AUSTRALIA - November, 2012
(Great Barrier Reef & a total solar eclipse)

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

The Great Barrier Reef (henceforth GBR) is surely one of the wonders of the world. And when you combine that with a total solar eclipse, a wonder of the universe, how can you NOT end up having a good time?

Our trip this year was on Mike Ball's Spoilsport, a large catamaran that operates out of Cairns (don't pronounce the "r") and while the boat takes 28 divers, seven of them were Reef Seekers: Lionel Galway & Susan Tritt, Ric Selber, John Morgan, Lou Weisberg, Laurie Kasper, and me (Ken Kurtis). The rest of the boat was a mix of Aussies, Germans, Russians living in Finland, and Americans.

One thing I really like about foreign travel is that you always meet people from other countries and, if you take some time to talk to them, you realize that the America-centric view we have of life-on-earth isn't always the way the rest of the world sees things. It was even more interesting because we left the U.S. on the evening of Election Day and it was enlightening to get non-American viewpoints of the campaigns and the results. But I won't turn this into a political discourse.

I've known Mike Ball for years and we've done a number of trips with him in the past. I like to think he and I are sort of cut from the same cloth and that's why we get together so well. (And why weíll do another trip with him next year in July, looking for Minke Whales.) Mike used to have a very extensive operation with four boats and a fifth on the way but the events of 9/11 and the subsequent collapse of the world economy changed all of that, so that Spoilsport is the only boat he runs now.

When you book onto the boat, you basically have a choice of three itineraries. You can do a 7-day trip (which is what we did - Thursday afternoon departure and a Thursday morning return), a 4-day trip (northbound), or a 3-day trip (southbound). The latter two are subsets of the 7-day trip (which start and end in Cairns) and are what Mike calls "Fly & Dive" or "Dive & Fly" because they all center around beginning or ending your trip at Lizard Island. You either do the first 4 days on the boat, get off at Lizard and fly back to Cairns (low-level scenic flight in a semi-small plane), or they fly you out to Lizard where you board the boat for three days and then get off in Cairns.

But what this means also is that if you're on the 7-day itinerary, you're going to stop at Lizard Island in the middle of the trip and will lose the morning dives so that the short-timers can get off and the shorter-timers can get on. You still get 5Ĺ days of diving like you would on any "normal" 7-day liveaboard but it feels weird. It was also a little strange because there were 14 people doing the full 7-day trip and when the newbies came aboard, there was enough bonding that had already gone on that it felt to me like the 3-day people never really "became" part of the group. Whether that was us not letting them in or them not trying to get to know us can be a separate psychological dissertation, but it was a bit odd.

So if you're doing one of Mike's 7-day trips that include the 4 and the 3, just be aware of the schedule. There was time to get off the boat at Lizard and walk around if you wanted to, or you could just stay on board and relax. (I did the latter and used the time to twiddle with photos.) And since you dive a full day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, half day Monday, and then full day Tuesday and Wednesday, that how it all adds up right. But like I said, it still felt a bit strange with that break in the middle.

We also had a bit of an adventure just getting there. Our redeye flight from LAX to Brisbane arrived about an hour late and we only had a 2-hour connect time for the flight to Cairns. Once we cleared Customs & Immigration we hustled to the Qantas desk to re-check our bags and were told they were holding the flight for us (there were about 60 people who had to make the connection) but they weren't sure if our bags would make it. Then we had to get a bus to go from the Brisbane International terminal to the Domestic terminal and clear security again. But my thought was, as long as they were holding the plane and knew we were coming, the longer it took, the better the chances our bags would make it would be.

So I was very heartened to hear as we approached the boarding gate that we were the last ones and then the captain announced that they were loading the last bags and we'd get underway,. All good. So we thought. Until we got to Cairns.

It's never a good thing to be waiting at baggage claim and hear yourself paged. But I've got to give it to Qantas because they really had it all dialed in. They were very apologetic about the bags not making our flight (it seems a baggage conveyer belt had broken down after we re-checked our bags) and had a list of who was missing what. I identified all of our people and explained that we were getting on a boat with a 6PM departure. Qantas assured me that the bags were on the next plane in from Brisbane which would land around 4PM and that they would deliver them to the boat around 5PM. And sure enough, they did. There was even a little "Sorry your bags were delayed" tag attached to each of the ten delayed bags.

I'll also point out that this incident again illustrates the benefits of group travel. Instead of each of the seven divers dealing with this individually, I dealt with all the lost bags as a group. Makes it easier for Qantas too which raises the possibility of everything getting fixed as needed and in time. So while I dealt with the bags, everyone else was able to sit and wait patiently.

That all being said, it was still a great trip, despite less-than-wonderful topside weather conditions. We had 20-30 knots winds pretty much all of the time and that made for some rough night crossings as well as choppy water conditions at the various dive sites. But that's part of any crapshoot when you book a trip far in advance. You simply donít know what the weather will be. (It was also especially galling when they were telling us it was like glass the previous two weeks.) But cíest la vie. As I like to say, it is what it is.

Underwater, it was also not as we'd hoped for. Visibility, which the previous weeks had allegedly been 100-150 feet, generally averaged around 50 feet with sand particles and other gunk suspended in the water column. Not the end of the world, but not ideal. And most days were somewhat overcast so we didn't really get that gorgeous GBR water clarity. One nice thing about most GBR reefs is rather than being continuous walls or reef expanses, they are frequently extremely large coral heads (known locally as "bommies") with sand channels in between. On a sunny day, you not only get the sunshine from above but you also get reflected light from the sand onto the reef to even further enhance visibility. Needless to say, we didnít get that.

Water temps generally ran in the mid-to-high 70s. I wore a 1.5mm Pinnacle Shadow and a Tilos 1mm hood (the latter being new for me and which I LOVED - I can get those if you're interested as it's a fabulous warm-water accessory) and that was generally perfect. I got slightly chilled a couple of times (dives were generally 40-60 minutes long) but not bad. Other people wore 3mm or even 5mm suits, some with hoods, some without. And still others dove in just rash guards or shorty wetsuits of varying thicknesses.

But certainly none of that is the fault of the operation. No one controls the weather. But the things they can control include the boat itself, choice of dive sites, and the crew both in terms of adequate numbers and attitude. And in those areas, Mike and his staff excel.

The Spoilsport is simply a wonderful vessel. It's 100 feet long, 35 feet wide, and very roomy. All the staterooms (Budget, Club, Standard, and Premium) are on the main deck encompassing the middle half of the boat. The front quarter is an anchoring area generally off-limits to passengers, and the back quarter is the dive deck with individual gear stations, photo tables, and everything you'd expect from a top-notch operation.

The crew was simply superb. There were 12 of them all together, divided up between wheelhouse, dive deck, and galley. All performed their task amiably and made a point to get to know everyone's name right away. That last task was made easier by taking a photo of each person (and the crew) as we boarded, and then posting that in the galley so that you had a "cheat sheet" for who was whom.

Special kudos go to Trip Director Kerrin Jones who's been with Mike for over a decade. Kerrin serves in the same function as a Lead Divemaster on Reef Seekers trips, making sure everything ran smoothly, doing dive briefings prior to each dive, checking people in and out of the water (and occasionally getting to dive himself), and making sure with regular announcements (usually during meals) that everyone knew what the plan was for the upcoming time period. It's a tough job and he made it all look easy.

Other special recognition should go to Keri Mitchell, the chef. She was simply spectacular in the galley, serving four meals each day (light/continental breakfast around 6:30AM, full hot breakfast at 9AM after the first dive, lunch around 2PM, and dinner around 8PM) and always delighting us with culinary treats. Meals are generally served either buffet or family-style and there was always plenty to eat. (She even made fresh bread and cakes daily!!!)

But we came to dive and dive we did, doing 23 dives over the course of the trip. It could have been 25 but we had a minor problem our very first day. One of the divers (not one of our Reef Seekers divers) came up from the first dive and developed a very strange rash post-dive. She told Kerrin (and showed me as well) and she said she'd had this before. My first thought was perhaps skin bends but it didnít present like any skin bends Iíd even seen before as the rash was more like a reddish belt around her torso with some bruising visible as well She said it was a little tender to the touch but was similar to what sheíd experienced previously so she didnít feel it would be limiting.

She was wrong.

She chose to make the second dive and while there's no way to tell if that exacerbated her condition or not, shortly after that dive (while the rest of us were having lunch), her condition deteriorated. The pain from the rash area increased and she felt generally unwell. She was put on oxygen, the boat contacted the hyperbaric chamber in Townsville, and we turned around. Since she improved somewhat on the oxygen, it seemed her condition wasnít immediately life-threatening so, instead of sending a helicopter out to evacuate her, the Australian Coast Guard directed us to head for Cooktown, a 6-hour ride away, so she could be transferred to a local hospital. The last we heard was that she was kept there overnight and was then transferred to the chamber in Townsville (about 400 miles to the south). My understanding is that she did a couple of chamber rides and then went back to cairns to rest and recuperate before flying home (sheís an Aussie).

But the lesson is, as we always say in our briefings, if there's something going on thatís unusual for you, let us know so we can investigate further.

This is also where we need to throw in a kind word for Spoilsport captain Trevor Jackson. Because of the eclipse on Wednesday, we'd already had an agreement with Spoilsport to spend that last day much further south than they normally do because we needed to be in the path of totality for the 6:38AM eclipse. And that path ran through and then SE of Cairns. But steaming down to Cooktown meant we then had to steam overnight back up to the general dive area and then meant another long night for Trevor. In fact, on this trip, because of the distances involved, we had a lot of long nights of piloting the boat and the only time Trevor could sleep was during the day. But he definitely did yeoman's duty and was EXCELLENT at choosing an eclipse-viewing site, as we'll detail later.

Despite all the drama, we had a good initial day of diving. Our first dive was a spot I'd always wanted to go to, known as The Cod Hole because of the numerous & friendly Potato Cod that live there. Potato Cod are large groupers, perhaps 4-7 feet long and 200-500 pounds, who inhabit the area. They used to get fed regularly and while Mike Ball doesnít do that anymore, I think some others do. So the Cod hang around.

Now every time I've seen a picture from Cod Hole or read about it, they always talk like there are a dozen or more Cod hanging around. Not on this dive. We saw . . . one. And we didnít find him until we were halfway into the dive. But he certainly lived up to his billing (as the Smugmug shots will show). He was very curious about divers, and would go nose-to-nose and then veer off and go look at someone else in the group. Very cool.

On this dive, we also ran into a very co-operative large male Napoleon Wrasse. He was getting cleaned (photo tip: cleaning stations are great places to shoot because the fish want to get cleaned - usually - more than they want to flee your camera) so he was fairly tolerant of me hanging around too. You can tell the Napoleon males from the females because the males are larger, more green, and have a large bump on their head. This guy was probably 4-5 feet long and 150 pounds or so. Not as friendly as the ones I've run into at Blue Corner in Palau but good enough.

The original plan called for us to spend two days out at Osprey Reef, perhaps a hundred miles offshore, and out in the Coral Sea. The Coral Sea (but further south) was where we dove on our 2001 trip so we were looking forward to this with great anticipation.

Unfortunately, the possible-skin-bends drama meant we lost the possibility of two days at Osprey because it was just too far away from Cooktown. So the plan was modified to dive on Saturday (our second day) the spots they normally dive on Wednesday (the last day).

One spot in particular that struck my fancy was Lighthouse, where we did two dives. It's a fairly small pinnacle that rises up from a sandy bottom but it's really quite prolific. Vis was fairly good there too, perhaps approaching 80 feet with very little particulate.

Lighthouse is well-known for having numerous Olive Sea Snakes slithering all about. And while sea snakes have some of the most toxic venom in the animal kingdom, the snakes are rumored not to bite underwater and actually seem curious about divers to the point where they seem to seek us out. It can be a little unnerving at first but you get used to it. ("Oh yeah, just another deadly sea snake headed my way. No biggee.")

Another great feature of Lighthouse is an ENORMOUS school of goatfish and snappers. There must be tens of thousands and they break up in to smaller groups and just ebb and flow with the surge and the movement of the divers. And the yellow color of the fish is quite striking photographically against the blue of the open water.

Lighthouse was also where we saw a large (as nudibranches go) Reticulated Chromodoris, one of the few nudibranches we saw during the entire trip. I can't recall if we saw many in 2001, but we certainly didn't see more than half a dozen (if that) on this trip. Not sure what that means from a health-of-the-reef standpoint.

Speaking of which . . .

Shortly before we left, there was a report issued that talked about the demise of the GBR and how it's lost 50% if it's coral in the last three decades, and stands to lose 50% more in the next decade or two if something isn't done. And they attributed a lot of reef destruction to Crown of Thorns starfish.

At the risk of sounding like a denier, all I can saw is that we didnít see a single COT on all the dives we made nor dive I hear of anyone else spotting them. And the reefs appeared to my eye to be healthy with no evidence of bleaching of anything like that.

Now none of this means there isn't a problem. And while we were there, the Australian government announced a new program of computerized monitoring of GBR ocean temps and visibility as a real-time way to check on the health of the reef. They have also announced new rules regarding development in areas where runoff and pollution could affect reef health. That's all good and hopefully means a healthier reef down the road. But all I'm saying is that we didn't see the doom-and-gloom scenario which is the impression you might have from the news stories. Back to diving.

We did a couple of night dives but found out something right away, at least with the first two: they weren't very interesting because there weren't many fish.

Actually, that's not accurate. There weren't many fish OTHER than Giant Trevallies, and that's why there weren't many other fish. The Trevallies very aggressively and actively hunt at night and you can literally see the other fish hiding and quaking in their fins as the Trevallies go flying by. So there's not necessarily a lot to see, at least at the sites we dove, other than very scared fish.

Sunday we made it out to Osprey Reef and the surface conditions were marginal due to the wind and chop. I'm not sure we could have done two days out there even if we'd wanted to. The overnight ride out was pretty brutal. But some of the dives were spectacular.

We started at Admiralty Anchor which consists of huge coral mounds. Lots of fish, lots of channels to explore, a small cavern swim-through, an old anchor (hence the name), and plenty of stuff to see.

After that we moved over to a spot called Amphitheater, which is where they do their shark feed. I'm not going to get into the politics of to-feed-or-not-to-feed but suffice it to say, itís pretty high voltage action and this is the perfect place to do it. It's sort of a natural amphitheater with a small bommie in the middle where they anchor the bait, so it provides a great view. (In addition to taking down my still camera, I took down the GoPro, set it on a tripod, and let it do time-lapse. I've got the footage up on the SmugMug site. You can really see at the 1:25 mark where they start hitting the bait.)

We probably had 50 or so sharks circling around, all eager to get at the fish inside the specially-rigged trash can they use. And before he popped the lid to get the feed going, Kerrin dragged the can (which has holes punched in it) around past everyone so all got a good up-close shark encounter prior to the start of the feed, which lasts about 10-15 minutes. Afterwards, you wait a few minutes for the sharks to realize there's no more food, and then you cruise in to the bommie to look for shark's teeth that have fallen out during the frenzy.

Interestingly, this was also the time that the resident Potato Cod chose to settle on top of the bommie to get cleaned. He just cruised right in once the feed was done, literally settled on a crack on top of the bommie, and let the cleaner fish do their thing while we posed ourselves around him and took pictures.

Monday was the morning we stopped at Lizard Island but it also meant another visit to Cod Hole at noon and this one was better than our first visit because we had five or six Potato Cod this time. My group had three of them hanging with us. Great photo opportunities and again amazing that a wild animal like that can become used to humans.

On Tuesday we made a stop at what I think was everyone's favorite dive site on the trip: Steve's Bommie. If you can only do one dive on the GBR, this may be the one to do. The place is small, but just crawling with life.

Like Lighthouse, it's a pinnacle that rise up out of the ocean depths. But it's also got a smaller (and deeper) pinnacle off the back end and that's where the resident Leaf Scorpionfish lives. It took us two dives to find him but he was there.

Probably the best creature find at Steve's is the enormous Giant Frogfish that hangs out under a small coral outcropping. In Hawaii, big frogfish usually means it's a female but I donít know if size here indicates that this guy is a gal. But he/she is rather large as frogfish go, easily the size of an adult Garibaldi.

The other thing that Steve's seem to have in relative profusion are Stonefish. We must have seen five or six. They sit right out in the open so they're fairly easy to spot and what attracts them are all the tiny little Anthias and smaller fish that populate the top of the bommie. The Stonefish sit patiently until a small guy ventures too close and then they pounce.

There's plenty of stuff to see at Steve's and even though we did three dives there, we could have done three more and not been bored. There were Mantis Shrimp, plenty of Clownfish, another large school of Goatfish, Bigeye Jacks, Potter's Angelfish, and much more. Great diving.

Wednesday was to be an exciting day because this was the day of the total solar eclipse. It's got to be the most spectacular celestial event you can witness and leaves many people (even me) speechless. The emotional impact is nothing like a lunar eclipse or a partial eclipse.

A total solar eclipse basically comes in three phases: the first is an increasing partial eclipse as the moon starts moving across and covering up the sun (takes a little under an hour), totality (which lasted a little less than two minutes for us but can be as long as almost seven minutes), and then the second partial eclipse as the moon gradually uncovers the sun and moves off (another hour).

A number of things have to go right for you to see an eclipse. First of all, you have to be in exactly the right place at the right time. The path of totality for this eclipse was only about 60 miles wide and the place you really want to be is as close to the centerline as possible because that's where you get maximum totality. Captain Trevor did a great job of running all night long to get us to our viewing spot on Hastings Reef (about 25 miles offshore) a little after 5AM, in plenty of time for the start ("first bite") of the first partial eclipse at 5:44AM.

But the second thing you need is a clear sky. Every day all week long, we woke up to a cloudy eastern horizon. And since the sun was going to be relatively low due to the early timing of the eclipse, this did not bode well for us.

So I was very relieved when I got up at 5:30AM on Eclipse Day and looked in front of us and saw a sky that had broken and scattered clouds. "We got a shot" I said to anyone who would listen. And what a shot we got.

There were some other very experienced eclipse viewers on board so we had plenty of charts, high-powered binoculars, filters, viewers (which you need for the partial phase of the eclipse since you can't look directly at the sun without hurting your eyes - only during totality can you gaze directly at it), and a lot of enthusiasm.

This is my fourth eclipse (counting the rained-out Shanghai one in 2009) and it was again spectacular. As the moon covers up more and more of the sun, the light changes to a type of twilight you simply have never seen before. It's impossible to explain but it's almost like there's a haze over your eyes that you want to rub off for a clearer view. It's simply a very strange type of light.

As you watch through your eclipse viewer and see the moon covering up more and more and more of the sun until there's just the tiniest sliver left. And at 6:38AM - right on schedule - it disappears. You drop the viewer from in front of your eyes, and you see the blackest black you've ever seen where the moon is, and there's a fantastic ethereal glow around it which is the corona of the sun.

If you're watching through binoculars or shooting with even a halfway decent camera and lens, you can see red around portions of the sun, which are solar prominences (basically flames shooting out from the sun) which go out for hundreds of thousands of miles. Stars and planets are visible and even though you're in blackness, you can look at towards the horizon and see the reflection of sun light outside of the totality path.

And sooner than you think possible, the moon starts to move off the sun and you see the first light of the sun shining through the mountains of the moon creating what are known as Bailey's Beads and the Diamond Ring effect in which the first sun rays look like a sparkling diamond on a photo. Viewers go back to the eyes (or you simply look away), and everyone remarks how awestruck they are by what they just saw.

We really lucked out with the clouds. There were numerous places in Cairns, including the "official" spot all the scientists had picked out to do their observing, that were affected by cloud cover and saw nothing. And within two hours of the end of the eclipse, the clouds had moved in to where we were and once again obscured the sky. So thank goodness this thing didn't happen at 8:30AM.

Because we had moved so far south, our only diving option on Wednesday were sites frequently by the Cairns day boats. The reefs down there generally are a bit more beat up because theyíre more exposed to cyclone action but we didnít care because we had just seen an eclipse. (Did I mention how fabulous the experience is???) And the diving, while not great, was certainly good enough.

Thursday morning we awoke to find ourselves back at the dock in Cairns and had to bid a fond farewell to our newly-found friends. We then flew through Brisbane down to Sydney (no delayed bags this time), where we spent three more days exploring that city, including going to the Sydney Aquarium, seeing the Queen Victoria Building (very historic architecture and a great mall), visiting the Opera House, taking a look at Harbor Bridge, cruising out to Manly, and just having a good time. Sunday it was time to go back to the airport for the flight home and I'm actually writing this while on the plane 35,000 above the Pacific and halfway back to Los Angeles.

No trip ever goes exactly the way you planned and this was certainly no exception. But you make adjustments along the way and the major goals we sought to achieve - (1) good diving, (2) cool critters, and (3) a celestial show - were accomplished.

If this all sounds like it's something you'd be interested in, we're going back again next year July 8-21. I can't offer you an eclipse at that time, but I can substitute the chance of seeing Dwarf Minke Whales. And you don't need special glasses or filters to view them.

The Great Barrier Reef is a fabulous place to dive and Mike Ball's operation is the way to do it. Hopefully you can make some room in your schedule to join us next year so you can experience things similar to what you just read about.

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