Great Barrier Reef: What lies beneath

By Ellie Mitchell

A voyage on board the Spirit of Freedom is the best way to explore Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, writes Ellie Mitchell.
Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

Scuba, eat, tan and repeat. That pretty much sums up my time on luxury vessel Spirit of Freedom. Our three-night live-aboard expedition to the famous Cod Hole and Ribbon Reef was definitely the best way to experience the far northern section of the Great Barrier Reef, an ecosystem of unsurpassed marine diversity and one of nature's most impressive creations. This natural wonder has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and it's practically on our doorstep.

Last year advanced ecotourism operator Spirit of Freedom was named Dive Operator of the Year and I can see why. Guests feel like they are on their own private launch with friendly professional crew, world-class dining, outstanding service and comfort.

Ellie Mitchell at the famous Cod Hole dive site.
Ellie Mitchell at the famous Cod Hole dive site.

Before we board, we swot up on our knowledge of marine life and go behind the scenes at James Cook University to meet Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, marine biologist and tiger shark wrangler Richard Fitzpatrick who has been working closely with Sir David Attenborough on his latest documentary on the Great Barrier Reef.

The aquarium specialises in high-speed and macro-filming but also doubles as a medical research facility. We see all sorts of species in tanks from Irukandji, or box, jellyfish to mantis shrimp, which Richard has filmed smashing their prey 60 times slower than in reality.

His single-minded dedication left him with a couple of broken ribs after he fell off a chair, having stayed awake for 80 hours waiting to capture a seahorse giving birth - 350 babies spurt out in a 20-second window.

Watch: Great Barrier Reef: Dive sites and marine life that inspired the Sir David Attenborough documentary.

We meet Helga the friendly leopard shark and learn about the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish and the work that is underway to eradicate them.

The thrill of knowing I was soon to be diving in the great Sir David Attenborough's bubbles just added to my anticipation.

Fond memories of previous dive trips came rushing back as I stand on the platform preparing for my first dive in two years. I have the weight of my scuba gear on my shoulders, the deep blue sea in front of me, the emerald green reef to my right and the blue sky of Tropical North Queensland above me. It is my idea of heaven. I jump in and feel weightless.

The first dive of the day at Ribbon Reef Five takes my breath away and Steve's Bommie, a spectacular pinnacle, has visibility of 25m. As soon as we enter the water I can clearly see a rather large grey reef shark lurking a comfortable distance away. Schools of gold-banded snapper distract me and then hundreds of unicornfish draw my attention towards colourful coral, giant clams and pretty angelfish. I am in another world, quieter and calmer; it's a magical way to start the day.

Three more dives include a new site, which the crew call Flunkers Folly (must be an inside joke). With its turquoise water it looks like dive perfection, and, to top it off, dolphins appear at the side of the boat as we approach and turtles come up for air as we kit up.

A night dive off the Spirit of Freedom. Photo / Spirit of Freedom
A night dive off the Spirit of Freedom. Photo / Spirit of Freedom

After lunch we move to Gardeners Corner where, taking out time, we find bright yellow nudibranchs, green stonefish, a giant moray eel, a pretty frilly flatworm and a spawning sea cucumber, which is very funny to watch - later, everyone has a good laugh at my drawing attempts in the dive log.

This dive lasts a blissful 61 minutes and an utter relaxation creeps over me, like mindfulness beneath the sea. My dive buddy, Andrew, agrees the familiar sound of bubbles and slow breathing has a meditative effect. We hover over pristine coral gardens and watch as clouds of tiny tropical fish dart in and out.

During a night dive at the same site, coral transforms under UV light and glows with bioluminescence, turtles appear and whitetip reef sharks prowl.

The next morning as we begin our descent to the foot of the Lighthouse Bommie, a vast shoal of barracuda suspend themselves below us, and an inquisitive olive sea snake follows us for a while. A lionfish nestles in a sheltered nook and rare Great Barrier Reef anemone fish pop in and out of their soft coral haven, probably protecting their eggs from nosy divers. We finish the spiralling ascent of the pinnacle with a safety stop and shot line right on top of the bommie.

Just when I thought nothing could top my experience, we leap into the cod hole and, to our surprise, are immediately greeted by a frenzy of excited red bass and, waiting just below, a chilled-out friendly 2m-long spotted potato cod. It's easy to get a selfie with a potato cod and my highlight has to be floating side by side with my new buddy, close enough to put my arm around him. He is the puppy of the sea, so inquisitive and cute.

Watch: 8 divers' reactions to their first scuba on the Great Barrier Reef

As sweeping vistas of other divers and gullies open up, we see three more whitetip reef sharks sleeping in the sand.

Lizard Island Resort on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo / Ellie Mitchell
Lizard Island Resort on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo / Ellie Mitchell

The grand finale was a fast drift dive at Dynamite Pass, a channel between reefs. We know we are in trouble if we overshoot the boat but any doubts are put at ease as we follow our professional dive leader and I am given my very own two-way radio/distress beacon to call the crew if we drift too far.

It's hard to stay awake in the evenings after five dives a day.

On our final night we celebrate with a delicious celebratory barbecue in a tranquil bay at Lizard Island, where I taste my first kangaroo steak, lean and perfectly cooked by our talented chef. It amazes me how all this wonderful food comes out of his tiny kitchen space four times a day. Every meal is gourmet.

Sunrise at Lizard Island is stunning. We hop on the tender and disembark on the white sandy beach. This is paradise. We follow the ridge track up to the highest point and take in the sweeping vistas, Spirit of Freedom shining bright in the distance against the topaz water.

After a yummy bacon-and-egg bap on the beach, we make our way to the tiny airport and board our Cessna for our one-hour low flight back to Cairns. I am totally blown away by the aerial views of the reef below. The colours are so bright and the water is clear enough to spot whales, dolphins and manta rays. As we meet the tropical World Heritage-listed rainforest coast we can even see a giant crocodile on the white sandy beach below. I arrive back in Cairns feeling totally blown away by what I have experienced.

There is one thing still on my wishlist: an encounter with the dwarf minke whales. We are told they migrate in June and July - there is no doubt I will be back to meet them.

The crew assist divers with their gear before they take the plunge. Photo / Spirit of Freedom
The crew assist divers with their gear before they take the plunge. Photo / Spirit of Freedom

10 great things about living aboard

Having been on a couple of live-aboard trips in the past, it was definitely third-time-lucky with Spirit of Freedom - exploring the Ribbon Reef and Cod Hole for three days and three nights was my idea of absolute heaven. Here's my checklist for why it was a great live-aboard experience:

Watch: What really happens on a live aboard boat on the Great Barrier Reef

1 Spacious and comfortable rooms, all with en suite bathrooms and air conditioning. In my case, sharing a twin room with a complete stranger was easy, with plenty of space for personal items.

2 Friendly crew and impeccable service - the staff on SoF make you feel like you're part of the family. They ensure your time on board is a fun and safe. The "finderella" service where the crew put on your fins for you before you get in the water makes for a truly memorable experience.

3 Diving directly from the mothership. The captain reverses the boat to get you as close to the reef as possible. Only on one occasion were we taken out on the tender, for the drift dive at Dynamite Pass.

4 Diverse and abundant marine life. The Ribbon Reefs are now one of my all time favorite dive sites. Travelling out to these remote coral sea reefs enabled me to have my first encounter with a family of giant potato cods at the world famous Cod Hole.

5 Fresh and healthy meals prepared using local produce. The chef can cater for specific dietary requirements and most tastes. You can dine indoors and compare dive experiences from the day or have a romantic dinner for two on the rooftop sundeck. Complimentary wine is served with the evening meal. It's easy to work up an appetite with all the diving, but with four meals a day you are never hungry.

Spirit of Freedom offer a great live-aboard experience on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo / Spirit of Freedom
Spirit of Freedom offer a great live-aboard experience on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo / Spirit of Freedom

6 Enriched air nitrox is available. The crew make sure you always double-check the per cent of oxygen and maximum depth you should be diving and record this in a signed log.

7 Guest computers, iPads, free wi-fi and charging stations are available. I always like to switch off when I immerse myself on these trips but for those keen on regular updates and keeping in touch, it's nice to know contact with the world is an option.

8 Entertainment. Between the a fully stocked library, movies, games, photos on a showreel each day, fish identifiers, hearing the crew's stories, and getting to know your fellow dive buddies, you definitely won't get bored.

9 Hot towels after every dive - oh so good!

10 Safety checks. Safety is assured with an EPIRB (two-way radio device) for every diver, and the crew make regular head-counts, complete dive logs for every dive and double and triple-check everything. I have never been so confident of being in the safest of hands.

- Spirit of Freedom has a range of packages available.



Air New Zealand flies weekly from Auckland to Cairns between April and October with, one-way fares starting from $344.


Tune into TV One on Sunday at 7.30pm for the last episode of David Attenborough's The Great Barrier Reef or watch it on TVNZ OnDemand.

- NZ Herald

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