Great Barrier Reef Diving

I blame Willard Price.

As a child his adventure books were a form of addiction. The ones that really did it for me were the diving ones, Underwater Adventure, South Sea Adventure, Diving Adventure. I can still recall the scene on the coral atoll with the giant squid caught in the fish trap…

All of which is a round-a-bout way of saying that i’ve always wanted to go dive the Great Barrier Reef. In my imagination it wouldn’t be as a tourist, but as a scientist, or explorer, attempting to unlock some great secret that would help save my watery paradise from the ravages of man…

So much for imagination! It doesn’t look like i’m going to manage to switch careers at this point, and does the world really need any more explorers?

Commercial flight from Tokyo to Cairns. Four day luxury live-aboard. All decisions made based on the fanciness of the websites. Willard would be oh so disappointed.

Fortunately the diving was good… although not as good as i’d managed to hype myself up to imagining it might be. The truth is that the reef really isn’t in that good condition. Even in areas where people rarely dive (we were lucky enough to get to a really remote reef that is only dived a couple of times a year) there is a lot of dead coral around. It’s true that it appears to be recovering – new growth dots the outcrops of dead coral, but the predominate atmosphere is not one of vibrant health.

Live-aboard life is really quite lulling. If you let them the staff will keeping you in a schedule of well organised eating / diving / sleeping. A typical day starts at 6:30am with breakfast, then diving, then second breakfast, then diving, then lunch, then diving, then dinner, then night diving, then sleep. The last step is not really optional… however much you might imagine that it’d be nice to sit around on deck with a beer, the reality is that having a shower before falling asleep is considered a victory. There were people on board who had kept up this schedule for 7 days, not missing a single dive. After four days i could see myself happily following along for another couple of weeks. It all catches up with afterwards, but at the time, it’s was as close to utopian existence as i’m likely to get!

The tourist aspect of it all only really encroached on one dive (out of the 15…) At North Horn on Osprey Reef the sharks now congregate to be fed by the dive boats. This involves winching a dustbin full of tuna heads on a rope down from the surface, and letting the sharks have at it. Contrived as it is, it’s a spectacular sight. Despite a group of 20 – 30 reef sharks, some as big as 3m, whipping themselves into a frenzy, around 5m in front of you, it’s all extremely peaceful. I took video of it, and was amazed that my breathing is pretty much unchanged. In the audio you can hear the bone sin the tuna heads cracking and snapping, but the lack of noise gives it a feeling serenity, belying the chaotic scene.

Fish feeding has never felt right to me… but i suppose it’s inevitable. If the demands of tourism can protect the shark population from continued decimation, it might be worth it. On the previous trip the staff on the boat had removed several hundred meters of baited hooks from the reef, and very little of the outer reef is officially protected from fishing. There are still big fish out there (giant barracuda, tune, manta rays, bull rays, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, trevelly, etc) but the abundance you might see on a TV documentary is far from commonplace at this point.

Part of the reason that i broke my ‘no flying’ ban and went on this trip was a feeling that if i didn’t do it soon, it would soon be too late. I’m obviously bittersweet about the whole thing. It was glorious to get to dive there, but knowing that i’m just adding to the pressure on the system really doesn’t feel right.

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