AUSTRALIA - JANUARY, 2001

I suppose you can consider a trip Down Under a rousing success when your biggest complaint is that no one sang "Waltzing Matilda" the entire time you were there. (I thought ALL Aussies sang that tune all time, in between throwing more shrimp on the barbie.)

To say that we had a fabulous time would be an understatement. Our group consisted of Louis Weisberg, Bruce Graham, John Morgan, William Morgan, Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, and myself. It took us 22 hours to get there (LA to Auckland to Brisbane to Townsville), but it was certainly worth the effort. And we even had some time to explore Townsville.

At 8PM that evening, it was time to board our home-away-from-home, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions catamaran the Spoilsport. Itís extremely spacious and comfortable, roughly 100í long and 30í wide. The dive deck and passenger cabins occupy the main deck. The second deck consists of an al fresco dining area (where we frequently had morning coffee and tea and watched the morning begin), the main salon and galley, and the wheelhouse. The third deck is a sundeck.

The Spoilsport, which was built around 1989, is presently configured to take up to 29 divers. IMHO, thatís too many. We only had 21, which seemed to be about the right number. The problem with 29 is that you need to make more rooms in the same space which means theyíre smaller (a distinction I noticed since Iíd previously been on the Paradise Sport in PNG which is about the same size but only carries 20 divers). Those who paid the extra bucks for a Premium room didnít have significantly more space than those in a Standard room (though the Premium rooms have a private bath/shower whereas the other rooms all have shared facilities). Instead of the rooms being off of one central hallway, there are two hallways, which means you have rooms down the port and starboard side (with portholes) and then rooms down the center of the boat which get no outside light. Not a big deal for some (I had an inside room and didnít mind) but it might be an issue for others.

The good news in all of this is that Mikeís planning to build Spoilsport II. I saw the plans last week and they hope to have the new boat in the water sometime early next year. It will look a lot like the Paradise Sport (which was basically an updated Spoilsport). Passenger capacity is being reduced to around 24 (still a few too many I think), rooms will be bigger, all will have bath/shower facilities en suite, the boat will be a bit wider and longer, and should reflect changes in the liveaboard market over the past 12 years since the original Spoilsport was built.

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is known for great service from the crew and fabulous food and this trip was no exception. Everyone was extremely helpful and did everything in their power to ensure that each passenger had an unforgettable time. Although breakfasts were fairly routine (but always tasty), lunches and dinners offered interesting choices for the palette.

The diving was, in a word, terrific. We did two days (first and last) on the Great Barrier Reef, which is generally within 1-100 miles of the Australian coastline. The middle four days were spent in the Coral Sea, roughly 150 miles off-shore and totally out of sight of land. While out there, we didnít see another vessel (except for the helicopter - more on that in a moment) the whole time.

And as youíre watching the captain maneuver the Spoilsport around the reefs, none of which break the surface but many of which are shallow enough to do serious damage to a boat, you gain a new appreciation and respect for the ancient mariners who first charted these waters over 100 years ago using weighted lines to determine depths and reef location.

On to the diving.

January is considered cyclone (hurricane) season in Australia. We, however, hit it perfectly. Except for one night when it POURED, we had excellent weather. Because it had been windy the previous week, which prevented that group from getting to some sites, it was decided that weíd take advantage of the weather window and make our first stop the wreck of the Yongala, frequently called one of the greatest wreck dives in the world.

Now Iíve been on plenty of wrecks. Iíve explored wrecks in Midway, the Bahamas, Bonaire, here in California, and Iíve been to Truk. So when someone claims that THEIR wreck is the greatest . . . well, you get the idea.

But the Yongala certainly lives up to its billing. The wreck tilts to the starboard side, in about 100í of water (the shallow part - the port rail - is around 55í), and is just COVERED with fish. The first note I made in my logbook after our initial dive starts out with "Fishy, fishy, fishy!!!!" The wreck, which sank during a cyclone in 1911 at a cost of 121 lives is festooned with fish. (Itís considered a gravesite AND a significant cultural site, so there are restrictions when diving - like no penetration.)

The first thing I noticed as I descended was what I thought was a haze surrounding the wreck but which I then realized was the largest congregation of baitfish and small sweepers that Iíd ever seen. Must have been a million of them. The fish were so thick that when you swam through them, if your buddy was more than five feet away you couldnít see him.

Not only is the Yongala covered with small fish, but also with some HUGE animals (and this doesnít even begin to touch on the sea fans and soft corals or the encrusting corals that adorn the wreck). I saw some of the biggest turtles, Napoleon Wrasses, Giant Trevallies, Scribbled Puffers, Spadefish, and Queensland Groupers (including one nicknamed "VW" because thatís how big he is!!!) that Iíve ever seen before, and certainly the biggest we saw on this trip.

But perhaps most impressive were the enormous Bull rays that hang out in the sand. Take the average dining room table, paint it black, stick a long tail on it and youíve got an idea of how big the SMALL rays were. These guys were just huge. And the most amazing thing was that when we did our night dive, these rays simply hang over the top of the wreck and hover in the gently current. You shine your light straight up and damned near have a heart attack when you realize these big guys are just a few feet above your head.

The Yongala was also our only encounter with sea snakes. We saw about four or five. Although theyíre highly venomous, they couldnít have cared less about divers. Theyíd be poking around the nooks and crannies and wouldnít pay any attention to what we were doing, even when we were trailing them closely with cameras in hand.

The only unnerving time comes when the snake decides itís time to go up and take a breathe of air. He just lifts off the bottom and weaves through whatever divers happen to be nearby. Talk about an adrenaline rush!! About the time youíre calming down, the snake descends back through the group, raises your blood pressure again, and goes back about his business.

The Yongala was also the first of our two helicopter encounters. (This is the one I called the "good" helicopter.) One of the other passengers (not with the Reef Seekers group) had not had as enjoyable a time as us because Qantas had lost one of his bags. As luck would have it, it was a Pelican case that contained all of his camera equipment. To say he was a little peeved when we departed Townsville was an understatement, despite Qantasí promise to locate his bag.

Imagine our surprise when after the first dive on the Yongala (about 50 miles from Townsville), we were told weíd be suspending dive operations for thirty minutes because there was a helicopter with the missing bag on the way. Sure enough, pretty soon we heard the "whoop-whoop" of helicopter blades and then watched in amazement as the helicopter hovered over the front deck of the Spoilsport, and lowered down on a line, the missing Pelican bag with the camera gear intact. The pilot gave us a salute, and then roared off. (I suggested the great practical joke was to look up at the helicopter and go, "But thatís NOT my bag!!!" but my pranksterism fell on deaf ears.)

The next morning found us another 100 miles out, this time on Flinders Reef, an enormous (roughly 400 square miles) atoll that has literally hundreds of cays, walls, and bommies (coral pinnacles) to explore. And this is where weíd see our second helicopter.

After the Yongala dives, one of the divers (not in the Reef Seekers group) began experiencing tingling in the extremities, unusual lower back pain, and a severe headache. Even though her two dives were within computer limits, her symptoms suggested she was bent. She was put her on oxygen and monitored overnight. In the morning, since her symptoms hadnít abated, the call was put in for an evacuation her to the recompression chamber in Townsville. (Remember all this the next time we recommend D.A.N. insurance.)

The short story is that she came out of the whole episode okay, undergoing three chamber treatments in Townsville. And even though her computer said she was fine, she was an infrequent diver, there was a mild current on the wreck, she was struggling with the camera that she was carrying, and she was on a new medication. Some or all of these could have played a factor in her getting bent when the profile said she shouldnít. (For those wondering, she was diving air.) The biggest problem she faced is that Australian protocol is to prohibit flying (like back home) for three weeks after chamber treatment. So she has just recently returned to the U.S.

Once all the excitement died down, we experienced some really great diving in the Coral Sea. Water temperature was around 82ļ and the visibility generally 100í or so. We routinely saw turtles (loggerhead, green, olive, and even a leatherback), sharks (black-tip, white-tip, silver-tip, and gray reef), schools of barracuda (both Chevron and Great), different types of Trevallies, various tuna, eels, puffers, nudibranchs, pipefish, gobies, shrimp, huge schools of smaller fish like rainbow runners and grunts, and just about everything else youíd associate with this type of tropical diving.

We also dove a couple of sites (Tuna Salad, Anemone City, and Cod Wall) that had some of the biggest sea fans Iíve ever seen. Fans that spanned 5-10í across were not uncommon. At Cod Wall, at a depth of 130í (a line leads you right to it) there is what they call The Worldís Largest Sea Fan which measures about 15í across. Really amazing.

We did night dives just about every night but they werenít all that spectacular. Not a lot of fish activity and not a lot of feeding coral which surprised me, especially in comparison to some of the night dives we had in PNG and last year in Indonesia. Most of my notes say, "Not too memorable." But enjoyable nonetheless.

One of the signature dives of Mike Ball is out at a site called "Scuba Zoo." Itís a shark feed (the foodís kept in a garbage can hooked up to pulleys and cables to be handled safely) which is very popular with the local residents, as we counted over 30 sharks of various species showing up for the feed. Whatís especially unique (and safe) is that there are permanently-sunk shark cages on the ocean floor from which the divers can observe. Youíve also got the option, prior to the food being released, of laying on top of the cages and observing the action while the sharks work themselves into a frenzy. During this time, the garbage can full of food is yanked all around the cages, so everyone can get a good view of the sharks up-close-and-personal.

When itís time to feed, everyone gets into the cages, the doors are drawn shut, and the food (fish heads and the like on a buoyant line) is released. The sharks attack the food only a few feet from your nose and itís truly an amazing sight. When all has calmed down (about 10 minutes) the cage doors are opened and you can once again observe unprotected (and unencumbered) by the cage. Pretty cool stuff.

Site-wise some of my favorites included the Yongala, Tuna Salad, Anemone City, Trigger Happy, Cod Wall, and Wheeler Reef (back on the GBR). But my favorite was Tawriffic because it provided me with one of the most incredible animal encounters Iíve ever had in the wild.

Tawriffic is a fairly small, flat pinnacle with a top about 30í deep. When we pulled in, we were told that there was a resident loggerhead turtle there and were asked NOT to touch him. Heíd be very comfortable with humans if we didnít make contact and would happily go about munching on sponges and algae while we shot picture after picture.

I was one of the last one of the 21 of us down the mooring line to the reef and when I got there, I looked around to see if I could spot the turtle. When I saw about a dozen heads all looking in the same direction, I figured the turtle must be the object of all of this attention and he was.

But it was also awfully crowded there. And I wanted some shots without people surrounding the turtle. So, knowing my air consumption was better than most of the other divers, I figured Iíd mosey around the reef and come back at the end of the dive.

Sure enough, after about 40 minutes, divers started heading to the surface. When there were only about 5 of us left, I decided to go find the turtle and finish off my roll.

I located him merrily munching away and decided that the shot I wanted was of him swimming, coming straight at the camera, with me a few inches in front of his nose. As he worked his way around the reef, I maneuvered myself in front of him and was able to snap off one frame, then another, before I got the dreaded "Out of film" indication in my viewfinder. Damn!!!!! But, I still had plenty of air and bottom time so I decided to hang out with my new friend.

After about another ten minutes of cruising the reef, he looked up to the surface, raised up on his front flippers, and gently pushed off to begin an ascent to the surface to breathe. Since I still had to do a safety stop, I figured Iíd swim up with him because how often do you get to hang with a turtle?

As we were making our way slowly up, I was checking my gauge and noticed that he was gradually turning towards me. As we continued up, he had slowly spun himself all the way around and was now coming directly at me. Remembering the admonition not to make contact, and assuming he was just going to pass over me, I started leaning back a bit. He kept coming. I kept leaning. He kept coming.

At a depth of 18í, I was flat on my back, neutrally buoyant, and perfectly horizontal in the water. The turtle was directly over me. And then it happened.

While I hovered, he settled down and landed gently on my chest. He stared into my eyes (Iím assuming seeing his reflection in my mask). As he stared and continued to sit on my chest, I could almost see him trying to figure out what exactly I was. And I watched in amazement (and even a little trepidation) as he slowly opened and his mouth, bent down . . . and gingerly nibbled my nose.

He pulled his head back and I could almost see a look of thatís-not-a-sponge in his eyes. So he decided to check again. Once more, he nibbled. Once more he pulled his head back. Then he looked at my pressure gauge, nibbled on that and, satisfied that there was nothing edible here, pushed off my chest and continued on his way to the surface.

What an experience!!!! And everyone Iíve told this to (especially some of the aquarists at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach where I volunteer) have responded with, "Are you crazy????? He not only could have bitten through your mask but he could have broken your nose!!!!"

And all I can respond with is to tell you that there was some kind of bond, some sort of communication, some sort of connection between us and I just knew that wasnít going to happen. So instead of coming up bloody and noseless, Iíve got one hell of a story to tell, thanks to a turtle at Tawriffic.

The Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea are fabulous places to explore the marine life of Australia. Itís obviously impossible to experience everything in only one trip but Iíd say that we were treated to a number of very unique experiences, and the turtle story is my personal bonus. Weíll happily consider going back (Iíve already had some discussions with Mike Ball about trips in late 2002 and 2003) and perhaps this time you can join us and it can be YOUR nose that my turtle buddy can nibble on.


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