Hamilton Island - Great Barrier Reef
What a landing! Two attempts at landing in the middle of a tropical downpour with zero visibility, aborted just before touchdown and the captain's announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, I couldn't land since I couldn't see the runway although my instruments indicated that it was 40 feet below me. I'll have another go, but if that fails we have to make a slight detour to Mackay for refuelling, since we're getting slightly low on fuel!"
It didn't come to that in the end - the captain managed a safe, if slightly bumpy landing on what later proved to be a scarily short runway. So this was the tropical Island my wife Sarah and I had chosen for our Great Barrier Reef
View from our balcony
experience. We couldn't see much at first, even from the balcony of our hotel room overlooking, theoretically, Catseye Bay. Ok, we got the point of wet season - could it stop raining now, please?
When it looked like our plan to go to Australia with all my in-laws would become reality, I was, of course, extremely interested in going diving there, especially at the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately it turned out that our trip would coincide with the height of the wet season and the chances of being trapped in Cairns due to a tropical rainstorm seemed quite high. But since I just couldn't imagine going to Oz without seeing the GBR, we decided to go as far south as possible, thus choosing Hamilton Island. This turned out to have been a wise decision, since the downpour that nearly prevented us from landing was just the trough of a storm centred on Cairns, making trips to the reef more or less impossible. I had checked out the local outfit on the net and booked two full day reef tours with the dive centre H2O Sportz. When I inquired at the hotel lobby about them, I was told they were an excellent outfit, really keen on diving as opposed to just getting as many people as possible to the reef and back.
When I arrived at the 'Dive Shop' (I didn't at first realize that it was in fact H2O Sportz) it turned out to be a surprisingly small outfit crammed full with merchandise,
On our way to Manta Ray Bay
most of which seemed targeted more at the average tourist than serious divers. The staff, however, were not only friendly, but also seemed competent. Unfortunately they had bad news for me when I asked about my booked dives. It turned out that due to the bad weather the day trip to the reef was cancelled, but they were doing a half day cruise to the top of the Whitsundays instead. Well, better than no diving at all, I thought and signed up for it.
Next day Sarah and I returned and were equipped with stinger suits and shorties to prevent us from being stung by jellyfish, which is another nuisance of the wet season and quite dangerous. A week after we left an elderly tourist died of a heart attack on one of the Islands, brought on by contact with a jellyfish.
The other diving equipment had already been taken aboard the boat, which proved
to be a roomy and comfortable vessel, containing a dive- and a sun-deck and a climatized cabin where you could get free tea and coffee and soft drinks for a modest sum. We were greeted by Max, the captain, and then boarded the boat, where a boat safety briefing commenced as soon as everyone was on board. Afterwards I checked out the diving equipment. Regulators and BCDs (both Aqualung) seemed fairly new and well maintained - I really needn't have lugged my own regulator halfway across the world, after all! There was a dive computer on every regulator and a stab buoy in the jacket of each BCD (another piece of equipment I could have left at home). My first impressions concerning quality of equipment and safety standards were more than favourable - but what about the dives?
Manta Ray Bay
On the way to our destination three briefings were held in the cabin: one for certified divers (which was the smallest group), one for students taking a course and one for the snorkelers (the biggest group and containing my wife). Darren, our dive guide briefed us thoroughly -
in fact, it was the most comprehensive briefing I've ever had. A great part of it was spent on safety issues, but we also discussed in detail the marine life we would encounter during our dive. Afterwards he put the buddy teams together. As there was an uneven number and I was by far the most experienced diver among the guests, Darren took me as his buddy. 10 minutes before our arrival we started kitting up. The sea was quite rough and choppy and the boat rolled and pitched considerably, therefore it was quite difficult to get into the dinghy that was to take us to our entry point.
Although the rough sea had a considerable impact on the visibility (reduced to about 5- 10m), I was blown away by what I saw - the bay was teeming with life, and I hardly knew where to look. Blue-Banded Angelfish, Beaked Coral Fish, and Long Nose Butterfly Fish were only three of the many different kinds of fish swarming around me. In terms of coral beauty and abundance, this reef beat Mexico hands down and we weren't even at the outer reef! Darren proved to be a perfect dive guide, never obtrusive; he showed us plants and animals which were either too small to be seen (or appreciated) by untrained eyes or which were well hidden among the corals. As it was a drift dive, I only had to open my eyes and enjoy the ride!
After about half an hour one of the buddy teams was sent up, as they were getting low on air. The other team, Darren and I still had enough air for quite some time. Suddenly I noticed that Darren signalled for us to ascend as well. Although we didn't know what had brought on this change of plan, we followed him, and after a few meters the reason became clear: there was an enormous current between 10m and 5m, which quickly swept the other two (and now us) out of the bay and into the open sea.
Max towing in the the snorkelers
Under these circumstances Darren thought it better for the group to stay together. Shame about the dive, but he was right, of course. While we were slowly ascending, we could hear the dinghy's engine - Max was already on the way to collect us. On the surface we realised how far outside the bay we had drifted in those few minutes and how much rougher the sea was. Obviously there was no point in trying to get into the dinghy in these conditions, so Max dropped us a line and towed us to the boat. For us divers it was great fun, but not so much for the snorkelers who were likewise towed from their calm snorkelling place to the boat. Once on board some of the passengers immediately felt sea sick and were quite glad when the boat finally started to move back towards Hamilton Island, thus at least reducing the rolling from side to side.
The excellent pre-dive service was matched by a likewise excellent after-dive service. Fresh fruit, fruit cake, tea and coffee were free for all. The dive de-briefing and log book entry completed an exciting dive!
Got woken by the telephone - a call from the dive shop. I was informed that the weather hadn't improved sufficiently to go on a full day reef tour, so would I like to go on another single tank dive instead? Of course I would (not giving up hope to get to the reef on the next and last day, at least)!
Sarah and I decided to spend the morning at the pool. I worked on my apnoe skills, which got quite a few laughs from the Aussies, especially, when I demonstrated my legendary ‘Jacuzzi-apnoeing’ :-)
Check in and briefing were very much the same as the day before. Since I had been on board the day before (I was the only one) I didn't have to go to all the briefings, only the one about our destination and thus had more time to lounge about and enjoy the ride. The good impressions I had got the day before were confirmed - the same care was taken to ensure that everybody had a safe and enjoyable trip.
This time the bay was more secluded: there were no waves and the current was very slight. Visibility was a lot better, too and Darren once again proved to be an excellent and unobtrusive guide, pointing out the more hidden beauty of the coral world to us. With a dive time of nearly an hour I couldn't complain about too short a dive, either!
Once again ater the dive I observed how carefully everything was checked: even before we went on board we had to tell staff our dive time, maximum depth
One of many!
and remaining air. They also wrote down that we had returned on board. Shortly before the boat left the bay, one of the guides went round with a clip board which we had to sign. When the boat actually left, another guide did a final headcount. These safety measures are not just for show either - one of the reasons for them being that not so long ago (1998) two tourists were left on the reefs near Cairns. Although there is something strange about the circumstances and the whole story, the fact remains that their disappearance was only noticed a couple of days later!
Just before Hamilton Island Max left the cabin and manoeuvred the boat from the upper deck, where he proved to be quite an entertainer who soon had his audience in stitches!
There was only one disappointment on that day: in the evening it was already clear that the weather would still not be good enough to go out to the reef the next day. Ah well, I'll take another half day tour again, then!
My wife joined me for the third (and unfortunately last) trip, to go snorkelling in the bay. Check-in, briefing and the trip itself were very much like on the previous two days.
The dive itself was just as breathtaking as the other dives, if not more so, since the visibility had risen to between 15m - 20m (45 - 60 feet) and the sea was dead calm. When we got back to the boat after nearly an hour, I asked how much longer the snorkelers had. When I was told that they needn't get back for about another hour I decided to join my wife. I went up to the upper deck to look for her amongst the more than 20 snorkelers who'd spread out in the bay. Max asked me whom I was looking for and how I would recognize the person. I told him that Sarah was wearing a purple stinger suit and had a blue and red snorkel. Without hesitating Max pointed her out to me. I asked if that was a coincidence, but he replied that he knew all the positions of the individual snorkelers and checked them all the time - it was, after all part of his job. For me this proved again how safety-orientated the whole crew was. I joined Sarah and enjoyed another hour in the water. I was quite sad to get back on board, especially since I had discovered a group of wrasses underneath the boat.
Final words ...
... a last view
We were a bit unlucky weather-wise (actually, we seemed to attract clouds and rain all the time during our stay in OZ), but then it could have been worse - in Cairns there were no diving trips at all for several days. Our stay at Hamilton Island was really great, nice apartment with a great view (once the downpour subsided), good food and a diving outfit which made my dives more than enjoyable (much of which was due to Darren). Price-wise, the diving trips were a bit on the steep side, but it was well worth it!
More information on H2O Sportz can be found on their website.