GREAT EX­PEC­TA­TIONS

The Great Bar­rier Reef might be the most fa­mous dive des­ti­na­tion in the world — and it still lives up to its name

Scuba Diving - - TRAVEL - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY MATTHEW MEIER

When peo­ple asked about my trav­els, I would deny hav­ing vis­ited the Great Bar­rier Reef.

The truth is, I tech­ni­cally dived it a dozen years ago while on a day­boat out of Cairns, Aus­tralia. I had two dives on the world’s most fa­mous reef with way too many divers and ugly sea con­di­tions, so I didn’t feel I had prop­erly ex­pe­ri­enced the reef.

As I drop down onto Steve’s Bom­mie and am en­gulfed by schools of an­thias, chromis and dam­selfish, I re­al­ize that my as­sess­ment was ab­so­lutely cor­rect. This is some­thing dif­fer­ent al­to­gether.

For­ag­ing among the col­or­ful hard corals that adorn this seamount, I dis­cover an elab­o­rately dec­o­rated lacy scor­pi­onfish, a bril­liant pink-col­ored stone­fish and a per­fectly cam­ou­flaged yel­low leaf scor­pi­onfish.

Dur­ing my safety stop, while hov­er­ing near the top of the pin­na­cle, I pho­to­graph a pair of per­cula clown­fish liv­ing sym­bi­ot­i­cally in a tan mag­nif­i­cent anemone.

A fan­tas­tic first two dives kick off seven days of live­aboard div­ing on the north­ern por­tion of the Great Bar­rier Reef. Our di­ve­mas­ter and cruise di­rec­tor, An­gus Rowe, prom­ises that “we’re just get­ting warmed up.”

DOWN UN­DER

Stretch­ing across 1,400-plus miles of the Co­ral Sea off the coast of Queens­land, Aus­tralia, the Great Bar­rier Reef is the largest co­ral-reef ecosys­tem in the world.

It would take a life­time

to explore this bucket-list des­ti­na­tion end to end, and so many of its iconic dive sites are best ac­cessed via live­aboard yacht.

Spirit of Free­dom de­parts Cairns har­bor nearly ev­ery Mon­day af­ter­noon on a seven-day round trip through the North­ern Rib­bon Reefs and — if the weather co­op­er­ates — the outer reefs of the Co­ral Sea. Up to 26 guests ac­com­pany 10 crew on three-, four- or seven-day cruise itin­er­ar­ies.

The three-day trip ends on Thurs­day at Lizard Is­land with a morn­ing hike and lunch on the beach be­fore de­part­ing trav­el­ers take a short flight back to Cairns.

Here also be­gins the four­day por­tion of the ex­cur­sion, with new guests com­ing on board to join the seven-day ad­ven­tur­ers for the du­ra­tion of the cruise.

LIV­ING UP TO ITS REP­U­TA­TION

While travers­ing up the Rib­bon Reefs on the way to Lizard Is­land, we have the op­por­tu­nity to dive sites such as Joanie’s Joy, Light­house Bom­mie, Snake Pit and the world-fa­mous Cod Hole. Cut­tle­fish eggs the size of ping­pong balls are tucked into branch­ing corals, mak­ing the high­light reel at Joanie’s Joy along with a flyby from one of the egg’s pro­tec­tive par­ents.

Large schools of snap­per and fusiliers de­mand most of my at­ten­tion at Light­house Bom­mie, while a few of the other divers in our group are en­ter­tained by sea snakes glid­ing by the lower por­tion of the pin­na­cle.

More of the same is ob­vi­ously on the menu at Snake Pit, along with a colos­sal green sea tur­tle, col­or­ful gi­ant clams and a rare sight­ing of a pass­ing devil ray.

Large potato cod — or grouper, as they are known in the States — are the star at­trac­tion at Cod Hole. The dive starts with a semi-or­ga­nized cir­cle of divers kneel­ing on the bot­tom while the di­ve­mas­ter hand-feeds the cod around the perime­ter. Each

diver is af­forded an up-close view of these beau­ti­ful spot­ted crea­tures as they come in for a snack. Once the feed is over, the cod linger for a while hop­ing for more hand­outs, which of­fers per­haps a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity for pho­tos be­cause the sandy bot­tom gets pretty stirred up dur­ing the crazi­ness of the feed.

Dive­mas­ters are un­der­wa­ter at ev­ery site dur­ing the trip, but each diver is re­spon­si­ble for their own dive pro­file and se­lected route. Fol­low­ing the leader is not re­quired, and solo div­ing is pos­si­ble for those with the proper cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and re­dun­dant gear.

In be­tween the three to four dives per day, Spirit of Free­dom pro­vides three buf­fet­style meals, sev­eral snacks, and plenty of re­fresh­ments.

Its ex­ten­sive bar of­fers a wide va­ri­ety of lo­cal and re­gional beer and wine op­tions, avail­able on a self-serve honor sys­tem once your dive day has fin­ished. There is an in­door lounge area with a large, plush sec­tional couch, a cam­era-charg­ing sta­tion, a large-screen TV, and a huge se­lec­tion of movies and shows. Up­stairs, the sun deck has enough seat­ing to dou­ble as an outdoor din­ing room, with a nice mix of sun and shade to keep everyone com­fort­able.

SWIM­MING WITH SHARKS

Leav­ing Lizard Is­land, we em­bark on a 10-hour overnight cross­ing to Osprey Reef. Here we find sheer walls cov­ered in hard and soft corals, pelag­ics swim­ming in the blue, and plenty of gray reef sharks.

Con­di­tioned from years of shark feeds at the North Horn dive site, sharks were cir­cling

Spirit of Free­dom be­fore we cut our en­gines.

One of the beau­ti­ful things about live­aboard div­ing is be­ing able to walk off the back deck of your ho­tel room and be in­stantly sub­merged at your dive site.

That gi­ant stride is a lit­tle harder to make when

you are jump­ing into a sea full of sharks, but those sharks are also a large part of why you make this trip. For the shark feed it­self, divers are po­si­tioned in a semi­cir­cle around a pin­na­cle as the sharks swim past in an­tic­i­pa­tion.

A cage full of fish heads is pulled down from the sur­face by a line-and-pul­ley sys­tem, at­tract­ing the sharks into a tight group in front of the divers. Even­tu­ally the cage is sprung open, and the sharks tear at the bait in a fren­zied end­ing to a spec­tac­u­lar and ex­hil­a­rat­ing dive.

ON THE OUT­SIDE

Ex­cept for select char­ters in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber when wind and sea con­di­tions per­mit, Spirit of Free­dom typ­i­cally re­turns to the Rib­bon Reefs for its tran­sit back down to Cairns.

The cap­tain ex­plains that “un­less Mother Na­ture co­op­er­ates, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to an­chor on these outer reefs with­out run­ning aground.”

We were lucky to be able to stay out­side, con­tin­u­ing south from Osprey to Bougainville Reef, to marvel at the in­cred­i­ble co­ral for­ma­tions at Dun­geons and Dragons. Mas­sive hard corals the size and scope of which I had never seen ex­ist here in gi­ant pil­lars, domes, cav­erns and swim-throughs.

For the past 20 years, I have heard in­cred­i­ble tales about this place and, amaz­ingly, it ex­ceeds ex­pec­ta­tions. I sug­gest bring­ing a fish­eye lens to take in the im­mense corals, and use ei­ther a model or the lo­cal wildlife to add scale to your pho­tos.

I can say that the corals on the reef were much health­ier than I ex­pected.

Like any­where else in the world these days, we did run into a few spots of bleaching and al­gae growth, but noth­ing com­pared to the ac­counts I had heard in ad­vance of our trip.

The va­ri­ety of weird and won­der­ful crit­ters and of fish life was as­tound­ing, and I can now con­fi­dently say that I have been to the Great Bar­rier Reef.

From bot­tom: a weedy scor­pi­onfish; Spirit of Free­dom. Op­po­site: dozens of gray reef sharks.

From left: Mas­sive corals form at Bougainville Reef; clown anemone­fish; a twin-share cabin.

From top: Huge potato cod are the main at­trac­tion at Cod Hole; a banded co­ral shrimp.

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