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
OSPREY REEF – AUSTRALIA’S BEST SHARK DIVE
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Australia is a sharky country; there are few places on the planet where you will see such large numbers and such a wide variety of shark species. Divers can head to South Australia to see great whites, or Western Australia for whale sharks, or New South Wales for grey nurse sharks, but there is only one dive site where you can jump in the water and be surrounded by over forty sharks before you even reach the bottom. That place is the legendary North Horn at Osprey Reef.
Osprey Reef is one of the most remote dive sites in Australia. Located 200km offshore, around 300km north east of Cairns, Osprey Reef is deep in the Coral Sea, well beyond the Great Barrier Reef. The reef covers an area of around 100 square kilometres and is famous for its wall dives – which drop into 1km of water. Renowned for great visibility, which can be 60m at times, Osprey Reef is a great place to see sharks, pelagic fish, spectacular corals and just about any ocean wonderer.
Remote as Osprey Reef is, it is the only Coral Sea reef regularly visited by charter boats from Cairns. We recently joined one of those boats, Spirit of Freedom for a seven day trip to the Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef, but our main goal was to dive Osprey Reef, as the last time we attempted to reach this amazing reef we were stopped by 5m seas!
The first three days in the Ribbon Reefs were wonderful. We encountered massive schools of trevally and humpheaded parrotfish at Challenger Bay, explored towering pinnacles of coral covered in fish and invertebrates at Lighthouse Bommie, Two Towers and Pixie Pinnacle, encountered turtles and sea snakes at the Snake Pit and enjoyed the company of several very large and very friendly potato cod at the famous Cod Hole.
At the end of day three we pulled in at Lizard Island, at the very top of the Ribbon Reefs, for a night. The next morning the divers on the three day trip departed and a new group of divers joined us to explore Osprey Reef. That afternoon we did two lovely dives at a site called The Monolith; seeing batfish, moray eels, garden eels, barracuda and trevally. All day the wind had been picking up and we were starting to worry that we would miss out on Osprey Reef again. At dinner the skipper informed us that the forecast wasn’t looking good, but he was going to attempt the crossing to Osprey Reef.
We have dived the amazing reefs of the Coral Sea many times and have always found the open ocean crossing to be rough, almost like a rite of passage to explore these spectacular reefs. We expected it to be a bit rocky, but Spirit of Freedom handled the conditions well and we woke, after a bumpy night, to find ourselves at Osprey Reef.
There are dozens of dive sites around Osprey Reef, and for our first dive we tied up at the mooring at Silver City, a spot known for its silvertip sharks. It was early in the morning so the visibility was only 30m, not the 45m plus it usually is out here. We explored the wall to 40m, with the wall disappearing into the darkness below. We encountered grey reef sharks, mackerel, trevally and schools of fusiliers. One of the features of Osprey Reef is its wonderful healthy corals and we saw some lovely gorgonians, soft corals and whip corals. We also spent some time exploring the caves and gutters that cut into the wall in the shallows, but didn’t see the silvertip sharks.
While grey reef sharks and white tip reef sharks are the most common shark species seen at Osprey Reef, divers regularly see silvertip sharks, black tip reef sharks and tawny nurse sharks, and if you are very lucky maybe a thresher shark, oceanic white tip shark, tiger shark, whale shark, great hammerhead or even a school of scalloped hammerheads over winter.
Our next dive was to be the most famous site at Osprey Reef – the legendary North Horn. This is where the charter boats do a shark feed, but you don’t even need food in the water to see plenty of sharks. As soon as we jumped in the water we could see over forty grey reef sharks and a dozen white tip reef sharks cruising about in the crystal clear water. We dropped to 30m to photograph some of the magnificent soft corals found at this site.
After exploring the wall for awhile, constantly peering out into the blue for any passing sharks and pelagics, we returned to the main ledge and bommie to photograph the endless parade of sharks. It was just magic to watch so many sharks swimming around you in the 40m visibility. Anywhere you pointed the camera you could capture a photo with a dozen or more sharks in the frame. We were also joined by two very friendly potato cod that would stare into your mask or follow you around the site. We could have stayed on the bottom all day with the sharks, but with air getting low and lunch about to be served we finally surfaced.
After lunch the crew prepared a meal for the sharks, packing a cage full of tuna heads. The crew then briefed everyone on what to do and what to expect. Everyone quickly geared up and gathered around the main bommie at the site where the cage was to be positioned. While everyone was getting into place the crew rigged up ropes to pull down the cage. The reef sharks were getting excited and were buzzing around us and another potato cod had made an appearance.
When all was ready the cage of food was dropped into the water and quickly pulled to the bottom, with the sharks swarming around it. Once it was on the bottom a latch was released to open the cage and allow the tuna heads, on a rope, to float free. This started a feeding frenzy; the sharks, gropers and gathered fish ripping the heads apart. For the next three or four minutes we watched a savage display of the sharks tearing the heads apart and swimming off before their meal was stolen by another shark or groper.
It didn’t take long for the heads to get devoured and when there was only one left a potato cod decided to claim it by clamping its mouth around the head and refusing to let go. It was quite comical to watch the frustrated sharks trying to get the last head and the groper refusing to open its mouth or let go. Finally one of the grey reef sharks snuck in the side and managed to bite a part of the head. This forced the groper to let go and allowed the sharks to finish the feed. With the food gone the sharks settled down and started to depart. Some of the divers searched the bommie for shark teeth while we concentrated on photographing the slowly departing sharks.
We were due to stay overnight at Osprey Reef and explore more of its magic dive sites, but with the wind increasing the skipper decided it was wise to return that night to the calm waters of the Great Barrier Reef. We had time for one last dive at Osprey Reef at a site called Camranh Bay. This is a new site that often gets visited by manta rays, we didn’t see any of these giant rays but still had an enjoyable time exploring the coral gardens and caves, and saw reef sharks and moray eels.
It would have been nice to have stayed at Osprey Reef and see more of its sharks, but we know we will be back to explore more of this magic dive site in the remote Coral Sea wilderness.
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