Minke Whale Itinerary, Australia

Nimrod Explorer 12-18 July 2005

I woke up at Asylum Backpackers in Cairns, well knowing that this was day one of the Minke Whale itinerary with Nimrod Explorer (Explorer Ventures Australia) to the Ribbon reefs #3 and #5 as well as Osprey reef way out in the Coral Sea. More than little tired after a ten days road trip from Cairns to Brisbane with my two friends Øystein and Jørgen as well as the delayed flight back to Cairns the day before. However, a late checkout and good weather conditions helped a great deal. Nimrod Explorer a 72 foot steel-hulled catamaran built and equipped solely for diving and relaxation offers several different trips to various destinations at the Great Barrier Reef. Minimum 4 days up to maximum 10 days with a capacity of 18 divers in 6 cabins with private facilities. Watching at the photos at their web-page and then comparing with the actual conditions one might think they would differ, but not with this boat. The standards did far exceed my expectations in every way. Crew where friendly and seemed to love their work. Food prepared during the whole trip was delicious, dive sites fantastic, and the weather even though not guaranteed, was perfect.

Itinerary overview, this trip was the red one (Illustration from Explorer Ventures)

Day one

As a bonus this trip included a scenic low altitude flight from Cairns to Cooktown, where the boat was mooring. Cramped together in teams of five we headed north in the smallest plane I ever flown before, cutting edges of the mountaintops and cruising over the reefs. A bird’s perspective to Manta Rays, turtles and sharks was a perfect start of the trip.

Scenic Flight to Cooktown, Lighthouse surrounded by reefs (Photo by Kjartan Ivar Paulsen)

Cooktown is a really small place, consisting of one road with surprisingly high density of pubs. While we waited for the last preparations to be done by the crew before boarding, practically the whole boat ended up at one of those pubs. The rest of the evening consisted of several briefings, setting up diving equipment for the next day’s dives and of course getting a taste of the great food we should expect during the trip.

Day two

Good morning! Good Moorning!

The clock showed 06:30, time for breakfast and the first dive briefing. It turned out that the Minke Whales we hoped to get a few glimpses of during the trip, actually welcomed us to Ribbon reef this very first morning. With a bowl of cereals in my hands I got my first look at these amazing creatures. Short after we heard the second call that from now on would be called 5 times a day throughout the whole trip. Dive time!

Each dive followed a certain procedure which impressed me a great deal. Everyone gathered in the saloon for dive briefing where one in the crew had drawn up an illustration of the dive site, quite detailed and instructive giving what to be expected of bottom conditions such as depth, formations as well as fishes, corals and other life. They also included a recommended dive plan to which depth and directions that was expected to be most interesting and where a safety stop was most convenient to do, if not directly under the boat itself. I especially appreciated the tips regarding where to look after certain species, their appearance and behavior. This made us more aware during the dive and I believe it made us more capable to actually seek out and find what we wanted to see during the dive. Anyway back to the diving.

The dive site is called Pixie and is located on Ribbon Reef #9. Buddy teams for those of us traveling by ourselves where put together by the crew based on our previous experience. They where not constant however and could be changed during the trip.

We geared up and plunged into the water. Finally! Descended the mooring line and marveled at the visibility.

Among the fishes we saw was several Barracudas, a family of Anemone fish, 2 Spiny-Black Trumpet Fishes and a White Tip Shark. It was a relaxing first dive on this trip with visibility of approximately 25m and it represented much of the common life we would encounter during this trip.

Well aboard again our second breakfast was ready to be digested. This time egg, bacon and beans as well as more fruit, cereal and so on… While eating and chatting about our first dive the whales came back! Everybody jumped in holding on to two lines after the boat. This is a method used to avoid the temptation to swim towards the whales. This way the contact is on the whales’ premises, they come to us by their curiosity. Listening to the pre briefing I couldn’t imagine that they would come so close and be so curious. They really showed off and stared at us sidelong, with eyes the size of a fist. Truly the most amazing and gracious animals I’ve encountered, attempting to communicate with us by showing their bellies, sprouting bubbles under water and peeking above the surface. I was marked for life.

Dwarf Minke Whale (Photo by Aaron Smith)

The boat moved on to next dive site. Pixie Pinnacle, also located on Ribbon Reef #9. This dive was completely different from the first dive. Instead of following a reef wall, Pixie Pinnacle was like a column growing out from a sand bottom. We constantly circled the reef clockwise, starting at 23.2m and going shallower along the dive. In addition to all the fish we saw on the first dive we also saw a Weedy Scorpion Fish as well as a Lion Fish. Another thing I never seen before was a Flame File Shell or at least it is Flame something. Sitting inside a small hole it had several stripes around its red body that shifted to white (like electrical impulses). Awesome dive! Well up again, more light snacks, fruit and nibbles.

Weedy Scorpion Fish (Photo by Aaron Smith)
Flame File Shell (Photo by Aaron Smith)

Still at Ribbon Reef #9, but yet another dive site, Vertical Gardens. My dive buddy Gavin, an Irish bloke with expressions others than locals never would be able to understand, skipped out this one, so I joined up with Colleen. Thinking back on the two last stunning dives, both between 50-60 minutes, the next dive couldn’t possible match them. He was right, it didn’t match them, but it was quite different. Not much different fish life, but visibility was slightly better and I know now why it is called a vertical garden. Amazing coral formations clad the wall and yes the wall was completely vertical…

Beautiful Fan Coral (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Lunch was served delicious as every other meal. It started to be a routine now! Dive, eat, dive and eat again. The break was a bit longer this time though and good was that, needed a little rest…

Next dive was the Monolith and Challenger Bay, still on Ribbon Reef #9. It was to be a dusk dive. Gavin was fit for fight again and we decided to do both dive sites in one dive since the Challenger Bay was quite shallow and we could easily do our safety stop here on our way back to the boat. Off we went swimming, paddling and paddling to reach the Monolith corals, or Pavona Cavas Crac-Monolith? It took around 10-15 minutes to get there, but I never seen anything like it. From a far it looked like a huge dark yellow grey carpet, stretching slowly from approximately 30m depth up to 10m and at least 30-40m wide. Coming closer we could see it consisted of many dark yellow corals looking like poles, quite close to each other. Small fishes where well protected between them and the larger fishes such as the Camouflaged Grouper, Napoleon Wrasse and Big Eye Trevally where swimming above, attempting to snatch those who dared to come out or too close to the top. We also saw a really large shark we couldn’t make out the species of, but we believe it might have been a Grey Reef Shark. Several smaller White Tip Sharks also swum in the distance on our way back to the Challenger Bay.

Challenger Bay was a quite shallow area with lots of different corals and fishes, very nice. Saw more quite large Groupers here before we turned back to the boat.

Between this and the night dive, dinner was served. The fifth and last dive of the day was at same spot, but we concentrated on the Challenger Bay on this one, both because the time was limited to 50 minutes at night dives and this area would certainly be interesting on night because of the rich life. Again we saw the Camouflaged Grouper, Red Bass and a funny long white, almost transparent worm, vacuuming the sand with tiny white tentacles. Because of the fish density one of them, I believe it was some kind of Wrasse, actually collided with my flashlight. I guess it must’ve been a little confused by all lights everywhere…

Day three

Good morning! Good Moorning! Bambambam. (Our door was closed this time…)

Guess what? I slept like a log all night and I sure wanted to sleep a couple of more hours, but today we had arrived on the famous Osprey Reef, a coral atoll 120km out in the Coral Sea. It is completely separated from the rest of the Great Barrier Reef and has depths surrounding it that ranges from 2-3km!

Raging Horn was our first dive here, quite scary name, but well suited. Following the mooring line down to a plateau I was stunned. We could actually see the divers below us on the plateau as clearly as if they would have been very close. When we came down to the plateau at 30m depth we realized that the visibility must have been at least 40m! The divers we saw, I believe it was Aaron and Alison, sat on the edge, peering down into the vast deep darkness outside the plateau. The wall was practically vertical and it plunged down into a depth of 2km, certainly deeper than our planned maximum depth for this dive.

We cruised along the plateau keeping watch for the huge sharks we where told hunted in these waters. We eventually saw the biggest White Tip Shark we had seen so far. On our way back at a shallower depth, we saw a little more life such as 2 Two Banded Anemone Fish, four Moon Wrasse and several kinds of Parrot Fishes. Temperature was surprisingly warm this far out, 26C compared to the 25C on the Ribbon Reef the day before. On our way back to the boat we saw some shining blue or white dots below us in the depth. This was actually some kind of shining plankton, most frequently seen at early mornings with good visibility. On our safety stop under the boat we realized that there where more sharks circling below us further out keeping watch on us and whatever would jump in from our boat.

Our next dive, Admiralty, is named after an anchor that once belonged to a boat that lay moored here, but was lost still stuck in a cave that we would swim through on this dive. It was a drift dive and we jumped in from the sides of the boat and glided along a vertical wall that plunged down into again almost unbelievable depths of about 2km. The water was crystal clear, even more so than last dive offered, approximately 50m! This of course spoiled us big time and none of the other dives had this good visibility, although all dives we had on Osprey reef ranged from 35-50. We saw a lot on this dive, two Grey Reef Sharks in the distance along the wall. It was an amazing feeling flying past the vertical wall and peer into the vast darkness below us.

We saw more sharks, three White Tip Sharks lying together on a sand bottom, another White Tip Shark on another sand bottom almost under the boat. On the other side of the swim through named Admiralty at a shallower depth we also saw three Star Puffers, two Triggerfish chasing each other and four Moon Wrasse as well as many Parrot Fishes. Amazing dive once again!

Admiralty swim through (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Next dive was also on Admiralty. This time we concentrated more on white sand bottom under the boat. It was so white you could almost imagine it to be snow. There where lots of Garden Eels, but they didn’t like our presence very much so they hid their holes when we closed in on them. A Moray Eel had its nest in a stone in the middle this sand bottom. It didn’t mind us much, though a bit vary, and posed politely for the camera. Again we saw the three white tip sharks, a bit more active now when we where closer and several kinds of Anemone Fish, two Yellow and two Black Backed. We also saw the two Moon Wrasses and the Parrot fishes again. The current was quite strong between the coral walls surrounding the sand bottom, and we had to paddle a great deal to get back to the wall and the swim through.

Moray Eel in rock on white sand bottom close to Admiralty (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Third dive was New-Castle under Brine. The crew had not done this site before, so the briefing was a bit vague except that it looked like a castle wall with a court inside from the surface. It was quite an interesting dive. There was deep water outside the walls and shallow inside. We saw one White Tip Shark, three Moon Wrasse, Parrot Fishes and one Black spotted Puffer. Well aboard again two of the other divers where practically jumping up and down telling us that they saw Hammer Heads on approximately 40m in the distance on this dive! This made me scout out in the deep water on all the rest of the dives, but sadly no Hammer Heads for me this time.

Tired of the quite deep dives this day, I skipped out the night dive. The dive was on The Castle, supposed to be quite similar to the last dive, but with some more “towers” sheltering the “inner court”. Instead of the dive I concentrated on my EANx course which I had a whish to complete on this trip. Besides, the sunset was great!

Sunset at Osprey Reef (Photo by Kjartan Ivar Paulsen)

Day four

The wakeup call never fails to amaze. Breakfast, dive briefing then gear up for the first dive. Still on Osprey Reef we jumped in at North Horn. We followed the same procedure as on Admiralty, jumped in from the sides of the boat and hoped on a nice current. The current was against us this time, however not very strong. We had once again an amazing visibility. Not as good as the day before, but still around 30m. This place was awesome, lots of fish and stuff! 1 Dog Tooth Tuna, two Star Puffers, one Smooth Flute Mouth, two Red Fire Fish, one Moray Eel, one Potato Cod, five Grey Reef Sharks, two White Tip Sharks and lots of Parrot Fishes, one Sea Slug and lots of Ramona fish attached to the sharks. They even tried to attach themselves to us! Neither I nor Gavin had underwater housings to our cameras and will probably regret that for a long time to come. We saw the greatest pose ever seen before. One of the Red Fire Fishes where idling in a hole, the Sea Slug was slowly climbing the wall up towards the same hole and then a Parrot Fish peeked out between the two before it disappeared again into the hole. The sun was shining and the water was crystal clear. Even without a camera this picture will probably stick to my brain forever…

Grey Reef Sharks at North Horn (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Second dive this day was still at North Horn. This time we did a shark attraction dive. All divers where gathered behind a line and a cage full dead fish where lowered down from the dingy in front of us. Two and two divers where signaled forward to watch from underneath the cage. Yes, there where a lot of sharks on this dive… They where circling around the cages along with lots of other fishes. Two Huge Giant Potato Cods also tried to get to the food. I’ve never seen a fish as big as one of those cod! We only encountered Grey Reef and White Tip sharks on the shark attraction, but that is perhaps a good thing (they where very close). When we had seen enough me and Gavin headed out to the opposite direction than last dive and spotted some nice corals, small caves and yet another Red Fire Fish.

Third dive today was False Entrance, more south than all the previous dives on Osprey. It turned out to be a quite funny dive and we covered quite a distance. On our way we saw one Turtle diving down from our left passing by us and then hiding in a cave. Two Grey Reef Sharks, numerous Parrot Fishes, lots of Barracudas, and many White Cheek Surgeon Fishes, an Amber Parrot Fish, one Clown Trigger Fish and thousands of Wrasse. Nice and warm water of 26C and the shining sun made it a bright and happy dive.

Turtle in hiding (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Fourth dive called Rapid Horn was said to offer us schools of Humpback Parrot Fish. We saw one Great Barracuda and while on our way we spotted at least 5 Hump Nose Unicorn Fish. These had such a peculiar look that we almost forgot to look after what we where supposed to look for, the Humpback Parrot Fish. A quick glance behind us made me completely leave the Hump Nose Parrots alone. A school of about 10 Humpback Parrot Fish where following us while they field bombed the reef as a bunch of U2 bombers! A hilarious sight…

Barracuda out in the blue (Photo by Bon Djonly)

We where actually supposed to do only four dives this day because of the long trip back to the Ribbon Reefs, but John, a crew member came up with the brilliant Black Water Hang dive. In pitch darkness we descended one of the many lines that where fastened around the boat, drifting in the middle of nowhere with depths of 2km below us. The boat where drifting so we had to hold on tight to the ropes to avoid disappearing into the dark… We had no idea what to expect other than weird stuff, it turned out quite interesting. Following the boats movements, up and down, we stared out into the darkness. After a while I saw many weird shapes, microscopic jellyfish like things with tentacles like threads, long transparent tubes which some claimed had long tentacles as well. I also saw some thin threads with a microscopic dot in the middle. Many of these transparent things had small particles inside that reflected the light with shimmering colors of red, blue, white or yellow. I have no idea of the names to all these weird shapes, but assume they where different kind of microscopic jellyfish, plankton and similar. The dive was limited to max 30 minutes, but that was for the good. Hanging in pitch dark under a boat in free water going up and down and watching weird stuff makes you quite dizzy after a while…

Dive Briefing to Black Water Hang (By John and volunteers)

Day five

Back again on Ribbon Reef, #3 this time. Dive site was Century Bay. The first thing that came to my mind was that the visibility was really bad, only 20m or so! We sure where spoiled out there on Osprey… Out from the ordinary fishes we saw on each dive we came upon a gathering of Cuttlefish. I counted seven, smaller and bigger ones. Seemingly there was some kind of happening because I noted that when one of the smaller cuttlefishes approached one of the bigger, it was abruptly chased away by the bigger one. I have never seen a cuttlefish shooting out it’s tentacles to chase another cuttlefish before, quite amazing. We where four divers watching them at the same time so while they moved around slowly they shifted colors repeatedly in attempts to hide from us all at once. Amazing creatures these cuttlefishes!

Dive two, still on Ribbon Reef #3, Steve’s Bommie. It was marked by a metal plate by fellow divers to Steve when he passed away in 1989. It was his favorite dive site and that was not a coincidence. This dive site was amazing. I had never before seen so many fishes gathered on one place before. Later while diving on the Yongala Wreck I decided it to be the only other place surpassing Steve’s Bommie in fish density and variety. It consists of two bommies, one big reaching almost to the surface from about 30 meters and a smaller one reaching up to about 20m depth just beside it (it is on this one the nameplate is bolted). In addition to be an amazing dive site this was also my first Nitrox dive during my EANx course. Of course I wouldn’t have any benefits from it on this dive since we circled clockwise shallower and shallower to cover the whole bommie.

Leaf Scorpion Fish (Photo by Bon Djonly)

The species variety was absolutely stunning. Among all the fish schools of Yellow Snappers and Sweet Lips, we saw one Black Spotted Puffer in Bicolor Phase, one White Margin Unicorn Fish as well as a Leaf Scorpion Fish. There where several patches of Green Carpet Anemone, and several Anemone fishes in their homes.

Black Spotted Puffer (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Dive three was also on Steve’s Bommie, but we did it anti clockwise this time. After some directions from another dive buddy team we found a Wobbegong Shark sleeping in its cave. We also saw lots of baby anemone fish swimming about among some hard corals on top of the reef. Just as we where back on the boat and ready to depart from Steve’s Bommie, two Dwarf Minke Whales appeared and swum around checking out the boat. Nice!

Dive four was at Ribbon Reef #5. It was called the Clam Garden because of all the huge clams. And they where huge! Wouldn’t put my hand or foot in one of those Giant Clams… Other than clams we saw the real Clownfish Nemo, two White Margin Unicorn Fish. Inside one of the many caves we stumbled on a Fire Fish. Two blue spotted rays where lying on the sand bottom as well. The visibility had decreased some and was now only 15m.

Fifth and last dive was to the same location, but I skipped it in favor for the EANx exam. The exam went well and I could go happily to bed with a good consciousness.

Day six

Still on Ribbon Reef #5, first dive of the day was Dali’s Garden. With approximately 15m visibility, we saw many of the previous mentioned fishes and also a Scorpion Fish along a wall.

Dive two, Jaynems. It was my second Nitrox dive. Visibility was bad, only 10m and compared to all other amazing dives we had during the last days this dive was quite boring.

I believe it was between these two dives we watched a great school of twenty dolphins or more, playing and swimming in front of the boat. What a sight!

Takt Mooring, again on Ribbon #5 started out as the previous dive, we where too spoiled to do more than just paddle along and see if we found something we haven’t seen before. Then suddenly while paddling around on our safety stop we found a Nudie Branch. It was small, orange and had a straight white stripe on its back and two horns with the same color as the body. About a minute later further downstream we found another one, completely different than the first. It was purple with lots of orange horns on its back. Aboard the boat there was a book of 3000 nudie branches, but sadly enough I never managed to find and name the two we encountered on that dive.

The fourth and last dive on the trip was again on Century Bay, Ribbon Reef #3. My and Gavins goal for this dive would be to locate all the cuttlefish we saw last time. On the very same spot as last time, we actually found two. Both about the same size, approximately as big as the biggest we saw on last time. They seemed to stay together and kept quite calm even though we circled around causing them to shift colors. Once again I experienced a move I have never seen before. When I went deeper they actually moved closer and over me, presenting a white underside that blended quite well against the surface. When I moved shallower again they moved away going deeper and tried to blend in with the corals surrounding us. Their eyes constantly locked to both of us at the same time.

Since this was the last dive on the trip and we had no dives left to do, some of us figured out that this was the perfect day to get wasted. After six days at sea and 22 dives watching all the amazing underwater creatures, beer and drinking games surely turned out to the perfect answer to end the trip. To fall asleep in a coach nearby would turn out to be less wise. The anonymous American doing exactly that woke up with pretty pink fingernails. If he would be able to hear the flow of other inventive ideas coming from everyone around the table, he would probably never fall asleep again amongst drinking divers…

Day seven

All good things must come to an end and this was it. Most of us however, gathered again later that night for dinner and more drinks, followed by a pub crawl and even more drinks.

Happy divers

An absolutely awesome trip with professional crew, delicious food and of course, the best diving I ever had!

For more information about Nimrod Explorer and Explorer Ventures, visit their homepage

Black Spotted Puffer (Photo by Bon Djonly)

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