N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
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
A NORTHERN ADVENTURE ON SPIRIT OF FREEDOM
by Nigel Marsh
There are many wonderful dive destinations on the Great Barrier Reef, but one of the best areas of this natural wonder of the world is remote and rarely visited – the Far Northern Reefs. I first visited this spectacular area 16 years ago and was amazed by the corals and marine life. But after two coral bleaching events on the north of the reef, I recently returned to this remote area on Spirit of Freedom to see how the coral was fairing.
The Far Northern Reefs are located north of the famous and popular Ribbon Reefs and stretch all the way to the Torres Strait. This remote area is only visited by liveaboard charter boats in October, November and December, when conditions are calm. One of the few boats visiting this area is the wonderful Spirit of Freedom.
Spirit of Freedom usually offer trips to the brilliant Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef, but once a year run special seven day charters to the Far Northern Reefs. These adventure trips to the far north usually fill very quickly, so I was very happy to join a south bound trip in October 2017. Joining me was on old mate from Cairns, filmmaker Stuart Ireland, who had never visited this part of the reef before.
Our trip started in Cairns, picked up by the Spirit of Freedom crew in a bus for a short journey to Cairns Airport. There we boarded a specially chartered flight to Lockhart River, 600km north of Cairns. The flight provided wonderful views of the reef and rainforest. After arriving at the small airstrip at Lockhart River we then had a transfer by bus to Portland Roads, where Spirit of Freedom was anchored.
Six years since the last time I did a trip on Spirit of Freedom and it was good to see the 37m long vessel was as wonderful as I remembered. After checking into our comfortable ensuite cabin we met our fellow passengers, a mixed group of Australians, Americans, Canadians and a few expat Europeans. We also enjoyed the first of many wonderful meals, prepared by chef Sam.
Once everyone had settled in, skipper Tony and trip director Ellis introduced the crew and outlined our itinerary for the next week, an adventure into the heart of the Far Northern Reefs. We weighed anchor during the night and headed north, our first destination Southern Small Detached Reef.
The next morning the weather wasn’t the best, not the calm conditions that the area generally enjoys at this time of the year, instead windy, choppy and overcast. We moored up at Auriga Bay, a site I dived on my last visit. This site has a sloping reef to 20m and then a wall dropping into 400m. We first explored the wall, seeing pretty soft corals, gorgonians and pelagic fish. We then explored the coral gardens. Here I was happy to see that most of the hard corals looked healthy. Unfortunately a large stretch of staghorn corals was missing, now only a pile of rubble, wiped out by a cyclone many years ago.
After lunch we dived Northern Small Detached Reef and it was better than I remembered. The walls at this site covered with sea whips, gorgonians, soft corals and whip corals. We were buzzed by a large grey reef shark and a smaller silvertip shark and saw plenty of fish.
The afternoon dive at Black Rock, at the northern end of Mantis Reef, was also brilliant, with healthy corals, lots of sharks and schooling fish, and we even saw a sea star spawning. It was great to explore these sites I had previously dived and find the hard corals looking healthy, and not a quarter dead as reported in surveys conducted by the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies.
The next morning the weather had improved and I had a chance to explore a new site near the Stead Passage called Well Worth It, and it certainly was. This reef was washed by a strong current, which are typical on the Far Northern Reefs. We jumped in one end of the reef and did a great drift dive over beautiful and healthy, but also explored caves and ledges lined with gorgonians and soft corals. During the dive we were surrounded by schools of rainbow runners, barracuda, trevally, surgeonfish, fusiliers and snappers. There were also reef sharks, gropers, mackerel and a large dogtooth tuna. On the second dive at Well Worth It a small whale shark was seen by one lucky group of divers, leaving everyone else very jealous.
In the afternoon we did our first exploratory dive on a coral wall on the Five Reefs. We called this site Stella, as drifting along this wall we saw lovely corals, pelagic fish, reef sharks and a large tawny nurse shark. We ended the day with two dives at Big Woody, a site that I had previously known as The Alter. This site on Wood Reef is a coral peninsula with a cave running right through it. The cave and walls at this site are covered in the most exquisite corals, but it didn’t have as much fish and shark action as my visit, possibly due to no current.
The next day we dived sites around Great Detached Reef, starting at Perisher Blue. This coral garden was once again very healthy and home to a good population of reef fish. But I was most surprised to find a cute epaulette shark resting under a ledge. We spent the rest of the day at Deep Pinnacle and The Pinnacle.
These two pinnacles were a highlight of the trip, rising from deep water and covered in corals, fish and sharks. But the big attraction for me was the wealth of smaller critters. I had a great time with my macro lens at both sites photographing nudibranchs, flatworms, hawkfish, leaf scorpionfish, boxfish, blennies, moray eels, pipefish and numerous small colourful reef fish. The Pinnacle at night was just incredible with numerous sea slugs, hunting cone shells, octopus and even a rare twin-spot lionfish.
The next morning we had a sensational dive at Epic, a submerged reef off the Three Reefs. The top of this reef is in 10 to 20m and then plummets into very deep water. We first dropped down the wall to 35m to see incredible gorgonians and numerous reef sharks. We ended the dive exploring extensive coral gardens, which were once again very healthy. At nearby Turmoil we explored another lovely coral reef, unfortunately the site didn’t live up to its reputation. On past dives the crew informed us this site was like a washing machine on a fast spin cycle, but we had no current at all.
Our afternoon dives made up for this as they were at Raine Island. For many of the passengers Raine Island was the main attraction of the trip, as it is the world’s largest and most important green turtle nesting site. The last time I dived Raine Island it was spectacular, unfortunately since then most of the surrounding reef has been declared a pink zone, so off limits. Fortunately we could still dive the exposed eastern end of the reef. Our two dives at Raine Island were just magic. We explored lovely hard coral gardens, saw countless turtles, and also encountered reef sharks, Maori wrasse, mackerels, trevally and several epaulette sharks hiding amongst the corals.
Overnight we headed south to explore the southern section of the Far Northern Reefs. Our first stop was Aladdin’s Cave near Creech Reef. No one could actually find the cave, but we had fun exploring pretty coral gardens and seeing garden eels, barracuda, trevally, snappers, Maori wrasse and reef sharks. A few of the divers were lucky enough to find a leopard shark.
We then did an extraordinary exploratory dive at Joan Reef, drifting over the best collection of plate corals I have ever seen. We named the site Plates on Parade, but the reef was also home to a great population of reef fish, including schools of snappers, fusiliers and parrotfish. Our final dives in the far north were at Pirates Cove on Wilson Reef. The afternoon and night dives at this site were wonderful with caves and canyons to explore. This site was home to an amazing variety of fish, and we witnessed surgeonfish and several sea cucumbers spawning. There was also a large number of yellow boxfish, which appear to gather at this site for breeding.
Our final day was spent on the Ribbon Reefs, after another overnight run south. This area was also affected by coral bleaching, especially around Lizard Island, but the area has taken more of a beating from several cyclones over the last few years. The crew informed me that they now don’t visit several sites that were once popular because of cyclone damage, but they have also found many new sites to replace them. One of those new sites is Google Garden. This wonderful dive site has beautiful coral gardens on a sloping reef. We explored canyons and caves and encounter a good variety of reef fish and reef sharks, but missed the broadclub cuttlefish that everyone else saw.
Our final two dives were at Steve’s Bommie, one of my favourite dive sites. Unfortunately this site has suffered from both cyclone damage and coral bleaching, with many of its pretty corals around the top of the pinnacle either gone or dead. Still home to an impressive variety of fish and critters, most of the divers thought it was amazing. Over two dives we saw schools of fish, nudibranchs, mantis shrimps, clown anemonefish, pipefish, pufferfish, leaf scorpionfish and numerous stonefish.
Returning overnight to Cairns I reflected on a fabulous trip. It was great to see the hard corals in great shape and the area far from dead as claimed in the media. The divers from overseas were astounded by the health and beauty of the corals at the sites we dived and a few had only booked because they thought it was their last chance to see the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s national treasure and while parts of it have copped a beating from the recent coral bleaching events, it is on the mend and is still one of the best places to dive in the world!
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