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Yongala Expeditions - Photo by Aaron Smith

Yongala 2014
Captain Trevor Jackson

We are heading south on May 15 to see the results of nature’s latest muscle flexing. I wonder which version of the Yongala we are going to get.

When cyclone Yasi came through the region a couple of years ago it stripped a few local shipwrecks of their coral growth and immediately everyone thought the worst “Oh no, it’s not going to be worth diving anymore”. The truth is that some of them got better. For example, if you sit around a table full of divers that have dived the Yongala many times over the years, opinion is divided. Some say it was better before however most will say it is better now. I butted in on one of these conversations a few weeks ago and queried the group on how the wreck could be better. The response went along the lines of ….”Well it has still got all of the life swarming all over it, but now there’s so much more wreck to see. The structure, the artifacts, there is simply more of it now”

The argument made sense to me. Effectively what they meant was that it used to be a great dive in terms of marine life, but now it’s a great WRECK dive as well. We’ve had a few little blows this season and no doubt the Yongala will have changed again.

There are 4 special expeditions visiting the Yongala Wreck between 15th and 29th May 2014 offering 4 regions of diverse and exciting dives.

3 Nights Cairns to Townsville        Lady Bowen & Yongala      15 – 18 May
4 Nights Townsville / Townsville   Yongala & Gothenburg      18- 22 May
3 Nights Townsville / Townsville   Yongala & Wheeler Reef   22 – 25 May
4 Nights Townsville to Cairns        Yongala & Lady Bowen      25 – 29 May

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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We don’t know how many, but at least some explorers visited our part of the world before James Cook. Some, such as the Polynesians who colonised New Zealand, made journeys that were more difficult and perilous than even Cook’s epic voyages. Yet ask any amateur historian to name the pre-eminent sea-going explorer in our region and they will all name Cook. So what made him the “peoples’ choice” explorer? The answer is that Cook bought us back images, descriptions and maps that connect us to this day to what he found.  Cook documented his discoveries  compellingly; others did not.

We learned this lesson in a practical sense 10 years ago. On the 14th of May 2002 we made the first dive to what was assumed to be the wreck of Australian Hospital Ship CENTAUR; torpedoed off Brisbane in the Second World War. We discovered that the ship officially recognised as the CENTAUR was the wrong wreck, but our video light imploded during the descent and we returned without evidence. We had no proof to connect people to the discovery. Our claim was subsequently investigated by the navy , and their sonar images became the evidence we were unable to provide. We were happy the truth was out, but it constantly niggled us that we had failed to provide proof for what at the time must have seemed to many, an outlandish claim. We would not make that mistake again.

In 2009  we were aboard the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions vessel MV Spoilsport for a week at Osprey Reef. On a routine drift dive along one of the vertical drop-offs it seemed our eyes had begun to play tricks on us. The low afternoon light extended its prying fingers into the deeper reaches of the drop off, like a torch into a darkened room. From our planned depth of 50m, it appeared that something strange happened to the wall  5 or 10m below. It seemed to disappear. In the dim shadowy light we figured it out… it looked like there was a massive overhang, and intriguingly, it looked like there was some sort of exuberant growth underneath it.

Thinking about it later we decided we must have been imagining the growth. Every diver knows that coral life deteriorates rather than improves the deeper you go, right? Below 30 or 40m its usually a waste of time looking for photogenic coral. But the mental image of a sub-60 overhang with Jurassic Park growth, whether it was a narcosis-fuelled imagination or not, played on our minds.

Perhaps more than anything else, the potential of this site was the catalyst for an annual “deep reefs” expedition on Spoilsport. The concept was that both recreational and technical divers would be encouraged to come on a trip carefully scheduled to take in sites suitable for diving in both the normal recreational depth range, and in the deeper range opened up by rebreather technology. Importantly, these expeditions would allow the exploration of sites like this overhang to be undertaken safely and properly, and non-technical divers could share in the excitement of it all.

The opportunity now presented itself, on Deep Reef 2012 we would take the right gas, the right equipment, and go and find out if we had been imagining things. What we found was a revelation.

It hadn’t been an illusion ; there really was growth, extraordinary growth… like nothing we had seen before. Even in the limited light provided by our small torches, the psychedelic palette of colour was eye-popping. But again equipment issues would plague us.

Simon explains :

“Literally weeks before the trip I  had retired my old Nikon D300 for a D800 in a beautiful hand-made Subal housing. I was shooting with a 14-24 lens which is so big that it has to be attached to the camera through the barrel of the housing after the camera body is mounted inside. Early in the phase of getting used to this configuration, every photographer will inevitably make the mistake of thinking the lens is properly clicked into the camera when it isn’t. Tragically, I made that mistake prior to this dive. So, at 65m and staring in awe at this photographic-chance-of-a-lifetime, I realised that even though I could see through it, I could not control the aperture or focus of my lens! In desperation I just cranked the ISO on the camera up until I was recording something on the sensor, but the result was a grainy out-of-focus photo… the sort you always see of the Loch Ness Monster. It was not the James Cook standard of documentation that the site was demanding. “

 

We had opened a box of sparkling treasure then been forced to close it after only a brief look inside. Despite this, the dive deck was rife with excitement on our return; we were on the verge of something special

A whole year went by, our technical issues played on our minds again. On Deep Reef 2013, we were determined to get the job done, to bring back definative documentation, of a dive site we thought was about to redefine deep ocean reef diving.

The penultimate dive took place on a perfect day with a mild current flowing along the reef. Our plan was to descend to 65m up-current of where we thought the overhang started and drift along the wall until we hit it. This worked perfectly. We came to the overhang which extended perhaps 100m along the wall almost exactly where and when expected. What we didn’t fully expect, however, was the sumptuous visual feast we found there. After decades of diving, genuinely new experiences are hard to come by, this was one of them. The walls of the overhang were festooned with hanging coral growth; there were some of the usual soft corals but it also seemed that everywhere we looked there were species we had never seen before, and in every colour and hue imaginable. It was like a cross between a children’s fairy tale and the jungle sets of the Avatar movie. This was a discovery crying out for documentation, but at the end of our bottom time, a glance down in the water column suggested it went now deeper and further, we’d need to come back

We had time for one more swing at it. We suspected there were not one but two sections of overhang, probably both over 100 metres in length. Our goal was to swim the entire stretch of wall in one hit and record the best of it on film. Vidoegrapher Damien Siviero would be along to sequentially record the site as it unfolded. The photographic challenge of trying to depict this expansive vista of colour was considerable. Choice of ISO, aperture and strobe power and positioning would be critical.

Finally, it all came together. There were indeed two sections, relatively close together, and the entire site can be taken in with one jaw-dropping dive of about 40 minutes spent between 60 and 70m. Most importantly we have been able to document the discovery of Osprey’s Deep Sea Arcade with some photos that vaguely do it justice. We present those images to you here.

Written by Trevor Jackson and Simon Mitchell. Images by Simon Mitchell; Damien Siviero and Amelia Wenger

View the Printable PDF Version as published by SportDiving Magazine


New Website

05
Feb
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Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has a new website! The new-look site, which was launched on Wednesday 5 February 2014, has been designed to provide an attractive and informative portal to our exciting range of dive expeditions. It features panoramic pictures from some of our amazing dive sites, detailed dive maps and extensive information on our range of special expeditions and Minke Whale trips.

As well as offering guests the same great information and functionality as our previous site, the new website delivers a visual feast. Final development work continues on the site this week, so please bear with us as we tweak some little bits and pieces. Otherwise, we hope you enjoy and look forward to seeing you on Spoilsport real soon.


Dave Williams - Grey Reef Shark

Lap Around the Sun
Captain Trevor Jackson

The universe is just a giant clock….. tick tock…. tick tock.

The moon revolves around the earth sucking water to and fro, the earth spins on itself and laps the sun once a year. The sun lies on an outward spiraling arm of the galaxy spinning around its central core and the galaxy in turn spins around …well you get the picture. It happens quite uniformly and precisely and we end up back where we started and are at once off again to where we are going, wherever that may be. We live our lives putting misguided importance on stuff…cars, houses , toys for the kids…we want better education, a healthier return on our investments and an early and prosperous retirement….a new RV and then we’re gone and the earth keeps spinning and spinning and spinning.

There’s something about the start of each year, some catalyst, that always has me considering the big questions…………What’s it all about? What’s really important in a universe where we are so fundamentally, unimportant? I never come up with an answer, just more questions and the never ending sense of wonder and a feeling that we are so infinitely lucky to even exist at all on the only known life sustaining eco-bubble in that whole giant clock….

And what a fantastic eco-bubble it is with its grand mountains, wondrous valleys and islands, its oceans of green and blue. The life that exists, the diversity, where did it all stem from, how much of it is there, what haven’t we seen and what’s to become of it all? Sometimes I think we are no more aware of our surroundings than the smallest garden eel hiding in the sand at the bottom of an inconsequential bombie in the middle of nowhere.  Other times I think we have the intelligence and innovative flair to literally travel the galaxies and discover the real truth behind some of those big questions…but for me, for now, that garden eel sounds pretty good. I think I might go for a dive to check him out, and maybe ponder some more, while we embark on yet another…… lap around the sun.

Rogue’s Gallery

Photos of the Month


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One Way to Find Out

By Captain Trevor Jackson

2014 …..who’d have thought… I remember being back in high school in the early eighties wondering if we would see in the new century….and here we are well into the second decade and going strong. Back then the naysayers had the planet imploding or being struck by an asteroid or starving ourselves of oxygen, or simply disappearing when the computers rolled over into 2000.  None of it happened and the world is well quite frankly, a better place now than it was back then. We are more tolerant of others, more supportive of those in need and way way way more aware of our environment.  One simply has to peruse any of the pages of any of the social media avenues to see that humans are doing good…and so we should be, we are smart and we are innovative.  In my little part of the world looking out through the wheelhouse windows I see the reef as getting better each year…not worse…better!

 

In 2013 we did so much exploring and discovering it made our heads spin and everywhere we turned …turned to gold….the reefs of FNQ are simply awesome. But there’s no need to take my word for it, the dive site calendar for the coming year on Spoilsport reads like a what’s what of awesomeness. Let me summarize.
The Anzac Day long weekend in April sees Shark Photographer extraordinaire Damien Siviero on board for a week to show you how to get that once in a lifetime shot.  Hot on the heels of that we return to the unsurpassable SS Yongala for two weeks in May, with a few other goodies thrown into the mix. Barely back in Cairns for long enough to put fuel in and it’s off into the 2014 Minke season where divers go face to face with the most beautiful creature on earth. From the beautiful to bizarre, July sees us at Osprey Reef trapping Nautilus shellfish for research and giving those on board the chance to photo bomb themselves into the frame. September and November we go back to the best reef dives in the world on our Northern Reef explorer trips, thence to Christmas and the turtles of Raine Island and the wreck of the SS Quetta calls us northwards from her watery haven.

 

2015 rolls over and it’s straight into Deep Reefs with Professor Simon Mitchell. Simply writing that took my breath away…what will the trips be like?  There’s one way to find out…

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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Ain’t Seen Nothing Like It

By Captain Trevor Jackson

“And I’ve traveled round, been all over this world and I ain’t seen nothing like my Galway Girl”…………or so the song goes.  It’s about a guy walking along in a scenic place and he meets a girl who steals his heart away with her unparalleled beauty. It wouldn’t happen often, but every now and again something comes your way that redefines your universe. No I haven’t lost the plot or gone soft in the head…….but something new has come our way. We stumbled onto it in October and for me it is the diving equivalent of my Galway Girl. By that I mean ‘I ain’t seen nothing like it’.

A description is perhaps in order. Imagine, for the purposes of this story a cheesecake sitting on a bench. The cheesecake represents a coral reef with fairly uniform and rounded edges. Now let’s cut a slice out of the cake. We have now got a sharp edged, sheer walled triangle in our otherwise uniform cheesecake. Nothing too unusual about that but now let’s consider that the cheesecake represents our reef and that the reef has walls 1000 meters sheer to the surrounding seabed. Again, nothing too unusual about that in these parts. Except for one small thing…our triangle……an acute cut into the heart of the cake, also has sheer walls 1000 meters deep, right in to the very apex. NOW THAT’S something you don’t see every day.

On our aptly named Northern Explorer expedition this October just past we found exactly what we were looking for, something worth returning to. As a dive, this site was simply spectacular…and scary. This triangular cut into the reef edge was about 200 meters long in each direction and had a bottom that our ship’s sounder simply could not fathom. A dive into the apex itself had myself and Trip Director Lisa Russell in full tech regalia, plunging off the sheerest, darkest, most mysterious cliff either of us had ever seen. Diving a wall inside the confines of the reef exterior, a wall that unfortunately we only had one morning to explore, so despite the amazement, it remains unknown to us. All I could say is, it seemed bottomless.

A week later, back in Cairns, we convinced Mike to let us have another crack at what may become a true icon of the Great Barrier Reef. Next October the boat will sail again for a ‘Northern Explorer’ with a specific target in mind, to unlock the mysteries of the bottomless triangle…our “Galway Girl”. Get on board I guarantee you ‘you ain’t seen nothing like it’.

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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At One with Nature

By Captain Trevor Jackson

Tech divers will often rave about the advantages of Closed Circuit Rebreathers over traditional open circuit scuba, and there are a few of them. They shorten deco times on deep dives, they save bucket loads on the use of expensive gas and they generally look spacey and cool. One other, often neglected advantage is that they don’t produce bubbles.

This in itself is no big deal but the consequences of it can be. You see bubbles create a right royal racket underwater and the fishes don’t really like it much. Sure they get USED to it after a while, but if you want them to treat you like an equal, then you’ve got to play nice in the sandpit, and that means not announcing your presence like a road train crash. Open circuit gear is noisy, rebreathers are not; and nobody likes a noisy neighbor.

The other advantage of no bubbles is that bubbles create visual confusion in the water and that makes fishes nervous. In a world where everyone wants you for dinner, it’s better to not be confused. Those chrome domes heading noisily to the top of the known universe are bound to create uncertainty in the mind of the cleverest of marine creatures, so it stands to reason that without the racket and fuss, a diver is sure to be welcome more cordially into the inner domain of those that we seek out in the depths……….to cut a long story short……….no bubbles = closer interactions.

Photographers are beginning to realise this. Not just from a perspective of they themselves getting closer to their subjects, but also their dive buddies being able to get right up into the midst of it and really show what it is like to be accepted into the gang so to speak. Whether it’s down on the shark feed at Osprey Reef, or up close and personal with turtles and snakes inside the Great Barrier Reef, the use of rebreather technology really does allow us to get nose to nose and toe to toe. Nobody gets frightened, nobody gets hurt. It’s a win win situation all round to be able to get right up close …and at one with nature.

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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The Jaws of Coral

By Captain Trevor Jackson

One of the real eye openers from the Torres Straits expeditions last summer were the smaller and less known wrecks that turned out to be genuine highlights. The wreck of the Pandora for example offered little in terms of structure and marine life but in terms of history and its significance to our country, it was the diver’s version of Anzac Cove. We visited the Pandora on a glassy New Year’s day this year and it left all on board with a sense of having a tangible  connection with the greatest maritime story ever told; the Mutiny on the Bounty. On the site of the Pandora lay the remains of the ship that captured the mutineers and was attempting to bring them to front the cruel and often unjust 18th century British court system. That connection with history can sometimes massively enhance a dive, especially  when the opportunity only comes around so rarely. Skip forward to May 2104 and jump 600 miles down the coast…….. We get to touch history once again…..the SS Gothenburg.

In February 1875 the SS Gothenburg smashed into the unforgiving jaws of coral at Old Reef to the east of Townsville. The sea soon had its way with her and she condemned every women and child aboard to a watery demise.  At the time it was a disaster of unparalleled proportions.  All of the ships officers died and many of Australia’s highest profile dignitaries were also amongst those who perished.  Barely 20 made it ashore to nearby Holbourne Island and they found themselves so destitute that they decided to carve their names into a turtle shell in the hope someone might one day know they at least made it off the wreck.  One poor soul lost his wife and all six of his children, fate handed him the double edged sword of survival.

The remnants of the terror on that fateful February night now lay in about 15 metres on the calm side of Old Reef, just a few hours steam to the east of the mighty SS Yongala. We have 4 trips scheduled to visit Yongala in May 2014 and each adds something unique and inviting to its itinerary. Wreck buffs and historians should circle May 18th, a trip leaving and returning to Townsville, for the chance to not only dive the SS Yongala, but also the opportunity, a once in a decade opportunity, to touch a real piece of Australian history and pay homage to those lives that were so dramatically , lost in the jaws of coral.

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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Make Your Own Mind Up
By Captain Trevor Jackson

If you had the opportunity to dive every good wreck in Australia, and had to decide on the top three, the list would go something like this….
1) SS Yongala
2) RMS Quetta
3) Nothing else rates compared to those two

You might also flip them over and put Quetta in the top spot. Of course both these ships lie at the bottom of Queensland waters so naturally I’m biased, but I’d be willing to wager that most folk would think along these lines. These two shipwrecks offer that intangible element that divers crave, yet very rarely find…. A sense of awe…… REAL AWE.

You can get it standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon; you can get it at the foot of the Egyptian Pyramids; and you can get it underwater, staring up at the bows of either of these two great steamers. Life explodes around them, history oozes from them, tragedy echoes along their watery passageways.

In 2014 Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is offering something that no-one else does ………………the chance to dive them both.

The month of May sees Spoilsport return to Townsville for a series of three day sojourns to the Yongala, with side trips to the SS Gothenburg and the SS Lady Bowen. The highlight will be two full days on Yongala, with the deck open from dawn till dinner. Dive all day long, dive in style; and when you get back on board, that famous Spoilsport hospitality awaits.

In December we return to the fabulous RMS Quetta, the only shipwreck in the country that gives Yongala a run for her money. The Quetta lies in remote Torres Strait, about 5 hours steaming time east of Thursday Island. Divers returning from her on this year’s January trip described the 120 metre long steamer as an “eleven out of ten dive site”.

Having had the opportunity to have dived them both the crew of Spoilsport are divided in which they rated the highest; the Yongala and her stunning marine life, or the Quetta with her eerie enormity.

In the end it’s up to the individual I guess, and in 2014 the opportunity awaits for a lucky few to have a crack at the two biggest draw cards in Australian wreck diving. You will have the chance to see for yourself, and the chance, to make your own mind up.

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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That Blue and Lime Line
By Captain Trevor Jackson

The wheelhouse of Spoilsport stretches width wise right across the whole vessel. Long and thin and wide, it resembles what would have once been known as a “Bridge” in ye olde nautical terms, rather than a wheelhouse, which you might find perched atop a fishing boat or tug boat. Windows which face the sides of the boat are the end caps of this bridge and it is here that I often find myself staring out to sea after an overnight crossing  to Osprey.

As the crew are busily preparing the deck for the first dive, I stand there in wonder and simply take it all in . The dramatic azure soaked cliff edge often lies directly underfoot; a stark contrast of pale lime green , and then, whoosh, it drops off to almost blue black. Here the deep meets the shallow like a brisk slap across the face. There’s no warm up , it’s just a defining …‘WHACK”!!!!… At the joining face of these two contrasts, all manner of marine life, large and small, congregates and merges to the surface. Sharks and bait balls, reef fish and mantas. Collectively they marvel at the oceans abrupt halt as the reef stretches from a thousand metres up to ankle deep, in the space of a boat length. I often stand at that window and just stare at it for ages, like it’s the greatest show on earth. It’s hard to describe what its really like but just last week my daughter asked ‘what’s it like out at Osprey Daddy?’…In an effort to simplify it so she could understand I replied , ”Well darling, it’s like a besser block in a bath tub’…… She didn’t quite get it, but the expression reminded me of what a spectacle Osprey Reef really is.

Right now in the Ribbon reefs north of Cairns we are experiencing another stunning natural wonder; the annual peaceful interlude between humans and dwarf Minke whales. We call it, Minke Season, and it lasts for 6 weeks each winter, a must do on every divers calendar. But for me the real marvel lies out there… 100 miles into the vast Pacific Ocean, where terra firma crashes vertically into the depths, where even the fish seem in awe. Back where we can perch the boat right above that slap in the face  …….and stare disbelievingly at  …..that blue and lime line.

Rogues Gallery

Photos of the Month


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