Poor Knights Islands is a group of islands that sits off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
Designated a marine reserve, it’s home to many creatures, large and small.
If you’re really lucky, you could encounter a whale shark – as they did the week before we arrived – but even if you’re less lucky, there’s plenty of rays, nudis, and schools of fish to keep the majority of divers well happy.
Over the 6 dives we did over two days, there was heaps of variety: in fish life, the corals and kelp, and not to mention the topography – the volcanic nature of the formations above water continue underneath, with lovely vertical walls, caves and interesting valleys and swimthroughs.
And speaking of topography – there are so many arches! Which in true New Zealand style, are aptly named: Eastern Arch, Middle Arch, North Arch….. The locals laughed at the fame of some NZ locations whose claim to fame is a single arch – spoiled by them here!
On this trip, we dived with Yukon Dive.
It was such a quintessential New Zealand experience from my perspective. Laid back semi-retired crew, who have dive the area so long, they even have sites named after them.
One such lady (incidentally, the only other woman on the boat), we were lucky enough to have as our dive guide. Mary has so much knowledge on the dive spots of Poor Knights, her name was even on the survey map (dated early 90’s) of a cave we explored. She was also impressive in her ability to single-handedly get kitted up in a drysuit in the time it takes most people to pull a wetsuit on.
So thanks to the whole Yukon team – both on the boat* and of course Jo for her organisation of us between 2016’s failed visit and 2017’s victorious one!
* P.S. You’ll never go hungry with Noel’s hard work in the kitchen
Really, in NZ, self-drive is the only way to get efficiently where you want to go. But it’s also a bit of a challenge (if you’re not used to country roads) – the roads are often quite bendy, and narrow, and subject to some questionable drivers sharing the lanes with you. For us, we did the trip there from Paihia, which only takes about 1.5hours, but from Auckland, it’s about a 3 hour drive (though not according to locals – “2.5 hours to the bridge”, or Google, to be honest. But who wants to crank it like that.)
It’s well worth taking your time anyway, the beaches dotted along the coast are beautiful – made it a bit of a shame to run the flying trip we did.
The winding country roads also fool you into thinking that the launch place is going to be a little shack, perhaps the classic tractor drop for the boat. But no, pulling into Tutukaka off the sometimes-single-lane road, you enter a marina that’s surprisingly large – Tutukaka is a gathering point for deep sea anglers, not to mention the largest dive operation in New Zealand, Dive! Tutukaka.
Dolphins!!!! You know how we love dolphins. Even though it feels like a little cheating on diving, as you have no need to a tank on your back to have fun with dolphins, they are the highlight of almost any trip!
A pod of at least 50 raced with our boat, giving themselves a good ol’ scratch on the front prongs of the bow.
Well, I went to Langkawi for a Christmas getaway with a friend, with the aim of simply sunbathing and not doing much else. So, I took only my mask and dive computer with me, knowing that at best I’d probably only do one day’s diving.
Just as well too, because there wasn’t a lot to recommend Langkawi as a dive location.
There were no dive shops on the island – the only dive operator who went to the local islands simply has a shack on Pantai Cenang and a runabout. And the viz is only a few metres at best. Not that either of those things put me off – I still went! It was lovely to get out on the water, and we did get to see a few seahorses, box fish and crabs.
There is a marine park you can go to – but I was told by the dive guys that, really, it was more trouble than it was worth (many snorkelling tourists; large groups etc). Happy to hear counter-stories though if anyone has any!
You may recall that in June last year Carolyn and I went to Lady Elliot Island for our birthdays. During this trip we went to an evening talk on Manta Rays that was presented by Dr. Fabrice Jayne (aka; Dr Hottie). He told us not only about Mantas, but also about an organisation called the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) and their volunteer program Underwater Africa. They conduct research with a main focus on the conservation of Mantas and Whalesharks. MMF’s main base is in Tofo, Mozambique, a very long way from Sydney, however with an upcoming wedding of a good friend in South Africa I was sure I could swing it. Without needing a great deal of encouragement, flights and leave were booked, gear was packed and I was on my way. Unfortunately leaving my trusty dive buddy at behind, so apologies in advance as my photos aren’t quite up to Caro’s standards!
I did 12 dives during my 2 week stint in Tofo with a crew called Peri-Peri Divers. This dive shop is the newest in town and run by a talkative Mancunian named Steve and his South African comrade Nick. I will be the first to admit that I was a little unsure of how the dive standards in Africa were going to compare to Australia or even Asia for that matter, however this operation is very professionally run with as high a standards as I’ve seen anywhere outside of Queensland (FYI – QLD’s standards are ridicules).
I soon understood why. The diving and the ocean conditions here can be difficult, even for experienced divers. There is also no jetty or wharf area, so launching the zodiac from a surf beach involves a tractor, brute force and good timing. The dives are deep and can be subject to currents and surge so all back roll entries are negative, you can get thermoclines that drop 10 degrees in a matter of seconds, and most importantly the marine life you are diving with are vulnerable species that need to be protected from foolish frolickers.
Tofo is one of the few places in the world where mantas (both reef and oceanic) and whalesharks are not seasonal, they are found here all year round. Oh yep, except for that part of that one year that I get to go all the way from Sydney to see them. Zero, zilch, nudda, not one of either of the things I went to see. A really good reason to be awfully disappointed, yet strangely I wasn’t. I haven’t done a great deal of diving the Indian Ocean so there were many things that I haven’t ever seen that I saw on nearly every dive here. New fishy friends!!
The dive sites are split into deep and shallow sites and there isn’t too much middle ground. Deep is 32 meters and shallow is 10 – 14. So your dive time is either 35 minutes or 80, which is fine but inevitably there will always be one person throwing a hissy fit that they were made to surface with 120 bar. Unfortunately the deep sites have no magic gradual inclines at the end of their reef so once the most conservative dive computer hits 2 minutes deco the group starts a slow assent and the dive is up. Again safety first, I like it!
Going deep! The deep sites I got the pleasure of diving were the close laying Giants, Manta Reef and Outback to the south, and Reggies to the far north. The general rule is that the deeper you go the bigger things are, and that was fairly accurate. The deep sites provided schooling trevally (or king fish as they are referred to locally) as well as barracouta, honeycomb morays all over the place, loggerhead and green turtles, guitar fish, yellow mouth morays, potato and African groupers, many large marble rays (blotched fantail rays), red tooth trigger fish and one lonely little mobular ray cruising around above. Obviously the deeper you go the chillier it can get too, with one dive on giants dropping down to just 19 degrees from 28! Very chilly considering I was only in my sharkskin!
The shallower and more colourful sites of salon, mikes (north) and chimney (south) are where you can make up some of the time your deco levels stole on the deep sites. There you will find colourful corals, mantis and harlequin shrimp, giant, tiny and even hairy frogfish, octopus, spotted boxfish, cowfish, crocodile fish, stonefish, juvenile emperor angel fish (cute!) and teams of tiny antheas and fuseilias. The guides (whilst seemingly preferring the deeper sites) are very good finding little critters that you never even knew existed!
I also embarked on a Ocean Safari with Peri-Peri in search of the seemingly elusive Whale Shark. As previously mentioned we were unsuccessful in this hunt yet I did manage to see an amazing pod of humpback dolphins. These are another species that I never knew existed so it was met with the cry ‘look dolphins, wait a sec, they look weird’. Weird indeed, and rather shy. They came close to the boat, but as soon as I excitedly jumped in, camera in hand, they were off.
Getting to Africa from Oz is pretty straight forward, you can get direct flights from Sydney or Perth to Johannesburg, and then the fun starts. The closest airport to Tofo is Inhambane, the only airline that flies to Inhambane is LAM – and here the problem lay. This small government owned airline seem to just make things up as they go along. Whilst you may have booked a direct flight, you will more than likely find out on the day that you are flying via Maputo or Vilankulos prior to getting to Inhambane. So if you have connections allow at least 4 hours for your flight to be delayed, re routed or altogether cancelled. Once you eventually arrive at Inhambane your accommodation will collect you to bring you the 30 minute drive to Tofo.
Tofo above water
Tofo is a cool place and if you are staying more than a week or 2 you will know most of the ex pats in town and the weekly routine of where to go on what nights. The local community are extremely friendly and make you feel welcome from the start. Brancos is the place to go for pizza and hot rocks and seems to be that starting place for most nights out. Then flash forward a few hours and Mozambeat is the place where most nights end. With it’s never ending closing time and swimming pool this joint is the place to be, though a little difficult to get to as it’s on the back streets away from the beach. The more upmarket What U Want is good for Italian and the fish of the day and the Cassa Barry restaurant seem to be where people congregate for lunch.
You can also volunteer whilst you are in Tofo, it’s a great way to learn about the marine environment and also help out the local community.
Check out my gallery here!
Read my volunteering blog here!
We’d heard Raja Ampat described as ‘one of the most biodiverse places on earth’ – how could we not dream to go there?
And when your good mates from the other side of the world have a similar agenda for New Years, oh my yes, off we went!
Not ones to do things by half, we split our time between a 6-night (well, 7, but we bailed a little early) liveaboard, and 5 nights in a local guesthouse in central Raja Ampat.
Raja Ampat is a huge area – with over 170,000 islands – so you could never go everywhere in one go, unless of course you had months on end to spend. From the key divisions of North, South and Central, we made it to the latter two.
For the first half of our trip, we sailed – aboard the Black Manta – down to Misool in southern Raja Ampat, taking in the dive sites of Candy Store, Andiamo, Boo (as in bow and arrow) Window, Yillet and Yillet Kecil, Magic Mountain, and many more.
Not to mention a hilarious New Year’s Eve anchored off an island, which involved some rather unsafe fireworks launching procedures from the beach – no OSH regulations here!
We then headed north to Central Raja Ampat for our last couple of days on the boat and for our island stint at Lumba Lumba Guesthouse. The most distressing thing about heading back towards the more populated Raja Ampat was the increase in surface rubbish. An unfortunate product of lax urban waste removal is that whenever it rains, the rubbish collected and left near rivers outside the cities is washed out to sea – where it becomes the problem of the villagers of the small islands in the area (who weren’t responsible for the rubbish in the first place).
Thankfully, once you quickly submerged under the surface, the environment is still near-pristine.
Dive site highlights
From coral reefs to wall dives, the sites of Batu Rufus, Melissa’s Garden, Manta Sandy, Yangeffo, Moiskan, Blue Magic, Magic Mountain, Sardine Reef, Chicken Reef, Aborek, and Cape Kri were all, even on a bad day, up there with the best of them.
Rated #72 on Scuba Travel’s 100 Best Dives Sites in the World, this was where we got our first manta action. My favourite type of action, where they’re just going about their business and we were unobtrusive observers. As always, the mantas glide through the water so gracefully.
Comparing to Lady Elliot, there were probably a greater proportion of black mantas, but maybe this was just perception given our boat’s name.
It was also the location where we got to see Pilot Whales! We could hear them a little while under water, but just after getting into the runabout, we saw them also – all around us, a big pod making their away across the sea. Yay!!! Unlike the dolphins or humpback whales we’ve had surface encounters with before though, these beauties didn’t want to play with us. Which was fine, it was lovely just to sit in our little boat watching them cruise about. A great way to end a dive.
Well, we weren’t exactly sure if we got the right spot on this dive. But wherever we were, it was great. We started in an area that had a pretty strong current, and not great vis, but then, trusting our crazy Mimpi guide, we crossed over a barren ‘roadway’, and ended up at a good reef.
It was one of those dives where there were cool creatures to see under every ledge. Along with the usual scorpionfish, stingray, pufferfish etc, we also came across mantis shrimp, painted spiny lobster, and a really cute baby barramundi – and nope, we didn’t know that was what it was until after we surfaced (despite all the ‘yummy-for-my-tummy’ hand gestures going on while below).
This was a perfect dive for the morning after New Years Eve. Nice and easy just cruising around a reef.
The most memorable feature of this location was the comedy that the geography allowed. Many of the tiny islands in Raja Ampat have at least partially eroded under the surface, leaving either swimthroughs or large reverse ledges. Which makes some of them a bit like a ceiling on the water.
Or, if you’re a daily diver, a floor on which to practice your moon walking:
– Step 1: Remove your fins
– Step 2: Flip upside down
– Step 3: Inflate your BCD
– Step 4: pretend to jog across the underside of an island.
An odd sight. Especially after a few minutes when you kind of forget exactly who is upside down – is it you? or me?
Does what it says in the tin. It’s sandy, and there’re mantas. Comprising just a few boulders that form a cleaning station, it’s a wonder the mantas know where to come to, but they do. We were apparently lucky on the days we visited it, seeing 6-8 mantas both times. And lucky we felt. So gorgeous.
The site is so well known for its cleaning station that the local dive crews have set up a perimeter of coral and rocks to control somewhat how close divers get to the bommies, so as not to upset the mantas. Which is practical, but it does make it a little much like a theatre show for my liking (I prefer when you encounter creature more ‘in the wild’).
And on the subject of mantas, what we were really hoping to see at Raja Ampat (besides whalesharks, which we weren’t quite in the right area for) was oceanic mantas – Really Really Big Mantas, in laymans terms. And at Magic Mountain, we did. On both dives.
The site is a long reef, with pretty strong currents, so a bit of a workout to get around it. The top is also at about 12 metres, so you need to negative entry to get down and make sure you don’t miss the site. But you know what they say – No run, No fun!
On both of our visits, first on Black Manta and then with Didi from Lumba Lumba, it wasn’t til the end of the dive that we saw these beauties. Our first visit was graced by a juvenile, so it was about the size of a reef manta, but with pointier wings, but the second encounter was epic:
At the end of our dive, after 50 minutes pulling against the current, and some fun with a giant moray swimming blindly between hidey holes, we were just starting to float up to 5 metres for our safety stop. But then, the guide of another dive group also on the site point, flapped, and took off. So, screw safety stop*, so did we! Steaming full speed after the Guide, not really knowing if he actually had seen something, after a minute or two, we saw it: Majestic, graceful, and about 7 metres wide! So beautiful, it was party time underwater.
*No, not really, we then diligently resumed our safety stop after the manta departed.
Quite possibly, the prettiest dive site around.
Melissa’s Garden is home to an incredible forest of staghorn coral. Blue, green, purple, and just simply, gorgeous. And along with staghorn comes hoards hoards of pretty little fish.
It’s a very simple, and reasonably shallow dive, so you can stay down for ages, and enjoy the ambience. Which suits some people, less so others: our dive guide, for example, found it boring – ‘you never see anything surprising’.
Well worth the visit though – particularly if you come from one of the many many areas on the planet where coral is endangered, and patchy at best.
This is quite a small site, in that there’s a definite ‘sweet spot’ where all the fish converge. Most noticeably, school of really big bumphead parrotfish, noisily chomping their way through the coral.
We dive this site twice, but to be honest on the second dive, I was just waiting for the exit. Not because the dive itself wasn’t good, but because we got to superman! The current is quite ripping and down current is a shallow plateau, so to exit you get to fly across the top of the bommie for a good 100 metres or so (total guestimation, it just feels far), until you get spat out on the other side. Fun! So, at 4 metres under, you just get sped along above schools of little fish, including Nemo’s Dory, and wobbiegongs etc.
Night diving, in general, is either awesome, or a bit dull. On the whole, our Raja Ampat night dives were awesome. Two particularly great ones were:
– Yangeffo (according to my log book, ‘REALLY GREAT’, it was): We saw so many night-specific creatures hear. A slipper crab, dwarf cuttlefish (cuuuuute), deadly cone snail, hermits crabs, and even a couple of ghost pipefishes!
– Moiskan: where we saw a blue ringed octopus! So tiny, so cute, so ferociously eating a little hermit crab. Apparently not everyone’s aware that they’re quite poisonous, so there was a bit of ‘move your hand!’ gesturing as it jumped, oh-so-cutely, around the reef.
Raja Ampat is as famous for its above water topography as it is for is underwater-loveliness. The thousands of islands pop up out of nowhere, covered in greenery, and make for stunning photo-ops. Lucky then that Kristy had the 2014 accessory of choice – a selfie stick! Which, as it turns out, isn’t just good for photos. Now you can view our self-u-mentories! Hosted by Richard, or be Carolyn.
The most famous cluster of islands is Wayag in the north, but as we didn’t go that far, we went to Painemu instead. Where the locals had built a new stairway to a lookout, so we could selfie our hearts out.
Black Manta liveaboard
There are many liveaboards around Indonesia to choose from, but our travel companions Rach and Rich had twice been on White Manta’s workhorse, the Black Manta, so we turned up with confidence this was the boat for us.
As with any good dive trip, a lot of the fun is dependent on the crew. Well, this group of seagoers was brilliant. From the Dive Coordinator, Cecil (who we still love despite him ditching us as his team part way through), our replacement Dive Guide Mimpi (who was our Mimpi-nudi, and put up with endless calls of “Mimpiiiiiiiiiiii’ in our quest to be first-in, last-out every dive), the hilarious comedy stylings of DG’s Handri and Stanny – both above and below the water, to the lovely support crew like amazing videographer Nu Parnupong, and the cooking and cleaning staff, everyone on the boat was enthusiastic and dedicated to make this the best trip you’ve been on. Love it.
Unfortunately on our trip the Nitrox membrane wasn’t working, which the crew thought they could fix, but in the end couldn’t, so we had to dive on air for the trip. Which, at 4 dives per day, was a bit exhausting – resulting in lots of napping rather than chatty playtime on our surface intervals. I’d give you advice for avoiding this situation, but, not a lot that can really be done about that.
Lumba Lumba Guesthouse
To add a second phase to our holiday, we left the boat to be dropped off for 5 nights at a local, secluded, guesthouse – Lumba Lumba Guesthouse. Expecting just 3 bungalows, we’d expected to be the only guests – our own private resort!
However, as island arrangements go, it’s never quite that simple. Rockin’ up like rockstars off our liveaboard, we were greeted by confused frowns and remarks of ‘we didn’t expect you until tomorrow’. Concerning. And apparently in the time between us booking the accommodation and subsequently arriving, they’d built another bungalow. Okay.
But all was not lost – we had to bunk in to 2 bungalows the first night, until another was vacated the next day. Nothing that chucking an extra mattress in, and stealing a child’s mosquito net to cover it, couldn’t fix.
It’s a pretty basic guesthouse, with power only at night when the generator on, bore water being the only showering option, plenty of rats, and, no aircon – not for the fainthearted. But, what it lacked in amenities, it made up for in views, nearby diving, and DELICIOUS homecooked meals.
Raja Ampat is part of West Papua, which is part of Indonesia – but happens to be pretty much directly above Australia.
Which you’d think would mean it would be easy to get to, but nope, you first have to go via one of the airport hubs of Indo. So after flying hours further west than you’d think necessary, it’s back east you head, on a plane probably smaller than you’d really trust.
So after leaving Sydney at 2:30pm, we landed at Jakarta at 6:30pm, to wait for our 1am flight to Sorong, in West Papua. That we were meeting old friends in Jakarta eased the airport boredom, but we were all well tired by the time of our second flight. Thankfully, this was a direct flight.
Not so on the way home. We knew we had a stop off in Ambon, but contrary to our boarding pass, which said Jakarta was our destination, our flight landed again in Massakar! After beginning our journey 6 hours earlier, we weren’t overly happy about this. And especially not when, without explanation or apology, our connecting flight to Jakarta was 40 minutes late – seriously endangering our chances of making our flight to Sydney that was due to leave at 10:30pm.
So we arrived in Jakarta at 8:15pm, but by the goodness of the universe, our bags came out quick, the inter-terminal taxi took 5 minutes, and we were checked in with an hour to spend. Plenty of time for a final Bintang with friends.
So it’s an effort to get to, but that’s what ensures a beautiful reef and scarcity of tourists, so that totes fine with us!
Exploring the Ribbon Reefs of the northern Great Barrier Reef aboard Taka.
Just 3 days for a dive trip, for a second I contemplated if it was worth lugging my dive gear and the camera equipment all the way to North Stradbroke Island. Pffft, of course it was! Any opportunity to get in the water, especially with the added draw card of Whale Fest!
Manta Lodge YHA and Scuba Centre is surprisingly the only commercial dive operation based on North Stradbroke Island. Several times a year they have weekend festivals that highlight the marine life they have on offer at their most abundant time of year. These include Manta, Nudi, Shark and Whale Fest. The 3 day events include several dives, accommodation, a group dinner at the bowls club and educational presentations. It’s all very interesting and a great chance to learn more about the creatures we love to look under the sea and meet and ask questions of marine biologist experts.
So after touching down in Brisbane, training it to Cleveland, jumping on a ferry to North Stradbroke and then bussing it to Manta Lodge, not only was I confident to have covered most methods of public transport, but I was ready for a drink. Already I had met the Hogans, a lovely family on their holiday, and the staff were also super friendly and keen to swap dive tales and tips!
The morning dives require an early start. Meet downstairs from the accommodation in the dive shop for 6.45am for a double boat dive, yaaawn! Thankfully my bleary eyes only lasted as long as it took for me to backward roll from the inflatable into the 20 degree water, yep awake! We started off at Shark Alley, and it does what it says on the can. Sharks of the grey nurse variety everywhere. Unlike Magic Point in Sydney at Shark Alley they are out and about instead of hiding in a cave which makes for better photo opportunities and a chance to get quite close.
The sharks are most certainly the main attraction here and as it’s the right time of year the same site is visited pretty consistently. Of the 6 dives I did on North Stradbroke 4 of them were at the same site, the other two at the shallower Shag Rock. In the summer when they have mantas visiting the island they also head to Manta Bommie. We did try to get to this site on the off chance that we would see some lingering mantas however unfortunately the currents were too strong to dive. So, Shark Alley it was, and I can confidently say that every dive was completely different, so diving the same site in no way became boring.
The double boat dives have a maximum dive time of 50 minutes. Anything under an hour I’m generally disappointed with, but the issue with this dive site is that it’s all quite deep so your decompression limits have you looking for shallower water after about 35 minutes, and seeing as there isn’t much to look at above 15 meters you may as well come up. Or, hang on the mooring line and hope to see a passing humpback whale. Which I did, however unsuccessfully. It also seemed that I was better on air than the DMT’s so they were having to make use of the drop tank on the safety stop when guiding me, sorry boys!
My last dive on Shark Alley proved to be the most impressive. Whilst I didn’t manage to see Moby Dick in the deep blue, I did pretty much see everything else! Grey nurse and wobbegong sharks, manta shrimp, cuttle fish, lion fish and an uncountable school of eagle and devil rays flying right by us for a good couple of minutes. Breathtaking!
So what about the whales? Well they were most certainly there. Everywhere along with their dolphin friends, except by me under the water. You would rarely go 5 minutes looking across the horizon without seeing them blow or breach. Being super peak migration time means that the last of the stragglers are still heading north, whilst the front runners are already on the way back south with their calves. So we were pretty much looking at a humpback super freeway! I recommend the Straddie Pub for a good viewing vantage point, not to mention the great meals and cold cider!
On the Saturday evening after a great dinner at the bowls club we went back to Manta Lodge to listen to a presentation by Dr Olaf Maynecke who is the chief scientist at the Gold Coast based non for profit called Humpbacks and Highrises. It was fascinating to learn about what this impressive organisation do, and to also get a bit of a history lesson on the history of whaling in Australia and how we almost wiped out an entire population of whales in such a short amount of time.
So 3 short days and 6 dives later it was time for one last meal at the beautiful Straddie Pub, then back to reality and a couple of days work in Brisbane before heading home. A big thanks to James, Alan, Adam, Will and the crew in the dive shop for making it a great weekend. Also to my new found dive buddies. I will endeavor to get back soon, perhaps when the water is a little warmer 🙂
Check out some pictures of the weekend here!
Off the Queensland Coast, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is a little eco island that’s known for its turtle hatchery (Turtles! Carolyn’s favourite creature, remember!?), manta rays (another favourite!) and passing migrating whales (whoa!).
So being the year of Trans-Tasman-Twins-Turn-Thirty-Three, it was the perfect location to head for a week-long winter escape…
After dusting ourselves off from our AWESOME birthday drinks the day before^, we bundled our single, huge, suitcase into a cab and headed for the airport – note to ‘self, the airline doesn’t like it if you have one piece of luggage over 23kg – ready for our Virgin and then Lady Elliot Island plane trips.
We got off the plane at 1:40pm, and by 2:45pm were in the water (after a welcome drink – virgin – and island briefing video).
^Totally not dive-related, but if you’re in Sydney, get yourself down to
Black Penny on the corner of Crown and Cleveland – great atmosphere,
full bar and good cocktails, tasty food, and lovely bar staff who really
looked after us and our guests at our birthday do.
We came to Lady Elliot Island for three** specific creatures:
By the end of our first afternoon, we’d had a taste (not literally, of course) of all three.
** and a fourth, sharks – tiger sharks in particular – which were on Kristy’s wishlist.
For a first dive, it was ace – we managed to see 1 manta (boy, how naive were we to think that it was so lucky and amazing to see one – wait to the next day!), and could hear whales throughout the dive, sounding to tantalisingly close, but probably a few hundred metres away.
We also saw a variety of turtles – Loggerheads, massive turtles with necks like tree-trunks; Hawksbills; and smaller green turtles. All so cute. And reef sharks, a guitarfish (Google it – they look like a cross between a ray and a shark).
Our second day is a total contender for Dive Day of the Trip.
We started the day with a return visit to Lighthouse Bommie, where we were so lucky to come across a manta cleaning! We sat politely on the bottom and watched for almost 40 minutes. And, being the first dive with super-amazing underwater camera ability (our birthday present to ourselves) we have footage! The manta we dubbed ‘stumpy’ because she (apparently, it was a she and most probably pregnant, due to the recent marks on her fins, according to our manta-whisperer, Kym) was missing her tail. And while we were there, a couple more mantas also stopped by to say hello.
It was all so involving, that a poor loggerhead turtle who’d been sleeping behind the trainee dive master, Diana, had to muscle his way past her in order to go to the surface. I could almost hear him saying ‘scuse me, scuse me’
And before all that even happened, we came across a ‘nest’ of rays – a pile of whiptail rays and a marble ray lying on the sandy bottom. We couldn’t get too close before they scattered though.
For our second dive, we headed to the eastern side of the island: just us two, and Kym – private eastern tour!
The water was so clear, the current almost non-existent, so our trip along the wall was so so relaxing. Well, except for all the whalesong that was so frustrating as we couldn’t see any! (we learnt later that it’s likely that if they are close, you’d also hear heartbeats!).
About halfway through the dive we came across a green turtle that Kym was looking at attentively, and waving me over to take a photo. It wasn’t til I got really close that I could see why – the turtle had a tag on its front flipper. Amazingly, the photo came out well enough to read the number! Hopefully we’ll be able to find out where it came from (the Lady Elliot team were looking into it).
And finally, we returned to the western side for an afternoon dive, where the highlight for me was a tassled wobbegong (not so much for Kristy, as they’re common in Sydney). We also went on a bit of an excursion at the end, across heaps of sand, for ages, and weren’t sure why, but it turned out (when we were above water) that there is a shark pool at the southern end that one some days is teeming with sharks. Not so today. But ah well!
Days three and four
The weather wasn’t as good, but we still had some highlights:
Day five – AKA, BIRTHDAY DAY!
Well, this was always going to be a fun day, but the Lady Elliot dive team made it exceptional! We were totally looked after all day – including the shop running 3 dives (rather than the standard 2). And birthday cake!!
The most amazing thing was saw on Birthday Dives was 7 spotted eagle rays. So beautiful with their spotted backs and long, elegant tails. We’d expected to see marble rays, cowtail rays, thorny back rays and manta rays, but the appearance of a unexpected cousin was delightful. Unfortunately couldn’t get any pictures, as eagle rays are some of the most skittish rays.
And speaking of unexpected, did we mention BIRTHDAY CAKE?? After dinner, the Lady Elliot team surprised us with a beautiful cake from their fantastic chef Shane. Thanks guys!
And speaking of surprise, the 3 guys who’d completed their open water courses of the previous couple of days got to do snorkel funnels. What. A. Treat.
Our final dive day.
But, mother nature had saved the best for last! We just did two morning dives, so that we could have a full 24-hour ‘dry day’ before flying out, but they each rocked it!
First up, we did another eastern side drift dive, which was less speedy than Day 2’s, but generally nice. Until 35 minutes in….
DONG DONG DONG
A HUMPBACK WHALE!!!
Sliding past in the blue was a humpback whale! 15m under water, 10-15m away, this gentle giant was just cruising past on his yearly migration. Who knows how fast our air went down there we were awestruck, whooping, dancing, and no doubt almost hyperventilating with excitement.
We’d (well, I’d) started to think we were overly optimistic with predicting that we’d see a whale on a dive, but our positive thoughts were rewarded.
No one managed to get a good shot though, we were all so overwhelmed by the sight that recording it with anything other than our eyes went out the window. Even the staff – it was cool to see that it was special to them too.
We finished the dive not long after that – and came up shrieking with joy.
And by the time we were getting ready to go in for our second dive, that whole island knew of our encounter: a family was coming in from snorkelling and said as they passed “Did you hear the divers this morning saw a whale?”…. “That was us! That was us!”, we replied.
Finally, for our final dive, our sea friends all came to say goodbye. We saw mantas – cleaning and cruising – marble, cowtail and thorny rays, turtles of both green and loggerhead species, and sharks. It was magic, especially for the Indonesian UNSW student who’d come to Lady Elliot for only two days’ diving, specifically to see manta rays, and hadn’t seen any mantas the previous day.
And then – when we surfaced we saw a whale waving his fin in the air like he was saying ‘see ya!’. And what do you know? After a while, that whale, and another, headed straight for us! While I was back in the boat already, KC saw them under the water pass right by our boat! And to top it all off, dolphins then appeared, trailing the whales.
It sounds unbelievable, but believe it, it was real.
All in all, we completed 16 dives over the course of a week, and could easily do it all over again immediately.
To see some of the amazing sights was saw under the water, check out our video and pictures.
The resort and staff
The resort is more accurately, and frequently by those who work there, described as a caravan or holiday park. The accommodation is pretty basic – we stayed in an ‘eco-tent’ that had two sets of bunks, electricity, and little else – but who needs fancy digs when nature awaits!
The dive staff were fantastic and knowledgeable about the ecosystem of the island – one look at the water and they could tell what way the current would be running, no mean feat on an island where the current can change without a hint of warning. In particular, Kym – scuba-royalty, eco-warrior, and island protector – showed us the secrets of the island. Knowing everything and everyone, he also has a story for every scuba situation you could imagine. And has an endless pool of jokes, mainly at another of the dive team, Ales’s, expense (who, to be fair, was an easy target)…
Being Eco- focused, their is a focus on education for visitors on the Island. We were lucky enough to hear a presentation on manta rays from Lady Elliot’s resident marine ecologist (who we may have dubbed ‘Dr Hottie’), which was so informative and involving. We heard it on our last night, but I really wish we’d heard it earlier!
> If you’d like to see more about research on manta’s and other large sea creatures, check out the Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Ps. The island is famous for another thing – birds. There are birds everywhere, s*&t everywhere, it’s noisy, and it stinks. But, a small concession.
The dive sites
While the official line is that there are around 14 dive sites, there are essentially two areas – East and West – and on any given dive you’re likely to cover most, if not all sites in the area. Which isn’t a bad thing – give me one awesome dive area over 5 average dive sites any day!
The western area – or ‘back side’ as we referred to it – is usually the more protected of the sides, and so, more frequently dived (according to Kym, the eastern side is only dived 20 – 25% of the time. It’s sandy bottomed, or staghorn coral-covered, with bommies scattered here and there. The bommies we very valuable to our manta-quest, as they served as focus points for manta cleaning stations.
The eastern side – ‘out the front’ – is a reef wall dive that extends from Blowhole to Tubes, and on to Hiro’s cave. Blowhole is like a pasta elbow – a vertical shaft from the top of the reef that curves to horizontal to let you out on the outside of the reef wall. It’s not an extreme, or difficult cave/swimthrough, but it was fun to ‘parachute’ down in to.
Lady Elliot has its own air fleet, which conveniently meets the commercial airlines out of Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Gold Coast etc. And while that means you have to take two flights, it’s totally worth it, as the 16-seater single prop plane allows for a brilliant scenic flight on the way out. You get to see Lady Elliot appear as an oasis in the ocean.
Ah Gili Trawangan, where to start! When I first came here in September 2012, things were a little different. I was alone on my trip, and things were a lot less busy. This time I was with two non diving friends and the island must have been just about full to capacity, the issue being that I’m not sure the island knows what their tourism capacity is, the fast boats just keep bringing people. An accurate description of the island could be the Koh Tao of Indonesia, as it seems like many people come here for a holiday, buy a zero to hero pack (open water to instructor) and never leave.
Certainly not the best diving in Indonesia but amongst the mainly dead or broken coral there are some gems to be found. It’s not pretty diving, but from talking to a few people it never really has been. Unfortunately before the island became a tourist attraction the locals used many forms of unsustainable fishing that went a long way to destroying the corals here. Of course the many hundreds of thousands of newby divers that tests out their scuba skills here every year possibly doesn’t help.
In saying that, upon flicking through my log book and looking at the 12 dives that I have completed over the past week you would think otherwise. I found manta shrimp, black and white tip reef sharks, honeycomb, moray, ribbon, garden and napoleon eels, banded sea snakes, bumphead parrot fish, napoleon wrasse, giant cuttle fish, octopus, frog fish, leaf scorpion fish and about 50 turtles! And it also helps that the water is 30 degrees with the odd thermo cline dropping down to 26ish. It’s an impressive haul by any dive trip standard.
I was diving with Manta Dive, as I was last trip. They are fantastic for novice divers or anyone wanting to learn to dive with a great pool, courses happening constantly and instructors fluent in many languages. For fun divers they do their best to put you in a group with people of a similar ability but this can become difficult when they are so busy. On my last trip I pretty much had a DM to myself, this time I wasn’t as lucky and my dive times were restricted to an average time of 40ish minutes as your group can only dive for as long as the first person starts to run low. Very different from my Solomons trip where my average dive time was 75 minutes! But here I was only paying $35 a dive, so I still can’t help but think I still got my money’s worth.
I would recommend Simons Reef, Mirkos and Seahorse Bay (which is actually in Lombok) as the dive sites to look out for. Simons and Mirkos have the most alive and colorful corals and Seahorse Bay is a great muck dive, with, you guessed it, seahorses!! I also spotted a Pegasus Sea Moth here, which made me very happy as I had never seen one before, nor did I have any idea what it was until Google was consulted. Deep Turbo and Shark Point seem to be the most popular and frequented sites, it was hard for me to get past the abundance of people however to really enjoy them. On one dive Manta Dive alone dropped two full boats from Gili Trawangan and one full boat from Gili Air on Shark Point, so at a guess 90 divers, and then there are the other 20 dive shops doing the same thing, not cool at all.
Just in case you want to come to the Gili’s to see giant mantas, you may want to rethink. A rise in water temp and lack of summer rains have meant that last season there were no sightings of mantas in the Gili’s.
Top tip: Ask for the local DM Su’pa to guide your dives. He is a fantastic guide, a lovely man and hilariously funny. He always makes sure you get looked after.
So it’s not quite as hectic as Bali just yet, and even with the Easter / Anzac day combo of Australian public holidays Aussies were still by far the minority to European holiday makers. This is good news, because seeing drunken fools make a mess of themselves then becomes far less embarrassing. It is a party island, and for those who want to you can party party party until you can no party no more! For the oldies amongst us this place is great for afternoon bintangs, a massage, great restaurants and a comfortable and affordable place to lay your head.
We stayed at Manta Bungalows, conveniently located behind the dive shop and smack bang in the middle of the tourist strip. This avoids the need to hire a bicycle or catch a lift on a horse and cart, but can be a little noisy so take ear plugs. For only $60 per bungalow per night including breakfast and wifi it’s the best mid range accommodation on the island. The best part though would have to be the Manta staff. From housekeeping, to the cafe, bar and of course dive staff, after a few days everyone knows your name and is keen to catch up with a bintang at the end of the day to see how your day was. They do very well at creating a little sense of community, it’s really nice. The staff (both local and foreign) hadn’t changed much since my first trip which is rare amongst dive shops, it goes to show that they must get looked after well.
The food on the island is one thing I think has gotten better since my last visit. The salmon and sashimi at Ko-Ko-Mo was a definite highlight if you want to splash out on a fancy meal (about $30) and the Italian Pizza place and Thai restaurants down the lane by Gili Yoga were also a favorite. The swim up pool bar at Coral Beach resort also had our regular attendance.
My friends Sophie and Crystal were not diving but managed to entertain themselves by attending early morning Yoga every day, snorkeling and getting daily pampers at Exqisit Spa. Not a bad way to recharge your batteries 🙂
Today was an exceptionally exciting day. First day of holidays, first time diving with my new shiny Atomic B2 regs, first time playing with my Suunto D6i and transmitter and the prospect of seeing Mantas and Mola Molas!! Whahoo!! Even after a 6 hour flight and a crazy time getting through Denpasar airport I was still like a kid on Christmas Eve last night trying to get some sleep.
I’m staying at a beautiful little Sanur Guest House, on the back streets away from the hustle and bustle of crazy Bali. The fellas from Atlantis Diving picked me up at 8am this morning and after collecting a few other divers we went to their shop to get geared up. It was the usual chaotic morning rush of getting students and fun divers getting ready for their day. It seemed to take longer than necessary, but it was nice to sit back with my coffee and be on the customer side . From here we were transferred to the boat and off we went on the 50 minute voyage out to Nusa Penida.
Our first dive was called Ped. I think that is meant to stand for something, but we weren’t told what that was. What we were told was that we should expect ripping currents, and cold water. I was starting to think that I should have taken the opportunity at the shop to grab a 5mm steamer instead of my 3mm shorty. Turns out their version of cold is 26 degrees, fine by me! And the current was mild so we were in for a good dive. The visibility wasn’t amazing, mainly I think due to the fact that there wasn’t much of a current. I was told it was normally far better, however we still managed to spot a cool looking black and white spotted eel, a turtle and my old mates the clown trigger fish.
Second dive was Crystal Bay. It was here that we were told we had our best bet of seeing a Mola Mola. I had thought it was out of season for Mola Mola sightings so the mention of it of course got my hopes up, but to no avail. The current on this dive was a little stronger, and the thermoclines were a tad chilly but thankfully didn’t last long. We saw a school of batfish, a really cool spotted trunkfish, and a huge banded sea snake!
The last dive of the day was the world famous Manta Point. I have been wanting to do this dive for so long and now was my chance! My French DM told me that there is normally about 8 mantas that hang out over the shallow rocky point to get cleaned, so once again my expectations were high. As we descended, there was nothing. 10 minutes into the dive, not a great deal to report on and I found myself fiddling with my computer and blowing bubble rings. And then he arrived. The biggest most giantest manta I have ever seen! Swooping in and barrelling out, then just hanging out for a bit looking at us just as we were him. Magic!
We also saw another smaller manta as well as a heap of blue spotted sting rays and moray eels. Two mantas isn’t quite the 8 predicted but I was stoked none the less. It was a great day, though the dive guides assured me it gets much better than that, which of course means I’ll have to go out with them again next week after I return from Gili Trawangan. The crew were fab and an amazing lunch was served on board as well as heaps of fruit and bottled water. I am looking forward to diving with them again next week!
For now I’m relaxing with a Bintang and awaiting the arrival of friends Sophie and Crystal! Tomorrow, Gili Trawangan!!
Home sweet home! When you have diving right on your doorstep it is very easy to get complacent. Likewise when you are lucky enough to get to travel to tropical locations on a regular basis, you sometimes forget to appreciate what is right in front of you.
Sydney diving is very different to anywhere I have dived before. The water temp ranges from 14 degrees in the winter to 24 at the end of summer. There is no reef as such so you don’t get the corals that you do further north, but diving in Sydney is an adventure. It’s not a case of just swimming in a fish tank as one does on holidays, you need to go, seek, explore and find the critters you want to see. This fact makes Sydney diving very rewarding, and also means that you spend a lot of your dive sticking your head in holes and face in the weeds in an attempt to find what you’re looking for!
If you are up for the challenge, prepared to don a thick wetsuit, the extra led and fight the sometimes strong surge you will be compensated with sharks (Wobbegong, Port Jackson, Grey Nurse), weedy sea dragons, giant cuttlefish, octopus and on a good day turtles and dolphins. You may even be lucky enough to encounter a curious migrating whale at the right time of year! Though I’ve never been that lucky. The visibility and marine life are far better in the winter when the water temp drops, most certainly a case of not being able to have your cake and eat it too.
Sydney is unique in that there is very rarely a day even in the worst of conditions that all diving will be cancelled. We have the protection of the harbour if the swell is too big to leave the heads, or in flat conditions we have dive sites across endless kilometres to choose from.
All the dive sites can be fantastic on their day, but my favourite (along with most Sydney siders) is Magic Point, home to a dozen resident Gray Nurse sharks who just love to be photographed!
For those who prefer to rent a tank , grab a buddy and head out for a shore dive I would suggest heading north of the bridge to Manly’s Shelly Beach.
Magic Point is just south of the suburb of Maroubra and is best accessed by boat (leaving from Rose Bay or Manly), though is also possible as a shore dive if you willing to take on the 1km walk in with all your gear – no thanks!
The shark cave is absolutely the draw here – located in about 16m of water, it’s a pretty simple drop down to visit the Grey Nurses. If you’re lucky, all the sharks will be meandering about in front of their cave, and you can just rest on the sea floor and gawk at them. There’s often a mix of full grown (2.5 – 3m) and juveniles, so you can see the family at play!
This is the only beach on the east coast of Australian to face west (fun fact!). Along with a sizable resident blue grouper and the odd Weedy sea dragon, wobbegong and Port Jackson shark in the winter months you can see Dusky Whalers when they come into breed. Very cool.
The Gap is, as it suggests, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour from the ocean. It’s a fairly protected spot, so is a pretty sure bet in most weather. As with much of Sydney diving, the environment is big boulders and load of seaweed. So, effort looking in to rock crevices and weedy forest is required! Keep and eye out for friendly cuttlefish – so cute!
There are a number of sites around the northern entrance to the Harbour, and common ones include:
Pro Dive in the eastern suburb of Coogee not only have the best ever weekend snorkel seller and tank filler (me!), but they also run both SSI and PADI courses from open water to instructor. As well as this they are the only dive shop in Sydney with their own boat. This means that they can offer boat diving 6 times a week and guided shore diving Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. They also have a sister store in Manly, north of the harbour that offers the same services.
When one trip’s over, you need to plan the next. So straight off the boat from our Ribbon Reefs adventure, we turned our minds to the next possible opportunity…
October long weekend!
With only 3 days in which to getaway, we needed somewhere close: < 3 hours from the city, by car. South coast looks too cold, so north it is.
Here we come, Nelson Bay!
If you are looking to splash out and get a long long way from civilisation then the Solomon Islands is the choice for you! I spent a week over new years 2013/14 at the beautiful Uepi Island Resort and really couldn’t complain about anything, except maybe that they only offered 2 dives a day 🙂
From Australia you need to get yourself to Brisbane for a flight to Honiaria with Solomon Air or Virgin, then another flight to Segge. From here the resort will pick you up by boat from the airports jetty for a scenic 30m minute trip across Malbrovo Lagoon where Jill and Grant (the owners) will be waiting for you at the jetty. The first thing you notice about this place is how green the jungle is, like a scene out of Jurassic Park, a swooping teradactal wouldn’t look out of place. Then you look down, crystal clear water and dozens of reef sharks just cruising. You know from that point you are in for some very special diving.
Jill sits you down and you fill in the obligatory paperwork, get the down low on meal and dive times and general house rules. Make sure you have adequate dive insurance, if you were unlucky enough to have an accident you are a long way from civilisation so emergency evacuation cover is a must. Also if you are a smoker, the resort does not sell cigarettes. I learnt this the hard way and after some begging one of the staff took a boat to the next island to get me some, I was lucky. The diving can be quite deep too, and due to consecutive dives over multiple days a back up computer is also recommended.
My stay was blessed to coincide with a couple of families of manta rays who were frequenting the shallows of the lagoon every morning to be cleaned by the small fish over small coral formations. The staff were running a boat out to them early before breakfast for an hours snorkelling. It was too shallow to warrant having a tank on your back and they don’t seem to like the bubbles anyhow. They would only take a max of four people out on the morning boat so as not to scare them off. I went out twice, they first time I only saw two mantas, but the second time I saw 6! They were dancing around me for an hour, one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen! I was so happy there could well have been tears in my mask and I had to be dragged out of the water with yells of ‘Come on Kristy, you’re going to miss breakfast!’ though I couldn’t have cared much..
In general the diving is fantastic! 30 degree water, 25 meters visibility and more sharks than you can look at without breaking your neck. Besides the regular reef and silky sharks, I also saw leopard sharks, dusky nurse sharks and on one dive 3 hammerheads! They were very deep though and that dive resulted in my deepest ever venture into the blue at 46 meters and they were still below us. Naughty!! Turtles are a regular sighting too. I saw the green and hawksbill variety, but they get leatherback turtles as well from time to time. Schooling barracouta and trevally are common and I also saw a giant Queensland grouper that was hug.
The great thing about diving here is that all the dive sites are very close. A few of the sites are so close that you dive your way back to the jetty. The area around the jetty is possible one of the best parts and the DM’s are happy to have you just hang out and run your air down in 5 – 8 m of water off the end of the jetty where they can see you. Here you find huge schools of tropical fish, batfish, ion fish and reef sharks. It really is brilliant. I also recommend the day trip though the trip out can be a little bumpy if the swell is up. They take you to see a wreck, caved and an amazing sinkhole with giant flashing neon clams. I have never seen anything like it.
The food is superb, you surely won’t go hungry. Breakfast and dinner are served in the restaurant and lunch is brought to your bungalow. Drinks at the bar are charged to your room and you pay your bar bill on checkout along with your dives, gear hire and any merchandise you might like. I met some great people there that I continue to be in touch with. Both people on holiday and Australians that were volunteering in Honiara and Gizo with Oz Aid. The bungalows are very nice. I was just in a basic one, but it has everything I needed. The plug sockets are Australian (handy) and there is no hot water, but it was so hot that this wasn’t an issue. As long as you don’t have an issue with the occasional lizard friend wandering in you will be fine! And remember your aerogard, the mozzies are vicious.
North Sulawesi is a destination famous for the Lembeh Straight. This region is known for some of the most amazing macro diving in the world. Unfortunately I’m not that into small things, but was keen to give it a go anyhow! I’d done my research and heard nothing but good things about Two Fish dive resorts. They have three properties, one in Nusa Lembongan off Bali and two in North Sulawesi in Lembah and Bunaken. I went for Bunaken off the promise of the ‘best wall dives in Asia’, it’s a big claim and it didn’t disappoint!
I had a few frequent flyer points stored up, enough to get me from Sydney to Jakarta return. After an overnight at an airport hotel I had a 5am Lion Air flight to Manado. From here the resort arranged a driver to take me to the harbour, then a boat directly to the resort. After the paper work was sorted, resort protocol explained, gear set up for my upcoming dives, I was shown to my room where I promptly caught up on the few hours sleep I was denied from the early morning rise.
My daily schedule consisted of an early start, a trip to the compressor room to test my and label my nitrox tanks for the day, breakfast, two dives, lunch, one dive, shower, bintang, dinner and bed, then repeat!! My ideal life demonstrated in one week blocks throughout the year! I don’t think I could ever get sick of days like this (cue Cat Empire tune).
Here it’s all about the never ending walls. One does need to be mindful of their depth as it is very easy to just keep descending as you have no reference to the bottom. The dive masters usually work between the Lembah and Bunaken resorts and are trained to find the smallest of small creatures. And by the end of my trip the staff here had achieved their objective, they had proven to me that small things are cool, very cool in fact. Nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses on giant ornate fan corals, and the very special pontohi pygmy seahorse! Yep, I had never heard of it either till I saw it with my own eyes! Yellow and white in colour this little guy can easily be passed of for a fleck of paper, so tiny yet perfectly formed.
There was also some big stuff. A few reef sharks, tuna, turtles, eagle rays, barracouta and giant trevally. But the highlight came on my second last dive. A WHALESHARK!!!
I was just me and my DM, cruising along a wall at about 18 meters then out of the blue there she was coming toward us to have a look. At 7ish meters she was just a baby, but she hung out with us for a good few minutes, just enough time for my air consumption to kick into overdrive. It was an amazing experience. My DM told me it’s only the 2nd time in 15 years that he’s ever seen a whaleshark at depth in these waters, so don’t go planning your next trip with these expectations. I was very lucky..
Regrettably there is one thing about a trip to North Sulawesi that strikes you more than anything, rubbish! In this part of the world there is no such thing as a weekly council rubbish collection. Everyone in this small community is responsible for disposing of their own trash. This normally involves burying it, burning it, or just throwing it on the ground. In Australia this would be shameful behaviour, but the locals here (especially the older generations) don’t know any better. As little as 30 years ago this wasn’t so much of a problem as most of the waste was made of natural fibres such as paper and wood. With today’s plastic packaging, the problem is dire. The owners of the resort are doing their best to educate the people of Bunaken Island and offer them environmentally sound ways of disposing of their waste, even offering to get rid of the rubbish for them. But as soon as they have some rain the rubbish from neighbouring city Manado (population 1 million), flows directly into the waters surrounding Bunaken. I collected as much rubbish as I could on every dive, all guests are encouraged to do the same and provided with mesh bags. But you can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late for the marine life, I saw 5 dead turtles during my stay. It was very confronting…
If anyone is keep to learn the art of tech diving then this is your place to do it. They have an in house instructor and all the gear you will need to venture past the depths of recreational diving. I tried tech diving briefly when I was in Egypt and didn’t fancy it too much, but none the less found myself making a b-line for the tech guys every meal time and quizzing them about what they had been up to that morning. They were making dives of over 100 meters searching for a rare type of shark that supposedly exists in the waters surrounding Bunken. At last report they were unsuccessful, but their stories were nothing short of fascinating.
Overall a great place for a few days of rest and relation. It’s affordable, relatively easily accessible, the diving is easy, water is warm and the staff are helpful.
There’s not really a lot we can say for the HMAS Terrigal.
Well, in Twist’s words ‘It was shit’. But that’s biased.
Unfortunately, the day we went the waves were bumpy, the sea was churning and terrible vis, and the fishies were hidden away.
If you’re in Sydney, it’s actually not a bad run to make it a day trip from town. We simply got up early Sunday morning, jumped in Geoffrey (the trusty Nissan Micra), and in an hour and a bit we were there.
Terrigal’s quite resorty itself, in a bit of an 80’s mini break kind of way.
We’ll maybe try again one day, I wonder though if maybe in 10 years it might be better – it’s not been scuttled that long, so there wasn’t a lot of resident fish or vegetation.
But again, the weather was against us, so I’m holding no ill will towards to the HMAS Adelaide!
Our final destination of Egypt escape 2013 was Dahab, site of Egypt’s Blue Hole (not to be confused with that of Belize).
We stayed with Big Blue Dahab, right on the main promenade of Dahab.
The Blue Hole was cool – the entry down Bells, a semi-closed elevatorshaft-like tunnel. There wasn’t as much (large) fish to see up in Dahab – being away for the open water of the Red Sea proper, they were a bit scarce. The landscape was good though, interesting corals, tunnels, cracks etc.
And of course, a deep hole was bait for freedivers. Those crazy kids were set up in the middle of the hole, chasing a line down as deep as they could go on a single breath.
And then finally came the big day – Birthday Day! And the final day of our Egypt diving. (Sad face). As a special birthday treat, an octopus finally decided to say hello. I’d been telling our guide, Mohab, for the past 2 days that he needed to find me an octopus, and sure enough, halfway through the dive, he grabbed my arm and guided me off to see an octy-friend. Happy happy day.
Waterfront Dahab is really nice, it’s a promenade that has seaside restaurants lining the shore. When we visited it was slightly sad though, as due to the internal conflict in Egypt there few tourists, so everywhere was empty and the restaurant mangers were clearly struggling to get people in. Once one restaurant had a table of people, everyone else followed them (since not many people like to be in an empty restaurant) to the detriment of all the other businesses. The slump also impacted building – all around the town was evidence of a one time building boom, which stopped before many projects were completed. I hope trade has picked up now, the people were lovely and hardworking and deserve to have good things come their way.
pps. on our final, dry day, we used the pool facilities of a nearby resort. Jenni, who been to the resort earlier to check if it would be okay to do, thought she’d seen a guy we’d met the year before in Coron. And you know what, she was right! While in the pool who should turn up but our friend Gaetan – who’d only arrived in Dahab an hour before, while we were due to leave in an hour’s time. Yay! Diving really is such a small world.
The people on board a liveaboard can make or break the experience. Not that we were too worries about that for our King Snefro 3-day Mini Safari Ras Mohamed-Thistlegorm trip, as, being a party of four we could ignore everyone else if necessary.
But we needn’t have worried, there was one man on the mini bus that fetched us from Sharm, and one man on board it remained. One! We practically had our own private charter! Luckily for him, Lawrence turned out to be a New Zealander of similar age to us, so off headed our fivesome, with our six crew (!), out into the Red Sea.
Departing in the evening from Travco port in Sharm el-Sheikh, we woke at our destination in the National Park, to do our first dive at Jackfish Alley. It was a lovely early dive, very still water, and family of fish, including heaps cute puffers, meandering about. Amazing safety stop, with a pair of Eagle Rays gliding close by as we waited.
We did two more dives during the day, equally as lovely win the blue water and plenty of creatures to be scene. Partway through the first of these dives, with KC and I meandering along behind the group, a very excited Jenni turned up wiggling her hand excitedly above her head: What’s that you say? Shark you say? So we followed. And came across a really gig leopard shark having his morning nap. Proud Jen. Score!
The latter was a late afternoon dive, on the Kingston wreck, which was sunk in 1881. It was more of a reef dive than a wreck, as the sea and its inhabitants had well n truly claimed it. . Nice. And easy, very shallow.
So, out of the water we got, got to have our waiting pizza snacks and green fizzy drink (slightly odd) and rest for the night dive. But then….
We heard a bit of a commotion from the crew that the back, and then, as soon as we realised what was going on, us five crazy westerners went hurtling off the back of the boat in to the water to play. Hello friend!!!!!!! Grabbing only our mask on the way past, we frolicked in the sea with the dolphins, a mum and calf in particular, who went round and round us, so close but ever just out of reach.
The crew clearly thought we were ridiculous, but also encouraged it – and soon the dinghy was heading out, to help us tiring humans head further out to the rest of the pod. Not sure it was the best option – hauling each of us over the edge of the boat must have looked so undignified, and the dolphins were heading away by then, so we headed back to the boat. But though, it did provide the comedy view of Kristy, rather than getting in to the boat, being dragged along behind by a rope.
Exhausting, hilarious, unexpected, most magical experience ever.
The second day of diving was what we had come to Ras Mohamed for – the Thistlegorm wreck. We did two dives on the wreck, a wreck reccy and a penetration. What a sight the Thistlegorm is. So intact, with much of the cargo it was transporting during the second world war still aboard: we saw a tank, car, ammo, motorbikes (stacked in rows on the back of trucks), aeroplane wings, many many many gumboots (Egypt was flooded in the war, apparently), and guns – anti-aircraft and rifles. And many fish too – lionfish, tuna, scorpionfish, crocodilefish, morays. All-in-all a great site.
That night was also did a really good night dive, at Stingray station. A circular route round a bomby where we saw many of the night treats – shrimp, crabs, and a banded snake eel (that was the most interesting for me, I’d not seen anything like it before).
On our final day, we did two dives at Shark and Yolanda reef. Yolanda has the strange sight of many toilets on the sea floor, more cargo overboard. Our second dive encountered many other divers – some with not much etiquette going on. But nothing could dampen our happy mood.
Back to Travco we headed, ready to transfer to Dahab to continue our Egypt fun.
> And just be aware: the elevation of the road to Dahab means that it’s almost treated as a flight, so you may to have some no-flight time before taking the trip. Check with your dive team before making travel arrangements.
So thanks very much to the King Snefro team:
To Samuel, our dive guide, you were always helpful and had a clear love of the sea – not just for the sights but also for conserving them. Exactly the type of person I love to dive with.
And finally – the wetsuit I had during the trip, a 5mm Aqualung, was great, by the way. I wish it were mine.
Our first experience of Egypt was flying into Sharm el-Sheikh. It’s bizarre. I’ve never been to any kind of European ‘mini-break’ destination, but Sharm is. Flying in over the desert, as you near the coast you see uniform resorts, all with their sparkling blue pool encased by stone buildings. A far cry from the more ‘organic’ development I’m used to from Asia and around. Sharm’s very much a holiday getaway, a cheap and convenient flight from the UK. Unfortunately, this brings with it a very different kind of crowd than the usual dive destination. Relaxed bars are replaced with nightclubs, coloured lights, and far far far too sundrenched tourists. But I digress. Back to diving. Yes, we stayed at a resort of sorts – Camel Dive. And yes, it had its own pool. But who needs a pool when you have an ocean!? (Well, Jenni and Beth did, if only for one day of ill health). The waters of the Red Sea are blue. Beautiful. And they do act as a playground – heading out on the dive boat, we shared the sea with parasailers, jet skiers, swimmers, snorkelers, and anything else people could to do enjoy the water. The first day, our group split: Jenni and I headed for a couple of easy orientation dives, Kristy tried out Tech Diving for the day, and Beth had a refresher dive. But what we were really waiting for was day two: Hammerhead Hunt. Our set out for Tiran, an island off Sharm that is known for the colourful Jacksons Reef on its front side. We, however, were after the deep blue waters off the back. In to the water we hopped, and sank down to 30metres, our eyes seeking out anything in the dark waters. And after half an hour, there they were – two hammerheads gliding around at 40-50m. YAYAYAYAY! It was really beautiful, there was nothing around us – no little fish, no corals, nothing but other group of divers and pretty sharks below. I was so excited I steamed over to be above them a little too quickly, and my raised heartbeat felt a little like panic, not a nice feeling that far below. But nothing singing ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ couldn’t fix. The other dives we did off Sharm were nice – ‘meditative’ and ‘sedate’ according to my log book. Very worth doing; old favourites pufferfish, lionfish and turtles all came out to play. All to prepare us for heading further into the Red Sea, on King Snefro. But that’s another story. —- And what else can you do from Sharm? A whirlwind, fly in – fly out, day trip to Cairo, for the pyramids, museum where King Tuts relics reside, camel riding, and a boat ride up the Nile. Walk like an Egyptian.
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For NY 2013-14, Kirsty and I will be joining the voyage of White Manta Diving’s Black Manta vessel, for a week-long liveabord tour of Raja Ampat and Misool. We are not only excited to be diving in the ‘most bio-diverse underwater place on the planet!’*, we also get to do it with our dear friends Rachel and Richard (*sayer of aforementioned quote), and Kristy’s PNG diving alumni Sonia and Matt.
You can check out the dives sites here.
Blue Marlin has long been established as one of the premier dive shops in Gili Trawangan. So when I heard they were opening shop in the Komodo Islands I booked some leave, packed my gear and I was on a flight before you could say ‘big-scary-slobbery-dragons’! Unfortunately my eagerness didn’t do me any favours as the dive shop accommodation wasn’t yet finished and the ‘Ikan Biru’ hadn’t quite finished it’s maiden voyage from Lombok. Damn it! I am notoriously early for everything.
Regardless, Kim and the team had me well catered for. They were there to greet me at the airport in Labuan Bajo then took me to grab some lunch in town, fill in the paperwork and meet with Darren – the friendly Saffa instructor with an infectious enthusiasm for all things Komodo! At this stage Darren had already been in the Komodo islands for a few weeks, learning every intricate detail of the dive sites he now calls home, and waiting ever so patiently for his new boat to arrive from Lombok. Our stand in boat and crew were more than adequate, so much so that I end up changing my plans and staying on board for an extra few days.
Our boat was a simple yet comfortable vessel with ample room for sleeping, a central area for eating and a rooftop for stargazing. There was a tender attached to zip us to and from the dive sites and we would generally gear up in the tender too. The great thing about Komodo Island livaboards is that all the dive sites really aren’t too far from Flores Island and the township of Labuan Bajo. This means that you don’t have to conform to strict departure and arrival dates because they can just whip you out to meet the crew via speed boat.
Darren asked me upon boarding, how do you feel about diving in currents? This wasn’t something I wasn’t particularly experienced in, I would soon become an expert! The diving around the Komodo Islands is challenging and not something that you would want to attempt without proper instruction, but I was in good hands. As this was one of the first commercial trips for Blue Marlin it was a small group. Just Darren, a photographer and 3 of Darren’s mates who he DM’d with in Mozambique a few years earlier, and me. I was in for quite a trip. Prior to each dive we were thoroughly briefed, we didn’t enter the water until the current was perfect, techniques to deal with the current was explained, as was how to use a reef hook. I also learned quickly that a shorty suit was not suitable. Hydroid is prevalent in these areas and the sting is enough for your regulator to be subject to extreme profanity.
The diving was a good mix if high action, adrenalin pumping, fat moving current diving and a more relaxed regular dive scenario. We snorkelled with mantas and dolphins and dived with sharks, turtles, eagle and bull rays and teems of tropical fish. On one dive we were also lucky enough to see a swimming ribbon eel, this was also the same dive that saw me get assaulted by a remora, but that’s a whole other story.
Night dives were particularly special and provided mandarin fish, frog fish and a blue ringed octopus for our entertainment.
Mid way through the trip the boat docked at Rintja Island for a wee on land excursion to see the completely and utterly petrifying Komodo Dragons. Now, growing up in rural Australia I am familiar with the odd wandering goanna. But this is a whole different story. These dragons are the biggest in the world and seem to be either sleepy or ready and waiting to tear your face off. I was told my fear was irrational, but I begged to differ. Technically these animals are not poisonous, however their saliva contains so much bacteria that if bitten, without immediate treatment you will most certainly end up with a life threatening infection. This is how they kill animals much bigger than themselves such as water buffalo. Bite, follow for a few days, wait and then attack them when they are too weak to put up a fight. It’s like something out of a horror movie!
Post trip I had planned to spend a couple of nights at the dive shop in Labuan Bajo, but as this wasn’t ready for guests yet Kim arranged for me to stay in French resort called Waecicu Eden Beach. This is about a quarter of the way around Flores Island and only accessible to Labuan Bajo via boat. The resort and rooms are spectacular with the most amazing views across the islands. The restaurant and bar are right down on the beach and the rooms are scattered up a very steep hill behind. The hike requires a few breathers along the way but it’s worth every breathless moment. They also kindly arranged a boat and driver to take me into LB to catch up with my new friends for some farewell drinks at the aptly named paradise bar.
I also had the opportunity to spend one day diving with Moritz from Komodo Dive Center. This is yet another new venture for the islands’ and specialises in courses and day boat diving. The resort was in its initial building stage when I had a look around, but it looked like every detail was being built to western standards. All their gear and tanks were brand new and their villas looks like they had the potential to be amazing.
This trip was one of my most memorable. Mainly because of the people I met, whom I am still in regular contact with and have been diving with since in North Sulawesi. I aim to get back to Komodo sometime soon, to finally experience the famous Ikan Biru!
The world’s largest coral reef system comprising of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching 2,600 kilometres along the Queensland coast in an area of 344,400 square kilometres the Great Barrier Reef is a little large to have under one listing, so we’re breakin it down. There is the sites we have dived (Inner Reef, Ribbon Reef, Coral Sea, Whitsundays, SS Yongala, Lady Elliot Island) and then the never ending list of dive sites that we will get to one day.
The Great Barrier Reef is not only a national treasure, but one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and something that any Australian diver should be proud of. Unfortunately it just isn’t as healthy as it used to be and it requires some TLC. To find out what you can do to help please click here..
So it was NYE 2012/13. That means diving in my world. And as I now know, there is no better place for it than Papua New Guinea. Either that or Walindi is just one of those special places with water you only normally dream of getting the opportunity to dive.
Kat and I arrived into Port Moresby just after Christmas and were instantly confronted with the thick hot air and ‘that’ smell which I’m not even going to attempt to describe for fear of offending my local friends. We trundled our gear from the international terminal to domestic under the watchful eye of airport security to be presented with the chaos of domestic departures. We figured out we just needed to push to the front to get checked in, an effort that was wasted as we were delayed, delayed, delayed, cancelled and then transferred by security to a so called 5 start hotel surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Ahhh Port Moresby, you are a truly revolting place…
Thankfully it was all up from there. An early morning flight to Hoskins was the start to day two. From there a truck collected and delivered us to the beautiful Walindi Plantation Resort. In order to not waste any time with boring things like checking into accommodation and paperwork, we were transported directly to the jetty, threw on our togs, grabbed our gear and were underwater within 20 minutes of arriving. I was instantly happy and completely carefree..
Never in my life have I felt so far away from anywhere. It’s like you are at the final frontier where civilisation hasn’t quite caught up to Mother Nature. The thick jungle is an intense green and the water is clear, warm and seemingly unaffected by the local fisherman feeding the villages. Every dive sent my heart racing with excitement and upon assent I couldn’t wait to converse with my new friends about what we had just seen. Every dive, not just one a day or only in the best dive sites, every dive!! And during surface intervals we were either snorkelling or watching the eagles and other birdlife attempt to steal our left over lunch and snacks. Ahh-mazing…
The resort itself is beautiful and set amongst lovely landscaped gardens full of butterflies and amazingly coloured birds with a pool, volleyball court and outdoor bar and restaurant. The rooms are well appointed cabins with fans, and they wash, dry and fold your clothes for you every day which is a nice touch. The meals were served at dedicated times and there was certainly a lot of it to feed hungry divers at the end of the day. Max, Cheyne and their family would eat with you in the evenings and the dive manager who I only remember as ‘Captain America’ (say no more) would take requests for dive sites as to ensure that everyone got to see most sites before leaving.
The Japanese Zero aircraft wreck and Kimbe Island were possibly my two super favourite dives, but there really isn’t much between them all..
As well as all of this there is a good menu of on land experiences too which can fill your dry day before leaving. Kat and I went to look at the fire flies in the jungle one night which was beautiful if not a little scary. Following machete wielding men down a path into the thick jungle in the pitch dark will never feel ok no matter how many times you are told you are safe, but the fireflies are pretty spectacular and the adrenalin from being scared gives you a good laugh when bar at the resort bar. We also went on a village tour, to see some on land plane wrecks left over from the second world war and our friends did the volcano hike which seemed like a bit too much effort to me, but they enjoyed it..
I think any trip to PNG is bound to give the traveller a bit of an eye opener as to the oppression that a corrupt government causes on its people. For a country that is so rich in natural resources, the locals have very little, and they are pretty angry about it too. For this reason crime is high, which is understandable. There is also a very colonial feeling in PNG, a lack of education and opportunity. Our local boat staffs were all very friendly, intelligent people and brilliant at their jobs, yet we were not allowed to thank them with a beer at the end of the day because staffs weren’t allowed at the bar. This is something that sat a little uneasy with me, but we were sure to tip them well at the end of the trip.
Overall, a brilliant adventure! Perfect combination of the best diving I have ever done, great company, scrumptious food and complete isolation. The resort also runs liveaboard trips which I would also be keen go back to give a go, one day…
Tip: Watch out for the giant frogs when walking about of an evening and take a lot of bug spray…
Sharks make me happy. They are the most beautiful, fascinating, graceful fish in the ocean and I am completely and utterly obsessed. This obsession was created by your regular reef, grey nurse, port jackson and wobbegong sharks so the thought of getting to dive with the daddy of them all made me very excited! I had an upcoming work trip to Adelaide, and I could see a window of opportunity, so I took it.
From Adelaide I flew to Port Lincoln, a sleepy little fishing village on the wild South Australian coast. I was greeted at the airport by Debi, the owner operator of the brand spanking new Port Lincoln YHA. Debi and her husband Robert are also involved with a swim with the tuna operation that looks amazing, but I had a date with a bigger type of fish! Along with a couple of other YHA guests I was taken down to the port the following day ready for the adventure of a lifetime!
My home for the next 3 days was the ‘Princess II’ and already I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. For those who don’t know, Rodney Fox is a bit of an Australian legend. He was the unfortunate victim of a great white shark attack back in 1963. The attack resulted in life saving surgery that left him with over 450 stiches and a household name. From there Rodney constructed the original shark cage and went onto work with Steven Spielberg on the making of the movie Jaws. In hindsight this was a move that Rodney went on to regret as global public perception of sharks took a turn for the worse and shark culling followed in many countries. Now he is one of the world’s leading marine conservationists and along with his son Andrew, a marine scientist, make it their business to not only protect sharks but try and educate people about this beautiful animal too.
Once on board I met with Andrew and also Sam Cahir. Sam is a very well renowned and highly awarded underwater photographer and not technically staff the Princess II, but on board so often taking pictures that he may as well be. The stage was set and we were off, motoring south bound for the Neptune Islands. Once the wavers were signed and insurance details collected, we set up our gear and waited. There is nothing on the itinerary about how many dives are included on a 3 day trip; it all just depends on the sharks. If they are around, we get in; if not then we don’t bother braving the 14 degree water for no reason.
Oh and there were sharks, many many great big white sharks. From the first second I saw a dark shadow approaching the boat I could help but let out a shriek resembling a small child. Then there was another, and another. Then Andrew began to get the cage ready for the first group to descend. This dive boat is the only one in the world that has a special license to drop the cage at the bottom of the ocean. This is controlled by a crane on the upper deck and a series of hydraulic controls to move around once the cage is submerged. We had four pre arranged cage teams, each of four people on a roster. Andrew and Sam were the designated cage masters and went on every other dive. As one cage descended the next group began to get ready. 2 wetsuits, socks, boots, gloves, a hood, a harness with 20kg of weight to keep you from floating in the cage and a back plate with a single regulator.
As the first group got out of the cage there were high fives and laughter all around, a sense of adrenalin and elation knowing that something amazing was about to happen. As I clambered in the cage suspended above the water I felt like a child about to go on an amusement ride. The crane slowly lowered us in and the cold water gradually seeped through to my skin, but I didn’t feel it because I was instantly surrounded by 6 great white sharks between 3 and 5 meters in length and weighing up to 2 ton. Ahhhhhh – mazing!!! I may have cried with a mixture of happiness and excitement. Seeing the curious big guys come right up to the cage to have a look and rub their body along the metal to see what it feels like, but not in an aggressive way at all. Then the little guys with such attitude being all flighty and darting around, trying to show off in front of their superiors. Just witnessing Andy and Sam practically get out of the cage to get ‘that’ photo and gently nudge the sharks away if they got a little too close was an experience within itself.
My Matrix dive computer is ultra conservative, so it was always my deco levels that signalled the end of the dive, even then I spent most of the dive with my arm sticking out the top of the cage just to get a few extra minutes with my new friends. Upon assent, we’d eat, make a bathroom stop and wait for our turn to go down again, and so on for 3 days. It was certainly the sharks who eventually got sick of us rather than the other way around.
All in all a life changing trip. The group was small, the vessel was comfortable and warm, the food was restaurant quality and plentiful and Andrew provided a wealth of information about their conservation efforts and why sharks are such an integral part of the marine eco system. Perhaps they should extend an invite to certain ministers of Western Australia’s government and teach them a thing or two about the environment the are so called protecting.
I often get asked about my favourite dive site in Australia, and people are often surprised as to how quickly I answer them. No need to think about it, it is for sure, hands down, without doubt the SS Yongala.
Located off the coast of Alva Beach near Ayr the SS Yongala is a passenger ship wreck that went down 100 years ago in a cyclone. There are two options when choosing a dive company, the local Yongala Dive which launches you off the beach in an inflatable or a Townsville operation that has you spending 3 hours at sea just in transfer. The latter I never considered a viable option.
I’ve been back to dive out of Alva Beach on 4 occasions, and for me it just keeps getting better. An afternoon flight to Townsville and a drive down the coast will get you in at the dive lodge in time for a couple of cold ones and an early night’s sleep, because the next day is all action!
From the dive shop the truck takes you down a bumpy path to the beach where you launch for a 20 minute trip aboard the ‘Yongala Express’ out to the wreck. It’s good to bear in mind that you are in completely open ocean without the protection of any reef system or islands. If the wind gets above 15 knots then the dive will be cancelled. The reason for this becomes apparent when you see you dive buddies turn a lighter shade of green and go clambering for the edge of the boat. Just another excuse to get you kit on and get in!
As you descend down the line the shadow of the ship appears before you, but you couldn’t care less because you are too busy breaking your neck looking at the massive fish!! You name it and its there, but not like you have ever experienced before. This time everything is on steroids, huge beyond belief, an incredible frenzy of mega fish all buying for your attention at the same time. The rusty old boat they all happen to be living on becomes insignificant even for the most avid wreck diver.
Marble rays glide past you in numbers up to a dozen as if you aren’t even there, then the odd eagle ray will come in for a quick dance alongside the bull rays. Sea snakes weave their way in between your fins whilst the resident giant grouper and flowery potato cod at the bow of the boat are as big as I have ever seen. Turtles, bat fish, giant Queensland groupers (aptly named VW do to its relative size), schooling trevally, barracouta and on one dive what I thought was a grey nurse out in the blue, turns out she was just a friendly bull shark! I have even been blessed with breaching whales on the boat ride back in.
This is a truly special place. Every dives safety stop is counting down the long three minutes till you get to finally exchange words with your buddy about what you have just witnessed. This is one of the few dives in the world that has left me with adrenalin lasting for hours along with a stupid grin just at the new memory of such a brilliant dive. Amazing dive buddies in Brady, Kat, Kath, Naomi and Carolyn and tropical warm waters obviously help too 🙂
Following on from a very awesome day on the Yongala wreck, we headed to Cairns to take on the Great Barrier Reef. We arrived in to town – to the backpacker favourite, Gilligans – pretty late, so while all the cool kids were getting the party started downstairs, we went straight to sleep, ready for our wholesome 6am start.
So, bright ‘n sparkey, with the great team Pro Dive Cairns, we boarded the MV Scuba Pro on a 3-day / 2-night tour to Milln and Flynn Reefs.
Given the popularity of Cairns and the Reef with international guests, the boat catered for various nationalities – I think Pro Dive at the time had German and Japanese staff – and as it happened, our boat was almost solely Germans.
But not to worry, as default dive buddies, we were sorted!
> And it’s lucky that we have the same attitude to diving – ‘quick, we can go, let’s go!’. First in and last out, that was our M.O.
Our first stop was Milln Reef, where we dived the sites Petaj and The Whale. It is very easy diving, in our first 5 dives we didn’t really even break the 20m mark, but so pretty! The water was clear, and we got to see plenty of clown anemones (and domino anemonefish), puffers, Titan Triggerfish, white tip reef sharks, parrotfish, stingrays, batfish and so on and so on. So many things!
A higlight – on our early morning dive, we found an octopus just hanging out off the bommie ‘The Whale’. Cheeky little guy, he was so close, but being on the outer of a circular bommie, no one was looking out in his direction. But I was ;).
We then headed to the nearby Flynn Reef, for Tennis Courts, Gordon’s and Tracy’s. These sites were even more shallow than before, on a couple of the dives we didn’t drop below 12m.
Being on a liveaboard, we did both dawn- and night- dives, which are such a great way to begin and end a day. Night dives were particularly fun, as the lights off the back of the boat attracted the fish, which attracted the sharks, which gave us a good show.
The dives weren’t guided, so it was like being intrepid adventurers. Which suited Kristy and I just fine, we like tiki-touring about. And it was due to this curiousity that we had a great find – a Tassled Wobbegong hiding in a cave! Now, while it’s not advisable to stick your head in a cave when you can’t quite tell what the large creature inside is, well, that’s how we roll.
Off the east coast of Malaysia lies the Perhentian Islands, comprising the two main islands of Perhentian Besar (“Big Perhentian”) and Perhentian Kecil (“Small Perhentian”).
It’s a speedboat’s ride from Kuala Besut, in north east Malaysia (you can get a train there from KL). The day I took the boat, the sea was like glass, so it was looooooovely. I wouldn’t really fancy it on a choppy day, however.
I was headed to the Perhentian’s just for a couple of days before meeting friend in Thailand, so, R&R was what I was after. For this, I chose to go to Small Perhentian – to Flora Bay. This is just a thin strip of beach at the base of a hill (when I say hill, i think the whole island is a ‘hill’), perfect for my agenda.
I understand you can walk over a bit of a track to get to the side of the island closest to Big Perhentian, and ‘water taxis’ (some guy in a runabout) are pretty frequent. I didn’t bother, but sociable people did – the opposing shore is where the party action is. It’s quite funny actually, the islands are just in the middle of the sea, but their opposing shores are quite built up and bustling (at least, from what I could see from the boat).
I dived with Urban Island Divers, as always, as a friend had used to work there (Cesar, I believe that was you, once again!) – who were heaps laid back (I’ll post a pic of exactly how laid back, shortly). So much so they were only interested in doing 2 dives a day – no early morning starts here!
I got a dive in the afternoon I arrived, just off to the nearby T3 site. The water was toasty warm, so no wetsuits required. Nice bombies to go around, over, between – but not so nice when jellyfish descended! I had no idea they were there until my guide, Kamil, swam up to me and put his arms above me to wave the dangling tendrils away! Being a thin Malaysian man, he was far more sensibly in a full rashy. So, beware, find out if there are likely to be jelly before believing the ‘nah, you don’t need a wetsuit’ of the locals.
The next day we headed further out to sea to Tokong Laut and Sugar Wreck.
‘Temple of the Sea’ is a tall pillar of a rock, stretching from sea floor almost to surface. Such as nice dive, we took a clockwise route, descending to 23m and then spiralling back up.
Heaps to sea – puffers, lionfish, all the usual small but cool fishies. And bamboo sharks, blue spotted eagle rays, and a banded sea snake for excitement!
So good that when it was the option for the next day as well, I didn’t mind a bit.
Does what it says on the tin. Sugar wreck is is sunken sugar cargo ship, in around 20m of water (19m was our deepest, so it must’ve been reasonably close to surface at top). Again, bamboo sharks were on the loose, but the most most memorable aspect was SO many liofish. I’m use to seeing a couple – maybe 6 per dive, but there were HEAPS. And also cute porcupinefish – a little bit spiky, but mainly just a ball of sweetness.
My final Perhentian dive was a site called Batulai, which wasn’t amazing, but a nice sandy bottom with a coral garden. We did see an Indian Ocean Walkman – which has wings, which you’ll see, if you hit it on the nose, according to the locals,. Mean! – though, a good find.
I’d like to head back to Perhentian (do I say that every place?) – especially with a bit more time an a mind to party it up a little more.
I may have peaked too soon.
My first dive in Borneo was my 7th dive ever.
My first dive at Sipadan? 14th dive ever.
So began in earnest my love of life under the waves.
I decided to go to Borneo more because it seemed like a close, exotic, place to start an independent adventure following a weekend in Kuala Lumpur with girlfriends, than any search for great dives. A friend of mine had previously worked at Uncle Changs on Mabul, so Uncle Changs is where I went.
And what a decision.
The waters of the Semporna Archipelago are so interesting, diverse and full of life that the length of my stay easily extended beyond my original intention.
Between the muck diving of Siamil and the AMAZING pelagic creatures of Sipadan, there’s enough diving for everyone.
Mabul’s is the accommodation centre. But don’t let me overstate it. It’s still an island barely bigger than a few football fields.
There’s a bunch of dive lodges on Mabul, some more fancy than others. But for me, Uncle Changs was great. It’s very much a communal place, with all meals being served on a schedule, and the dining area being really the only hang out area. On my second or third night we had a birthday party for one of the divers – who then become my fast friend, Jenni. Yay!! So, turn up with your friends, or on your own, it doesn’t matter, everyone’s there for diving.
I started with the house sites around Mabul – Paradise 1, 2 – doing my advance open water. It’s a great place to do it, there are so many fun things to see, it to me was as much fun as any dive. There are giant turtles just hanging out at the house reefs, sleeping no the structures that have been sunk on the sea floor to encourage coral growth and sea life. Even if you’re just snorkelling, there’s still plenty to sea – the depth around Mabul is very shallow, you can easily snorkel off the shore.
From this shallow, sandy environment, it’s a very short boat ride to drop offs like the 60m Lobster Wall (yep, lobsters live there) and second wall*, and on to Sipadan.
*This was one of my favourite dives – a muck around dive with the local dive guides, who, needing a customer so they could use a boat, got me to come along (yes, I’m talking about you, Cesar). Such freedom just being under the water and exploring. And when you’re with guys who dive all day, every day, it’s such a different atmosphere than an organised dive group.
But, what I’m sure you’re waiting for is the Sipadan account. WICKED.
If you’ve ever been to Sipadan before, you’ll know, it can be annoying to book the permit to visit. If you’re intending to go – look ahead. Some of the dive shops insist you dive with them a day or two before you can have a permit, others (like Uncle Changs, at least, when I as there), don’t have these stipulations – but even then, they have their quotas limiting how many can be taken. Not that that it’s a chore to have to dive at any of the sites nearby, but if you’re on a schedule, book in as many days as you can before you go.
Getting in the water at South Point was incredible. Just under the water was a large school of bumphead parrotfish – waaaaaaaah! – and turtles, of course. And swirling Jackfish, all shimmering in the sea.
But my favourite dive in Sipadan was Drop off, where there’s a turtle (graveyard) cave, and the current allows for a drift dive along the wall. Just like being on a fairground ride.
Siamil is ACE for muck diving. Stay shallow, wetsuit optional, and be prepared to stare at the sand carefully to see any sort of giveaway that a creature lies beneath, or camouflaged.
If you like the ugly-but-cute fish, this is the place for you. Porcupine fish, crocodilefish, scorpionfish, and my faves, frogfish, all hang out here.
I can’t wait til the day I get back.
If you fancy seeing a video of it, check out this video from a friend’s friend.
Tip: If you can help it, don’t stay in Semporna. It’s a transport and fishing hub more than anything else. So if you can arrive early and get the first boat over to Mabul in the morning, you may as well.
Jamaican paradise. That’s my impression on El Nido.
I’m not sure you’d go to El Nido purely for the diving, but for a holiday including diving, it’s perfect. In off-season. (I rather liked the lack of tourists, made me feel special).
El Nido’s a relatively small town, nestled into sheers cliffs on the northern edge, with a bay filled with small islands rising out of the sea.
It’s a curious place – the foreign western nationality here is Germans but the dominant foreign culture, on the sea front at least, is a bit rasta. Reggae music abounds, the coloured beanies make the rounds….. You get the picture.
We arrived off the ferry from Coron in the north, with no plan and no bookings. But after a short stroll with our backpacks on, looking at hostel signs and chatting, we were invited by a woman to see her accommodation. So down an alley we followed her (it was day time, not scary), and popped out on the beautiful beach – and as luck would have it, that was where the place was. Perfect! A little haggling by Jenni got us best room, at the worst room’s price. Spider Hotel is the name, if ever you find yourself in El Nido.
For diving, we headed out into the bay, weaving our way through the small islands towards Bacuit Bay.
Topography under the water is much like above, just inverted. Complete with caves.
We spent the morning exploring the open bays – which were lovely, not particularly exciting, but lovely. Then in the afternoon we headed to Dilumacad Island, where we dived the well-known cave. It’s a great dive, slightly daunting as you enter through a tunnel that goes for around 20 metres (its not too tight though), but then you arrive in a large ‘room’, which is always a fun experience. There’s not a whole lot of fish-friends in the cave, but there are crabs and other shelled creatures.
If you get tired of diving (what?!) there’s a bunch of other things you can do around El Nido, like drive round the nearby coast (which quickly turns into open farmland) – we chose to rent a scooter to do this, which turned into a bit of an experience as it started raining and the clay roads were slippy and slidey! There’s also other beaches both to the north and south of the town, very worth visiting, and a walk to the nearby lookout (we didn’t do this though).Share
Wrecks wrecks wrecks.
Coron is on the Island of Busuanga, in Palawan – so, a little off the beaten track. To get there wasn’t hard – short flight from Manila to Busuanga airport (not much more than a tin shed in a paddock) and then a local taxi-van to the town/port of Coron.
What was difficult was the obnoxious nationals of a certain country that we shared the van with, but that’s another story.
Coron town is a bit unusual – on one hand it’s the local centre, so has markets, shops and centres that aren’t of much interest to foreigners, but on the other hand, it’s a destination for wreck-divers and a port town so is pumping with dodgy nights clubs and hawkers.
– do try both the market and the nightclubs though – former because it’s good, and latter because it’s SO bad.
Busuanga Seadive Resort was where we stayed – again, just turning up and hoping for the best is a solid option in Philippines – and it’s great. Right on the water, good dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you can’t be bothered to go out – or if the weather turns and you don’t have much other choice – and a bar for later on. And being one of the largest dive shops in town, with a couple of boats going out daily, it makes for easy dive-life.
Wrecks are the draw in Coron – in the second world war the Allies downed a whole fleet of Japanese support vessels, so the bays are littered with cargo ships, an oil tanker, some smaller gun ships, and so on. Most amount of wrecks I one place I’ve come across – pretty impressive, although of course tinged with sadness of bad times.
The most interesting boat for me was the oil tanker, the Taiei Maru – diving into the holds was surreal. Being in the complete dark, with completely still water, meant it was like being suspended in nothingness. Not great if you suffer from any kind of anxiety or phobia, but such an ‘other’ experience.
Pentration of the wrecks is encouraged, so best to be comfortable with the dark and tight spaces before getting to Coron – and try to gage if your dive buddies are the same, as there’s not a lot worse than being in a confined, underwater space with someone who’s not quite oh-fay with it. The most difficult I remember was the Akitshushima wreck, which involved negotiating our way through tunnel-like passages in dim light. Where’s Twist’s flood light when you need it?? It was also pretty deep, 34m, which, combined with everything else is a little demanding.
There can be a fair current around some of the wrecks – we got loads around the gunship East Tanget – so pay close attention to the guides who are familiar with it.
The other special feature of Coron is Barracuda Lake, in the middle of Coron Island (which, funnily is not where Coron town is), a short boat trip from town. There’s not really a lot to see in the lake, it’s a bit barren with not great vis, but that’s not the point. The point is the very distinct thermoclines experienced when descending. Like diving in trifle, you feel that shift between hot and cold water as if jelly and sponge. Very ‘other’.
We chose Seadive on recommendation from our Mabul-by-way-of-Peru dive-instructor-friend Cesar, and in turn met Coron’s Jamie. And, as the dive-world would have it, Cesar, at time of writing, is now on staff at Coron Dive. So say hi if you meet him!
Their happiness is infectious. My last trip to Fiji was for work (yes, I know. It’s not a bad gig!), and once the meetings and conferences were done in Nadi I managed to escape down the coast for a week of palm trees and sunshine.
First stop – Mango Bay! With a range of accommodation from dorm rooms to beachside bures, an in house dive shop, surf school, and a bar that will keep you entertained till the wee hours this place has something for everyone. As this property targets backpackers, they run regular activities to keep everyone entertained. This is great even for those who aren’t so young and crazy as you can join in the activities as and when you please, and the private accommodation is far enough away from the bar so as not to keep you up and night. I happened to be there during the Rugby World Cup, the owner, Danny, had put up a big screen outside by the beach and everyone sat around watching it in the moonlight. Such a great evening, and a perfect way to meet people when you are travelling alone.
My recollection of the diving is pretty good. At the time their compressor could only do tank fills to 180 bar, though no one seemed very concerned by this. On the first day the in house instructor Alex took me out on one of the shallower dives to test my skills, then for the next few days I was diving with the local DM’s. From the dive hut you carry your gear down to a small tinny and jump onboard. Getting out past the waves was sometimes a bit of a challenge, but always worth it! Reef sharks, turtles and an abundance of tropical fish just waiting to entertain us.
From Mango Bay I headed south further down the Coral Coast to Pacific Harbour where I stayed at Uprising Beach Resort. This place is another great option that caters for all budgets, and it’s the perfect place to stay for those who are keen to do the famous Beqa Lagoon shark dive, a diving experience not to be missed on any trip to Fiji. There are a couple of dive operations you can go with. I chose Beqa Adventure Divers, also known as BAD. They are extremely popular, so much so that it does seem a little mechanical on arrival. The maximum group size is 20 people and they are booked out some time in advance so you can pretty much guarantee that you will be diving in a group of 20. I was a little skeptical as to how my day was going to go..
Once on board ‘MV Predator’ the briefing began. It was explained to us that this was a shark conservation project that has a dive operation associated with it, not the other way around. $20 from each diver goes to the local villages to stop them fishing in this area and keep the sharks protected. This made me feel a little easier about feeding wild animals, and they have Ron and Valerie Taylor’s blessing so they mustn’t be too bad right?
Once we reached the ‘arena’ we were ready for the show to begin! Giant stride off the back of the boat, descend down to 30m, grab a hold of the pre-positioned rocks surrounding the arena and just watch with eyes the size of saucepans and a neck seemingly made of rubber! About a dozen giant bull sharks, countless reef sharks, some silver tips, a tawny nurse and a lemon shark all came in to feed on tuna heads from the hands of the well trained staff. It was certainly an amazing spectacle, and one that will never be forgotten. Once our deco limits were running low we began a slightly nerve racking assent and safety stop then clambered back on the boat.
Dive number two was the same thing but shallower and because of the depth only attracted reef sharks. On a normal day this would be very impressive, but after the first dive your adrenalin levels become greedy and you spend most of the time with your eyes to the blue hoping that the big fellas might come back for more. Once back on board, the questions began. I generally have a lot of questions, this was no exception. The local staff were more than happy to answer them, and more importantly had all of the answers. All in all it was a great experience and well worth spending the money on. It is a little weird in the sense that it’s not a dive as such, it’s a show. And feeding animals in the wild is something that you are always taught not to do, but that other option is that these beautiful creatures would be served with rice and cava in the surrounding villages if not for the conservation worth that BAD are doing.
Want to see more? Have a look at the galleryShare
Looking back through my log book it seems I haven’t been diving in Byron Bay since 2011, which seems a little crazy to me because it just feels like a few months ago! Oh, how time flies!
Byron Bay is famous for the dive sites of Julian Rocks which are located within the Cape Byron Marine Park and an extension off Cape Byron, the most easterly point of Australia (fun fact!). I have been diving here a couple of times and I’ve never been disappointed. One of the special things about this place is that they have a good mix of tropical species found in areas further north as well as fish found in the colder Southern Ocean, so you just never know what you are going to get! The great diving coupled with the fact that Byron Bay is such a lovely place to visit makes for a great getaway. There are a couple of dive operations to choose from in Byron, but I have always dived with Byron Bay Dive Centre and found them very professional. They offer 3 single dives a day at 8am, 11am and 2pm and eager people like me are welcome to go on all three if they wish.
Upon meeting the shop gear is sorted, paperwork filed and they you are off. The boat enters off the beach then it’s a 2.5km journey out to the rocks. Julian rocks themselves are quite big so there are several dive sites around the rocks. On our way out we managed to see some dolphins too which is always nice. As it was during the humpback whale migration period last time I was there the soundtrack to my dives were the melodic noises of the passing mammals. It was hard to not keep my eyes to the blue to see if I could steal a peak, but alas they were too far away. What I did see though was more than enough to keep me happy. There were several turtles and loads of sharks, as well as an eagle ray and some cute anemone. There is also some very colourful sea stars, sponges, soft and hard corals with their assortment of macro creatures hiding amongst them. Apparently you can see leopard sharks here too, but I have never been that lucky..
The only downside with diving here is that it’s only one dive at a time, which probably is just me being greedy! At times the swell can be quite big in these areas so I assume it’s to avoid anyone becoming ill during the surface interval. The conditions have always been good for my dives so it was very relaxing; however the rocks are quite exposed so I presume they would get cancelled if the swell picked up too much. All in all great dive sites, close to town and suitable for all levels of diving.
It was my first ever dive trip and I was extremely excited. It was actually a family holiday with my Uncle, Aunt and 2 cousins, but I made it my business to get there a week early and spend some quality time with the underwater world. I wasn’t disappointed.
Upon flying from Sydney via Auckland, over the International Date Line, then landing in Rarotonga (yesterday) you are immediately forced to slow down, forget your worries and adapt to island time. This was made evident by hundreds of people getting off the jumbo jet to queue in front of one happy little customs officer, slowly stamping passports without much of a sense of urgency. Normally this would make me furious, but the man in the Hawaiian shirt playing a ukulele in the arrivals hall somehow made it all better.
I was staying at Rarotonga Backpackers. As well as their main building right on the beach, complete with hammocks under the palm trees, they also have private bungalows just down the road set in a beautiful garden setting. With my own private balcony, a kitchenette, store on the corner and dive shop down the street I was sorted and ready to explore!
Rarotonga is the perfect place to recharge your batteries, because to be honest there isn’t a great deal to do except lay around and enjoy the sun and the sand. The island has one road that circumnavigates the island, no traffic lights, 2 pubs and 2 buses (one that travels clockwise and the other anticlockwise) that take 23 minutes to do a round trip. Though most of the time when waiting for a bus, the locals stop and pick you up to give you a lift as after a couple of days you will have met most of them anyhow.
I spent my days diving with Dive Rarotonga. Karen and Ed (the owners) run a fantastic operation and the conditions are perfect for beginner divers. Marine life requires big ocean currents to thrive; this is one of the reasons why more advanced diving throws better results. Due to the position of Rarotonga in the Pacific Ocean they simply don’t get these currents which means that these warm, flat, calm waters are just paradise for a new diver. The flip side is that you don’t get the abundance of fish you might experience in other parts of the South Pacific, though I’m sure that over fishing may also have something to do with that.
It was here that I saw my first shark in the deep blue. They were a couple of reef sharks at 15 meters and that was the very start of my continuing fascination. Karen and divemaster Charles also pointed out lots of beautiful creatures and answered my never ending questions on the surface of fish names, why they do that, how and why and how do you spell that for my log book please. My enthusiasm was a bit of a running joke and Karen assured me that one day I would be a divemaster…
Once my family arrived our activities became more land based besides an afternoon snorkel for a few hours and a dip in the pool. This was a great chance for us to check out some of the more extravagant resorts, their restaurants and their swim up bars! A day at Muri Lagoon is a must. The water so beautifully clear with the whitest of white sand. It’s also a good chance to check out the kite surfers in action.
In the evening Trader Jacks is the most popular place on the island serving ice cold beer and counter meals all day and night long. Once it closes the ‘Whatever Bar’ next door will entertain you until the last person leaves. Thankfully for my liver I never seemed to find out when that actually was 🙂 If you are after an all you can eat buffet and a cultural dance show then the Crown Beach Resort next to the dive shop run fantastic evenings 3 nights a week for $50.
Overall a great destination for the ultimate recharge, and perfect for beginner divers.
Tip: If staying in the cheaper accommodation on the island, you can still use the facilities in the big five star resorts such as swimming pools, bars and restaurants. As long as you buy a drink they don’t seem to mind.Share
Coming soon, Dive Locale
Coming soon, Dive Locale