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
EXPLORING THE FAR NORTH OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
By Nigel Marsh
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest complex of reefs, and with over 3000 reefs spread over 2300km it is immense. While there are many areas of the reef that are easily accessible on day boats, from island resorts or via a liveaboard boat, there is one area of this natural wonder of the world that is rarely visited – the Far Northern Reefs.
The Far Northern Reefs starts north of the popular Ribbon Reefs and extends all the way to Papua New Guinea, a 600km stretch of reefs that are largely unexplored. This remote area is only accessible on a liveaboard boat, which only journey to this area in October, November and December, a time of calm weather conditions. Only a handful of liveaboard boats offer trips to the Far Northern Reefs and one of them is the wonderful Spirit of Freedom.
Spirit of Freedom is a luxurious 37m long vessel operating out of Cairns that usually does trips to the Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef. However, they also offer several seven day trips to the Far Northern Reefs each year and I was lucky enough to join one of these adventure trips in October 2017. I first had to fly 600km north of Cairns to join the boat, which was anchored in the heart of the Far Northern Reefs at the small settlement of Portland Roads.
After transferring to the boat, I dropped my gear in my spacious ensuite cabin and met my fellow passengers and the crew. After a wonderful dinner, the food an unforgettable part of any trip on Spirit of Freedom, and a briefing on the boat and itinerary, we weighed anchor and headed further north.
Our checkout dive was a great introduction to this unique part of the Great Barrier Reef, on a site called Auriga Bay at Southern Small Detached Reef. Here we explored coral gardens and a wall dropping into the abyss. We first dropped down the wall, seeing lovely gorgonians, soft corals and whip corals, plus encountered Maori wrasse, sweetlips, snappers and schools of parrotfish. In the shallows were pretty coral gardens with a good collection of reef fish and invertebrates. This was a great start, but we were soon exploring even more impressive dive sites in this spectacular area.
Over the next week we dived ten reefs and explored walls, pinnacles and very pretty coral gardens. The walls in this part of the Great Barrier Reef are festooned with large gorgonians and beautiful soft corals, and are patrolled by pelagic fish and sharks. At Black Rock we encountered schools of barracuda, trevally and snapper, and were buzzed by several large silvertip sharks. While at Epic the sharks followed us as we explored a wall covered in wonderful gorgonian fans. But a highlight was the cave dive at Big Woody. This site on Wood Reef is a peninsula with walls both sides and a cave cutting right through it. The cave and walls at Big Woody are covered in exquisite corals of every colour imaginable.
The coral gardens we explored were also stunning, dominated by very healthy hard corals and abundant reef fish. The best of these were at Perisher Blue, Turmoil, Aladdin’s Cave and especially Well Worth It. Located near the Stead Passage, Well Worth It was a sensational dive. We started the dive exploring caves and ledges lined with gorgonians and buzzing with barracuda, trevally, mackerel and gropers. But spent most of the dive drifting over endless fields of hard corals, where reef fish and whitetip reef sharks were darting about. We explored this wonderful dive site twice, and on the second dive a lucky group of divers encountered a small whale shark.
We also did two exploratory dives at sites we calling Stella and Plates On Parade. Both these sites had lovely corals and a good variety of reef fish and invertebrates. At Stella we also saw reef sharks and a tawny nurse shark, while at Plates On Parade the highlight was the best collection of plate corals I have ever seen.
During our week exploring the Far Northern Reefs we experienced a mixed bag of conditions. It was windy, choppy and overcast at the start of the trip, but by the end calm, sunny and clear. The visibility also varied greatly, from 12m to 40m plus, due to tidal flows and recent rains. While the water temperature varied from 26°C to 27°C.
One of the highlights of the trip was an afternoon diving the wonderful Raine Island, the largest and most important green turtle nesting site in the world. As you can imagine we saw plenty of turtles, including a mating pair, but also encountered reef sharks, pelagic fish, Maori wrasse and several small epaulette sharks. The corals at Raine Island are incredible, dominated by hard corals that are short, squat and packed together to endure rough seas.
My favourite dive sites were two towering pinnacles at Great Detached Reef. The first we explored was Deep Pinnacle, which rises from 60m to 14m. This twin peak pinnacle is covered in soft corals and gorgonians, and buzzing with schooling fish and sharks. But home to many small critters, I concentrated on the small stuff – the pipefish, boxfish, nudibranchs, flatworms, blennies and hawkfish. The Pinnacle was just as good, and rising to 4m gave us a much longer bottom time. This tower of coral also has lovely corals and abundant fish, but the macro critters won the day with anemonefish, leaf scorpionfish, pufferfish, octopus and numerous sea slugs.
Over the last few days we headed south, with our last day spent on the Ribbon Reefs before returning to Cairns. Here we explored Google Gardens and Steve’s Bommie. Both sites were wonderful with a great variety of marine life. Unfortunately Steve’s Bommie was not a good as my last visit six years ago, as this incredible pinnacle had suffered from cyclone damage and coral bleaching. It was still a brilliant dive, and fingers crossed it will return to its former glory.
My Spirit of Freedom trip to the Far Northern Reefs was an incredible adventure and I was very happy to see the hard corals were alive and well. Prior to the trip I was concerned about the state of the corals after two recent coral bleaching events on the northern section of the reef. With reports from scientists that a quarter of the coral in this region was dead (based on only 83 surveyed reefs) and even worst reports in the media that the entire reef north of Port Douglas was dead, it was a great relief to find the reefs we dived healthy and alive in the spectacular Far Northern Reefs.
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