Season: Year-round diving
Visibility: 10-30 metres/30-90 ft
Water Temperature: 27-29°C from November-April, 23-26°C at other times/81°F-77°F from November-April, 70°F-78°F
Australia: land of the aborigine, Crocodile Dundee, Uluru, Sydney Opera House, Dreamtime, didgeridoos, kangaroos, Koala Bears, and the Great Barrier Reef. Not only does Australia possess a fascinating mixture of ancient and modern on land but also an underwater paradise of immense size and natural beauty. The ‘island continent’ has superb diving in some of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world.
To find the best of Australian diving it is necessary to look beyond the easily accessible parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which have often disappointed visiting divers from Europe and North America, to the remote areas of the Coral Sea and the Ribbon Reefs where the truly great dives of tropical Australia are to be found. The rewards here are great and the cost, relative to liveaboard diving in some parts of the Pacific, may be a pleasant surprise!
In general, January-March is the wet season with amazing feeding and marine life action following the breeding season. April-September is the Australian winter when great visibility and beautiful weather can be accompanied by strong winds, but this time of year is great for sharks. Minke Whales are frequently sighted in June and July. October-December often has wonderful weather and there is a lot happening under the water as most coral reef species breed during this period.
THE RIBBON REEFS
The Ribbon Reefs comprise a 130 kilometre stretch of reefs and passageways that guard the Great Barrier Reef’s northern edge. Within the Ribbon Reefs are some of the dive sites that have made Australia famous: Lizard Island, Cod Hole, Pixie Pinnacle and Steve’s Bommie. The currents that channel between the ribbon reefs attract large populations of fish. The Great Barrier Reef has 9 species of anemonefish, 43 species of butterflyfish, hundreds and hundreds of nudibranch species and 6 out of 7 of the world’s turtle species. Some of the prime Ribbon Reefs dive sites have restricted access, butSpirit of Freedom has arranged access to these sites. If the weather changes and forces a dive site change, there are always many others available of equally high quality.
Lizard Island is where, in 1770, famous English navigator James Cook climbed to the highest point in order to try and find an escape route out of the labyrinth of reefs off the shores of Australia. The naturalist accompanying the expedition, Joseph Banks, noticed and logged the wealth of strange creatures in the waters around the island. Challenger Bay is a dive which is done at the start of the Coral Sea trips, or is often included as a night dive on the Cod Hole trips. During the day, large schools of trevallies, surgeonfish and Yellow-striped Bream work the area over the coral gardens. At night, Challenger Bay is home to particularly large barracuda, and moray eels and lionfish come out to hunt. Lionfish in particular have found the divers’ lights to be very useful in aiding their search for prey!
Cod Hole, named after the huge and friendly Potato Cod that live here, was a fishermen’s haven from wind and waves. Whilst cleaning their catch, the fishermen would throw the debris from their fish-cleaning over the sides of their boats. Large groupers fed on these fishermen’s off-cuts and became accustomed to being fed. The profusion of food attracted more and more groupers, along with Green Morays and Napoleon Wrasse. Cod Hole is a reef area less than 200 metres long with ledges and patch reefs at depths of 10-35 metres. A channel passes between the reefs and it is here that you will come face to face with enormous fish. No one would pretend that this would be an exceptional dive site if it was not for the incredible congregation of big fish, but this ‘marine zoo’ has become one of those dive sites, like Belize’s Blue Hole and Grand Cayman’s Stingray City, that should definitely be high on every diver’s wish list.
Lighthouse Bommie is a pinnacle rising from the sand with the base at 30 metres. The wide variety of plate, branching and massive corals, giant clams and fish life are, at certain times of the year, the breeding grounds of the dwarf form of the Minke Whale. Depending on the number of whales and the quality of the interactions, diving on these cruises can be reduced, with snorkeling with the whales replacing the diving by popular demand! It is an overwhelming experience to snorkel with these beautifully-patterned whales that are the smallest of the baleen whales, and yet are still up to 8 metres in length and weigh up to 6 tons. Olive green sea snakes, turtles and schools of bream, along with large colonies of anemones, make this a year round interest dive site, even when the Minkes are not passing through.
South of Cod Hole lies Pixie Pinnacle, a coral bommie which rises vertically from 30 metres. Although a diver might circumnavigate the pinnacle in a few minutes, if he does, he’s missed the point! Pixie is one of those dives where the closer you look the more you see. The constant abundance of plankton here can lead to low visibility, but also leads to a rare richness in marine life. Corals, crinoids, nudibranchs, anemones and their anemonefish companions cover the pinnacle. Groupers, lionfish and huge schools of basslets and fusiliers swarm in the water. The water around the pinnacle can be so full of fish that divers have described this as one of the most profuse dive sites in the world.
Hiding amongst the coral at Steve’s Bommie, sleepy lionfish, frogfish and leaf scorpionfish can be found, but for those divers who are looking for wide angle subjects for their photography they should find photo-opportunities with the swarms of fluorescent anthias massing on the edge of the reefs, with the trevallies and barracudas circling the pinnacle, or with the large schools of White-lined Snappers.
THE CORAL SEA
Bounded to the west and south by the mainland of Australia and to the north by the island of New Guinea, the Coral Sea is a seriously remote area. An overnight cruise is required to reach Osprey Reef, which lies around 100 kilometres beyond the Great Barrier Reef. While the open ocean ride can be rough or bumpy on some vessels, Spirit of Freedom's electronic stabilisers maximize stability and reduce the possibility of sea-sickness. The very remoteness which necessitates the long journey protects the reef from over-diving and over-fishing. The visibility here is usually about 30 metres, but can be even more. For underwater photographers in particular this means sensational colour and vibrancy can be captured. Osprey Reef is a ten-mile atoll with dive sites along its western side. Shallow hard coral gardens are home to sweetlips, Moorish Idols and a variety of anemonefish , but it is the sheer walls (some with a 1,000 metre drop!) which are the main attraction. Grey Reef Sharks, White-tip Reef Sharks, Silvertip Sharks and, in season, Scalloped Hammerheads make this the most reliable shark diving in Australia. Many Dog Tooth Tuna, cod (groupers), and barracuda also occur here. If it is larger creatures you want to see then keep a constant lookout! Sperm Whales, Manta Rays, turtles and other large pelagics all pass by from time to time in the shadowy depths.
Two large bodies of water, those moving along the eastern and the western rims of the atoll, meet at North Horn. Schools of barracudas hang silently, and tunas, Manta Rays and even Whale Sharks have been seen at this sharply pointed structure at a depth of 20-30 metres. The shark dive here usually attracts between 10 and 20 Grey Reef Sharks! Don’t forget to check out the perimeter of the shark dive site, for some species slightly lower in the feeding chain hang about waiting for a tasty morsel to come their way. Potato Cod and moray eels forage around the reef, while trevallies, barracudas and Red Bass control the mid-water.
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