite a few Olive Sea Snakes.
One more sleep and already we had to get ready for a last day of diving. Steve's Bommie is another very hot favourite and I depend two very long dives trying to capture all the life and colour it has to offer. I can really never get enough of this site and it is great to see that it seems to be just as busy with life as when I fist visited it nearly 20 years ago.
After another musical Mike Ball style Aussie good-bye BBQ it was time to sink into my bunk one last time and relax for one last night without the chance of being woken by kids in the caravan. Of course by now I was very much missing the rest of my family and couldn't wait to get back to 'Underwater Around Australia'.