Report on a Classic Destination:
Australia's Coral Sea
by Carl Roessler
Beginning in 1972, I had the great good fortune over a period of two decades to make twenty-nine ten-day cruises to the oceanic atolls of Australia’s Coral Sea. On a succession of live-aboards ranging from Coralita and Reef Explorer to Coral Princess, Hero and Elizabeth E II, we explored the Coral Sea paradises that lie far out to sea beyond the Great Barrier Reef.
In the 1970s and 80s we cruised from Rockhampton and Townsville 300 miles across sometimes-bumpy seas to wondrous Marion Reef. During those decades, I was escorting groups of avid divers to many of the world’s richest coral reefs, but only the Sudanese reefs in the central Red Sea could approach the combination of stunning visibility, brilliant marine life and numbers of sharks that Marion Reef delivered year after year.
As the years went by, we explored other superb reefs in the Coral Sea such as Flinders, Diamond and Holmes before moving northward to Port Douglas for cruises to dive the Cod Hole and Pixie Pinnacle on the outer Great Barrier Reef and North Horn and other sites on Osprey Reef.
Remarkably, each of these massive oceanic atolls had completely distinctive dive sites which differed radically from each other.
Marion Reef, for example, had dozens of skyscraper-sized coral towers rising up from the 200-foot depths of its lagoon to graze the limpid surface. Some of the most spectacular diving conditions I’ve ever seen occurred while soaring around these fabled pinnacles. In valleys carved through the huge formations, big cat sharks, nurse sharks and huge round sting rays lazily made their rounds between naps. Sea snakes were sleeping everywhere. It was a Paradise. At the North end of the atoll, a site we called Action Point delivered packs of gray sharks which swam around our baits like gray bullets.
On one occasion, a 15-foot hammerhead shark arrived just as I was cleaning up the wires at the feeding site.The divers returning to the boat looked down and thought this would be the end of me. The huge shark skidded to a stop, looking at me. I took his picture, and the strobe light startled him. He swam in a tight circle and came back to the same pose. Discretion being the better part of valor, I threw down the wire with the remaining fish heads strung on it. He moved in above it and extended his entire jaw down to take it. When he bit down on the wire he went rather crazy. Gray sharks scattered like frightened rabbits, and I was suddenly alone.
Diamond Reef had smaller pinnacles in the shallow areas of its lagoon, but its coral walls astounded us with vast arches, caverns and swim-throughs forming a labyrinth in the coral massif.
Holmes didn’t have much coral development in the shallows, but further down on its deep flanks there were soft coral colonies bigger than a diver, and in a rainbow of colors—pink, yellow, burgundy—which we always had trouble leaving. There was always just one more beautiful angle to be shot!
Osprey Reef was distinctive for a series of crevices in its outer wall which were swept by regular tidal currents. As a result of such rich and concentrated feeding, the walls were alive with hard corals, soft corals and sponges in varied colors—with night dives featuring hundreds of flashlight fish and huge nudibranchs.
In addition, one secret site had 20-foot trees of black coral and a wide meadow of huge soft coral trees stretching as far as we could see. Absolutely unforgettable!
The northern tips of both Marion Reef (“Action Point”) and Osprey Reef (“North Horn”) were home to healthy populations of hungry sharks. I learned a lot about what happens when sharks swarm to feed, and I’ll never forget some of those maelstroms of flashing and darting gray bodies.
On one memorable occasion, twenty or more gray sharks decided that I was to be lunch, and I only escaped The Final Chapter by bashing shark-noses with both big camera rigs until I could flatten myself against the coral wall. Memories, indeed…
These amazing reefs are protected only by 200-300 miles of open ocean, or theywouldbeoverrunwithdivers. As it is, only a fortunate few ever get to dive these remote wonders.
If you are a serious photographer, however—these are worth whatever it takes!...
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