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
THE LEGENDARY NORTH HORN
by Nigel Marsh
Sharks are regularly encountered at most dive sites in Australia, but there is one site that is without doubt the sharkest dive site Down Under – the legendary North Horn.
I first heard about North Horn around thirty years ago, a dive site reputed to be literally plagued with sharks. It quickly went to the top of my list of places to dive, but getting to this site was more of an issue back then as North Horn is a remote dive site located deep in the Coral Sea, 300km north east of Cairns at Osprey Reef. At that time only one charter boat was visiting this area, and its trips were more expensive than I could afford, especially as I had only just started working.
After diving other sharky spots over the years, North Horn kind of slipped down the list a little, but it went back on top after famous underwater filmmaker Ron Taylor told me it was his favourite dive site because of all the sharks. That was it, I booked on a trip in 1995 and finally got to dive North Horn, and after the long wait it was as good as I had hoped.
There were dozens of reef sharks cruising around the site; grey reef sharks, white tip reef sharks and black tip reef sharks. I literally just sat on the bottom with a grin on my face watching and photographing all the sharks glide by. The shark action even ramped up a notch when the crew did a shark feed, the number of reef sharks doubled and three big silvertip sharks also joined in the action. This topped off a fantastic couple of dives at North Horn.
I have always wanted to return to North Horn to revisit the sharks and photograph them with a digital camera, as I quickly ran out of film on the last visit, but with so many new dive destinations to explore I never got around to joining another trip. I was also worried that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered it, especially after hearing that some fishermen had decimated the shark numbers a few years ago. Well after a sixteen year absence I finally booked a trip to return to North Horn; but I almost didn’t make it to this elusive dive site.
Osprey Reef is now the only Coral Sea reef that is regularly visited by charter boats operating out of Cairns. Three boats, Spoilsport, Taka and Spirit of Freedom, include this amazing reef in their weekly trips to the Ribbon Reefs. My wife, Helen Rose, and I joined Spirit of Freedom for one of these trips recently for an unforgettable week on this luxury liveaboard. Spirit of Freedom is 37m long and well fitted out, with a large dive deck, roomy cabins, a great crew and most importantly – spectacular meals.
The first three days of the trip were spent exploring the Ribbon Reefs, which has some of the best dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef. We explored coral gardens, reef walls and some incredible pinnacles, all of which were home to a wealth of marine life. Highlights of these dives included encountering schools of big-eye trevally and humphead parrotfish at Challenger Bay, the turtles and sea snakes of Lighthouse Bommie, the macro life and flaming file shells at Pixie Pinnacle and squadrons of eagle rays at The Snake Pit.
But the standout dive was Cod Hole, famous for its friendly potato cod. The first time I dived Cod Hole there were over a dozen of these giant groper hanging around the site, but you are more likely to see three or four these days. I am unsure what has caused the decline; I am hoping that some have just moved on, but even with only a handful of gropers it is still a joy to dive with these friendly fish. The gropers are completely unafraid of divers, and will peering into your mask or camera lens. They even follow you around if you look interesting. The crew of Spirit of Freedom also do a cod feed, but I enjoyed the more relaxed close encounters with these gropers when there was no food in the water.
On the fourth day of the trip there was a change of passengers at Lizard Island, those on the three day Ribbon Reefs portion departed and those on the four day Coral Sea section joined the boat. We were on for the entire seven days, so had a walk on Lizard Island looking out for the large goannas that give the island its name.
After several afternoon dives at a site called The Monolith, the skipper reported that the forecast wasn’t looking good for the trip to Osprey Reef. For the last few days the wind had slowly been increasing in strength, which had little effect on the diving in the calm waters behind the Ribbon Reefs, but Osprey Reef lies out in the open ocean, another 100km offshore. I had attempted to reach Osprey Reef the year before, but 5m seas and 40 knot winds put an end to that adventure. The skipper said he was still going to give it a go, so we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
I have been fortunate to dive many of the spectacular reefs of the Coral Sea and have always found the crossing to these remote reefs to be rough, almost like a rite of passage, and this crossing was no different. It was a bumpy night, very hard to sleep when getting lifted out of your bed, but I didn’t mind this, I was more worried that the boat might turn around, but the skipper pushed through and we woke to find ourselves at Osprey Reef.
I was eager to dive North Horn again, but our first stop was at a site called Silver City, exploring one of the kilometre deep walls that surround Osprey Reef. Although named after the silvertip sharks that are often seen at the site, we didn’t see any of these large predators, instead encountering grey reef sharks and a good collection of pelagic fish. Decorating the walls and caves at the site were also some wonderful corals, including soft corals, gorgonians and whip corals.
After breakfast we moved north and tied up to a mooring at the northern most tip of Osprey Reef, it was time to revisit North Horn. The surface conditions were a little sloppy, but the water looked clear and blue. I jumped in expecting to see a few sharks, so was very surprised to see around forty grey reef sharks cruising about in mid water. Our descent to the reef took almost five minutes as we were too busy watching and photographing the reef sharks gliding around us in the 40m visibility. It is not often you can point your camera in any direction and get a dozen sharks or more in the frame.
Once on the bottom we continued to watch the sharks for another five minutes, but we also had a dozen white tip reef sharks stalking around the reef top. If that wasn’t enough to photograph there were also two large potato cod that had come to greet us and were now hovering in front of our cameras.
By now a number of other divers had joined us, so it was a good time to explore more of North Horn. We swam across the plateau to the reef edge and dropped down the wall to 30m. Dotting the wall here were numerous soft coral trees around a 1m long, but below we could see some bigger examples that only seem to get to this giant size in the Coral Sea.
We then drifted along the wall, finding other beautiful soft corals and encountering numerous reef fish and pelagic fish. We also had our eyes on the blue water as North Horn is a great place to see just about anything. In the previous weeks the crew had seen scalloped hammerheads, manta rays, sailfish and even a whale shark. We were hoping to see some of the schooling scalloped hammerheads that gather here at winter, but the water temperature must have been too warm for them today. Returning to the epicentre of the shark action, which is a small bommie, we spent the rest of the dive photographing one of best shark gatherings in Australia.
Back on the boat we had lunch while the crew prepared a meal for the sharks, packing a cage with tuna heads. North Horn has been a shark feeding site for over thirty years and is now the only site in the Coral Sea where sharks are fed. While I enjoy the spectacle of a shark feed, I always find them frustrating to photograph as you can’t get in close, there is always a lot of junk in the water and the sharks are zipping around so fast that it is difficult to focus on anything. And this shark feed was no different.
Once everyone was on the bottom and arranged around the central bommie, which sits in a natural amphitheatre, the crew rigged up a system of ropes. Then the cage was dumped into the water and dragged to the bottom. The scent of food quickly had the sharks excited, they zoomed around the cage and it looked like another twenty grey reef sharks had joined the action. When the cage was on the bottom the lid was opened so the tuna heads could float free on a line, then the feeding frenzy began. The grey reef sharks slammed into the heads, tearing them to pieces, with the fish and white tip reef sharks picked up the scraps. The potato cod were also right in the thick of it, muscling between the sharks to grab some food. A silvertip shark was seen in the distance, but didn’t come in to feed unlike the last shark feed I experienced here when three silvertips barged in to grab the food.
The shark feed only lasted about five minutes, then the sharks quickly settled down and started to disperse. We explored more of the reef at North Horn, still hoping to see some hammerheads but it wasn’t to be our day. But we did see something special, a school of over a hundred coral trout, a sight I have never seen before and later learned was most likely a spawning aggregation. We ended our dive at North Horn just hanging in the blue water with the grey reef sharks and their entourage of remoras, savouring the sharks as long as possible.
The rest of the trip was wonderful, but a bit of an anti-climax after the spectacular shark action at North Horn. We only got one more dive at Osprey Reef as the forecast was predicting even stronger winds, so didn’t get to spend the usual two days out here. Back on the Ribbon Reefs we enjoyed exploring more coral gardens and pinnacles as we slowly headed south to Cairns. While we explored a number of memorable dive sites over the last two days the best was a pinnacle of coral known as Steve’s Bommie.
I have dived this site many times and rate it as one of the best dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef. Steve’s Bommie rises from 36m to 4m and is always covered in fish. Over two dives we encountered schools of trevally, barracuda, snapper, goatfish, surgeonfish and fusiliers. Reef fish are abundant on the bommie and we also encountered gropers, reef sharks, turtles, Maori wrasse and numerous coral cod. Steve’s Bommie is also a great spot to find smaller critters, including nudibranchs, hawkfish, gobies, flatworms, shrimps, crabs, pipefish, lionfish, anemonefish, rock cod, mantis shrimps and a dozen colourful stonefish.
These dives at Steve’s Bommie topped off a great week of diving the Ribbon Reefs and Osprey Reef, but of all the dives North Horn was the standout feature of the trip and I know I will not wait another sixteen years for a return visit.
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