ARRIVING IN CAIRNS, I first wanted to check out the local reefs. With old mate and Cairns local Stuart Ireland I had a day-trip with Down Under Dive on its fabulous dive-boat Evolution.
The diving off Cairns is belittled by many divers, who have often never dived there but consider it cattle-truck diving and assume that too many divers have ruined the reefs.
The day-boats are large, taking more than 100 people, but most are snorkellers or people doing an intro dive, and on average only a dozen qualified divers will be in the water. In the past I have found that the reefs show little damage from visiting divers, as crews enforce their no-touch policy strictly.
Gorgonians and whip corals are common in deeper water in the Far North.
We headed to Saxon and Hastings reefs, both on the outer reef. The weather wasn’t the best after several days of large seas and stormy conditions, but we still enjoyed 10-15m visibility.
We did three dives at two sites and saw mainly healthy hard corals. There were a few dead ones, but no more than usual on a typical reef in this area.
Later Stuart, a marine biologist who dives the reefs off Cairns regularly, told me that the bleaching was worst on the inner reefs, and most of the coral quickly recovered.
He added that new growth was evident on many of the worst-affected reefs.
Supporting his observations was a recent report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which found that reefs between Cairns and Townsville had recovered more quickly than expected and were showing signs that they were going to reproduce, two to three years earlier than previous studies had shown after coral-bleaching.
Stuart and I next headed to Cairns airport to fly to Lockhart River to meet Spirit of Freedom. This charter flight is part of the trip and took us 370 miles into the heart of the Far North.
Following a bus and tender transfer, we settled into our comfortable en-suite cabin on the luxury 37m liveaboard.
Most of our fellow-passengers were from Australia, but there were also Americans, Canadians and a few expat Europeans. For most it was their first trip to this region, and for a few their first time on the GBR.
Overnight we headed north, arriving at Southern Small Detached Reef in the morning. This isolated reef rises from deep water and we moored at a site I had dived before, Auriga Bay.
I was eager to see the state of the hard corals, as this site used to have pretty coral gardens on a sloping reef.
Descending the wall we saw lovely gorgonians, soft corals and pelagic fish, and once in the coral gardens I was happy to see that most of the hard coral looked healthy, though I was sad to see a wide patch that used to contain staghorn coral in ruins.
The cause was not bleaching but damage from the cyclones that occur every year in this part of Australia.
Northern Small Detached Reef, our next port of call, was a brilliant dive. There was not a lot of hard coral to be seen, because this reef plummets from the surface straight to deep water, but we explored ledges and overhangs, and saw walls covered in gorgonians, soft corals and whip corals. We also had our first shark encounters, getting buzzed by a grey reef shark and a silvertip shark.
We ended the day at another site I had dived before, Black Rock at Mantis Reef. Skipper Tony Hazell informed me that the boat hadn’t visited this site in two years, because the last time little had been happening.
Well, it was going off today, with schools of barracuda, trevally, snapper and surgeonfish. There were also lots of sharks – grey reef, whitetip reef and a few silvertips. Visibility wasn’t the best, so photography was limited, but we explored the sloping wall to see lovely corals, Maori wrasse, coral trout and even a spawning granulated seastar.