Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef was always on our bucket list and there was no better time to tick it off than our honeymoon. At 2,300 kilometers long, the GBR the largest living structure on the planet, bursting with 600 types of corals, 1,625 species of fish, and 3,000 varieties of mollusks, and a volume of sharks I don’t even want to know about. We got certified as open water scuba divers in 2007, with a distant dream of diving the GBR, and stepped it up to Advanced PADI divers so we could go deeper into this underwater world. The day had come and we were going to do it right with a three-day liveaboard scuba trip from Cairns to Lizard Island, exploring the far reaches of the Great Barrier Marine Park by boat and rubber fins.
Since we knew weren't the only couple with a dream to see the Great Barrier Reef, we had to come up with a way to avoid the tourists—for maximum fish sightings and honeymoon privacy. The answer? A small, luxury live-aboard scuba trip. We set out to sea with the ultra-fabulous Spirit of Freedom on their three-day Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs Dive Adventure. Somewhere between a Naval vessel and a yacht, it had a dive deck, sun deck, dining room, 11 cabins, and a staff of master divers, deep-sea captains, and a gourmet chef. It’s the ultimate way to take in the GBR.
Each morning we would wake up for a light breakfast, suit up, and get briefed on the day’s dives (as many as five per day). We focused on the Ribbon Reefs, ten string-shaped coral reefs in the remote northern sector of the protected park–hitting prime spots like Dynamite Pass, Pixie Pinnacle and the legendary Cod Hole. Rene, our spunky savvy dive leader, would explain each site’s unique terrain, visibility, maximum depths, bottom time, and most importantly the best sea life to spot.
Photos can’t capture the way soft corals move with the tide, how quickly a shark can change direction, the grace of a sting ray, or the electric flashes of the disco clam (yes, the disco clam).
We encountered literally hundreds of types of fish but here are a few of our favorites: White tip reef sharks, spotted sting ray, hawksbill turtles, sea snakes, giant clams, diagonal banded sweet lips, puffer fish, giant travally, Maori Wrasse, barracuda, and the always adorable Nemo the Clown Fish.
While on board with so many instructors and three days to dive, we decided it was time to up our game and get our Advanced Open Water Diver certification. To get certified, we had to take a series of written and physical tests, including a “deep dive” to the level where nitrogen narcosis sets in (essentially drunkenness from gases found at depths of 90+ feet), and underwater navigation. While getting loopy under ‘da sea was a hoot, navigation was where it got real. It’s hard to find a reference point in the blue abyss and easy to drift off when you don’t have a guide to follow, unless you have some training. We learned how to watch the wind for current cues, identify fixed objects to return to, and use an underwater compass to stay on track.
Learning to night dive is key element of the Advanced Open Water course. A few things to remember: sharks don’t want to eat humans, they want the fish you illuminate. To avoid the open buffet and guilty conscience, keep your light moving and don’t cause more than one fish to become dinner.
The liveaboard gave us access to so many incredible lesser-known dive sites…but when in the GBR, you have to see the world-famous Cod Hole. A family of Potato Cod like to hang out in Ribbon Reef #10 and swim up to scuba divers, especially when park-sanctioned fish food is on hand. This area is highly regulated but a small amount of divers are allowed to feed the cod each day. At the bottom of the sea floor, we sat in a circle while 200-pound fish (that can reach 8.5 feet in length) swam inches from our face, pursing their voluptuous lips. An wild encounter, for sure.
To celebrate the newly advanced divers and our crew’s awesome trip through the Great Barrier Reef, Spirit of Freedom threw a great party. As a group, we had seen so many amazing sites and had grown to accept each other with unruly hair and goggle-dented faces. A bond had been formed and could only be sealed by dancing until the 2am.
Two-hundred and forty kilometers and three-days-at-sea later, we set foot on dry land. Lizard Island is a gorgeous place with just enough land for a few hikes and an airstrip. We flew back to Cairns, passing hundreds of islands, shoals, cays, and reefs we’d explored from below. If we weren’t divers, we would just look down and think, “That’s pretty,” but instead we felt a sense of pride, like we had keys to a whole new world.
Much love from The Great Barrier Reef,
Anne & Mike
Note: Spirit of Freedom invited us to be their guest; however, all opinions are our own.