Journal archives for November 2023

November 08, 2023

Far Northern Great Barrier Reef

I’m back from an adventure of a trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. My friend Josh told me about this one, and was one of the 3 people on the trip I knew. It was a “Far Northern Great Barrier Reef” itinerary aboard the Kalinda, starting at Cairns and ending at Tuesday Island in the Torres Strait.

I flew from Boston to Cairns by way of San Francisco and Sydney. I arrived in Cairns the day before the boat departed, to have time to do some exploration and start getting over my jet lag. The botanical gardens there were productive allowing me to see a number of birds and a few butterflies. One of my targets was Cairns Birdwing Butterfly, a beautiful very large swallowtail; I did manage to see one female, but she didn’t stop so I did not get any good photos. The next afternoon we met the boat at the Yorkeys Knob Boat Club, just north of Cairns.

We were aboard the Kalinda, budget liveaboard that is a smaller simpler boat than I usually travel on. It’s a 72 foot wooden boat, with four double cabins up top and two dormitories below. For this cruise there were 9 regular guests, 2 people along doing fish surveys, and 6 crew including the owner Dave as cruise director. The food was good, all served buffet style by cook Liz. Bathrooms were shared rather than in each cabin, and freshwater was very limited. We only got one freshwater shower a day, rather than one after every dive. So we spent much of the time salty, and by the end of the trip everything I brought was covered in salt. Because the boat wasn’t at capacity we used two tables in the salon for camera setup. If the boat had been full this would have been a problem.

Diving was done directly from the boat. They had a tinny for shuttling us to a couple of beaches and for emergencies, but did not use it for regular diving. This meant that other than a few drift dives, the boat was anchored or moored near the dive site and we had to navigate back to it. That’s a skill I hadn’t practiced in a long time and I was rusty, so leaned on Doug as my dive buddy a bit to know where we were. Also, when diving in Queensland many dive safety procedures are codified into law, so they are strict on buddy pairs, tracking air usage and bottom time. The Kalinda wasn’t as picky as my last GBR diving 17 years ago, but still more so than I am used to.

In the early part of the trip we dived the Ribbon Reefs just north of Cairns, some of the same sites I had dived many years previously. The reefs had a lot of small fish: clouds of orange and purple anthias, many damselfishes both drab and bright yellow or blue, black and white striped humbugs, many wrasses. the most common groupers were Leopard Coral Groupers, only medium-sized fish. Discussing after the dive which fish had been seen was confusing, as the Australians had different names for everything, and any fish that is good to eat seems to be called a “cod” or “trout” regardless of what family it is in. Being much more experienced now in both diving and fish watching, I saw a number of species that were new to me. Some of these sites, such as the famous “Cod Hole” (where the namesake Potato Grouper were missing) were looking pretty beat up after many thousands of divers have visited them. There were plenty of fish around, but not many large groupers. While a third of the GBR has been designated no-take “green” zones, down south they are a bunch of small rectangles interspersed with places that allow fishing, so many of the larger fishes are fished out.

We worked our way north. After one rough overnight crossing where no one got any sleep, we decided to put some miles on during the day so we would be well rested, and only did a couple of dives that day. We stopped by Lizard Island and went ashore to watch the sunset from the beach. A dive near there had poor visibility, but a bunch of interesting fish like Red Emperor Snapper, Blackspot Tuskfish, Spangled Emperors, and other fish that weren’t very familiar.

We saw a few sharks on most dives. Unlike everywhere else I have dived in the Indo-Pacific, Silvertip Sharks outnumbered Gray Reef Sharks. I finally got some good photos of these. White-tip Reef Sharks were seen on many reefs. Twice we saw Zebra Sharks and I finally got a photo of one. Some sites faced blue water, and there pelagics like Dogtooth Tuna and Spanish Mackerel might cruise by as well as more sharks than other places. Two Manta Rays were seen on the trip, though I didn’t manage to see either.

Our goal in heading north was the Great Detached Reef, an atoll on the northeast corner of the GBR, a long way from land and seldom dived. The sites here were pristine, with better diversity. But even here the corals often looked stressed, likely due to the warming ocean. The reefs weren’t colorful (unlike the fish) so I did little wide-angle photography.

On the morning of our third day at the Great Detached Reef, we planned to dive a deep pinnacle from a live boat—no place to anchor, so the boat engines would be running and logistics are a bit tricky. We were fully geared up and waiting for the boat to be in position to drop us up-current of the pinnacle, and there were some strange grinding noises from the engine room. We were told the dive would be delayed, they later it was fully canceled, and then we received the news that the gearbox wasn’t working and the boat could no longer move on its own power. There are two engines, but one gear box to connect those to the propeller. They could not get it working, and had to call for help. The rest of the diving (2 days) of the trip was cancelled, and the challenge was getting back to port in time for us to make our flights. Emergency Services would only tow us to a safe anchorage, the boat’s insurance company would arrange a tow back to port. We were now in a very remote area, more than 12 hours motoring from our destination of Tuesday Island. We were assured that they had plenty of food and fuel; the concern was people having to rebook flights if it took 4-5 days to get to a port. Eventually a plan developed. A tug from the Australia Maritime Safety Authority showed up in about 12 hours, and then towed us for over 24 hours to the bay off the small town of Lockhart, the nearest port. Dave, the Kalinda’s owner, arranged a charter flight to take us from there to Cairns in time to catch our flights home. We ultimately only missed a few dives and had a bit of excitement.

The crew was great, and I don’t hold the mechanical failure against them. The boat was serviced just before our cruise. I did miss some of the creature comforts, but had I been better prepared, that wouldn’t have been as difficult. Yes, I might go out on the Kalinda again. It is one of the few ways to get to the far northern Great Barrier Reef.

I took 2,310 pictures during 30 dives where I saw 477 different species of fish, including 25 lifers. The photo highlights can be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72177720312326523

Posted on November 08, 2023 02:20 AM by maractwin maractwin | 1 comment | Leave a comment

Gracias al apoyo de:

¿Quiere apoyarnos? Pregúntenos cómo escribiendo a snib.guatemala@gmail.com