Dive Travel / Featured / Marine Life

Minke Whale Expedition | June 2012

By Jackie Barnes

I recently had the pleasure of taking a group of Abyss customers to the Great Barrier Reef to go on the Mike Ball Minke Whale Expedition out of Cairns, Australia. With a mixture of divers I had previously taught and some that I had never met, it was certainly going to be a great experience.

Day 1- Thursday 7th June 2012

The group having dinner with Mike Ball in Cairns before departing

The trip started with an early flight to Cairns via Brisbane. With the excitement of the upcoming adventure combined with the concert I had played the previous night, I was rather sleep deprived. However, nothing could restrict the energy levels as I pulled up to Mike Ball’s office with some of my group. We checked in and then headed to the Cairns waterfront to have lunch and get to know everyone in the group. Then after everyone bought some last minute supplies it was off to Havana Restaurant to meet with the enthusiastic Mike Ball and the non-Abyss divers. Following yet more food we power walked to Trinity Wharf where Spoilsport awaited us.

Upon boarding we were greeted with champagne by all the staff and shown around the deluxe, 30m, triple deck, catamaran. We set up our gear on the dive deck in preparation for the next morning’s dives and were given a brief by our trip director Nick. By this stage the lights of Cairns were behind us and we were full steam ahead to the most famous reef in the world. I settled in to my shared cabin with a wonderful character in Ted Sarnicki and got some well due rest.

Day 2- Friday 8th June 2012

Nick ran around the corridors yelling to wake everyone up for our breakfast and as I walked out on to the dive deck I was greeted with the most wonderful view. I had woken up in paradise! Calm conditions, sun shining, barely any clouds in sight and some very clear and beautiful looking water!

Breakfast was prepared by the legendary Levi, our chef for the next 4 days and just like everyone else on the boat I was ready to get wet and go for a dive. Then came the beautiful words I would look forward to all day everyday…”Dive Brief!” In an instant all 29 guests were on the dive deck being briefed on our first sight “Challenger Bay” on the southern end of Ribbon Reef 10.

Dive 1- Challenger Bay

A nice easy dive this was the perfect way to get started. I hopped in with thoughts of a wetsuit a seemingly distant memory; my boardies and short-sleeved lavacore were more than enough in the 25 degree water. With amazing 30 metre visibility we all went off with our buddy groups and took in the underwater scenery. Beautiful corals, sponges and a plethora of aquatic life greeted my Canon G12 camera and me and I must admit I went photo crazy along with my buddy David Rodriguez. Between the turtle we spotted on descent to my first time seeing Garden Eels covering the sandy bottom it was a wonderful way to start the dives.

The coral at the outer sites of the Great Barrier Reef is second to none

Dive 2 – Two Towers

After heading North from Challenger Bay we looked around for Minke Whales and had some lunch. Although we got our first spot of Whales they weren’t keen for interaction initially. We did get in for a quick snorkel with a few beautiful Minkes that hung out for a few passes by the boat on our second search. They were pretty shy though and were fast at making their escape.

It was time for an afternoon dive at a site called “Two Towers”, 2 isolated bommies in the shape of two towers side by side. We observed a turtle and Olive Sea Snake swimming around the surface before the dive.

In we jumped and cruised around the towers in a figure 8 patterns to see as much of the site as we could and try to get some kick arse pictures. Julia, the trip photographer and videographer was waiting by a beautiful Anemone, home to a family of Clown Fish that we all posed for a photo with.

Although the conditions at the surface were rougher than at Challenger Bay, the visibility was still a lovely 20 metres and there was virtually no current underwater. A lovely dive!

Dive 3 – Night Dive at Challenger Bay

We headed back south to Challenger Bay to do a night dive and then spend the night in the sheltered area of the reef. I was so pumped to do my first night dive of the trip, as was most of my group, some of whom were doing their first ever night dive!

And none of us were to be disappointed. The visibility was as good as it had been earlier that day and the boat lights almost provided enough light to navigate the sight without aid of lights. Eels were out looking for a feed, but nothing could compare to the groups of enormous Trevally that just loved using the divers’ torches as a hunting aid. For this dive the lovely Trish Brownett and David Rodriguez joined me.

Following the dive everyone was starving and as soon as the dinner bell rang out we all flocked to the dining room to get a feed that almost rivaled the damage done to a school of fish obliterated by the Trevally surrounding the boat.

Then came our first Minke Whale presentation by James Cook University researcher Amy. It was a great introduction to the world of the Whales we were there to learn about!

I thought I went to sleep at 10 pm following the presentation, although according to Andrew, Kristina and Jason from my group I did some sleep walking and talking!

Day 3 – Saturday 9th June 2012

We moored in Challenger Bay for the night and after a good night’s rest we were on the way to a new dive site called “Lighthouse Bommie”. What an amazing sight, it is a bommie that stretches to the surface from the 30-metre mark and looks light a lighthouse as the name suggests. It was my favourite site of the lot, with an amazing variety of marine life

Our first Minke encounter came at Lighthouse Bommie

Dive 4 – Lighthouse Bommie

Descending down underneath the boat my buddy David and I were greeted by a smaller bommie separate to the lighthouse where we circled around at the 24m mark for a little while before heading towards the big lighthouse ahead. From there we circled around the lighthouse bommie in an ascending pattern snapping photos along the way until we reached the top of the bommie in about 6m of water.

“What an amazing experience… definitely something I won’t forget”

The bommie was covered in life, with Lionfish both hiding under overhangs and out in the open, beautiful Gorgonians lapping up the sunlight, a huge school of Yellow Snapper filling the gap between the smaller bommie and the lighthouse and the ever-present Anemones hosting families of Clownfish.

We headed back to do our safety stop under the boat and we got a great view of some Minke Whales going past the boat so it was time to get out, get the snorkeling gear on and head out on to the shot line for some Minke interactions.

It was straight back in the water for me, since there was a group of Minkes in the vicinity looking interested in us. I spent the next 2 hours in the water with up to 6 whales passing by including a calf, a very rare sighting indeed. I took some nice footage of the Minkes passing by as well as some great pictures. What an amazing experience to be in the water with such beautiful and enormous creatures. It is definitely something I won’t forget ever! After a few hours in the water snorkeling I was getting the urge to go back underwater and check out the lighthouse once more so I hopped out and got my dive gear ready for the next dive.

Dive 5 – Lighthouse Bommie

For my second dive on the lighthouse I once again buddied up with David to take some more snaps. This time we descended under the boat and bypassed the small bommie and went straight to the bottom of the lighthouse to do a slower ascending pattern to have a closer look in the cracks and crevices. I constantly found myself looking up at the silhouette of the lighthouse in the sunshine and admiring the beauty of this dive site. Instead of doing safety stop under the boat we hung around on the top of the lighthouse at the 5m mark looking at some of the corals there that get the most of the sunlight.

Dive 6 – Lighthouse Bommie

Most of the divers were too hungry to go back in again before lunch, but I was dead keen to get one last dive in on the lighthouse before we set sail again. So with a smaller group of Andrew, Kristina, Tiana and Jason we jumped in again. We did both the small bommie and the lighthouse before I sent Tiana and Kristina off to continue exploring while I took the boys back to the boat. While we were hanging out underneath the boat doing our safety stop the whales were back in force. 2 of them kept circling and we got a really nice view of them from under the water. Jason and Andrew headed up to have some lunch; I stayed on the line for a few extra minutes to keep watching the whales. That’s when I had my gold encounter!

One of the Minkes came up to within a metre of me and just stared at me for a while. It was one of those moments where even though you couldn’t have 2 more different creatures you still felt a connection. After about 30 seconds the whale gave me a belly presentation and swam off, as did I to the ladder to get dry and eat some lunch.

David’s stylish giant stride off the back deck of Spoilsport

Dive 7 – Pixie Wall

We headed back to a reef south of Challenger Bay called Pixie Wall. This was an excellent site, with fantastic corals and sponges as well as some amazing wall formations. Not too deep a dive this was a nice way to continue diving after the deeper dives at the lighthouse.

With David again we headed out along the wall until it came time to turn around and we went back the boat for our safety stop. All in all a lovely dive site with some amazing corals and sponges on display.

Dive 8 – Pixie Wall

Our second and final night dive of the trip was at Pixie Wall where we had dived earlier. It was a lot different at night, with a few eels out on the hunt and we found some beautiful Nudibranchs as well as the Trevally following our torches looking for a feed. Not as much to see on this night dive as there was at Challenger Bay the previous night but still a lovely night dive. I started feeling hungry on the dive so I knew it was time to head back and warm up for the night.

After dinner we had our second Minke Whale presentation before retiring for the night once more. After 5 dives that day/night I was definitely ready for bed!

Day 4 – Sunday 10th June 2012

Dive 9 – Pixie Pinnacle

Another beautiful day! We started off with a dive at Pixie Pinnacle near Pixie Wall. An isolated pinnacle formation off the Pixie reef and a beautiful dive. On this dive I found a rare blue Scorpion fish, so naturally I took a photo of it, and the photo would end up winning the Mike Ball underwater photography competition. After circling the pinnacle a few times and ascending to the safety stop I was ready for a big breakfast before we set sail northbound to look for more Whales.

The corals are amazing. Check out this giant Gorgonian fan!

Dive 11 – Cod Hole

For my last dive of the trip, we were at the famous Cod Hole. Check out my Cod Hole blog.

Although it was sad to know that we had no more diving left the excitement of going to Lizard Island and doing the over reef flight was taking over. We moored in a nice calm spot of Lizard Island for the party night. Hawaiian shirts and music galore, captain Trevor and I belted out tunes while everyone got stuck into the Champagne and toasted to a very successful trip. BBQ followed and then we played music and chatted into the night. It was a fitting last night of the trip and we all reminisced on our favourite dives and experiences before retiring one last time to our cabins.

Day 5 – Monday 11th June 2012

We woke up knowing we had to leave Spoilsport soon, so we had breakfast and packed our bags and sent them to Lizard Island. Soon it was time for us to leave and we boarded the inflatable boats and got off at Lizard Island. A short walk up to a lookout point and we saw Spoilsport in the bay glistening in the sun, although it seemed so small now!

Soon we said goodbye to everyone and boarded our small planes for the reef flight back to Cairns.

Flying at a low altitude we looked down on the beautiful reefs as we made our way south on a clear sunny day. I was lucky enough to spot a Tiger Shark on the edge of Bat Reef as we circled around in a holding pattern. When the plane touched down that was truly the end of the adventure!

On this trip I made wonderful friends, saw the most famous Reef in the world, swam and dived with the amazing Minke Whales. I will never forget this trip, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Like I said to the crew on the way off the boat, “I will be back”, and I can’t wait! Check out some more photos from the trip here.

The gang at the end of a fantastic trip!

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