Diving at Reef’s end

Robin Jeffries | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 2
A friendly potato cod at Ribbon Reefs.
The Great Barrier Reef’s northern region boasts remote and breathtaking dive sites well worth the extended cruise to get there.

As a young man, I had visited the ‘start’ of the Great Barrier Reef at its southern tip at Lady Elliot Island. My curiosity was awakened and a longing to explore the little-known area at the other end of the reef grew into a sweet obsession.

At last, life and conditions came together: I had retired and moved into a 14m Lightwave Powercat named Flash Dancer, which proved to be the ideal vessel for exploring the reef. Over five years, I progressively equipped it with a full kit of scuba gear and underwater photographic equipment. When I teamed up with Sylvie Jambu, a commercial sailor and diver from France, all the pieces fell into place for a magnificent adventure.

We left Townsville in July and first indulged our diving passion when we reached the Ribbon Reefs, a remote string of reefs starting to the north of Cairns. It was a thrill to show an overseas visitor our minke whales and big potato cod before heading to the magnificent anchorage at Lizard Island.

North of Lizard Island, the winter trade winds notched up a gear. Weeks of howling winds, unfamiliar territory, inaccurate charts, no civilisation, and a crew that swore in French … it should have been very testing, but instead, my new first mate and I got on famously. The isolation of the location, combined with the shared adventure of discovering new places, seemed to suit our personalities.

CRUISING TO THE ‘END’

The highlights while cruising up Cape York included hiking around Shelburne Bay, anchoring at beautiful Forbes Island, meeting up with other boaties at Margaret Bay, and a couple of days diving the Southern and Great Detached Reefs.

After much zig-zagging we arrived at Thursday Island, located in the Torres Strait Islands 21nm north of Cape York Peninsula. With our adventurous enthusiasm still intact, we headed 130nm north-east through Torres Strait to explore the ‘end’ of the Great Barrier Reef.

Bramble Cay, situated just 30nm from Papua New Guinea’s huge Fly River delta, was our destination. We had very little idea what we would find there.

It was now September, a time when good weather windows start to open. True to form, after months of 20 to 30-knot south-easterly trade winds, the weather witch relented and the breeze eased to a well-mannered 15 knots. Torres Strait has a nasty reputation among cruisers: shallow water, tricky currents, strong winds, and reefs scattered everywhere. But the charts were accurate and all was friendly. We pushed Flash Dancer along at nine knots, arriving at Kodall Island in time to find a well-protected anchorage behind the reef’s edge.

We reached our destination, Bramble Cay, the following afternoon and were doubly pleased when greeted by Egan, a hospitable fishing boat captain who exclaimed we were their first visitor in six years! Egan was an enthusiastic young chap, suggesting where we best anchor and explaining the many vagaries of the local fishing industry. But what really impressed us was watching him and his crew catch up to 50 Spanish mackerel in just two hours by fishing the traditional way, with three handlines out the back of a dory. There’s one other fishing boat there and for five months of the year, these two boats hang precariously from the north-west end of the cay hoping to catch their quota and get out before the late-spring westerly monsoons blow them away.

The sand cay was sparsely vegetated and populated by thousands of marine birds and visiting green turtles. It was wonderful to watch the beginning of their breeding season unfold. At anchor, we were intrigued by the unpredictable currents and the freshwater that flowed past our vessel at times … and the odd huge tree!

We dived three times around the reef. It was different: the visibility was poor and we often found ourselves swimming through patches of fuzzy green as cool freshwater seeped from below.

We had our own shark show for extra entertainment – twice daily when the fishermen filleted their catch and threw the frames into the sea, up to 15 big black whaler sharks would churn the waters in an amazing display of crash, bash and wallop. I tied my RIB to the back of a fishing boat to photograph the action and watched as they bumped and thumped into it, part filling it with spray from their frenzied feeding. Right on cue they disappeared after fish cleaning was completed. When we dived under the boat to check out a giant grouper an hour after feed time the sharks were nowhere to be seen, thankfully.

The weather window was still holding so, after five enjoyable days at Bramble Cay, we decided to explore the next two reefs. Further east is the very small reef of Anchor Cay. There’s nothing noteworthy there, but it was still a nice place to anchor and dive in the good conditions. We had a midday picnic on a tiny patch of sand still showing at high tide.

Still further on was East Cay. Our chart showed a sizeable sand cay – however, when we arrived at the large reef there was no cay to be found, just a huge navigation tower complete with helipad. I longed to write ‘Flash Dancer was here’ on the tower as I was sure this place had never been visited by anyone other than lots of terns and the occasional maintenance team. We anchored in a passage that ran through the reef and went for a couple of dives in reasonably clear water, spotting lots of underwater macro life. Climbing that giant tower was also interesting.

After three days the weather guide warned us of strong winds returning so we retreated back to the comfort and security of Kodall Island.

Masig (Yorke Island) is located next to our safe anchorage at Kodall Island and has a population of 300 easy-going Torres Strait Islanders. We called in at the council office and received permission to move freely around the island. It’s a very neat and pretty place; we ended up doing a photo-shoot of the island and buying an oil painting depicting the past head-hunting era from a local artist for a reasonable price. We enjoyed chatting with the locals and browsing the two little mixed-business shops … we love these tiny out-of-the-way places and the friendly locals.

Now, do we head back to Thursday Island or venture 70 miles (112km) east through the Great Barrier Reef to Ashmore Reef? I’ve always wanted to go there …

ABOUT THE TEAM

Robin Jeffries has been cruising the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea since 2006 and has just returned from his fifth cruise to the outer Coral Sea islets. World traveller Sylvie Jambu has fallen in love with Australia and made lots of friends. She is currently in the throes of becoming a ‘frogaroo’ – the author’s nickname for someone who is both French and Australian.

FLASH DANCER’S KIT AND CABOODLE

• Flash Dancer, our Lightwave 46 Powercat with 160hp Volvo engines, suited our purpose well: light on fuel if the speed is kept below 10 knots, reasonably stable at anchor when the sea gets bumpy, and drawing only 1.35m. The spacious back steps are ideal for divers and anglers, as is the strong swimladder.

• The 3.4m Gemini aluminium hull inflatable dingy is driven by a 15hp outboard. It’s fast, stable and roomy; a davit crane makes for easy launch and retrieval.

• Anchoring strategy and knowhow around reefs is a story in itself, but with 110m of chain and a solid windlass, we’re confident we can anchor and retrieve just about anywhere safely.

• The Raymarine GPS tracking unit, with anchor and radar alarm systems, is very reliable. Having our track accurately marked so we can retrace our footsteps if need be is good insurance.

• Our iPad, with the iSailor GPS navigation app, is not only a great backup to the Raymarine unit, it’s also often used for scouting shallow areas in our dingy. I purchased a low-cost, handheld waterproof sonar a few years back – it’s changed status from ‘novel toy’ to ‘essential tool’ especially when anchoring amongst shallow coral heads, which we check out in the dingy or while snorkelling. It’s worth its cost just as a ‘sleep aid!’

• We have a 45lt/h watermaker to keep the 500lt tank near capacity. Water soon gets used up when washing diving and photographic equipment.

• The 6.5kVA diesel generator provides auxiliary power to the 800Ah battery bank. It also powers our Bauer Junior dive compressor; 12lt scuba tanks are filled in about 25 minutes.

• When out of VHF range, we use a HF radio for weather. A satellite phone is also onboard.

• In addition to the compulsory safety equipment aboard Flash Dancer, we carry another full set in our dingy, including an extra EPIRB.

• We started off diving from our vessel with a floating Air Line Hookah that allows two divers down to a maximum of 15m. It was fine for most situations, but we were restricted when it came to exploring tunnels, on deeper dives, or when surface conditions were rough. We soon made room for scuba tanks and a little fill compressor. We have our own safety strategy and procedures in place for safe diving, as we are usually both in the water together.

• Our mini ‘Flying Doctor’ medical kit comes with a phone number to access a doctor 24 hours a day. It’s worth the cost and paperwork when cruising or diving in remote Australian waters.


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