It’s not hard to rebound from the skydiving disappointment and the skytrain lameness. Next up is our favorite thing to do – scuba diving. We are booked aboard a high end liveaboard scuba boat for the next four days. We’ll be diving the Great Barrier Reef and the much smaller and pristine osprey reef.
First we fly to Lizard island in the far north of Queensland to meet the boat. We hug the coastline from Cairns, to Cape Tribulation and farther north where the Daintree Rainforest gets really deep. We are now on the north edge of Australia, closer to Papua New Guinea than Sydney and a long way from home any way you measure it.
The Cairns humid drizzle has changed to drier, saltier air and clear skies. Some of the passengers from the Spirit of Freedom, the ship on which we will dive, are coming off and taking the plane back. They look pretty happy. It’s Minke whale season and they were able to see them several times. I tried to book passage on a boat doing Minke whale dives but they were completely sold out. They sell months in advance and I planned this one kinda late.
The Spirit of Freedom spends 7 days a week on the ocean with up to 26 passengers. It does a 3 day tour on the Ribbon reefs of the Great Barrier, which is has just completed, and a 4 day tour that goes out to Osprey reef. You can combine them together for a 7 day trip. From the time we get on board I can see it’s well run. The gear is really good quality. They have enough people to service the 26 divers and the food looks good.
Our first day we do a checkout dive – a test run so to speak. None of us have been in the water for over a few years so they watch us pretty closely. Diving is one of those things that comes back quickly. WIth modern computers you don’t have to know a whole lot, but since scuba gear is life-support equipment, we want to make sure we are proficient.
That dive is on the Great Barrier Reef and it’s called monolith. It may be the best check-out dive we’ve ever done – turtles, white tip sharks, sweet lips, trevally, tangs. Scuba is a weird activity to do as a family. On the one hand, we can’t talk with one another. We are each alone with our thoughts. On the other, we are all jointly sharing a completely foreign environment and there is an intense shared experience.
Lily and Emma do great on the check-out. We eat some lunch and go back in for a second. Eat-Dive-Eat-Dive-Eat-Dive will be the pattern for the next four days. After dinner, we do a night dive at the same place. Diving in the dark is an unbelievable experience. It’s spooky and dark but the reef comes alive. Everything comes out, both predators and prey. At this site, the sharks know to follow the divers lights for extra help finding food. We are trailed by several white tip sharks the entire dive.
It fills me with joy to look off to my right and see Lily with us. She had never wanted to scuba dive as a young kid, now she loves it. Night diving was still too scary for her, even as of a day ago, but in a last minute burst of fearlessness, she decided to go with us and did it confidently. Both Amanda and I are so proud to see her develop. (Trish would be too.)
She does hit the panic button once when a moray eel comes slithering out of it’s hole and free swims toward some prey like a giant snake. She backs up into me, flailing arms and legs and gear everywhere.
Osprey Reef is technically not part of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s about 68 miles off it’s larger sibling and is basically an 6×12 miles island that didn’t quite break the surface of the ocean. It’s in excellent condition and goes from the surface down to thousands of feet. Because it’s in the deeper ocean, there are many more large animals here – particularly sharks, tuna, manta rays and barracuda.
It’s rarely scuba’d because it’s so far out here. Spirit of Freedom is one of the only boats to do it regularly.
The overnight ride there is ghastly. The flat-bottomed boat rocks and churns so hard crossing the ocean that everything in our room is tossed around. I can’t sleep, neither can Amanda. We just lie awake and ride the waves up and down. Getting up to pee is hazardous. Good thing we took seasick pills.
In the morning we groggily prepare for a deep dive – nearly to the maximum recreational diving limit of 130 feet. Lily hasn’t been down this far ever. Nick the dive guide takes us as it can be a tricky dive with currents. We are off the boat first, into the zodiac and hitting the cold water by 7am. Once in the water the nasty night is forgotten, sleepiness disappears and we are in the moment.
At the deepest part of the dive, just as we see a giant group of 20 Grey reef sharks schooling, a massive current hits us. We are forced to swim toward shore and kick super hard. Someone or something knocks off Amanda’s mask in the middle of the hard swim. Losing your mask is recoverable but it’s scary when you are in a current. You can’t see while you put it back on and it never fits quite right again. I’m paying close attention to the girls who don’t quite have the power to kick through and need watching.
We were never in deep danger. If one of us had been taken by the current we would have just floated out a bit, surfaced and signaled for a pickup on the zodiac, but it it still scary. It takes a while to recover. Amanda thinks she isn’t going to do the next dive. But after some coffee and an unusually long break between dives she says she’s gonna do the next dive. That’s what we are here for right! If we do every dive over the 4 days we will do 15 plus a checkout dive.
‘Briefing in the dining area’ Lucy calls. She makes an effort to make sure everyone on board is there – passengers and crew. The Capitan stands next to her, which is unusual for a dive briefing. He doesn’t participate in these. Amanda and I whisper that something must be going on.
‘Folks,’ says the captain, ‘I regret to inform you that our port engine has been damaged and we will have to cut this trip short and return tonight to Cairns.’ At some point this morning, a rope got tangled in the port motor and did some damage to the gearbox. ‘We’ll try to do a few more dives right here where we are anchored, but by 5pm we need to be going back. It’ll be a very long passage back to Cairns because we have only one engine and I can’t push it too hard.’
One lady cries. This was the trip of a lifetime for her and her husband. There isn’t anything to be done about it, accidents at sea happen. But everyone is sad and most of us are concerned about the refund we might be given from the company. The 4 day trip costs about $2k US per person, so losing so many dives is a big deal to everyone.
The next three dives are nice enough although we are on the same reef as this morning so there is some repetition. Amanda and I see a Hammerhead shark, our first ever, on the last dive of the day (back to the same place with the bad morning currents.’ It’s amazing and she is ecstatic and bursting with energy when she comes out of the water despite the bad news of the day.
We spend the next 36 hours on the boat limping back to port. Snippits of information about our refunds come in through out the day. ‘No bar tab’ they start with, followed by ‘no gear rental costs’. Finally we get the letter and they are, in fact, generous. 75% refund and a 50% discount on the next trip with take with them. That puts everyone at ease. It’s still a disappointment, but the company did the right thing. The ride back is as bad as the ride there and no one sleeps.
The entire third day we spend on the boat with nothing to do except play cards and eat and talk. Most people spend a lot of time in their rooms. Amanda and I get a chance to catch up and talk, which is overdue. At night we hang out with some boys from LA and a Canadian couple and play ‘Fuck your neighbor’ – a card game. Sleep is easier tonight, the third night, because we are no longer crossing the open ocean, but are instead inside the reef where it’s calmer.
As a bonus, the company has booked us, for free, on a day trip to the reef. It’s a huge catamaran boat with 60 people. The dives are good. The Great barrier reef still has good diving. Bleaching from rising ocean temps is an issue, but there are lots of good healthy places to dive. We see lots of turtles, great variety of coral and a few sharks. It’s raining and really cold, not ideal temps but still fun.
Cairns hotels are fully booked. The Spirit of Freedom people found space for us in a decent but not great hotel. We do some laundry, eat downtown and think about how we might get back here to use the 50% discount on another trip.