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NORTH HORN – WALL TO WALL SHARKS IN THE CORAL SEA

by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

I once asked legendary underwater explorer Ron Taylor (over twenty years ago) what his favourite dive site was. Without a pause he answered North Horn at Osprey Reef. He went on to explain that the shark action at North Horn was just incredible and combined with spectacular terrain and wonderful corals it had it all. A few years later I got to explore North Horn for myself and enjoyed several amazing shark dives at the site, but this year I finally returned to North Horn, after a 16 year absence, and was keen to see if it was as sharky as I remembered.

 

We were on Australia’s premier liveaboard boat Spirit of Freedom, 37m of luxury afloat. Spirit of Freedom operates out of Cairns and offers two trips each week, a 3 day Ribbon Reef trip and a 4 day Coral Sea adventure, or combined into a 7 day trip, which we were on.

 

Our first three days on the Ribbon Reefs had been magic, enjoying close encounters with gropers, reef sharks, eagle rays, sea snakes, cuttlefish and massive schools of fish. Plus we explored lovely coral gardens and many spectacular pinnacles. On the fourth day we were anchored at Lizard Island for a passenger swap, those on the 3 day trip flew out and a new group flew in to explore the Coral Sea. The conditions over the first three days had been calm, but the wind had been increasing, which was starting to concern us, as the last time we attempted to dive Osprey Reef 5m seas and 40 knot winds prevented us.

 

After two lovely dives at a site called The Monolith, Spirit of Freedom skipper Cam informed us the weather forecast wasn’t looking good, but he was still confident we could reach Osprey Reef and would depart after dinner.

 

Well it was a bumpy night doing the open ocean crossing deep into the Coral Sea, but we made it and woke in the morning to find ourselves in the calm waters behind Osprey Reef, 200km off the coast. Spirit of Freedom have dozens of dive sites around Osprey Reef, which covers an area of 100 sqkm, and our first dive was at Silvercity, exploring one of the famous Osprey walls that drop into 1km of water. We had an enjoyable dive, gliding along the wall and admiring all the wonderful corals, also encountering grey reef sharks, trevally, mackerel, groper, but no silvertip sharks which give the site its name.

 

We would have more chance of see sharks on our next dive as the boat headed north to the very tip of Osprey Reef; it was time to dive the legendry North Horn.

 

Jumping into the water we were greeted by 40m visibility and looking below all we could see were sharks. There must have been over forty grey reef sharks and a dozen white tip reef sharks. This may sound like an exaggeration, but we have images where we can count twenty sharks in the background! The reason there are so many sharks at North Horn is because it has been the site of regular shark feeds for over thirty years, but you don’t need baits in the water to see sharks as they are always present at the site.

 

Descending to the shelf at 20m, we spend a couple of minutes just watching the parade of sharks, and then dropped down the wall to 30m to shoot some images of the incredible soft corals found at this site. We photographed two large yellow spikey soft corals, over a metre long, but below us we could see even bigger examples of these brilliant corals, that only get this big in the Coral Sea.

 

We then slowly cruised along the wall, looking out into the blue for some of the other shark species that can occasionally be seen at Osprey Reef. While there were plenty of grey reef sharks, we unfortunately didn’t see any hammerheads, silvertip, oceanic white tips, tigers, threshers or whale sharks.

 

We then returned to the main shelf and bommie, where the shark feed takes place, as the greatest concentration of sharks was gathered here. It was great to just hover and watch the grey reef sharks, white tip reef sharks and their accompanying remoras gliding around us. But it wasn’t just the sharks, as there were numerous reef fish, pelagic fish and two very friendly potato cod that would follow us around and peer into our masks. It was good to see that North Horn was as good as I remembered it, easily one of the best shark dives in Australia.

 

After lunch it was time to feed the sharks. The crew rigged up a small cage with tuna heads while we geared up. With the safety brief complete we entered the water and gathered around the main bommie, and it looked like even more sharks had arrived to join the feast.

 

With everyone in place the cage was lowered to the bottom, and the sharks, fish and gropers all rushed to the scent of food. Once on the bottom the cage lid was opened and the tuna heads floated free on a rope – then the sharks went mad. In a three minute frenzy the sharks ripped the heads apart. The gropers also got their share, while the fish cleaned up the scraps. It ended all too quickly; a silvertip was seen in the distance but didn’t come in to feed. With the food gone some of the sharks started to disburse, so we explored more of the colourful walls at North Horn.

 

After the shark feed Skipper Cam gave us the bad news, the weather was going to get worse and we wouldn’t be able to stay overnight at Osprey. We were to have one last dive before returning to the calm waters of the Ribbon Reefs. Our final dive at Camranh Bay was a bit of an anti-climax after the spectacular action at North Horn, but we still saw reef sharks, moray eels and some lovely coral gardens and caves.

 

It was another bumpy night returning to the Ribbon Reefs, but calm once inside the reef. We had another two days of wonderful diving on the Ribbon Reefs, seeing schools of trevally at George’s Wall, lovely coral gardens at Hi-Five and the giant clams at Clam Gardens. But the best was one of our favourite sites on the Great Barrier Reef – Steve’s Bommie.

 

Located on Ribbon Reef No.3, Steve’s Bommie has it all. This pinnacle is covered in schools of fish, but we also saw gropers, turtles, Maori wrasse, reef sharks and a wonderful collection of smaller critters like stonefish, pipefish, boxfish, nudibranchs, hawkfish and anemonefish.

 

We had a brilliant time diving the Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef on Spirit of Freedom and it is easy to see why this is one of the most popular diving destinations in Australia. But of all the wonderful dive sites we explored, North Horn stands out as one of the most spectacular dives in Australia.

 

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