Dive Odyssey (Part One)

by wjw on December 28, 2012

I was looking through the photos of my dive trip and thought this picture was one of my better efforts  It shows how colorful and diverse underwater life can be, and it was taken at a shallow enough depth that the color  flash.  Most of my photos tend to be on the blue and green end of the spectrum, because the further underwater you go, the less color you get— the reds disappear first, and then the yellows, and before long all you’ve got is blue.  You need to shine a light on something before its true colors will pop out at you.

I spent seven nights aboard the Spoilsport, a 100-foot dive catamaran operated by Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, which has been operating for decades out of Cairns, which may be spelled “Cairns” but seems to be pronounced “Cääääns” by the natives.  While aboard I did four or five dives per day, for a total of 25 dives, and spent more than 18 hours underwater.

At one point I began to wonder how justified I was in traveling thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars for 18 hours of fun underwater.  But then I thought: Well, say you’re into Shakespeare.  If you traveled thousands of miles to Stratford and saw 18 hours of Shakespeare, would you be happy?  Would it be justified?  If, say, you were into shopping, and you flew thousands of miles to Paris to cruise the boutiques for 18 hours, would you be justified?  If you were into science fiction, and you flew to Bradford to next year’s Eastercon to hang with GoH Walter Jon Williams for 18 hours, would that be a good use of your time and money?  Darn tootin’ it would.

Screw these thoughts, I’m having fun.

The crew of Spoilsport did, in fact, spoil us.  We were very well looked after, and there was an emphasis on safety.  Learning that I’d done only three dives in the last year, management kindly insisted that I go through a brief skills refresher which took about ten minutes out of my first dive, and which I passed with ease.  My rusty dive skills came back fairly quickly as the week progressed, though my navigation skills could, as it proved, use more refinement.

After another dive company left a pair of American tourists to die on the reef back in the 1990s, regulations now require that every person returning from a dive sign in before the boat is allowed to move on.  Bottom time and depth of dive are also recorded.  At my suggestion, divers who failed to do their sign-in were forced to eat a dollop of Vegemite.  Serves them right for holding us up.

The crew were uniformly helpful and cheerful.  (This must wear on them after a while— I know it would me.) Levi the cook managed to produce excellent and very large meals out of the little galley.  Tall blonde hostess Cleo served up drinks and seasickness meds with flair, kept my wine topped up at dinner, and her Daisy Dukes brightened my day whenever she passed.  The chief engineer, whose name escapes me, pleasantly discussed technical matters with me, and knew quite a bit of sea history as well.  And master of ceremonies Kerrin had been doing this so long that he pretty much knew where every interesting sight on the reef was hiding, and would happily show us.

Our day began at 6:30, with Kerrin walking along the berth deck singing out the time— and by “singing out” I mean it literally, the man does actually sing out the announcements.  There followed a light breakfast of yogurt, cereal, and/or fruit, and then the first dive briefing at 7:00.  After the briefing, we were at liberty to arrange our own dive, or to follow one of the guides.  After the dive, around 9:30, came Second Breakfast, which was much larger, with eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes, French toast, etc.  Then the second morning dive briefing and dive, followed by the first afternoon dive, giant buffet lunch, second afternoon dive, night dive (if there was one), and dinner.

Following dinner Spoilsport frequently made a long run to a new set of dive sites, which involved a great deal of crashing about in the open sea.  I’d never been on a catamaran before, and its motion was rather different than what I was more used to: the boat would slide down a wave, and then the lower hull would sort of dig in, and there would be a crash.  Then the lower hull would lift, and the boat would slide down the wave in the opposite direction, and then (crash!) the opposite hull would dig in.  And this would go on for hours and hours, and really there was nothing to do but go to bed.  If I sat in a chair, it would threaten to throw me out.  If I walked anywhere, I would be flung along the deck until I either grabbed something that wasn’t moving, or flat ran into something.    I’d make a point of going down the companionways backwards, because I didn’t want to do a face plant down the stairs.

I didn’t get sick on any of these night runs, but I’m sure others did.

It would take up rather too much space to chart the dives one by one, so I’ll just tackle them thematically.

Coral Sea.  We spent two days diving Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, with long jolting open-ocean runs before and after.  Awesome coral castles rear up out of the deep, with sand channels between them.  Tubes and swim-throughs burrow through the coral formations.  I saw sharks, turtles, barracuda, lobsters, morays, anemone fish/clown fish, and giant trevally.  (“Trevally” are what we in the Northern Hemisphere call jacks.)

On a night dive I saw a leaf scorpion fish, which looks like a green leaf, hides in coral formations, and sways back and forth as if to the ocean surge.  If these defense mechanisms fail it is of course prickled all over with poisonous spines which probably won’t kill you, but will certainly ruin your vacation.  I made a point of making sure that it didn’t ruin mine.

Great Barrier Reef.  The reef has taken a beating in recent years, but you wouldn’t know that from the dive sites we visited.  While the coral isn’t as spectacular as the Coral Sea, the sea life tends to be more concentrated.  On a single bommie— “bommie” is Australian for “big heap of coral”— you might see sharks, stonefish, leaf scorpionfish, sea snakes, jacks, schools of snapper or sweetlips, and lion fish.  (Note that, in accordance with the guild rules for Australian wildlife, many of these will kill you.)

On one night dive I managed to save a fellow diver from a painful injury.  We were crowded around a coral head while divemaster Kerrin was showing us some little glowy-eyed shrimp, and I noticed that on the other end of the coral head was a large black lionfish, its poison spines deployed.  Just above was another diver, his hand very close to the lionfish.  I flashed my dive light on the fish to alert the diver, but he still didn’t see the lurking menace, so I sort of picked the diver up and moved him.  He probably thought I was being rude and shoving him out of the way.  In the dark I didn’t actually know which of my fellow adventurers I’d actually moved, so I went around the boat for a while afterwards apologizing to people in general.  Most of them seemed to think my interference was justified.

Coming Soon in Part Two: more night dives, fun with bommies, I get swept away, and the inevitable shark frenzy (or two).

DorjePismo December 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

If you’d travelled thousands of miles to Bayreuth and saw only 18 hours of Wagner, you’d pretty much be a slacker.

Oz December 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm

“MOST of them seemed to think…” Most? Some didn’t? 😀

Paul (@princejvstin) December 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm

What sort of camera did you use to take the picture?

Paul December 28, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I’ve found that with a bit of luck, a quick white balance correction (in lightroom e.g) can rescue some of the shots – at least enough that they can serve as “show my friends” fodder, not high-end photography. A bit of noise reduction helps, too….

Seems like a fun cruise. And you’re selling yourself short – IIRC you did much more than 18 hours of diving on that trip, no?

wjw December 29, 2012 at 6:30 am

Oz>> Well, to be exact, “Of those who expressed an opinion, said opinion was positive.”

Other questions answered in next post.

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