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U  N  D  E  R  W  A  T  E  R      I  M  A  G  E  S     A  N  D     A  R  T  I  C  L  E  S


By Nigel Marsh


Easter, a time you can either spend at home stuffing yourself full of chocolate or a chance to escape for four days of diving. One of the best Easter escapes in southern Queensland is to join Big Cat Reality for a cruise around the wonderful Bunker Group.


Located at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef off Bundaberg, the Bunker Group contains some of the best dive sites in Australia, especially the world famous Lady Elliot Island. For over a decade the Brisbane based liveaboard Big Cat Reality has been offering special Easter trips to explore this magic area and I was fortunate to join them for the most recent Easter excursion.


Boarding Big Cat Reality on Thursday night, which was berthed at the Port of Bundaberg, I was greeted by owner/skipper James McVeigh as they prepared the vessel. I have done many amazing dive trips on Big Cat Reality over the last decade and just love diving off this big catamaran. Twenty-four metres long by nine metres wide, Big Cat accommodates 24 divers in two large bunk style cabins, basic but very comfortable. She also has two lounge areas, a bar, share toilet and shower facilities, a huge dive deck, a new enlarged duckboard and a large upper sundeck/barbeque area. The vessel also has a great crew that look after your every need, including some very filling meals and snacks between dives, and judging by the number of return passengers I’m not the only one that loves diving off Big Cat.


My fellow passengers for the Easter trip, a group organised by John Gransbury from Professional Dive Services, were mainly from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, but others had come from Canberra, Sydney and Gladstone. Once everyone was on board and briefed on the boat and diving procedures we departed overnight for the Great Barrier Reef.


It was great to wake on Easter Friday and find clear blue water lapping the boat as we were anchored at Fairfax Islands at a spot called Jackson’s Bommie. It may have been a checkout dive but it was pretty good with 20m visibility and 26°C water. Going no deeper than 18m we explored a maze of bommies and encountered half a dozen green turtles, schools of snapper and trevally, two large eagle rays, several Maori wrasse, coral trout, barramundi cod and a white-tip reef shark – a great start to our Easter dive adventure.


After another dive on a different group of bommies we relocated to nearby Hoskyn Island to dive a site called Cabbage Patch. This site had lovely coral gardens in the shallows overflowing with healthy hard corals and numerous bommies rising from the sand. Over two dives we found turtles, moray eels, trevally, nudibranchs and numerous reef fish. The night dive here started off a little slow, until all the crustaceans started to emerge. I had a great time photographing hermit crabs, spider crabs, decorator crabs, shrimps, octopus and a pair of squid.


Easter Saturday found as at Llewellyn Reef where we started the day with two great dives at the Catacombs. The wall at this site drops from 12 to 30m and is riddled with caves, ledges and swim throughs. I had a macro lens on my camera and found plenty of subjects, but often wished for a wide angle lens to photograph the lovely soft corals, gorgonians, black coral trees and sea whips. Reef fish were extremely abundant; including angelfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish and coral trout, but I was kept busy photographing the nudibranchs, dragonets, blennies, gobies and boxfish. Turtles, reef sharks, pelagic fish and mobula rays were spotted by other divers as we explored this wonderful wall.


The afternoon and night dive was spent exploring a pretty coral garden at a site called the Trout Spot. I really enjoyed the night dive as we encountered crayfish, shrimps, crabs, sleeping parrotfish, flatworms and numerous molluscs ploughing through the sand.


Overnight we headed south to the most southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot Island. I have dived Lady Elliot numerous times and can never get enough of its wonderful dive sites, but this was the first time I was going to enjoy these sites from a liveaboard. Our first stop was off the eastern side of the island at the Blowhole. The L-shaped cave at the Blowhole is always an excellent dive and we encountered sweetlips, coral trout, batfish, white-tip reef sharks, Maori wrasse and even a silvertip shark as we explored the cave and adjacent walls.


Big Cat then moved to the western side of the island for us to dive Lighthouse Bommies. This group of bommies sits in 8 to 15m of water and is always packed with marine life. The coral at this site is just lovely, but was hardly noticed as we were too busy photographing the schools of fish, the turtles, the reef sharks and the manta rays.


With close to 30m visibility my camera was working overtime photographing two very friendly manta rays as they slowly cruised around the bommies getting cleaned. There was also coral trout, Maori wrasse, barramundi cod, moray eels, sweetlips, swarms of cardinalfish and numerous turtles and reef sharks to keep us entertained. After a quick tank fill we jumped in for a repeat performance and this time had four manta rays for company.


After lunch, the food never seem to stop coming on this trip, we dived the wreck of the Severance. This small yacht is a great dive as it is decorated with soft corals and home to numerous reef fish. After a circuit of the wreck we found a large school of sweetlips and emperors at the stern to photograph, before heading across the sand to explore a series of bommies at Three Pyramids and Anchor Bommie. More turtles, reef fish, manta rays, garden eels and a lovely leaf scorpionfish were the highlights.


That night we dived the Severance and a whole new world of critters appeared on the wreck. Thousands of hinge-beak shrimps emerged from the wheelhouse, but I also found spider crabs, decorator crabs, pipefish, sleeping fish, hermit crabs and molluscs.


Easter Monday started early with a 6am dive at Spiders Ledge. The pretty wall at this site drops into 22m, but the best spot was a series of caves and overhangs which were home to sweetlips, squirrelfish, turtles and a resting tawny nurse shark. We then returned to Lighthouse Bommies for our two final dives.


We thought the two dives at Lighthouse Bommies the day before were great, but the action on the first dive was just mind-blowing. It started off with a bang when a large manta ray surrounded by cobia circled us, but then we saw a leopard shark, a black blotched stingray, reef sharks, turtles and schools of sweetlips, trevally, rainbow runners, parrotfish and surgeonfish. We ended the dive on a huge high when a bottlenose dolphin made an appearance. The last dive was a bit of an anti-climax after that amazing dive, but we still encountered a manta ray and several turtles.


As we headed back to Bundaberg I washed my dive gear and couldn’t think of a better way to spend Easter – diving the Bunker Group from a great dive boat, with a great crew and great bunch of fellow divers.


NEWS UPDATE – Usually based in Brisbane, Big Cat Reality is now going to spend more time operating out of Bundaberg, a sad loss for Brisbane divers, but great news for divers in general. This means more dive trips to the Bunker Group and also the chance to explore the Swains Reefs and southern Coral Sea reefs.


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