After getting open water certified in Thailand, we knew we had to make time for diving the Great Barrier Reef while in Australia. To maximum our diving time and have a new adventure, we booked a 2-night, 10-dive liveaboard scuba trip off of the coast of Cairns several weeks prior to our arrival Australia.
Day 1 – Monday, March 30, 2015
Our flight arrived in Cairns and we went directly to our hostel, Caravella, using the free service they arranged. Caravella upgraded us to a private room with our own bathroom, which was very nice concerning the low cost of the accommodations. We then walked into town to grab dinner and look into getting an underwater camera to use while scuba diving. During our walk through town, we noticed hundreds of loud birds in the sky and realized they were actually giant fruit bats coming out to snack off the local trees.
The hostel gave us a coupon for a $7 dinner at P.J.O’Briens, with options like steak or ribs, which we couldn’t pass up. It was definitely short of quality food, but the portions were big and a free beer or wine was included, so we think we got a good deal.
Our only remaining mission was to find a camera. We considered purchasing a GoPro, but realized the cost was much higher than what we expected, so we instead rented a Canon that came in a waterproof case from WetRez.
Day 2 – Tuesday, March 31, 2015
We were picked up by the Cairns Dive Center (CDC), the company with which we had booked our liveaboard, at 7am. They took us to their office in downtown Cairns so we could fill out our paperwork and listen to a briefing. Shortly later, we were taken to the dock to wait for our boat. We had a quick breakfast from a cafe on the pier while we waited. Ordinarily, we would have boarded a CDC owned boat to shuttle us to the liveaboard boat which remains at sea. However the CDC shuttle was being repaired. Instead, we boarded the Reef Magic boat, managed by a separate scuba/snorkel company, which would shuttle us out to our liveaboard. Unfortunately, this also required that our liveaboard to stay somewhat close to the Reef Magic’s ocean platform and limited the dive locations we could travel to. Overall, we had an unforgettable experience scuba diving, but this was one of several issues we had with CDC.
The Reef Magic took about an hour to its destination, a point where we could barely see land anymore. The ride was very crowded and choppy, causing many people to get seasick. I started getting a little nauseated, but was able to recover by moving to the back of the boat. The Reef Magic stopped at a platform permanently out at sea and let us disembark. We then boarded much smaller boat to take us to the Kangaroo Explorer, our liveaboard.
We were immediately taken to the sundeck for a briefing about the boat’s facilities and the schedule for the day. The crew showed us the locations of the scuba gear, the dining room, and then each of our rooms. Rooms are assigned on a first come basis and private rooms are not guaranteed. Luckily we were given our own room with a double bed, full bathroom, and a window.
The Kangaroo Explorer could be described as a scuba diving factory. Since the CDC’s second boat was under repair, daily clients were also taken to the Kangaroo Explorer. For several hours each day, both the daily passengers and the overnight passengers were on board and diving simultaneously, causing the boat to be very crowded. Since there was only limited scuba and snorkel gear, the crew had to maintain a rigid schedule of when each group could venture into the water. For us, we had 10 total dives over our 3 days on board.
Not long after settling into our room, it was lunch time. We wandered out into the dining area where food was served cafeteria style. Every meal included a hot main course (usually pasta), salad, potatoes, and a dessert.
Dive 1 – Mantaray Bay, Moore Reef
Before we were even done eating, we were called back up to the roof to get our briefing for our first dive. The boat was approaching the dive location, Mantaray Bay, which is part of the Moore Reef. During the briefing before each dive, the dive instructor provided a map of the current dive site, pointing out interesting reefs and where sea creatures are likely to be. They also reminded us of basic safety skills, such as dive signals and what to do in case of an emergency.
We then proceeded to put on our wetsuits (or in this case lycra suit for warm water) and grab fins, masks, and snorkels. We tested our scuba equipment to make sure everything worked, then geared up and jumped in the water. Our first dive was instructor led, but since we had 6 people in our group, this dive was very chaotic. (Usually there is a fee for a guide, however using a guide for the first dive was complimentary and mandatory). It seemed that for the first 5 minutes, we were just trying to gather everyone together in the choppy waves in order to descend together.
Finally, we followed a mooring line down to the sea floor. While going down, we both realized we were getting pricked on the hands while holding onto the mooring line and discovered there was coral and crabs all over it!
We followed the instructor past several reefs and even through a tunnel. As usual, I was the first to run low on air and needed to surface after a bottom time of only 18 minutes. We later found out that our tanks were smaller than the ones we used in Thailand, but all the confusion of the first dive contributed to harder air breathing.
The first several dives for us weren’t as impressive as those in Thailand. The visibility was poor and we didn’t see as many fish.
Dive 2 – East Timor, Moore Reef
We had a break while the boat dropped off the daily passengers and the overnight passengers that were departing. Then it moved to its new location called East Timor, also in the Moore Reef. This dive was the very first dive where the two of us were on our own. We were a little concerned that we wouldn’t know which direction to go, especially since we weren’t given a compass and its easy to get lost when the visibility is poor. Right before descending, I realized my BCD (the vest that hold the equipment together and helps control buoyancy) was not staying inflated, so we decided to return to the boat to get it checked out. The dive crew switched out my BCD and we were good to go again. Other than that hiccup, we seemed to do okay on this dive and didn’t mind that we probably didn’t go on the path recommended by the dive instructors. Instead, we had fun taking pictures and doing our own exploring.
Dive 3 – East Timor, Moore Reef (night)
Following dinner, we had our last dive of the day, a night dive. Since it was our first night dive, we were required to have an instructor lead us although it cost $15/person. Everyone was given a flashlight and needed to learn adjusted hand signals as now one hand is holding a flashlight. Also in the briefing, we were told that the red snappers had learned to hunt using the light from our flashlights. You could point your flashlight at a small fish and the red snappers, which were lurking near our light sources, would see the smaller fish and eat it. However, because the dive company is ecocertified, we were only allowed two kills per night (we think this was a joke). We didn’t bother bringing the camera on the night dive because it would have been too dark to get any good shots. Regardless, it was a very interesting experience because it is so dark and you can only really see a few meters in the direction of your flashlight. The darkness made the ocean seem a bit eerie. Besides for the red snappers, we saw a common lionfish and a white-faced pipe fish while on this dive.
When the dive was over, we took quick showers. Water conservation was a huge issue while we were aboard. If the boat runs out of fresh water (which it automatically generates from the sea), the boat must return to shore by law. So everyone was requested to take 3 minute showers. Occasionally during our trip, the captain had the water turned off completely to conserve it.
Before bed, we stayed up playing poker with a friend we made, who happened to be from Fairfax, VA.
Day 3 – Wednesday, April 1, 2015
On our first (and only) full day at sea, we had the option of picking 4 dives out of 5 possible dive times. We decided to forgo the earliest dive because it was at 6am and we wanted to sleep in a bit. Later we learned that this could have been a mistake because often the earliest dives have better visibility (later in the day the sun heats things up, stirring the sediment) and you get to see the nocturnal fish go away and the day fish come out.
Dive 4 – East Timor, Moore Reef
We had breakfast and shortly after, it was time for our first dive of the day. We were still at the same dive site as the previous 2 dives, but we decided to explore a different direction. We were now starting to get a little more impressed with the Great Barrier Reef.
Dive 5 – Mantaray Bay, Moore Reef
The boat resumed its routine of picking up the daily and new overnight passengers from Reef Magic. It then returned to the same dive location we were at the previous day, Mantaray Bay. This time we chose a new route to hopefully get a different experience.
During this dive, we encountered a large otherworldly formation that was at least 10 feet in diameter. It was somewhat creepy to swim close to, but when we did, we noticed a large number of small fish swimming in and out.
After another 10 minutes, we ran into the same structure again and realized we had swam in a circle. Since we were running low on air, we surfaced and decided to snorkel above a very shallow coral reef.
Dive 6 – Club 10, Milln Reef
We had a longer break than normal while the daily passengers had their excursions. After dropping them back off, we went to a new dive site named Club 10. This site was in the Milln Reef. By this time I had requested a larger air tank because I was running out of air a lot quicker than Alexis. Thankfully, the crew was able to find a spare for me, so this extended all of our subsequent dives by over 10 minutes.
Our first dive at Club 10 did not go well. We received our dive briefing and learned about the best spots to check out, which were in front of the boat. We were told that the ocean floor behind the boat gets continually deeper the farther you go (deeper than our certification allows) and that there wasn’t much to see except sand. To make things worse, there was a moderate current flowing to the rear of the boat.
As we descended, we began swimming toward the right of the boat where sea turtles are commonly seen. We swam about 5 minutes and couldn’t see anything of significance, although the visibility was poor. All that we saw was an endless sand field and an occasional fish, one of which seemed to be digging in the sand.
Alexis signaled that we were almost at our maximum allowed depth of 18 meters, triggering in me what could be considered a phobia. The vast nothingness before me suddenly freaked me out. Using hand signals, I tried to indicate that we were probably going the wrong way and that we should surface to reorient ourselves. Sure enough, when we could see above water, we were far behind the boat and had gone the wrong direction. We snorkeled back to the boat and around to the front of the boat, where we descended again using the mooring line to help orient ourselves underwater before we set out again. The rest of the dive went better, but my goggles fogged up a lot, requiring me to keep clearing them.
Dive 7 – Club 10, Milln Reef (night)
Due to our lack of confidence following the previous dive, we were not comfortable doing the night dive without a guide. The two of us, along with a new friend Naomi, found a guide and started the dive together. This time, everything went fine, although we still did not see much, other than red snapper, which we unsuccessfully tried to lure to a small fish for a snack.
After returning to our room and finishing our showers, we heard splashing sounds from our bathroom. Upon entering, we discovered water flowing out of the sink drain and overflowing onto the floor. We notified the crew, who at first were dumbfounded about how to solve the problem. The water flowed out for probably 20 minutes before stopping. The captain indicated that it might happen again and kept reminding us that we were “on a boat”, although we weren’t really complaining. We just wanted to make sure we could use a bathroom and that our stuff wouldn’t contact the dirty water. In the end, the water stayed down and we had to used the public bathroom in the galley for the last night of our trip.
Day 4 – Thursday, April 2, 2015
Dive 8 – Club 10, Milln Reef
We awoke at 5:30am for the early dive that we skipped the previous day. This was our last day of diving and with the good reviews of the yesterday’s early dive, we had high hopes. We recruited our friend Naomi to be our 3rd buddy and because she had over a year of more experience, we convinced her to be our leader. Another guy named Yuri also joined us this time. Our high expectations for this dive panned out and it became our favorite dive of the trip. The current was weaker and the visibility was very good.
We jumped in the water before sunrise and ventured out in the direction we were trying to go the previous day. Right away we found a stingray which came out of the sand as we swam past.
For a short time, eerily there were no fish around. We were told this would happen between night and day, when the nocturnal predators leave but before the daytime fish wake. All of a sudden lots of fish appeared. We even saw a white-tipped shark! Unfortunately, still no sea turtles though.
Dive 9 – Club 10, Milln Reef
Wanting to continue the success from the previous dive, we ended up diving with Naomi for our last two dives as well. For our last dive at the Club 10 location, we decided to go to the left of the boat. Just as we finished descending and equalizing our ears, we noticed two large fish that seemed to be very curious about us.
The rest of the dive was very enjoyable, as the good conditions from the previous dive continued.
As we were finishing up the dive and doing our safety stop at 5 meters, we finally spotted a sea turtle at the bottom, which was around 10 meters. We really wanted to swim down for a closer look, but we were low on air and needed to take pictures from afar. And then while snorkeling back to the boat, we noticed another turtle!
Dive 10 – East Timor, Moore Reef
Our last dive of the trip was back at East Timor, so we were familiar with the site. The visibility wasn’t as good as the morning dives, but we had fun taking pictures regardless.
Naomi discovered a tunnel through the coral reef and adventurously went to check it out. After she returned, she motioned for us to see it as well. I swam in and looked through the long tunnel, which had some light visible from the other end. It was an amazing sight, in the tunnel there were thousands of tiny fish. So many that they almost blocked the light coming in. The problem with scuba diving though is that there isn’t an easy way to go backwards and the coral reefs are sharp. I must not have been as smooth as Naomi because on my way out I banged my head and scraped my hand on some coral causing it to bleed. I indicated this to Alexis and Naomi, but decided to continue. Alexis did not enter the tunnel, which was probably a good idea, although the view was like nothing I’ve seen before.
We continued our dive finding a few more interesting fish and taking some pictures of each other.
Our dive trip was now over. We ate one final meal on the boat and waited for the shuttle on the sun deck. At one point someone noticed another turtle in the water below. Eventually we returned to the Reef Magic for our shuttle back to land. We again checked in at Caravella for one last night in Cairns.
Day 5 – Friday, April 3, 2015
We woke up, grabbed a quick breakfast next door at the Bagus Cafe Indonesian restaurant, and went to the airport for our flight to Japan.