>First, it's relatively easy to get to. It involves a fair bit of time on an airplane from anywhere in North America, of course, but compared to other Coral Triangle destinations that require similarly long flights just to get to gateway hubs in Bali or Singapore and three more regional hops thereafter, travel to Cairns feels very civilized. Most itineraries require a connection in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, but at 21 hours from the Los Angeles airport, Cairns qualifies as one of the most accessible "exotic" destinations for North Americans.
>For North Americans who travel that far specifically for the diving, day trips cannot deliver the quality available farther afield. To sample the best requires the extended range of a liveaboard dive boat. World-class liveaboard tours such as those offered by Spirit of Freedom, Mike Ball Expeditions and ProDive provide three-, four- and seven-day itineraries out of Cairns in addition to less-frequently scheduled 11-day trips to the Far Northern Great Barrier Reef, Coral Sea and Great Detached Reef. More about these options later, but at the beginning or end of such a trip, the Cairns region is compelling enough that a few days of exploration should be scheduled.
>The excursion I enjoyed most was a hot-air balloon ride over the nearby countryside, even if it did involve a decidedly uncivilized 4:30 a.m. pickup from the hotel. Arriving before sunrise allowed us to see the balloons in the dark, transilluminated by the inflation flames. Having been thoroughly briefed by the DVD on the bus ride to the launch site, we climbed into our gondola, and four balloons lifted off nearly simultaneously. Ballooning is a very quiet means of aviation, except when the fuel jets are running.
>Years ago I was on a white shark expedition in South Australia with legendary Australian photo team Ron and Valerie Taylor. I recall Valerie reminiscing about how she and Ron were champion spearfishers at one point in their lives, but they were never blind to the beauty of marine life, which made their transition to filmmaking a natural one. They were appalled to see Australia's friendly potato cod being speared nearly to the point of extinction, so Valerie launched a campaign to save the species, finally convincing the government to protect it. Now the Cod Hole, at Ribbon Reef No. 10, is one of the most famous dives in Queensland and a tribute to conservation.
>Potato Cods and More
>As the ambient light dimmed toward the end of the day, I used a 100mm macro lens and found the site extraordinarily productive for reef minutia as well. There were plenty of small butterflyfish flitting among the hard corals, and I could now get tight shots of cleaner wrasse at work. I watched with interest as a large bumphead wrasse munched away at the reef with a seemingly insatiable appetite.
>Thanks to enlightened management, the Cod Hole was actually a much better dive than the first time I visited it, but some of the other sites of my first-ever dives on the Great Barrier Reef showed signs of stress. Years ago I did a commercial shoot for Alcan Aluminum at Pixie Pinnacle. Alcan manufactured the aluminum used in scuba tanks, and they wanted a shot of a diver wearing one. Of course, we could have done that anywhere, but the ad campaign used the tagline "Down Under Down Under," so we hopped a plane and a liveaboard. Along with a team from the ad agency (including a creative director who didn't even dive), my wife and I dived Pixie Pinnacle and got the shot against a backdrop of lavish soft corals and colorful gorgonians.
>It wasn't long before I began to see beyond what was missing to what was there. Clouds of anthias flitted above hard corals, many of which were remarkably pristine. The groupers were far more bold and approachable here than in many other areas of the world, which is another testament to intelligent conservation. Pixie provided multiple encounters with lionfish, both common and fire, as well as Moorish idols, various species of butterflyfish, weedy scorpionfish and stonefish. Finding a wobbegong on the night dive added to what was an incredibly productive series of dives. Even after many years, the opportunities for marine-life photography I found at Pixie Pinnacle were exhilarating.
>The next day found us exploring Challenger Bay, where pristine hard corals rise from depths of 30 feet almost to the surface. A massive school of trevally jack greeted us just beneath the swim platform, while a small school of chevron barracuda worked the edge of the reefline. Within the vast expanse of bay are several small bommies, which rise nearly 50 feet from a 70-foot bottom. Masses of opal sweepers and bannerfish decorated the wide view, while the macro enthusiasts came back to the boat with captures of leaf scorpionfish, spinecheek anemonefish and longsnout butterflyfish.
>In June and July, Lighthouse Bommie is a good place to encounter minke whales. Because they usually leave if they're chased, the protocol is to snorkel as a group while connected to a floating line. The whales are curious and tend to come close quite often, which makes minke encounters reliably engaging during the season.
>At Osprey Reef the stunning water clarity can be appreciated during a high-voltage shark feed at North Horn. The briefing leads us to expect 30 to 50 sharks, mostly gray reefs with the possibility of some silvertips and even a great hammerhead.
>The wall slopes precipitously here, and there are lovely soft corals around 80 feet and deeper. We saw several potato cod at North Horn, but the greater attraction here were the whitetip reef sharks lying about on the bottom. Of course we had seen them on many other dives, but they were more approachable here, and this reef offered better backgrounds. Soon the gray reef sharks began to arrive — clearly attuned to the presence of a dive boat. On our second dive at North Horn the crew roped down a garbage can full of fish heads strung along a stainless-steel cable. When the divemaster lifted the lid the sharks charged, more than 40 of them gnashing and ripping into the bait, while various grouper and snapper patrolled the seafloor eager for the bounty of detritus raining down from above.
>Significantly, the Coral Sea now has even greater protection. On Nov. 16, 2012, the Australian government established the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve. It encompasses more than 380,000 square miles, half of which is a fully protected "no take" zone.
>At Northern Small Detached Reef whitetip reef sharks and squadrons of barracuda patrol the waters. Named for its topography, Grand Canyon features steep walls washed by spectacularly clear, electric-blue water. Sweetlips, parrotfish, anemonefish and fusiliers are found all over the place. It's a challenging site for liveaboards to visit because there is no safe anchorage, so trips here depend on weather conditions.
>Raine Island, a marquee destination of Far North itineraries, is famed as the nesting site of the world's largest population of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). David Doubilet, who famously covered the island for National Geographic in 2009, described it thus:
>"The turtles begin to arrive at Raine Island in early October. Males arrive first, full of anticipation after a 1,000-mile swim. When the females arrive they mass outside the reef. At dusk they cross the reef, gather in the shallows and crawl onto the island under cover of darkness. This is prime reptile real estate: there may be as many as 10,000 females on the island laying eggs in one night. It is bedlam in slow motion, with turtles arriving, digging, uncovering another nest and covering theirs. At dawn though, the place was deserted as the sun rose to illuminate an island mangled by tracks of the silent horde."
>Encountering more than 250 turtles during an hour in the water is common when you visit during their breeding season (October through February). Adding to the drama during the turtles' nesting season, tiger sharks come in for one of their favorite meals.
>I wish the weather would have allowed us to continue northward, for the chart showed we were edging ever nearer to the remote reefs separating Australia and Papua New Guinea. Yet, having that trip truncated is merely inspiration to return. With Cairns so close and convenient, the offshore attractions so photogenic and biologically diverse and the Australian people so warm and welcoming, Tropical Queensland by liveaboard remains one of diving's great adventures.
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