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Aquaristic Journey #3 Aquarium.Net Dec 96

Alf Nilsen tells of his diving trip to the Indio-Pacific, December 1996 Index for Aquarium Net, Aquarium Net has numerous articles written by the leading authors for the advanced aquarist


Part 3

By Alf Jacob Nilsen

The Coral Sea

Ever since I was a kid I have dreamed about "the Coral Sea". The name sound exotic, corals in a remote ocean under the tropic sun. As we sat on the dock in Townsville ready to enter the spoilsport and begin our journey into the Coral Sea, we could all feel the excitement. What would the Coral Sea bring ?

To dive in the Coral Sea requires a lot of planning. One cannot just travel to Australia and expect to join a dive boat travelling to the Corals Sea. Even the nearest reefs are located 250 km from the shore, and the distances between each reefs are large. So far from the shore the weather can be rough. One also has to be very familiar with this ocean to find the best dive spots. The Corals Sea is not like the Maldives, where almost every dive will bring something good. A Coral Sea dive can be either very, very poor or absolutely fantastic - all depending on knowledge and skill of the dive operator. A large, fast boat with a clever skipper and crew is absolutely necessary in order to get high quality diving.

Our philosophy was to get the very best diving. After spending a lot of money on the travel and after having travelled all around the earth and having spent months of planning, we could not take the risk that the dive trips would be a failure. I cannot underline enough how helpful the series of books "Scuba Divers Guide" by Tom Byron was. This series tells you everything you need to know about diving in Australia. We even wrote to Mr. Byron and got his personal advise. After some discussion and a few faxes to Australia, there was little doubt that "Mike Ball Dive Expeditions" was the firm to choose. An expensive, but high quality dive operator. "Mike Ball Dive Expeditions" operate three vessels; Spoil-sport, Supersport and Watersport. Spoilsport and Supersport travel to the outer Great Barrier Reef and to the Coral Sea, normally on 7-12 days expeditions the whole year round, while Watersport only travels to the Great Barrier Reef. The firm rapidly responds to your requests and gives you full information on travel schedules, dive locations, dive programs and prices. An eight days expeditions with unlimited diving, three excellent meals a day and full service on board (drinks not included) from a very skillful and friendly crew cost about US$ 1600,- - expensive, but believe me it is worth it all!

Our first expedition was with Spoilsport to the outer Barrier Reef and to Boomerang Reef, Flinders Reef, Bougainville Reef and Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, 8 nights in the sea and a possibility of about 50 dives. "Flinders Reef" is the most visited reef in the Coral Sea. Further out lies Lihou Reef, Diamond Islet, Willis Islet and other remote reef, many not even fully explored yet. On favourable times of the year (normally in September-December) Spoilsport travel to these very remote reefs on longer expeditions.

The head office and dive shop of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions are situated next to Central City Gardens on Walker Street, and all check ins are done here. Dive gear and personal belongings are just left in the shop and will be carried to the boat by the crew. So,... after the check in we spent a few hours in bars tasting the Australian beer and ended up on the docks just waiting for the clock to stroke nine when the gateway was opened.... "Welcome on board, boys! ".

Spoilsport is a good name for this boat - on board you get spoiled. The boat is luxurious indeed! The main deck has double cabins with showers and outside is the dive deck. From here you can enter the water from small platforms and the underwater ladders are good to have when you have completed a dive. On the second deck is the dining room, relaxing corners with video and books and a small bar. Outside is a sheltered lounge area. The third deck is the sun deck and from up here you have an excellent view over the reefs. The boat can also be run from the sun deck. The life onboard Spoilsport is very friendly and pleasant and with the dive master Tui's words to us all: "We'll give you a holiday you'll never forget!" He was right! Tui was an unique person. A dive master of first class, a native New Zealander who "easily" dives down to 40 metres (!) the greatest depth allowed to dive with gear. The skipper Tom was an Australlian, strong and trustworthy with the background from the navy - both were to become our good friends during the next week.

Rock Arch

Spoilsport travels at night and anchors at daytime - a perfect routine for divers. Our first check-out-dive was at Myrmidon Reef on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, a place we shall return to later. From here we moved into the Coral Sea and in the morning of the second day reached Rock Arch in the south of Flinders Reef. The visibility was well over 70 meters, normal for the Coral Sea, and we began our first dive on the deepest part of the reef at around 30 metres. Rock arch was a very describing name of this dive spot. Several gigantic rocks formed a magnificent complex of tunnels, overhangs and holes covered with yellow and red gorgonians. Sharks were numerous and friendly, but the number of fish was not as great as I had expected and not at all as great as in the Maldives. However, the visibility and the growth of corals was absolutely tremendous. At Rock Arch I tried to follow the changing in corals diversity from the bottom (app. 30 m) to the very surface. While gorgonians and a variety of small soft-corals dominated on the bottom, a very strict and relatively special fauna was found on the shallowest part of the reef (app.1-2 metres). The stony corals here all had bright colours and consisted of Acropora sp., Pocillopora sp., Porites sp. and Montipora sp. There was a few species of soft corals, one Sarcophyton sp. that was very bright yellow and a Sinularia or Cladiella sp. that was pale white with brown polyps like those so well known from our aquariums. The bright yellow, red and purple or even pale white colors are from adaptation to the strong sunlight combined with tidal changes and a crystal clear, nutrient-poor water.

Wotanabe Bommie

Anemone City and Flinders Cay

Flinders Reef is almost like an atoll, circle shaped, although the northern part of the circle is not above water. On our way from Wotanabe Bommie we crossed the Flinders Lagoon and headed for the small patch reef called Anemone City. This is a quiet and colourful dive. No current, only small waves and a nice patch-reef full of anemone fish, Amphiprion melanopus . On the very top of the reef the small tomato clowns have their own harem among the tentacles of the anemone Heteractis magnifica . On the reef slope there are many colonies of Acropora palifera , the most abundant of all Acropora . There are huge brain corals, beautiful Porites with blue and red Spirobranchus and small caves which often houses the blue-spotted sting ray Taineura luymma . Anemone City is another dive spot to be remembered, very different from Wotanabe Bommie, but nevertheless unique in its own way.

The wind increases and in the afternoon it reaches 15 knots. We are heading for Flinders Cay - a sandbank in the middle of nowhere. Spoilsport anchors on the leeward side and we use the "rubber duck" to get on shore. To stand in the middle of the Coral Sea on a sandbank 200 metres long and 50 metres wide and with a maximum height of 2 metres gives you a funny feeling. As the sun sets in the Pacific ocean and as the many birds land on the beach after another day of fishing, one gets a funny feeling - a feeling of loneliness, but also of magic. Corals have built it all, the Flinders Cay, Flinders Reef and the whole Coral Sea. Outside Flinders Cay the reef is just visible in the strong wind, and although it is impossible to dive there, a skin dive in the lagoon on the leeward side sounds interesting. Soon we are in the water - again! The reef is very shallow and covered with ball-shaped, small colonies of Xenia sp. and photosynthetic sponges form the genus Cateriospongia . In between them lies several specimens of the giant clam Hippopus hippopus . Further out the water gets deeper and clefts and caves appear giving the space for hard corals and gorgonians. Along the leeward side of the cay "beach rock" - this peculiar stone, that only exists on the shoreline of tropical islands - has been formed. Thousands of birds, mostly masked gannet and brown booby ( Sula leucogaster ). The birds are so tame that one can almost touch them. Their nests are only a couple of stones in a circle and eggs lies everywhere - one has to be very careful. We turn a couple of stones and discover many large, red hermit crabs. It is Coenobita sp., a hermit crab that lives on tropical beaches and hides during daytime, but walks around in the night to feed and take a swim.

The sand cay moves! On the beach there is a weather station placed on concrete-feet. One of the crew tells us that last time she was her, the concrete feet were not visible, but totally buried in the sand. Now, a couple of months later, the sand must have moved and made the concrete visible. This is how it is in the Coral Sea - corals build, create sand that moves and eventually a seed can grow - an island can be formed.

A dry reef - North Boomerang Reef

During the night Spoilsport leaves the Flinders Reef and heads a bit south to North Boomerang Reef. At mid day - after a fantastic dive at the China Wall that drops off directly down to 2000 metres - the water sinks. Twice a month there is maximum tide which means that the water level is so low that the top of the reefs dry out. I consider myself very lucky, this is a moment I have hoped to see during the tour. And there it is - just behind the boat a reef very slowly creeps out of the water and into the sun. Fins and mask on, my Nikonos with the 35mm lens on - and hop in the water. I swim towards the reef and suddenly realise that this is an outer reef! Outside the small bommie, not more than 50 metres across, the dark blue water has no end and the reef edge drops down into infinity. I get shaky and cling to a coral head! It is almost painful to see all those beautiful Acropora colonies baked in the midday tropical sun. It is as they cry for water! Pink, red and blue colours give them some protection against the ultraviolet radiation, but one can clearly see that they live on the edge of what is possible. There are many half dead or dying colonies among the fully living ones, but there are also many juvenile colonies. The species are few on the very top of the reef. However, only one metre further down, are some that are never dried out, the number of species is much higher. I use my camera and try to kneel still on the very sharp coral, before I throw myself back into the deep water and head for the boat. At last have I been on a dry reef!

Bougainville Reef

Bougainville Reef is a small reef situated halfway between Flinders Reef and Osprey Reef and is easily reached during one night travel. Luckily the weather has settled down, and when we wake for breakfast the sea is very calm. Spoilsport has not anchored yet, but moves slowly along the reef edge. But something is very wrong. During low tide, like now, the reef edge is visible above the water, but there are no corals to be seen at all! After a while a wreck that hangs on the reef edge shows up, the reef is full of metal junk. We anchor and jump in the water. What a disappointment! The reef is gone, no corals! A huge anchor lies where the wreck has hit the reef and a lot of algae-grazing fish swims around. The engine block serves as a shelter for a school of sweetlips. The dive-master must answer a lot of questions as we enter the boat again. The answer is a cyclone. A huge storm swept over this area in January -91. It has destroyed the whole reef completely. Only flat, encrusting corals are left, but in between them there are signs of branching corals, indicating that a new reef is being build. Some places, like on the anchor from the wreck, a few Pocillopora has already grown to medium size. The reef flat is full of boulders which have been thrown here by the storm. There is nothing much to see at Bougainville Reef.

Osprey Reef

So we immediately head for Osprey Reef and for its northern part called the North Point. The situation is the same, no corals and a reef flat full of boulders. The cyclone has wiped out this one as well. Cyclones are in fact one of the major decomposing forces of coral reefs. However, the growth rate of the coral is faster that the breakdown forces. There is a net production of reefs, and within 5-7 years, the Bougainville Reef and Osprey Reef will healthy again. However, the North Point has other attractions - sharks! A lot of sharks! The name "North Point" is given to this spot because both sides of Osprey Reef ends in a shark point pointing towards the north. Here on the corner of this oceanic reef, the bottom fall to about 25

metres and the current is heavy ,bringing a long a lot of food for smaller fish which again attracts the sharks. We enter the water and fall slowly down to a platform on 20 metres. Normally you must wait for the sharks, but here they meet you! A dozen of "white tips" ( Triaenodon obesus ) circle around you and one even bumps his nose into the lens of Peter's video camera - what a shot! The sharks are friendly and show no sign of aggression. A bit further out in the open water we can see Grey Reef Sharks ( Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos ), but they never come close enough for photography. And there .... above us ,very near the surface, come a pair of "Hammerheads" ( Sphyrna mokarran ), perhaps one of the most dangerous sharks there are. But the pair does not pay any attention to the divers, they are out on bugger business. The sea at the North Point is so full of sharks that is it almost unbelievable. With the sharks come the pilot fishes which attach themselves to the shark body and hangs on. North Point must be heaven for the pilot fishes. A large "Potato cod" ( Epinephelus tukula ) is also there. This huge cod, reported to 200 kg, is found in numbers at the famous Cod Hole (which we shall visit later), but here there is only one - and a big one. It is very friendly and tame and we can touch it, wonderful for photography.

Created by liquid
Last modified 2006-11-23 01:36