Liveaboard Diving with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions

Liveaboard Diving with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions

 

 


IN SEARCH OF DWARF MINKE WHALES ON THE GREAT BARRIER REEF

By Christine Shepard

photos by Christine Shepard  

 

The largest living structure on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef is a spectacular, iconic destination for SCUBA divers. With over 600 species of coral, 1625 species of fish, 133 species of sharks and rays, and over 30 species of whales and dolphins, there is an abundance of marine life to discover along the 2300 kilometers of reef. For many travelers, though, the time required to make the journey across the Pacific, up to Northern Queensland, and out to the reef can put a damper on their time spent underwater. Luckily, several tour operators offer a one-stop-shop solution to this dilemma – liveaboard dive trips. 

Find out more about how to dive the Great Barrier Reef. 

 

 

Spolisport
Mike Ball Expedition’s Spoilsport is a 100’ twin hull liveaboard ship based in Cairns.

 

This July, I had the opportunity to hop aboard with one of Australia’s most seasoned and respected dive companies: Mike Ball Expeditions. The charismatic and jovial Mike Ball opened the Great Barrier Reef’s first dive school in 1969, and has been working ever since to provide divers with the best and most unique underwater experiences. In fact, all diving with his company occurs at least 100 miles north of Cairns, offering less crowded and more pristine dive sites.  

 

 

Dwarf Minke Whale
We had 2 days of swimming with these gentle giants

 

As an underwater photographer with a background primarily in shark research and dive expeditions, I’ve been eager to expand into a new niche of marine megafauna. When I heard about the annual congregation of Dwarf Minke Whales in the Great Barrier Reef, I dove straight into researching possible dive trips. I loved discovering that all the boats offering an underwater interaction with these animals also work in partnership with marine scientists from the Minke Whale Project.


No company in the region, however, has a better history of supporting science and conservation efforts than Mike Ball Expeditions. In 2007, they were given an Advanced Ecotourism Certification and have won five awards for their contribution to the Minke Whale Project. Dr. Matt Curnock represented the science team onboard our expedition, collecting data as well as hosting two informative presentations during the week.

 

Dr. Matt Curnock

 Dr. Matt Curnock and I enjoy some sunshine on the upper deck of Spoilsport during the expedition.


One of the most enticing aspects of the expedition was the diverse diving itinerary across seven days. This trip was a combination of Minke Whale interactions, fan-favorite dive sites in the Great Barrier Reef, remote Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea and even some exploratory diving on less-traversed sites in the GBR. Our week unfolded as follows:


Day 1: Cairns Departure

Afternoon - Check-in at the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions Office in Cairns

Evening – Boarding, Champagne Toast & Briefings


As the golden winter sun dipped below the lush, green mountains, we headed toward the good ship Spoilsport. Boarding the 100’ twin hull ship, I was greeted by twelve friendly and attentive crewmembers. Immediately, I felt welcomed into the group and at home with all the laughter and joking around. Easily my favorite ingredients in a successful dive expedition would be a great attitude and stellar sense of humor. This crew and group of passengers certainly embodied those qualities. Champagne toast, a series of boat briefings, a gentle hum of the motor and we were off into the night.

 

Hostess Siana
Hostess Siana offers newly boarded guests complimentary bubby and a beautiful spread of nibblies as the ship leaves Cairns.

 

Day 2: Minke Whales at Ribbon Reefs

Morning Dive - Challenger Bay, Ribbon Reefs, GBR

Midday Dive – Lighthouse Bommie, Ribbon Reefs, GBR

Afternoon Snorkel – Dwarf Minke Whale Drift from Lighthouse Bommie

Night Dive – Challenger Bay, Ribbon Reefs, GBR


Promptly awoken at 6:30AM by the cheerful call of Trip Director Ollie walking down the corridors, I heard, “Good Morning Spoilsport. Good Morning!” Somewhere between a standup comedian and town crier, this fellow could chat with the best of them. He kept us safe, informed and thoroughly entertained throughout the week. As I sleepily drew back the curtains of my cabin window, I was greeted by peachy rays of sunshine slicing through a bank of puffy clouds on the ocean’s horizon. Vibrant tropical sunrises and sunsets on the water for seven days straight… now that’s hard to beat!

  

 

Dive Deck

The large, well-organized dive deck offers divers a comfortable place to don their gear and slip into the water. There are two rows of tanks on either side with a large camera table in the middle, specially outfitted with compressed air for cleaning your gear.

 

Upon our first dive briefing, it was clear that this crew was happy to allow you to dive at your own pace and level of expertise. The new divers mostly followed a dive master, buddy pairs went of exploring different sections of each site and even a couple tech divers elected to solo dive. The relaxed, but knowledgeable and enthusiastic crew made it easy to slip right into vacationing divers’ favorite cycle: Dive, Eat, Sleep, Repeat.


Dive highlights for the first day included cuttlefish, nudibranchs, massive schools of yellow snapper and grunts, sleeping loggerhead turtles, and plenty of anemonefish. Even our first whale of the trip buzzed by during our safety stop at Lighthouse Bommie! We then drifted with the whales for the afternoon, snorkeling alongside the boat. During the night dive back at Challenger Bay, the balance of power certainly shifted in favor of the reef predators in the dim liquid seascape. Giant Trevally and Whitetip Reef Sharks darted to and fro.

  

 

Giant Trevally
Giant Trevally follow closely alongside divers during the night dive.

 

 

Day 3: Sharks at Osprey Reef

Morning Dive – Ferry Grotto, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

Midday Shark Feed Dive – North Horn, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

Early Afternoon Drift Wall Dive – North Horn, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

Late Afternoon and Night Dive Open Deck – Admiralty Anchor, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

 

 

Venturing 75 miles beyond the Great Barrier Reef, Spoilsport reached Osprey Reef, a remote reef system full of vibrant wall dives surrounded by abundant megafauna in crystal clear water. The shark feed dive took place at a unique, natural ‘coral amphitheater.’ Dozens of grey reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks and even a large silvertip shark patrolled the center bommie. The whole operation seemed to be quite controlled, safe and yet still exciting to watch for all levels of divers onboard.

 

 

Grey Reef Shark
A grey reef shark swims overhead during the shark dive at Osprey Reef.

 

 

The wall drift dive was also a major highlight for the day. Two zodiacs ferried groups of divers down the reef a bit, allowing us to leisurely drift along the colorful sea fans, soft corals and schooling fish on our way back to the boat.


 

Anemone
Tucked into a coral ledge, this bright orange and purple anemone is home to a family of pink anemonefish.

 

 

Day 4: Osprey Reef

Early Morning Dive – Halfway, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

Late Morning Shark Attraction Dive – North Horn, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

Afternoon Dive Open Deck – False Entrance, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea


By Day 4, we all fell into a great rhythm with our diving. Everyone seemed comfortable, happy and fully present to absorb the beautiful sights. My favorite dive of the day ended up being another wall dive at False Entrance. There’s something quite visceral about hovering above a deep, dark abyss while gazing upward at schooling barracuda, bumphead parrotfish, pyramid butterflyfish, and Bigeye Trevally along a sheer wall of ornate corals. Though I wasn’t the lucky witness, another diver had a close encounter with a giant Manta Ray as well.

  

 

Moray
Atop the upper section of reef at False Entrance, hard corals grew as far as the eye could see – a perfect home for this moray eel.

 

 

Day 5: Exploratory Diving

Morning Dive – Broken Pass Site 1, Northern GBR

Midday Dive – Broken Pass Site 2, Northern GBR

Afternoon Dive – Broken Pass Site 3, Northern GBR

Afternoon-Evening Dive Open Deck – Broken Pass Site 2, Northern GBR


The weather and schedule opened up just right to allow for a day of exploration for crew and passengers alike in the northern stretches of the Great Barrier Reef at a section called Broken Pass. This rarely traversed reef gently slopes upward with large coral bommies lining sandy canyons. Dense schools of orange and purple anthias cascaded from the top of each bommie while schools of larger fish and sharks patrolled in the depths. We even encountered a sandy field of hundreds of skinny, little garden eels. Excitement buzzed through the boat between each dive.

 

Nidibranch
Crawling atop a head of coral, this Chromodoris annae Nudibranch was easy to miss at a whopping 2 centimeters long.

 

 

Day 6: Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs

Early Morning Dive – Cod Hole, Ribbon Reefs, GBR

Mid-Morning Dive – Cod Hole, Ribbon Reefs, GBR

Early Afternoon Snorkel – Dwarf Minke Whale Drift from Cod Hole

Late Afternoon Dive – Lighthouse Bommie, Ribbon Reefs, GBR

Evening Snorkel – Dwarf Minke Whale at Lighthouse Bommie


One of the most famous dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef has to be the Cod Hole. Here, large potato cod curiously approach divers, making ideal photography subjects. Leaving the Cod Hole, we spotted over a dozen Minke breaches on the horizon. As we approached the pod, at least seven individuals stuck around for our best snorkel interaction of the trip.


The Dwarf Minke Whale may only grow to 8 meters in length, but their personality is larger than life. Solely drawn in by their own curiosity, these beautiful animals effortlessly glided past us snorkelers for nearly two hours. And after an afternoon dive at Lighthouse Bommie, I slipped back in for one last Minke snorkel. Golden light beams danced through the turquoise water as this one whale and I shared an incredibly special evening of interaction. And if that wasn’t enough, a loggerhead turtle decided to join for a final hoorah as the sun disappeared over the liquid horizon. Exhilaration doesn’t begin to cover how I felt emerging from the water that evening.

 

Minke Whale
Just as the sun began to make its way toward the horizon, an adult Dwarf Minke Whale arrived at Lighthouse Bommie for a final underwater whale interaction. Between the golden sunrays and serenity of the turquoise water, it was a truly magical experience.

 

 

Day 7: Steve’s Bommie Morning Dive Open Deck – Steve’s Bommie, Ribbon Reefs, GBR Afternoon Dive Open Deck – Ribbon Reefs, GBR Evening – Aussie BBQ Farewell Party The final day aboard Spoilsport was definitely bittersweet. We were lucky enough to dive on a gorgeous, pristine coral bommie with massive schools of fish of every size, shape and color, unique animals hidden in the nooks and crannies (stonefish, black lionfish, wobbegong shark, clown anemonefish) and stunning hard and soft corals covering every inch of this massive bommie structure.

 

Turtle
While diving along the reef at the Cod Hole, this Loggerhead Turtle calmly passed overhead.

 

 

The final day aboard Spoilsport was definitely bittersweet. We were lucky enough to dive on a gorgeous, pristine coral bommie with massive schools of fish of every size, shape and color, unique animals hidden in the nooks and crannies (stonefish, black lionfish, wobbegong shark, clown anemonefish) and stunning hard and soft corals covering every inch of this massive bommie structure.

 

clown anemonefish
After a week of diving on the Great Barrier Reef, I finally found Nemo – the clown anemonefish.

 

 

The crew treated us to a heartfelt evening of celebrations including a mini concert with sing-along under the starts, cocktails, Aussie BBQ feast and an evening of reflection upon the great week with a custom video edit and photo slideshow. It’s amazing how in one short week living on the ocean, a group of strangers can come together and bond into a wonderful community of friends. No matter how good the diving is on a trip, it’s always better when you have some bloody awesome mates to share it with!

 

First Mate Ash
First Mate Ash mans the grill as the group enjoys a final evening of celebratory food and drink beneath the stars.

 

 

Day 8: Return to Cairns Morning – Disembark As I finished up packing the last of my gear, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deep peace, satisfaction and joy. I had just witnessed some of the most beautiful coral reefs this world has to offer, swam amongst thousands of vibrantly colored tropical fish, experienced my first underwater whale interactions, and forged meaningful, new friendships with fellow members of the international diving community. So if you’re thinking about planning a trip to the land down under, take a few minutes to explore all the upcoming expeditions Mike Ball has to offer. The Great Barrier Reef is calling… now all you have to do is answer.

- Christine Shepard (www.christineshepard.com)

 

Group

 The whole group gathered together for a final photo just before saying our goodbyes. Great people, great week!

 

 Check out other awesome Australian dive destinations.

HOW TO BOOK MIKE BALL EXPEDITIONS


Bluewater Travel can book you on any Mike Ball Expeditions trip, for the same cost or less than booking any other way. We know the routes, cabins, and when to go better than anyone else!

Email us at info@bluewaterdivetravel.com to start your adventure.

 

 

 
Reef
Two Clark's Anemonefish hover over an anemone at Ferry Grotto on Oprey Reef
 
 

For more photos, view the slideshow at the top of the page

 

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