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Elizabeth E2 - Diving the Great Barrier Reef ...
Whitetip reef sharks Triaenodon obesus hovering for a feed.
Whitetip reef sharks hovering for a feed

Meri next to a huge yellow soft coral tree
Meri exploring the Great Barrier Reef, finds a huge yellow soft coral tree.

Obviously the sharks had done this before; without hesitation they rushed in, tearing into fish carcasses that had only just been tied to the coral head. Among the frenzied pack were white-tips and grey-whalers; the silver-tips hovered in middle distance. They were everywhere and impossible to count.

Silvertip shark Carcharhinus albimarginatus Silvertip shark Carcharhinus albimarginatus.

As I moved in for a tighter shot Meri stood by with my second camera but the sharks were oblivious and continued as if we were invisible. Behind us was a huge semi-circular wall dotted with twenty fascinated divers hanging on grimly. We were diving a wellknown shark feeding station on Osprey Reef's fabulous North Horn-' and this was just one of many exciting dives experienced during ten day charter out of Cairns with the Elizabeth E 11.

Our trip deliberately coincided with the 200th Anniversary of the sinking of the Pandora and after the Coral Sea took us to the far northern section of the Great Barrier Reef and to places that have seen very few divers. It was an adventure of a lifetime, bringing divers from as far afield as Sydney, Brisbane and Mackay.

Peter Gesner, a Curatorial Officer in the Queensland Museum's Maritime Archaeology Section, was on board. He had not only participated in all the Museum expeditions to the Pandora but had also logged the most individual dive time on site. Peter's task on the Elizabeth E II was to introduce us to the finer points of maritime history, guide us during dives on the Pandora site and act as "police officer" as it is an Historic Shipwreck and fully protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976.

When we-arrived at Bougainville Reef for the first leg, sea conditions were excellent, although the sky was very overcast. This continued over the next three days, allowing us to thoroughly explore the north and north-west perimeters of both Bougainville and Osprey. We were almost 100 nautical miles from the nearest Queensland coast and living up to its reputation, the Coral Sea was crystal clear.

Vortex of schooling Big-eye trevally beneath ocean surface
Vortex of schooling Big-eye trevally beneath ocean surface (top).
Dogtooth tuna Gymnosarda unicolor (bottom).Dogtooth tuna Gymnosarda unicolor

Both places offered incredible diving with sheer drop-offs plunging to unknown depths massive coral heads and huge swim-through caverns. The fish life was good, although not like we have seen on the Great Barrier Reef region. Apart from the sharks, perhaps the most spectacular of all fish was the oceanic coral trout, huge and plentiful. We also sighted dog-tooth tuna, barracuda, mackerel and other pelagic species along with schools of rabbit-fish, surgeon-fish, pyramid butterfly-fish and trevally. In the depths of Osprey's North Horn we found some large soft corals and scattered patches of gorgonia fans and sea whips.

After North Horn, we up-anchored and began the long haul to Great Detached Reef, about 180 nautical miles to the north-east.

Scuba diver with crinoid featherstars
Scuba diver with crinoid featherstars (right).
Delicate rocks of Scuba diver exploring staghorn coralpink staghorn were a special feature on Great Detached Reef (left). Meri Meri explores red soft coral treeexplores a giant red soft coral tree on the Great Barrier Reef (bottom right). These soft coral trees tend to grow at depths where the current brings rich nutrients.

Great Detached has claimed many unsuspecting ocean-going vessels and it wasn't long before we came across two old anchors embedded in a holding position on the reef-flat close to the surf. Peter Gesner suggested this site could be that of the Aert-Van-Nes, a Dutch immigrant ship wrecked in 1854. Everyone was ferried to the reef for a closer inspection of the anchors and later dived inside the reef, but no further clues were found to its identity.

Some of the best coral reef gardens seen during our trip were found in the protected areas of Great Detached Reef. Delicate racks of pink staghorn were outstanding; soft corals and huge orange gorgonia fans were massed along most of the drop-offs and where there was a gentle sweeping current, hundreds of pencil-thin garden eels danced on the seabed. The magnificent fish life included large coral trout, emperors, angels, surgeons, many species of butterfly fish, fairy-basslets, barracuda, mackerel and some curious sharks. Large cuttlefish were also found in the shallows.

Heading north, our next destination was Raine Island where we encountered several green turtles in the depths along the edge of the reef. It is said that Raine Island accommodates more nesting green turtles than any other single rookery in the world. They share the tiny island with many species of nesting sea birds and during the peak of the season can be seen in their hundreds making their way up the beach. Unfortunately, we were a little early in the season and only small numbers were sighted above the high tide mark.

The marine life was really spectacular and it was no surprise when one of our party sighted a tiger shark during a dive as Raine Island is known for their presence.

Manta ray silhouetted in sunrays Manta ray Manta birostris silhouetted in sunrays.

Just north of Raine we dived a horseshoe shaped reef with an unusually high number of sharks. During a particular dive, several grey-whalers and silver-tips persistently followed us everywhere and at times approached within a couple of metres. At one stage I was concentrating on a portrait shot and Meri pointed over my head. Not knowing what to expect, I looked up and was relieved to see three manta rays swimming in formation. The inquisitive sharks continued to shadow us, and then joined several others schooling under the boat. Later back on board Elizabeth E II someone commented that during an unnerving deco stop on the shot-line, they counted eighteen beauties around them!

Now the Pandora was just a few nautical miles away and everyone was looking forward to our scheduled dive the next day - we were the very first party of sport_ divers to be given special permission to dive this important historic site. As there was no protection from the open ocean we moved just inside the reef for the night. Peter Gesner gave us a very informative slide show after dinner and the whole fascinating saga of Pandora unfolded.

Having received his orders from the Admiralty, Captain Edward Edwards sailed HMS Pandora from Portsmouth on 7 November 1790 with a complement of 132 men. His mission was to recapture HMS Bountv and hunt down Fletcher Christian and his associates who had mutinied against Captain William Bligh the previous year.

On 23 March 1791, the Pandora dropped anchor in Tahiti's Matavai Bay and fourteen of the mutineers were quickly rounded up. they were manacled and locked away in "Pandora's Box", a makeshift prison built on the ship's quarter deck. Fletcher Christian and eight associates managed to escape Edward by setting off in the Bounty long before the Pandora's arrival; their retreat on Pitcairn Island remained undetected until 1808.

After spending a futile three months searching most of the major Polynesian island groups west of Tahiti for Christian and his counterparts, the Pandora set course for Timor via the Torres Straits.
She reached the Great Barrier Reef on 26 August that same year and proceeded in a southerly direction skirting the outer edge in search of a safe passage. An opening was later discovered on 18 August and a boat launched to find a clear path through the reef; it was late in the day
when the boat signalled that one had been found. With dusk approaching, Edwards considered the passage too dangerous and decided it would be safer to hold out to sea until better light the next morning. While the Pandora was manouvering to pick up the boat, she ran aground on a submerged reef.

Aided by the rising tide she bounced her way over the reef into deeper water. Men frantically worked the pumps desperately attempting to save her but all hopes were lost when one of the pumps broke down and water quickly rose in the hold. At first light on 29 August, Edwards gave the order to abandon ship and while in the process of doing so, she foundered with the loss of 31 crew and four prisoners.

The survivors spent a harrowing three days on a nearby sand cay before setting off in four small boats on a 1100 nautical mile journey for Timor. Although not without hardship, the voyage was comparatively uneventful and they managed to reach the Dutch East India Company (VOC) at Coupang.

Today Pandora rests in a bed of sand about 32 metres beneath the surface and is one of Australia's best-preserved shipwreck sites. After three major archaeological excavations carried out by the Queensland museum, it is estimated about one-third of the hull still exists under the sand.

Aerial view of far northern Ribbon Reefs
Aerial view of far northern Ribbon Reefs (above). Aerial view of far Aerial view of far northern Ribbon Reefs, showing Cod Hole and Cormorant Passnorthern Ribbon Reefs, showing Cod Hole and Cormorant Pass (right).

Descending, I wondered if the conditions above were similar to those when she struck the reef; the surface was in a turmoil and the sky smothered in black cloud. The bottom quickly appeared and dark objects could clearly be seen on the white sand. Directly below us was a large anchor, possibly one of those used to steady Pandora immediately after she was refloated from the reef and stacked to one side were several of the Queensland Museum's excavating grids.

A section of Pandora's sternpost protruding from the sand a short distance away confirmed that we were at the stern end. We moved around and quickly took some pictures then headed to the bow section, passing over what looked like a cannon among other heavily encrusted objects. Standing alone on the seabed, about one metre tall, was the iron Brodie stove from Pandora's galley, sparsely decorated with a few featherstars and tunicates. We were delighted to discover an anemone with a family of clownfish living happily on the stove's upper surface as very little marine life exists on the wreck site.

Our short bottom time soon ended and as we slowly made our way back up the line, we watched a second group of divers descend onto the wreck site.

With the Pandora behind us, we journeyed inside the reef to Cape Grenville, then followed the coast south to Princess Charlotte Bay where we took on extra fuel. This gave everyone a welcome chance to stretch their legs on nearby Stanley Island and after a pleasant short walk through bush terrain, we reached some magnificent galleries of Aboriginal rock paintings.

Diver with hump-head maori wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Diver with hump-head maori wrasse Cheilinus undulatus (above).
Blue Ribbon Eel Rhinomuraena quaesita
Blue ribbon eel Rhinomuraena quaesita

Continuing south we stopped off to dive Mid, Waining and Hilder Reefs before eventually reaching the world-famous Cod Hole in Cormorant Pass east of Lizard Island. Even though it was my third visit to the Cod Hole, I still couldn't get enough of the place. It is truly one of the Great Barrier Reef's most magical dives. Feeding the large potato-cod, about sixteen in all, is best left to the experts; although they were extremely friendly, they have appalling table manners. If a hand, or even camera for that matter, happens to get in the way of a tasty morsel, it's just bad luck! Everyone was relieved when Andrew (Critto) plucked up courage and volunteered to do the feeding. He did such a good job he even lured the two huge resident morays out of their holes. He was totally oblivious to their presence until members of our group frantically pointed between his legs. One of the funniest sights I have ever seen underwater was Andrew jumping almost clean out of his crazy tiger-striped lycra suit in fright! Competing with the cod for a free handout and just as friendly are the resident humpheaded Maori-wrasse. They have grown tremendously over the years and are now enormous, making ideal photographic subjects. I know of no other place where numbers of these spectacular fish can be approached at such close range.

After a pleasant shallow-water dive with Lizard's giant tridacna clams we journeyed down to Pixie Pinnacle at the southern end of Ribbon Reef No. 10. It's another great location with incredible diving. It begins one metre beneath the surface, then in pillar-form drops sheer to about sixteen metres before tapering quickly down to a sandy seabed another sixteen metres below. Although the pinnacle can be circumnavigated in only a few minutes, it would take many hours to explore its concentration of marine life. On the flat "table-top" alone we encountered two different species of clownfish, several coral blennies and hawkfish. At the base of the coral pillar, small soft corals, purple tunicates and colourful featherstars decorate a sizeable ledge. Among the multitude of fish living on and around the pinnacle are hundreds of tiny sergeant major fish that delight in being handfed. And then there's schooling barracuda, fusiliers and grey drummer.

With a few more Ribbon Reef dives tucked under our belt, we continued on back to Cairns and the end of our great adventure.

Text: Gary Bell
Photography: Gary Bell

Other Articles by Gary Bell:
Great Barrier Reef - Introduction
Ray Magic - stingrays & manta rays
Sea Turtles - turtles in crisis
The Turtle Watchers - turtle research
Fiji, Revisited - diving
Indonesia - Heaven under Earth - diving
Lord Howe Island - diving
Middleton Reef - diving
Tasmania underwater - diving

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