I HAD HEARD STORIES of highly venomous sea monsters and ferocious predators living and thriving on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) off the coast of Queensland.
I had also heard tales of widespread damage to the reefs from over-diving, pollution and environmental disasters.
It’s a long way from home, so for a long time Australia was under my radar; I preferred tropical destinations a little closer to home, with the guarantee of pristine corals and safe marine creatures.
However, that all changed when I was invited to see for myself what the GBR had on offer, on a liveaboard expedition with long-established Mike Ball Diving Adventures operating out of Cairns.
After the long flight I took a day out to catch my breath at the Cairns Hilton. Refreshed and raring to go the next day, I made for James Cook University (JCU) to meet local marine biologist and underwater film-maker Richard Fitzpatrick, the man behind the camera in the Great Barrier Reef documentaries shown on BBC / Discovery Channel and narrated by Monty Halls.
Fitzpatrick has studied the GBR’s marine environment for years and works closely at JCU with expert venomologist Dr Jamie Seymour. Some people worry about deadly underwater inhabitants off North-eastern Australia, so who better to ask about them

AS RICHARD SHOWED US AROUND his research establishment, I asked about Australian marine stingers, specifically the deadly box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) and its invisible but equally venomous cousin the tiny irukandji.
“The box jellies are the Ferraris of the jellyfish world,” he told me. “They can swim at up to 5 knots, they’ve got 24 eyes but apparently no brain” (a bit like some football teams I could name, then).
“To prove how potent they are, we took the venom of 50 of the world’s most toxic creatures and tested them against human cell tissue. The Indian taipan [one of the world’s deadliest snakes] killed 20% of the cells after 10 minutes. The box jellyfish venom killed 100% in 90 seconds.
“They’re only a problem during the stinger season in Northern Queensland [November-May] and mostly frequent the coastal and estuarine areas. They pose little or no threat on the outer reefs where the bulk of divers visit – an encounter is extremely unlikely.”
The best protection when diving is a full wetsuit, because the jellies fire their stingers only if they come into contact with a biological surface such as skin.
“Everyone thinks it’s an Australian problem,” said Richard. “It’s not, it’s a global issue. These animals can be found in most of the tropical seas around the world. In Hawaii alone some 900 people were hospitalised in one day due to box jellyfish encounters, and irukandji have reputedly stung swimmers off the Florida Keys.”
Cone-shell snails are another extremely venomous animal found in tropical waters around the world. They spear their prey and inject a cocktail of 60 different venoms, each one attacking specific organs in humans. Cancer researchers are looking at this guided missile approach to its venom and are investigating using it to deliver drugs targeting only the diseased organs in humans. “It’s a case where the killers are becoming the curers,” said Richard.
Stonefish are a common sight on most tropical reef-tops and a sting can be extremely painful, though rarely life-threatening. While researching the reef, Richard has been stung 13 times by these well-camouflaged ambush predators.
Had he developed an immunity to the venomI asked. “Nah, it still hurts like hell!” he replied.

THEN THERE ARE THE LARGER predators associated with the area, such as saltwater crocodiles.
“They’re here all right,” said Richard, “but to see one out on the GBR would be a little like encountering a salty walking down Cairns main high road – I suppose it could happen, but the chances are extremely slim to none.”
Richard’s advice is not to be put off from enjoying the Great Barrier Reef. “It’s as safe an environment as any in the world – just do a little research and listen carefully to your dive briefings, look but don’t touch and you’ll be as safe as houses.” Myths busted!
Reassured, we boarded a light aircraft to take us over the outer reefs to meet Spoilsport at Lizard Island. The low-level flight took us 150 miles north of Cairns and 17 miles from the coast.
The views of the Great Barrier Reef were spectacular as we reached our maximum altitude of just 200m. The immense reef system just kept on stretching to the horizon ahead.
The GBR is the world’s largest coral reef system comprising nearly 3000 individual reefs and nearly 900 islands.
Stretching for more than 1600 miles and covering an area of about 135,000sq miles, it can be seen from space and is the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms. A World Heritage Site since 1981, it is regarded as one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
Spoilsport is a luxury liveaboard vessel that can carry 24 divers. the immense and well laid-out dive-deck provides plenty of space for kitting up without the bun-fights I’ve experienced in the past.
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is a forward-thinking operation so I wasn’t surprised to see that every diver was supplied with a Nautilus Lifeline diver location device, comprising a VHF marine radio as well as satellite GPS and an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), though this was the first time I had seen these devices in use since comparing models for DIVER (Where’s Wally, May 2011).
A DSMB is a requirement and one is supplied if you’re silly enough not to have your own. This was also the first time my solo-diving qualifications have been recognised on a liveaboard and, armed with a redundant air supply, I was going to be diving on my own with my camera for a buddy.
Skipper Trevor Jackson is a veteran on these waters and a diver too, preferring to dive with mixed gas and an old Buddy Inspiration rebreather.
He negotiated the route to our first site, the famous Cod Hole, which probably sees more dive action than anywhere on the GBR. What better a place in which to assess the health and condition of the reef
A couple of hours after boarding and following a comprehensive briefing I was rigged up and ready to go.

A STRIDE OFF THE ENTRY platform put me in Australian waters for the first time in my life. I got my bearings and made a slow descent to a sandy-bedded channel.
The area was flanked by a coral wall with various-sized bommies dotted around the seabed. A small anemone was playing host to two pretty pink anemonefish in the very first bommie
I investigated.
The majority of the corals looked in good health, though there were signs of damage here and there, especially to the delicate branching corals, an indication of the heavy diver traffic this site sees.
The draw here are the numbers of large potato cod that give the site its name. As if on cue one leviathan came to investigate me, swimming with the confidence only great size can impart.
Fearlessly he approached the camera and nudged my dome-port. I swear he could have engulfed my whole rig in one easy bite, such was the size of his mouth.
Grey and whitetip reef sharks cruised the coral walls looking for free offerings, as some operators conduct small-scale feeds from time to time. Little clouds of orange and purple anthias mixed with chromis and damselfish danced above the bommies looking for tiny morsels and creating vivid dots of living colour.
Cod Hole is a pretty site but most of it will go unseen, as visiting divers tend to concentrate on the larger species.

THE EXPEDITION HAD BEEN arranged around encounters with dwarf minke whales, which can be found on the Ribbon Reefs in the Australian winters, so between dives Trevor would take Spoilsport off in search of them – if we saw none we would moor at a nearby site to go diving instead.
After one unsuccessful whale hunt we arrived late in the day at Challenger Bay, a small reef frequented by large shoals of jack, trevally and barracuda.
I jumped in last of the divers and found a huge shoal of jack taking shelter under the boat’s twin hulls. The late afternoon sun was causing the yellowing sunbeams to dance around the water, creating a photo opportunity that was just too good to miss.
I stayed under the boat for the entire dive, swimming through the shoal as the fish opened up in front and closed ranks behind me. It’s a good indication of a healthy environment to have this many predators thriving in one place.
We travelled through part of the night to reach our next destination on the Ribbon Reefs.
Lighthouse Bommie is an area where minkes are often encountered. We jumped in just after sunrise. There is only light coral growth there but a lot of fish life to be seen.
The remnants of the night hunters were off to their hidey-holes as the day-shift took over. Colourful coral polyps slowly disappeared as the light levels increased, and large shoals of plankton-feeders took their positions in the mild current above them.
I found a highly venomous olive sea snake hunting on the sand-and-rocky seabed, probing the small cracks and holes for breakfast. It was tirelessly persistent, stopping only to swim to the surface for a breath of air before continuing the pursuit, and showed no interest in me.
This was probably because it was used to sharing the hunt with other large predatory species, though probably none as inept under water as me.

THE TERRAIN DROPPED SHARPLY to around 35m into a channel with a dense shoal of blue-lined snapper hugging its contours. They too seemed unfazed by the bubble-blowing gatecrashers, grudgingly moving aside as diver after diver attempted to swim through them.
Bannerfish swam in pairs on the periphery, joined by the odd big-eyed squirrelfish and groups of larger yellow-fin snapper. The GBR was proving prolific beyond my expectations.
“Whales off the starboard bow!” came the cry, prompting frantic attempts to don wetsuits, find fins and snorkels and get in the water before the whales lost interest and moved on.
Floating lines were already attached to the dive platform, and we quietly snuck into the water, trying not to spook our marine visitors.
We had been briefed on how to interact with these big boys or, in fact, on how they were likely to interact with us, because it’s the minkes that people-watch, rather than the other way round.
I just hung on the line at the surface with my camera and waited for them to get curious and close enough for some decent photos. Visibility was about 12m and the whales hung right on the cusp like ghosts in the mist; the surface had been churned into a decent chop by increasingly strong winds.
Inevitably it wasn’t long before I became nauseous and had to retreat to the stability of the boat. I watched the action as I recovered on deck.
A pair of whales dropped below the snorkellers, then surfaced to spy-hop just out of their range of vision. They swam around just under the surface, showing us brief glimpses of their small dorsal fins. I just had to get back in and try to get a shot or two.
My second attempt was a herculean one as I tried to fight off the seasickness. It’s amazing how such feelings and thoughts disappear as soon as a dwarf minke swims into vision.
The specimen before me was peppered with small light-coloured spots, which I later learned were wounds caused by cookie-cutter sharks biting out small discs of flesh.
The whale dropped below me and disappeared into the gloom but was followed by another.
All too soon the encounter was over.
I felt exhilarated as I joined the other excited divers back on the boat.

WE VISITED NEARBY reef-sites in the hope of more whale encounters, but unfortunately they didn’t reappear.
The reefs were excellent, however. Twin Towers, two large pinnacles rising from the seabed, housed numerous anemones with various species of resident fish. I spotted Clarkes, pink, and the rarely seen tomato anemonefish living among the healthy hard corals.
Steve’s Bommie was the most beautiful of the sites we visited.
Pristine gorgonian fans and bright purple elephant-ear sponges grew around this small hard-coral pinnacle, with fish life as profuse as I have seen anywhere on my travels.
Brightly coloured anthias mingled with shoals of shimmering silver glassfish, and a resident shoal of tightly packed snapper moved as one seeking safety in numbers. I spied an intensely coloured mantis shrimp scurrying away from the attention it was receiving from its unwelcome visitors.
This dive-site seemed far removed from those accounts of man-made and environmental damage inflicted on this area of the Great Barrier Reef. In fact the only place that I’d seen showing signs of stress was Cod Hole and to be fair that was minimal. Another myth busted
The long journey to get to the GBR was just a distant memory as we sailed overnight to Trinity Wharf in Cairns. The dive staff were busy preparing for the next trip and replacing all the cylinder O-rings (now that’s a first) as their excited guests, wearing big smiles, gorged on the culinary delights prepared by the ship’s cook Levi.
I’d been reluctant to get down under in the past but now I’ve realised just how big this destination is and how much it still has to offer the visiting diver, I’ll look forward to checking out more of it. ’Nuff said!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Nigel Wade travelled from London to Cairns via Dubai and Sydney with Qatar Airways, www.qatar airways.com. A tourist visa can be obtained online, www.australia.visabureau.com/tourists
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Spoilsport, Mike Ball’s Diving Expeditions, www.mikeball.com. Cairns Hilton, www.cairns.hilton.com
WHEN TO GO Year round, but May-November is the best time to dive. Dwarf minke whales are seen in June and July – dry season is June-August. Water temperatures vary little at around 23-25°C, but a 5mm full wetsuit is recommended.
MONEY Australian dollars, credit cards.
HEALTH Nearest chamber is in Townsville, 280 miles south of Cairns. DAN insurance is recommended.
PRICES Dive Worldwide can arrange a package joining the Mike Ball Minke Whale trip on 11 June, 2015, with return BAflights from Heathrow, seven nights on Spoilsport (twin-share cabin) with meals and diving, two nights’ accommodation in Cairns and transfers for £3195pp, www.diveworldwide.com
TOURIST INFORMATION www.experiencequeensland.com