Exploring The Great Barrier Reef with Mike Ball Diving Expeditions

The Great Barrier Reef is massive, and Cairns is the launching point for the majority of ways to experience the reef.  I’d known since I started this flashpacking adventure two-and-a-half years ago that I would be headed here, and now the time had come.

I spent my first full day in Cairns doing research on dive companies, talking to dive shops and trying to form a plan of attack for diving the reef.  All the training I did in Thailand earlier this year was in preparation for this experience.  Having spent so much time and effort preparing to get here, I wanted to make sure I got the most out of it.  Little did I know that by 6pm that evening I’d already be on a boat headed toward a remote section of the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef as seen from above

Taken during my low-altitude return flight to Cairns from Lizard Island.

Mike Ball

The plan broke down into three separate trips out on the reef, going from the longest and least flexible to the shortest and most flexible. I lucked out by getting in and talking to Mike Ball (no relation) on the day their boat was scheduled to depart, which only heads out once a week.

There are many ways to experience the reef, and I’ll spend time comparing all of them in a later post.  For now, just know that the best method, in my humble opinion, is via a live aboard dive boat.  You spend anywhere from 3-7 days onboard doing nothing but eating, sleeping and diving.  I knew this was what I wanted to do but wasn’t sure if I would be able to afford it.  Mike Ball offered a trip that fit exactly what I was looking for.

The trip I went out on was a 4 night live aboard called “Fly Dive Coral Sea”.  This expedition ranges from $1751 for budget accommodation up to $2465 for a premium room.  The trip certainly isn’t cheap, but the value you get for your money is outstanding!

The Great Barrier Reef from underwater

Sunlight illuminates coral just under the surface of the water.

The Expedition

The “Spoilsport”, our boat, departs Cairns once a week for a 7-day trip up to a section of the reef known as Osprey Reef.  The northern portion, which was my trip, speeds away the first night so that by the time you wake up on day one you’re diving a popular site called “Cod Hole”, home of massive potato cod.  Over three days of diving, diving and more diving, you visit the Coral Sea and Osprey reef.

On day four, Spoilsport pulls into Lizard Island to drop off the half timers and pick up the guests that will take the boat south.  A low-altitude flight takes the first group home after dropping off second group.  If you’re lucky enough to do the full 7 days, you miss out on the low-altitude flight over the reef but make up for it with more diving.

Of the 12 divers on the boat, I was certainly the least experienced.  Martin Reiser, a German diver who showed us some of his amazing underwater videography, had done 420 dives in the last 11 months alone.  With only 13 dives under my belt as we got underway, I was a bit nervous about how the diving would go and how I might be treated once we started diving.  Things went fine, however, as the crew neither treated me like I needed hand holding nor like I was an annoyance.

Gudrun, my diving buddy, hamming it up for the camera

My diving buddy for most of the trip making a monkey out of herself.

The Diving

In diving, you always dive with a buddy, and I was quickly buddied up with Gudrun, a woman from Belgium who was also traveling on her own.  Since she hadn’t gone diving in a couple years, and I had so few dives under my belt, we had to do an orientation dive with one of the crew so they knew we could handle ourselves and not get into trouble.  Everything went great and we were free to choose what we wanted to do for the rest of what ended up being a total of 13 dives.

The dives themselves covered a lot of variety.  For some of the dives, like the cod hole, shark reef and the shark feed at north horn, we were grouped up and led by a member(s) of the dive crew.  At other times, like during the open deck period on day two, we were free to go out in our pairs at our own pace and sites of our choosing.  Our pair tended to stick with the group, if there was one.

The dive sites were also full of variety.  Out of a total of thirteen dives, I did two night dives (a first for me), a drift dive at cod hole, a shark feed a north horn (one of the highlights), a couple vertical walls, my first experience with an underwater camera (rented from Wetrez in Cairns), and saw more coral, sharks and big big fish than I ever anticipated.  No hammerheads were spotted, unfortunately, and I’ve still yet to see a manta underwater, but the trip was a rousing success as far as I’m concerned.

Our dive briefing for the Cod Hole dive site.

Our tour leader, Shea, gives is our pre-dive briefing for Cod hole.

The Ship

The spoilsport had capacity for 29 guests, but we only numbered 12.  This made for a lot of room and both guests and crew got to know each other pretty well over those 4 nights.  With 12 crew on board, everything was taken care of and handled with efficiency and ease.  There was a ton of room for the divers on the dive deck and I even had a cabin to myself when I expected to be bunking with another diver.  That being said, it looked as if there would have been plenty of room even at capacity.

I asked some of the others when they booked their trips and most had done so within the week just like myself.  The four that stayed on for the full seven day trip had booked far in advance, which I think is a good idea during peak season.  Basically, if you’re at all limited and really want to do the trip book well in advance as the boat does fill up often.  If you’re on a budget and time is flexible, you might consider booking on site on the off chance you’ll find a standby rate.

A school of fish

A school of fish floats by in the blue.

The Food

All food is included in the price, with soda and alcohol being sold separately from the ship’s bar.  Morning juice, lunchtime punch and wine at dinner are also included.  There’s generally a meal before/after each dive, with plentiful fruit and cookies to snack on in between meals.

The meals themselves are mostly served family style, with a few of them set up as a buffet.  With an Italian chef on board, the meals were plentiful and had a good variety.  As an example of one of our dinners, we had an Aussie BBQ on Sunday night that included beef, chicken, kangaroo, shrimp off the Barbie, salads and sides, with pavlova for dessert.  Dietary restrictions are taken care of as well, with separate dishes being made for those with special requirements as needed.

The guests from my trip with Mike Ball Diving Expeditions

All of the guests that were a part of my segment of the trip.

Conclusion

Granted, up until this trip I had no experience with live aboard dive boats, but I have to say I’m impressed.  The diving was amazing, the crew was stellar, the food was delicious and the other guests were great.  I had a wonderful time and greatly increased my breathing and buoyancy while doubling my total number of dives.

The only regular trip Mike Ball runs is this one, and it only leaves once a week on Thursdays, although you can take the low-altitude plane up to lizard island on Monday and do the 2nd half of the trip, arriving back in Cairns on Thursday morning.  I believe they also offer the occasional exploratory expedition and longer trip to the far far north of the reef.

Diving along the Great Barrier Reef

Shea leading us on one of our dives.

I would strongly recommend you have at least your advanced certificate in order to fully experience all these dive sites have to offer.    Just be sure you’re really confident under water, or, if you have a buddy, you’re both at the same level.  As you’ll find out in the next post, getting on a live aboard dive boat solo means you’re at the mercy of fate when it comes to your dive buddy(s).

Location: Cairns

Experience: Mike Ball Diving Expedition

Accommodation: Spoilsport and Cairns Central YHA

Transportation: Greyhound

Highlights: Shark feed, Giant Potato Cod, Tons of diving, Spoilsport Crew

DISCLOSURE:  I HAVE NEGOTIATED A DISCOUNT WITH BOTH GREYHOUND AND YHA, BUT WILL BE GIVING AS HONEST AN EVALUATION OF THE TRIP AS I AM ABLE.  I ALSO RECEIVED A DISCOUNT ON THE MIKE BALL EXPEDITION.