Saturday, June 19, 2010

Diving Southern Queensland: The Gold Coast!

A little over ten years ago while visiting the Caribbean island of Dominica, I met Jules Morton and Glen Holmes, the divemasters at Castaways Hotel and Dive Center. We became friends and talked about diving in various places in the world that we loved. A few months later, Jules and Glen came up and visited Christine and I in Massachusetts for a few weeks. We did some New England diving, showed them our favorite dive sites in Eastport, Maine, and had a great time sharing dive stories. Glen told me that some day I needed to go to Australia to dive the Gold Coast—his favorite diving. Ten years later, to the exact day, Glen took me, Julia and Kerry diving in the Gold Coast area. Glen promised some of the best diving ever. Well, we were not disappointed! We went out diving with Herb Ilic from Palm Beach Dive on his boat Evolution on a private charter with Glen as our divemaster. We were looking for some Wobbegong sharks for a segment on benthic sharks (sharks that live on the bottom), and boy did we find them. Dozens upon dozens of Wobbegongs of two species covered the sea floor at dive sites filled with clouds of silvery baitfish. The sharks have obviously been gorging themselves on the baitfish, and they were bloated from all the food.

At a site called Windara Banks, we dropped into crystal clear water, about 70 degrees and descended to 75 feet where we found the top of a seamount. It was a deep dive. At 120 feet I found a solitary Sand Tiger shark (they call them Grey Nurse sharks in Australia). Although the dive was visually stunning, we were not seeing as many sharks as we liked, so we switched to another site called Julian Rocks. I have never seen so many Wobbegongs anywhere in one place! And as we dropped deeper, there were about 10 Grey Nurse sharks cruising in the gulleys between the rocks.

The diving around Gold Coast is unusual because it blends critters found in more northerly tropical waters with the critters found in the temperate waters to the south. For example, you see temperate algae and Wobbegongs living alongside tropical crinoids, soft coral and Eagle rays. Very interesting diversity!

This exciting diving, although a little chilly, was a wonderful way to wrap up a magnificent trip diving around Queensland! We shot several segments for Blue World and explored a region that none of us had ever seen before. We would like to extend a grateful thanks to Tourism Queensland for their assistance in putting this trip together and helping us pull it off. Kerry and I can hardly wait to get home and start editing the video into some new, exciting segments for season 3 of Jonathan Bird’s Blue World!


Monday, June 14, 2010

Blue World Team entry #2 from Queensland, Australia – June 15, 2010

Well the JBBW team is back in Cairns having just returned from four days aboard the Spoilsport, the 100’ well appointed dive boat belonging to Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Although it didn’t turn out exactly as we’d planned, our liveaboard experience was wonderful and we have several hours of footage to add to the Blue World segment library.

We boarded the Spoilsport on the evening of Thursday, June 10th where we were welcomed with champagne cocktails and snacks by our crew of 12. We got our cabin assignments, unpacked our dive gear and settled in for the night and our short crossing to the Ribbon Reef.

Each day onboard had generally the same schedule which began at 6:45 AM with a cheerful call of ‘Wakey, wakey” from Trip Director Kerrin. This was followed by a light breakfast and an early 7:15 AM dive. Then came the full breakfast, open dive deck which usually meant two dives, lunch, two more dives, a night dive and finally dinner. All in all you can get in 4-5 dives a day. The crew is outstanding and run an open dive deck, meaning you can get in an out of the water at will (following all the safe and proper diving procedures of course). Diving is done directly from the dive deck and the crew set up ample ropes to guide divers to and from the various sites.

Our three days of diving offered us 14 dives that covered the Great Barrier Reef from Steve’s Bommie on Ribbon Reef #3, to Stepping Stones on Ribbon Reef #10. The currents were light and our visibility averaged about 40’. Our trip was to have included a crossing out to Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, but unfortunately this had to be cancelled due to 30 knot winds and 15’ seas.

On all of our dives on the Great Barrier Reef we saw massive ‘bommies’ (coral heads), beautiful reef topography, a wide variety of reef fish and had plenty of marine life to interact with. One of our highlights was at Lighthouse Bommie where we first encountered Olive Sea Snakes. We met some of the most cooperative sea snakes possible all destined for a job in television. Jonathan shot some fascinating footage of these snakes hunting in and around coral heads and rocks and got to interact quite closely with them.

Another highlight were the Giant Potato Cods at Cod Hole. At one point in time, the cod here were fed regularly by all the dive boats. This practice has recently been generally curtailed, but divers still benefit from how familiar the cod are with divers. The cod will generally swim right over as soon as they see you and indeed Jonathan and one of the largest Potato Cod became quite close. If it were possible, Jonathan’s children would now have a new, 6 foot long, pet cod. By the way, the cod are called ‘Potato Cod’ due to their uncanny resemblance to large gray potatoes. They are actually large groupers.

Other highlights included large schools of Big Eye Jacks and Yellow Striped Snapper, truly giant clams, very personable Green Turtles, white tipped and gray reef sharks and a surprising encounter with Tawny Reef Sharks which showed up one night while we were moored just outside of Lizard Island. Jonathan managed to get some good shots of these by dropping his camera over the side of the dive deck.

The only disappointment for us was that we didn’t get any personal encounters with Minke Whales. Minkes were high on our shot list and although several other divers onboard did get to see at least one or two, however briefly, we didn’t get a glimpse. We are here at the very beginning of the season, so advice to those of you that have high hopes of Minke encounters, you may want to wait until the season is in full swing in July and August. Thankfully the sea snakes, cod, and large schools of fish rounded out our shot list nicely.

The last night onboard was spent moored just off of Lizard Island. The crew threw a lovely Australian barbeque and a great time was had by all. The next day delivered quite a treat as our return trip to Cairns was via a low flying, single prop airplane from Lizard Island. This is part of the standard 4-day dive package for Mike Ball Dive expeditions. The flight took us over long strips of the Great Barrier Reef and we got to appreciate the vastness and beauty of it all. We were able to get some good shots of the reef during the flight.

Next we go back to Brisbane to dive the Gold Coast. We can’t wait to see what we’ll find there.

~ Julia

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Blue World Team lands in Australia!

After a 32 hour series of flights from Boston, the Blue World film crew (this time consisting of me, Kerry Hurd and Julia Cichowski) arrived in Cairns, Australia. Our assignment: shooting segments featuring the amazing underwater experiences to be had in Queensland. We’ll be here for 2 weeks documenting marine life from the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns, to the Coral Sea, all the way down to the sharks in the waters off Brisbane.

Our first two days were spent working at the Great Barrier Reef with a company called Sunlover Reef Cruises. They have a massive platform they call a “pontoon” anchored right next to a beautiful section of reef. It takes about 90 minutes to reach the pontoon by boat. Passengers board a 100 foot long catamaran for the ride out. However, our first day we were flown on a helicopter out to the pontoon so we could shoot some aerials of the Great Barrier Reef. In a helicopter, it’s a 20 minute flight. After we arrived and flew around for a few nice shots of the pontoon anchored near the reef, we flew up the reef a little and shot some impressive looking stuff of the reef. Then we landed on the helipad about 100 yards from the pontoon. Since they sell helicopter flights as part of the tourism operation, people get shuttled back and forth to the helipad by boat all day long to get their 10 minute aerial tour of the reef.

Once we got to the pontoon, I was impressed with not only how immense this floating activity center was, but all the things you can do! They have an underwater viewing room with windows on the reef, a semi-sub and glass-bottomed boat for tours of the reef, snorkeling, scuba diving, scuba instruction and even a program called Seawalkers (which the dive instructors playfully call the “bucket head program.” More on this later.)

We started our day with a dive on the reef. The tide had turned and the viz was down a bit to maybe 50 feet. A little murky by tropical diving standards, but it didn’t inhibit our enthusiasm because the reef was gorgeous and the marine life is so used to divers that they have absolutely no fear. (In truth this is also because they are fed to bring them over to the divers and snorkelers). We watched a sea turtle that would follow a divemaster like a puppy. A huge Maori wrasse decided I was his best friend and followed me for 20 minutes, looking at my hands for food and peering with wonder into my camera lens. They use small 72 cu ft tanks and we milked ours for the most bottom time possible! Fortunately Julia had her Ikelite G11 still camera rig and shot some great pics of the action while Kerry was filming for the show. When Kerry finally ran out of air, I had just a few minutes left with no cameraman. The wrasse was so close that I turned my camera around and was able to film a self-portrait with the fish. That’s close!

On our second day on the Sunlover pontoon, we rode out on the boat, did some various topside shots and standups around the pontoon, then of course did another dive, where we encountered the friendliest sea turtle in the ocean. After lunch we participated in the Seawalker program. This is a program for people who want to get underwater without scuba. It looks a little hokey, but we thought it would be hilarious in the segment, so Julia and I geared up to try it while Kerry filmed. Basically, they put an 80 pound helmet on your head, with a huge plexiglass window in the front. They pump air into the helmet so you have a constant flow of fresh air to breathe. It bubbles out the back. Underwater the helmet weighs about 8 pounds. You walk down a ladder and onto a nice flat platform, where they bring some fish over. My assessment? It’s an absolute riot! It was probably the most fun I have had underwater in ages! Wait until you see the segment. (We rigged an audio recorder in my helmet so I could do standups underwater on camera. Very cool stuff). Julia shot some funny pics.

After the bucket-head experience, we boarded the boat for the ride back to Cairns, had some food and did more shots on the boat. We have wrapped our first Queensland segment. Today we are boarding the Mike Ball live-aboard boat to Osprey Reef for 5 days. It should be awesome!