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-13.89, 146.55
False Entrance
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-13.82,146.55
Silver City
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-14.89,145.68
Two Towers
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-14.91,145.69
MV Spirit Of Freedom
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-15.50,145.79
Steve's Bommie

Far Northern Trip 6 – 13 November

2017 Far North Expedition
Northbound Trip Report
6th to 13th November 2017

Monday Day 1 – Boarding

Spirit of Freedom spent Monday morning and afternoon restocking and loading in preparation for her second 2 week long Expedition into the Far North region of the Great Barrier Reef. World-renowned photographer and publisher of Alert Diver Magazine, Stephen Frink, had offered places on the Northbound Expedition on Spirit of Freedom to his group of passionate divers and they eagerly booked their spots on the Waterhouse Tours trip to Australia. Several people, including Stephen himself, had to cut their time at DEMA in the US short and fly directly into Cairns to join the vessel before she departed Trinity Wharf.

Once all the dive gear and camera equipment was loaded on to the boat, the group soon set up their dive gear and prepared the camera systems, eager for the first dive of the trip. The first week of the Expedition was to head north from Cairns and explore the rarely visited regions of the Great Barrier Reef north of Lizard Island so overnight Captain Tony, and the mates team of Jimmy and Carina, navigated their way through the local Cairns Reefs to the northern Ribbon Reefs to start Day 2 of the expedition in Spirit of Freedom’s regular operating area.

Tuesday – Day 2 – Ribbon Reef Area

Starting with dives at familiar sites in the northern Ribbon Reef area at Coral Princess Bommie, Lighthouse Bommie and the Cod Hole gave the divers the chance to wet their gills again and, for some, revisit places that they had not seen for 10 years. Lighthouse Bommie featured schools of Jacks and Fusiliers around the isolated tower. A young Green Turtle and also an Olive Sea Snake were spotted during the dive before heading to the northern tip of Ribbon Reef 10 to visit the Cod Hole. The resident Potato Cod appeared underneath the boat, ready to pose for photos with divers. I’m sure that this visit from Spirit of Freedom left the Potato Cod a little shocked as they swam into the Cod Feed area and 18 huge camera systems turned to follow them, strobes charged and ready. Needless to say the excellent photographers took turns in snapping shots of the Potato Cod as TD/DM Lucy fed the Cod with morsels of fish from the bucket.

2017 Far North Expedition
Northbound Trip Report
6th to 13th November 2017

Wednesday Day 3 – Tijou Reef Area

Overnight Spirit of Freedom travelled 140 nautical miles along the outside edge of the GBR to reach Tijou Reef. The angle of the run meant that the journey through the open ocean was very comfortable and, as the sun rose over the horizon, the breaking waves on the southern edge of Tijou Reef could be seen. The tenders were lowered and brought alongside to drop the divers along the curving edge of the shoal and drift back to the western point. A second dive on the point gave everyone a chance to change lens and focus on his or her preferred shots before Spirit of Freedom headed to the northern tip of Tijou Reef for the afternoon. The outgoing tide created a reasonable current running along the reef wall and brought out the more timid purple and orange Anthias searching for the nutrients flowing past. As sun crept towards the horizon, turning the sky from blue through orange to a deep purple, Spirit of Freedom set a course almost due north for another 100 nautical mile journey overnight to reach the Great Detached Reef region, over 600km or 380 miles north of Cairns in a straight line.

Thursday Day 4 – Raine Island and Great Detached Reef Area

Stephen’s previous trip to the Far North region of the Great Barrier Reef was in 2007 and sadly was affected by the formation of Cyclone Guba in the Coral Sea. Getting to Raine Island and the Great Detached Reef was one of the main goals for the Expedition and on Thursday morning the beacon on the eastern end of Raine Island was visible on the horizon. Convicts built the stone beacon in 1844 and it has become an iconic part of the island that harbours the world’s largest remaining population of Green Turtles.

The increase in wind that was forecast was thankfully several hours late and Captain Tony manoeuvred Spirit of Freedom into position near the reef wall, 150m south of the exclusion zone surrounding Raine Island. The divers balanced themselves as Spirit rolled in the swell, ready to jump from the side door for the live drop on Tony’s command. The radio came to life and the 1-minute warning was issued. Everyone put their regs in their mouths and inhaled. Masks were on faces, BCD’s slightly inflated. There was the sound of a collective scuba exhale. Then “Go, Go, Go” came over the radio and, like parachute jumpers, the divers leaped from the side door and swam over to the waiting tenders to collect their cameras. As the divers descended, several Green Turtles surfaced, gasped a deep breath of air and then descended too. Several Green Turtles swam lazily in the shallows while others darted off into the depths as soon as they were spotted. Tamir, Reema and the rest of the group nearby were treated to the ultimate sighting as they turned and looked out in to the blue to see a dark shadow swimming along. The shadow approached, growing larger and finally becoming more distinct, before turning away and disappearing from sight. As the shadow became more distinct the stripes along the flanks of the shadow became visible and everyone realized they were looking at a huge Tiger Shark!

As the wind increased and the swell magnified too, it was time to dive into the clear blue water at Perisher Blue on the northern edge of the Great Detached Reef and allow the divers to immerse themselves in the beautiful coral gardens that covered the sandy slope. The entire afternoon was spent at one of our favourite sites in the Great Detached Reef, The Pinnacle. Opening the dive deck for the afternoon gave everyone ample opportunity to change lenses from wide to capture the massive QLD Groper at the bottom of the pinnacle to super macro to check the detail in the fine filaments in the gills of the many nudibranchs hidden on the coral structure.

2017 Far North Expedition
Northbound Trip Report
6th to 13th November 2017

Friday Day 5 – Three Reefs
At Three Reefs the coral coverage at Turmoil is magnificent and we spent the morning diving the bay area of the narrow channel between two reefs amongst the clear water. Down in the sand in the channel, several pairs of Yellow Margin Triggerfish spiraled together in their mating dance as the photographers snapped images of the pristine coral coverage and the resident reef fish that inhibited the branching coral structures. The wind has picked up from fresh to moderate and making its way to strong throughout the morning so the next move was down to the branching coral fields of the Devil’s Fingers. A small pod of dolphins joined us for the journey and could be seen riding the bow wave as Spirit of Freedom approached the southern end of Three Reefs. By late afternoon the wind was pushing through like a stormy winter’s day so Spirit moved into the shelter of Magic Kingdom for a dusk dive. Lila, Robin, Barbara, Ana and Jan left their cameras behind and jumped for a dive with their chaperones Bill, Lorenzo and Nick. Several Silver Tips cruised out of the darkness, seemingly checking out the school of Batfish and Yellow Tail Fusiliers that coalesced into a shimmering cloud of silver, white and yellow flecks as they approached. Several fun group photos ensured that the photography theme continued until darkness fell and it was time to return to SOF for a warm shower and a cold beer.

Saturday – Day 6 – Five Reefs

Saturday was a day of exploration for new sites in the Five Reefs area. Captain Tony and all crew were on lookout as Tony carefully threaded Spirit of Freedom between the reefs in the unsurveyed area in the early morning light… needless to say it took a lot of skill and expertise to handle the 37m vessel in the conditions and get close to the area that we wanted to dive. Nick and Tamir checked out the strips of coral shoals in one of the channels between the reefs and found the first location to dive. The wind had remained at a constant 25 knots overnight and made securing the vessel close to the shoals impossible. Jumping from the back of the boat as she swung a full 180 degrees on anchor required an element of timing but put the divers on either the small shoal or the big shoal that were named Mini Stripper and Big Stripper respectively. It was hard work getting back on to the boat and so when Ellis checked out the next targeted location and discovered a stunning coral garden in the shelter of the main reef structure we named it Take It Easy Bay. The sandy slope was covered in branching coral fields and the shallows had large lunar corals dotted amongst coral heads. One of the massive coral heads was undercut and was filled with a school of hundreds of Golden Sweepers which Sarah and Wendy immersed themselves in and became invisible as they were engulfed by the amount of fish. David and Mark spotted a large Barramundi Cod hiding in the shallows amongst the coral and had several Diagonal Lined Sweetlips and Harlequin Sweetlips hanging in a gully between the coral heads. After two excellent dives there is was time to secure the vessel for the open ocean crossing to Wood Reef to dive the outstanding Big Woody point. Descending down the line the tip of the reef stuck out and an old piece of rope could be seen trailing down to the plates corals at the bottom. The first thing that was noticed was the colourful soft corals and large fans on the edge of the deep wall structure that circled the entrance to the huge swim through that cut through the entire point of the reef at 18m. Crescent-tail Bigeye Soldierfish hung upside with the roof of the tunnel as their bottom and the Goldband Fusiliers streamed into the structure from the depths. Carlos, Lorenzo and Stephen found an incredible selection of nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimp and tiny crustaceans as they scoured the wall of Big Woody with their macro lenses, capturing some amazing images of the colourful macro life. Sadly it was time to start heading south again and it was time to batten down the hatches as Captain Tony headed around Wood Reef and into the open ocean with Spirit of Freedom rolling her way through the 5m seas before returning to the protection of the charted areas of the reef further south.

2017 Far North Expedition
Northbound Trip Report
6th to 13th November 2017

Sunday – Day 7– Lockhart Region

Our final day of diving was spent in the beautiful coral coverage areas of Arienne, Muddled and Nature’s Way on the outer shelf reefs east of Lockhart River. Cuttlefish were spotted hanging out amongst the branching corals, mimicking the coral structure with their tentacles. The lagoon like area of Muddled was the only place on the trip that we could say had been affected by coral bleaching and that had resulted in coral mortality. Nature’s Way’s shallow area was adorned with vibrant colourful branching, plate and table corals, one that was nearly 3m wide, and was a beautiful end to the diving. Once the dive gear was washed and the cameras systems were packed away it was time to download the final photos, edit and prepare for the incredible feast that Chef Sam and Hostess Antonia prepared for BBQ night. We had a quick summary of the trip, discussions on the general health of the Reef and the positive messages required to illustrate the great diving that we had on the expedition. Then it was time for Stephen to go through everyone’s top 10 photos from the week and everyone was in awe of the incredible shots that were taken during the trip using every type of lens from super macro to wide angle.

Monday – Day 8 – Portland Roads to Lockhart River to Cairns

The final day started with breakfast and the loading of the luggage into the tenders and the transfer runs to the boat ramp at Portland Roads. Greg and Sheree from Out of The Blue Café offered us their hospitality and some local history about Portland Roads in the 75th Anniversary year of its involvement in World War II. Greg explained the importance of the wharf that previously extended from the boat ramp that the tenders had just landed at and its use to provide supplies to the troops stationed at the Iron Range. From there we jumped into the waiting vehicles and headed off to the stunning Chilli Beach that was fully exposed at low tide. Walking along beach, playing in the rock pools, we discovered lobster shells, bluebottle jellyfish and several crustaceans hiding amongst the seaweed that was strewn across the sand by the recent strong winds and resulting wave action. Leaving Chilli Beach we drove through the dirt track roads, passing through the rainforest to the Lockhart River Township. The road led us through the Bomb Tower area where 50 tons of TNT had been detonated on the 18th July 1963 and the flat grassland area confirmed that nothing had since regrown in the area. The road soon arrived at the Aboriginal Art Centre where the new Manager, Enoch, kindly explained the methods and stories behind the local artists work and we were able to talk to several of the artists as they created their paintings in the studio at the back of the building. There is a lot of history from the WWII era in the Iron Range area with the airstrip being built by the 46th Engineer division and personnel and artillery bunkers littering the surrounding rainforest, so the group stopped and walked into the rainforest to look around several bunkers before heading to the airstrip. Tamir met everyone there for their final farewells as it was time to board the flight back to Cairns and complete the last journey of the Far North Expedition.

2017 Far North Expedition
Northbound Trip Report
6th to 13th November 2017
Summary

Over the 7 days of the northbound Far North Expedition Spirit of Freedom travelled approximately 606 nautical miles, around 1,100km, to dive 16 different reef systems of the 2,900 individual reefs that comprise one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

None of this would have been possible without our awesome Captain Tony and his crew; Jimmy, Carina, Nick, Ellis, Lorenzo, James, Tamir, Lucy, Antonia and Sam. The whole crew would like to thank our 23 amazing passengers; Stephen, Bill & Wendy, Dennis & Sarah, Cameron & Heather, Lila, Robin, KC & Marybeth, Mark, David, Anne, Caroline, Ana, Carlos, Reema, Jan, Barbara and Paula for the great dives and another amazing Expedition into the remote regions of the Great Barrier Reef!

Nick Leigh
Trip Director

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