I’ve been researching and dreaming about a Coral Sea trip for ages. I imagine drifting in gin clear water through the swirl of a technicoloured fish paradise and have imagined countless times a huge shadow emerging at the edge of my vision to materialise into a massive Spanish Mackerel or a Doggie. Time, family, business and priorities have always kept me awake from this dream, so when Ian Stewart called to offer me a place on a 4 day trip to the northern end of Fraser, it provided the perfect balance of time and price. It was game on!
I admit, as this was my first charter trip, I may have over planned and prepared. I downloaded a breath hold training app and used it. I began cycling to work (25km round trip). I drew up checklists, made up flashers, overhauled my guns, sharpened knives, remade rig lines, fixed wetsuits and agonised over bungies and float choices.
With room for 8 spearos (mostly from Central Coast Sea Lions Club), the plan was to tow two boats north by road from Central Coast, leaving Sunday morning to Tin Can Bay, Queensland, to meet the “Night Beat” charter live-a-board on Monday afternoon. Night Beat would then tow the two Haines Hunters north overnight to place us in striking distance of the Sandy Shoals for 4 days of diving.
Al Cooke would be taking his crew (Joe Brennan, Chris Birchall and Adriana Djurasevich) in a newly rebuilt and fitted 600r. It is an awesome boat by any standard. Ian would be using his tried (tired?) and tested Blue Camo painted 16r.
The trip north from the Central Coast was filled with stories of past glory and advice, plans and ideas. Al organised accommodation on the Gold Coast for Sunday night where we had a few ales, watched the rugby and then met up with Ray Powel (Dive R) and some friends for Chinese. You could feel the excitement building as more stories and advice were mixed with the drinks. I’m sure it was just the excitement that made Chris Birchall leave his dinner in the gutter that evening, but there is a claim it was the chewing tobacco offered as a dive enhancer! Perhaps not all the advice was of as equal quality. I’ll say even less about the snoring that followed.
By Monday morning it was clear that the forecasted strong southerly winds were in fact a reality and Tuesday was not looking promising as a dive day. We remained hopeful that Wednesday would be diveable and the conditions would continue to improve through the week.
We made a quick stop in Gympie for a spare trailer tyre, fuel and snacks for the boat and made our way through to Tin Can Bay to board the mother boat. Night Beat is an ex-fishing boat with the ice rooms converted to bunks. It is decked out with modern gear and equipment and has ample room for 8 passengers and 2 crew. By 4pm we were chugging north, the boats bouncing along behind in the choppy sea. At 1 stage, the towing lines broke and the boats had to be rescued. We also ended up getting stuck on a sand bank for an hour until the tide lifted the boat, but by 4.30am we were anchored half way up the inside of Fraser and eating a big cooked breakfast.
The wind was still strong and we doubted that we would be doing any diving the first day. We headed north to see if there was any way to cross the bar. Hugging the relative calm of the island we made good progress, but once beyond the lighthouse, it was obvious that if we did get into the water, it was not going to be on the outside of the island. The wind was 25-30kts with white capped waves. It would be too dangerous to attempt the crossing and if successful, impossible to keep divers in sight. We headed back to the mother ship frustrated, but in part relieved not to be facing the heavy sea.
Plan B – tourists for a day. The huge dunes and walk to the lighthouse were just a short swim from the boat, so with a change of focus we explored our surroundings. We heard some great stories from the lighthouse keeper and saw spectacular views across the white capped bar. A pair of breeding Osprey kept calling and drifting past. We stopped at the ruins of WW1 bunkers and the grave of the first keeper who accidentally shot himself while hunting. From the top of the dunes, we could see tens of green turtles courting. Out wider, flotillas of juvenile Shearwaters rested or glided over the waves. On the outside hundreds lay dead on the beaches, too exhausted to feed or continue.
A battle plan emerged over dinner. Another 4.30am start and a second assault on the bar would be made the following morning. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm as the wind had not dropped as dramatically as anticipated. We watched the sun rise over eggs and bacon and shrugged on wetsuits. 5.30am found us pounding north to the bar and 6.30am found us pounding back again. I recall screaming in frustration.
On to plan B for the day. A 60km run to 3 marks on the charts that looked like rocks on the inside of Fraser. We were hoping that with the sandy bottom in the area, any structure would hold fish. After a short stop at the mother boat we headed south. We stopped to follow a Dugong and saw another on the way. Mark 1 was in 16m and I dropped over the side to have a look. Vis was a hazy 10m and when I arrived at the bottom I wished I had a billiard ball. It was more flat sand. Marks 2 and 3 were exactly the same. 60km run for flat sand?
Ahhhhhh! In truth what a stunning place to be stuck in! Time for plan C. Plan C was a run to Yeerall Creek where I went stalking for Jacks in the Mangroves. The Mangroves were alive with small everything! I got my hand well mangled by a Mud Crab, the consolation being a set of claws for supper. There were 10-15 large Mullet courting which was cool, and on shore, a Dingo. A Kite came down for a feed from the water by the boats and rays cruised the white sands. What a magnificent place to be killing time in. When we got back to the mother boat, Al took a few of us for some freediving lessons in preparation for the next day. A few beers as the sun went down, a good dinner and an early bed time for another 4.30am attack on the bar.
Deja-vu…sun rise with cooked breakfast, but a noticeable lift in expectations! The cloud patterns had certainly changed and the southerly wind had definitely reduced. Game back on! It was a rough bar crossing before we were bouncing out to sea towards Sandy Shoals. Schools of flying fish fled before the boat. What a rush. This is what we had come for and it was about to happen.
We dropped a marker in the very middle of the reef in 10m. The current was running west to east as we started the first drift in 25m. I slipped over the side and when the bubbles cleared, found a hazy 20m vis. Quickly I was on the edge of the reef and dived. Wrasse swarmed over the rocks and great schools of Surgeon came in to investigate. They were up to 80cm long with huge heads that looked like comical bulbous noses. Behind the school I watched a massive Green Jobfish coming in. I dropped my head and angled off to intercept. Extended my arm, lined up and pulled the trigger. Nothing! F*#king safety still on. Chance gone, but this was only the first dive! What a thrilling way to start. I was soon over the other side of the reef and took my turn as boatie.
With only three of us in Ian’s Blue Camo boat, there was plenty work to do. The surgeons turned into burley and brought in a few Jobfish and the odd Trevally. I did pick up a variety of Parrots and Wrasse but a Jobfish I speared got smashed by a Bull Shark. I also watched a variety of fish disappear into the black-hole sized mouths of the numerous Queensland Grouper. They would detach from the reef, vacuum the burley and arrive out of nowhere below a speared fish. Once the fish and spear went into the black hole they would unstoppably head back down to the reef. Awesome to watch and, for me, more intimidating than the sharks when it came to defending a buddy’s catch.
It was a long day of drifting and while there was plenty to see there was not that much to spear. Day 3 ended with some disappointment, but on the last dive I did see two medium Spanish which kept the dream alive. I gave chase but they faded into the gloom. 1 Day to go and all signs that it would be the best. The last of the wind died down and with that the chop flattened out too. By now we had a good handle on what to expect and what thereef looked like. We had perfected a routine of drifts andburley. Before we re-joined the mother boat, Ian and I prepared the boat for the last day’s diving. Refuel, clean down, clear up, reset. We were tired and somewhat burned, but far easier to be ready to go first thing.
After dinner I sat on the back deck watching the sea life mill around the boat. There were large jellyfish pulsing with determination, their fat tentacles holding small fish. Minute squid darted about almost like water skates and plucked invisible food from the surface. I saw 5 water snakes. The smallest only 10cm long like a large garden worm and the biggest about 60cm with stunning red painted bands. Small fry swarmed in and out of the boats shadow.
Sleeping on the boat was easy as exhaustion set in quickly. The air-conditioned bunkrooms made it nice to snuggle under the covers, despite the heat outside. The white noise of the diesel engines drowned out any snoring. 4.00am Came around again quickly. Areal sense of urgency this time, as we had to be heading back by 2pm. The mother boat would start back without us and we would catch her up closer to Tin Can Bay for dinner. It meant an 80km run,but given the perfect diving conditions, the best use of time and resources.
What a different day! The bar was almost flat in comparison to the previous days. The current over the reef was now much stronger and was running north to south. The great schools of Surgeon were gone, but there was much more blue water. A new strategy quickly formed. Forgetting the shallow water we started the drifts in 25m and stuck to the drop offs onto sand. Jobfish followed the burley and schools of Trevally came in more often. There were far more sharks. Black and Silver Tips and Hammerhead came flying in to investigate flashers. Bull Sharks came in faster on shot fish. There was the odd Cobia seen and missed. Then my dream chance arrived. Near the end of the reef, two shapes emerged from the gloom. Spanish! I calmed my breathing and started the intercept dive. They changed course and I slowly adjusted. The first was around my length and must have been over 20kg; the second was smaller so I ignored it. I closed the gap. My fish was starting to pass ahead of and below me and I needed to make a move. I extended my gun, did a few hard kicks and pulled the trigger. The spear hit mid back and centre and the Spanish shuddered and stopped dead still. YES! Next the gun was pulled from my grip as it accelerated away. My rig
line burned through my fingers on the way to the surface. I felt a huge grin forming, but it was short lived. Moments after I took a breath, the line went slack… The spear had not gone all the way through or the fl opper hadn’t toggled. It is hard to describe the loss. I was gutted.
Fuelled with the passion to make amends, I continued to dive. Another Jobbie got lost to the sharks, before Ian shot a Cobia. I quickly swam over and put another shot in. As he got it into his hands, his shaft dropped out. Teamwork, works. Not ten minutes later his shout brought me hurrying over. He had a Surgeon on the end of his spear and below that was a Doggie circling. It was a textbook dive, cautious approach, perfect shot, and after a frighteningly powerful run I had my first Doggie landed. Dreams coming true in the Blue Camo!
The next few hours were filled with amazing sights. I saw Ian forming an unwelcome third member to mating turtles; a juvenile Shearwater nestling into my chest underwater to feed on the frame I was burleying – he was fearless and when I picked him up to move out the way he just returned to continue feeding, oblivious of my stroking or movements. On another dive a giant turtle kept me company for a while – I trusted he was not sizing me up as a mate; a few GTs that we left patrolling.
At some point, the current changed again and the water rapidly became dirty. On moving, we found a dramatic current line with cobalt blue water on one side. The other boat was ahead of us and had seen and lost a Wahoo. Adriana was mourning the loss of a big Spanish that had kicked free from her hands. The water was between 20 and 28m deep, but with the great vis, it was easy to see the bottom. It was filled with Jobfish, which were shy until engaged in feeding and some 10-13kg models were landed. We all had the distinct feeling that anything could happen at any time. What a buzz.
My last and most memorable dive of the trip was near the cut off time. I saw a Jobfish come up the burley column and dived to meet it. I was too far inside the burley and he retreated down; I followed slowly, but he kept just out of range as I sank deeper and deeper. Below him were two much bigger Jobbies so I angled away for them. Closer, closer. Just as I extended to shoot, a dark shape emerged out of the blue. It was another Spanish! Indecision kicked in! Can I wait long enough to go for the Spanish or should I settle for the Jobbie? I sink a few meters deeper and glance at my watch. Not good.
I’m at 26m and have been down for over 3 min. The sums don’t add up to getting back up. I take a last look at the Jobbie and magnificent Spanish and start getting my rig line attached to my weight belt. Just as I pull the buckle, I notice my glove is caught in the clip. My falling weight belt is now pulling my hand deeper. It is a panicky moment and I can’t tear the glove free. My other hand works on the clip and I feel the glove come free. I rocket up, knowing that I’m cutting it fine. Brett is on the surface waiting for me as I come up and after a few long gulps of air I signal I’m ok. It was good to know he was there.
When I pulled my gun to the surface, there was an absence of weight and I realised that my rig line came out of the clip when I freed my glove. It was a small price to pay. My watch showed the previous dive was 4 minutes and 5 seconds. Not a bad last dive but the main point is it won’t be my last dive.
I’m in awe of this amazing place and the power and beauty of the sea. I feel a deep peace. I’ll be back because the dream is still alive! What can be better than blue water, good mates and dreams!