Mike Ball Dive Expeditions - Blog and Company News


North Direction Island Summers here...

by Captain Trevor Jackson

You know how you’ve got those odd moments in your life that you remember as if they were yesterday … but you don’t know why? There’s nothing special about them, could just be watering the yard or sitting on a wharf looking at fish with the kids. Just stuck there in your head, forever!

I’ve got a few, and for some reason one popped into my head just this afternoon. It was about 35 years ago, around Xmas time. I was driving along a sugar cane road in my uncle Rons’ yellow Holden Rodeo. A diesel one. In those days you could jump out and run alongside a diesel car. I remember thinking how slow this thing was and how it didn’t matter that it was slow, coz I wasn’t in any rush. This was after all northern Qld, and in northern Qld, we know how to chill.

Just then a James Taylor song came on the radio and it went something like this … “Summers here, and I’m for that , got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat”… not one of his most famous tracks but it stuck in my head for 35 years, and I still sing it out loud on days like today. Days when the water turns to glass and the horizon blends into the sky. Summer … tropical, hot … air so thick you could carve it … a mirror finish on the sea in every direction … no need for a mask , you can pretty much see everything that’s down there from the top deck … Summer… diving weather.

Now I wouldn’t want to give anyone false expectations, it does sometimes get a bit windy in summer for like ONE DAY! But in general, as we move into what folk from the good ole USA would call, ‘the holidays’, its more often than not what we like to describe as, postcard weather. Sure, a puff of wind or two might butt in and attempt spoil the fun , but that doesn’t usually happen till after ‘the holidays’; so for the time being we can ignore those and just focus on what’s real, and here, and now.

It’s been a challenging year, you’ve been driven underground by this pandemic, you’ve put in the yards, done the right thing and now the sun is coming up to remind us that it’s a big beautiful world out there. Shelve the doom, drop kick the gloom, dust off the diving gear and start singing a bit of James Taylor with me…’Summers here, and I’m for that , got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat’ …

See you on board.


by Captain Trevor Jackson

When I was a kid … quite by accident, I discovered snorkelling. I lived in a little fishing village where, if you were keen, you could march straight off the beach and into adventure. There was nothing much to see, some reddish-brown weed and lots of little red clay rocks, blue jellyfish, a few oysters and the very rare, very sought after …. flathead … rounded out the biodiversity. Viz was 2 metres on an average day, 4 on a good day…and a spectacular 5 metres in the middle of winter on the best day ever … Looking back, not much to rave about but as a 12-year-old boy clutching an Amart spear gun…it was paradise on earth. Summer brought a water temp of around 24, but the viz was nil to nothing. Winter was when it got special. Cruising around in the shallows after school like a Great White … eyes peeled for that tell-tale teardrop Flathead shape on the sand that signified … dinner if I was good enough. Those were the days when you couldn’t get me out of the water. Despite winter water temps of around 14 degrees, my heart warms when I think of it …

These days kids are more familiar with iPhones than snorkels and more adept with texting than duck diving. As city living parents, opportunities to show our kids the thrill of undersea discovery are few and far between, but recently, we thought it might be a good idea to remedy that.

Our thinking went along the lines … Wouldn’t it be cool if we ran a few dive trips that started off in super calm water. Trips for families, some snorkel friendly islands perhaps, a bit of beach fun, some kayaks, a bit of calm … a bit of ‘just breath in and chill out’ Sure we’d still be hitting the outer reefs, but lets diversify a bit …

We decided to put thought into action and see if we couldn’t find some islands that would fit the bill. We did a three day trip concentrating on some islands north of Cooktown and hit genuine paydirt. I brought my two young daughters aboard as crash test dummies and along the way, they reminded me of something I’d lost somewhere between being that 12-year-old boy, to being this 55-year-old father … The sheer innocent JOY of it. They discovered beautiful coral gardens, beach snorkelling and critter diving in postcard quality, flat calm, tropical bays. Both of them learned to use a mask and snorkel for the first time and within minutes were pointing out baby sharks and giant clams to this particular, salty old sailor. By the time we moved out to the Ribbons proper, they could use the gear proficiently. The experience was … words fail me.

Our 4 Night / 3 Day Ribbon Reef trips that include a first day of exploration at Lizard and North Direction Islands are now a reality on board Spoilsport. If you want to see the delight on your daughters face when she sees her first blue starfish or green turtle … or want to hear your boy get excited over a giant Cod instead of a video game, then you need to give this a go … I can tell you it’s priceless. But don’t just take my word for it, come out here and join us and see for yourself … I hope to see you and yours … on board soon.

Cod Hole & Ribbon Reefs Expedition – 4 Nights
2020 Departure dates:  5 November | 10 December
2021 Departure dates: 7 January


by Captain Trevor Jackson

A few years ago I was standing at a lectern in a hotel convention room. Mike Ball was beside me and he was looking, unusually, out of sorts. Before us was a group of 28 Americans. A few days prior they had flown all the way from Texas for the dive trip of a lifetime, only to be thwarted at last minute by an annoying little weather anomaly known thereafter as, Cyclone Nathan. The first two days of the trip were gone, but we still had the chance to get out there and give them a shortened, concentrated trip. Mike was renowned for being able to work a crowd but all his best material was falling on sceptical ears. He looked over to me for a hail mary bail out. Boldness was required, so I stepped up to the microphone and simply said …” You’re not going to miss a thing, I’m going to take you to ALL the good spots, with some clever planning and a little hustle, it will be all thriller, no filler.” The room was all smiles and in the subsequent days, we pulled it off … one of the best trips ever.

That was then …

Jump forward to now, and the circumstances of the world mean we have to be bold once again, think a little laterally, then just jump right in. From the end of August we will be doing just that. Short succinct trips that are jam packed with ocean goodness. Leaving from, and returning to Cairns, on alternating weeks, 5 night and 4 night trips that will show you the very best of the Great Barrier Reef and the offshore Coral Sea reefs.

Expect sharks, expect 40 metre viz, expect giant fish, expect to make lifelong friendships, expect world leading service, expect spectacular food…but above all, expect to be blown away…if anything, our little part of the world has gotten better in the last few months. Dates for these trips are now available on the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions website. And while you’re checking them out , keep repeating those words … All thriller … No filler …

We look forward to seeing you on board.

 

Coral Sea & Cod Hole Expedition – 5 Night
2020 Departure dates: 3, 17 September | 15, 29 October | 12 November | 3, 31 December
2021 Departure dates: 14 January | 4, 18 February | 4, 18 March | 1, 15 April | 6, 20 May

Cod Hole & Ribbon Reefs Expedition – 4 Nights
2020 Departure dates: 10 September | 8 October | 5 November | 10 December
2021 Departure dates: 7 January

 


Captain Trevor Jackson

“Everything has changed. There’s no way of knowing yet if things will ever be the same as they were before, but that’s okay.” Those thoughts just popped into my head a moment or two ago… I’m staring out across a very jubilant looking sea, heading to a place I never thought we’d go.  A remote weather station, 450 kilometres off the coast. We’ve got scientists on board for a station crew exchange and for the few days we are there, the crew and I have a second mission… you see, everything has changed and when we go back to things being ‘normal’ we want to be better, more adventurous the shackles of before, thrown to the floor.

It’s likely that for a year or so, the Australian diving scene will have to remain a little introverted. Overseas travel is restricted at the moment and those restrictions, when they are lifted, are likely to leave a legacy of expensive flights and a genuine doubt as to where to go and lets face it, Australian divers want the best, and they want variety. Mike Ball Dive Expeditions have been showing divers both those elements for 50 years, but we are viewing the current world issue as a time to blossom, not fade. Any idea of what we could or couldn’t do, should or shouldn’t do well those ideas are out the door. Now is the time to think laterally. We’ve been talking to our partners, dive shop owners, dive clubs, and divers and we think we know what you want… you want to do a Captain Kirk, and ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’… Well, we’ve got plans to deliver on that.

Wreck trips down south, coral expeditions to the oceanic limits of Australia’s territory, history and heritage… plus we are open to suggestions. Ring us up and tell us what trip you’d like to do, we are open to it… But for me right now,  well I’m literally heading into the wild blue yonder and into the unknown. When we get back in a week the crew will have been diving where no one has EVER dived and we will be wanting to show it to you…very very soon.


Captain Trevor Jackson

We are the last boat standing. By virtue of our schedule, we are still at sea, anchored 50 miles off the coast. Because of the virus, the entire Cairns fleet is tied up as of a few days ago….Some of my crew are gathered here in the wheelhouse, they’re all young and spirited….but they’re looking forlorn, they’re looking at me for some of my, ‘skippers words of wisdom’ …..I don’t want to go down the path of stating the obvious, everyone is already doing that. When we get into port this Thursday, we are all out of a job… I want to tell them it’s all going to be alright, and tell them the future has hope in it… So here goes…

“This virus… it’s just a storm… A very bad one. And what to do in a storm? We tie gear down and square our gear away. We consolidate our tanks and tidy up the decks…And then wind and rain whips insanely through the wires, the bows dig in and the ship shudders and moans… then we wait for the sun to reappear… and then it does… When we come out of the other side of this, there will be work to do. There will be rust stains across the decks, carpets to air out, ice to chip, painting and polishing… Things may never seem the same again, but we will be better than ever, not worse. Stronger than ever, not weaker. Bolder than ever, not meeker. I’ve never seen a storm that didn’t end,  and this one is no different. So let’s get up from here now, and do what we have to do… ride this out. It might take 6 months, it might take a year, or even longer. But when it does end…we will be ready to continue”

Everyone got up from the floor and marched out, Chief Engineer Vinnie was last to leave and he caught my eye as he left..”Good talk skipper, and I think you’re right”…”I am right Vinnie, mark my words… its a long river ahead of us, but eventually, this storm will end.”


Great Barrier Reef - Mike Ball

Captain Trevor Jackson

A year or two back my brother and I were cleaning out our dear old mum’s house… I happened to glance down into the skip we were filling and spotted a diary, one of mine I confess, I kept a diary in my later teens… and there it was… in fact, there were two. Every now and again I pull one of them out and read of my adventures back then.  Living almost permanently at sea on a boat called the ‘Billy Jo’, we traversed the far expanses of the Great Barrier Reef for years. The thing that strikes me about some of my early scribblings is the revere in which young Trev held the reef. Not a page goes by without some poetic description of its sheer expanse and beauty…and the overwhelming sense of gratitude I had to be living in my coral and saltwater home. In some instances, great detail is revealed about specific reefs, what to see at them, what condition they were in. This was back in the mid-’80s, so a fair lump of time has gone by… the obvious question begs… what changes have there been?

 

Well, I’m here to tell you… first hand, armed with the written knowledge of my 19-year-old self, and a current-day good hard look out the window… my GBR, the one I call home, well she’s taken some hits, there’s no denying it… but it has to be said… each and every day… I see unbridled beauty, phenomenal resilience… natures greatest wonder is a powerhouse. The reefs we saw bleached two years ago are regenerating, the reefs that weren’t bleached are soaring… last Minke season was an absolute stunner, I’ve seen more whale sharks in the last 6 months than id seen in the prior 35 years, the turtles at Raine Island this year defied belief in their sheer numbers. But the most overwhelming change in numbers I’ve seen since writing those diaries is the sheer volume of people, young and old,  who actually really care about the reef.

 

As we move into a new decade, there’s a very positive vibe amongst those of us who live out here at sea that things are going to work themselves out. Yeh, we’ve got some work to do, but moving forward I think we can be fairly certain about two things… humans are smart... the reef is Great… and I’ve no doubt that if we use our brains and work together, things will stay that way.


Spectacular Turtles!

Captain Trevor Jackson

I’ve been at sea for 38 years. There’s not a whole lot out here that can make me ‘just shut up and look’, these days. But such was the scene at Raine Island just now. Everyone was back onboard, the tenders hoisted into their cradles…It was late in the day…The sun was trying to bust through the cumulus for one last peek at the island…the dusk was golden…And there they were, on the beach…Turtles…Not dozens, not even hundreds…but thousands!

I radioed the dive deck, stuck my head through the saloon door, got on the intercom. I told everyone, crew and guests alike…  “Drop what you’re doing, and take ten. Come and see one of the wonders of the natural world unfold right before your eyes!”

We were so close to the shore, just drifting sideways at half a knot, literally metres outside the protected zone. The beach at Raine Island is unbelievably steep. ”How do they even make it up that slope?”. Everyone was thinking that at the same time. We could see the sand getting swept aside as they clawed their way up the embankment. A silent unstoppable march in the dying light. The whole day had been awe-inspiring. A crack o’ dawn dive on the wreck of the HMS Pandora; then Tiger sharks, Great Hammerheads, 40 metre viz and countless turtles in the water here at Raine. It was our second day at the island and the turtles on both days were so thick that every boat movement had to be done at an idle. And still now, even as it seemed like every single turtle in the known universe was halfway up that beach, they cloaked the sea in every direction. Quiet fell across the decks. It was one of those moments you remember for all your days. Spears of golden light, distant tropical rain, and an unfathomable determination on the beach. A genuine wow moment, in a world were nothing seems to wow anyone, anymore.

I nudged the boat back into gear. Pushed the wheel towards the western horizon and ghosted away. All eyes stayed on the beach till the gold turned to grey. Evening came. The turtles are up there laying their eggs now and we are southbound. And but for the sound of the birds and the sweeping sand, Raine Island is quiet for another year.

Join us November 2020 on our Turtle Spectacular Expeditions.

 

 

 


The Ocean Calendar

Captain Trevor Jackson

“What are the tides Daddy”? It’s an easy enough question to answer to an adult… but when your three-year-old son asks from the back seat of the car, surprisingly, things get tricky. No point trying to explain gravity and orbital mechanics in this instance…so I had to think on my feet. “The tides are like the ocean breathing darling, a big breath in and all the water flows in toward the land, then breathe out and it rushes back out to sea” I pondered my cleverness for a second, but my self-congratulatory moment was short-lived…the six-year-old chimed in with a doozie. “Dad how do Minkes know when to come back each year?”. “Well that’s easy honey, they just check out the ocean calendar”…”The Ocean Calendar?!! What’s that?”

So now I was in a pickle, my bluff had been called and if I wasn’t going to be branded a fake by the kids…a decent answer was required!  “Well, all the Minkes have to do is watch what’s going on around them and they can tell exactly what time of year it is…The Ocean Calendar is deadly accurate.”

Now…my kids aren’t stupid, they smelt a giant wharf rat, so they pressed me…”Give us some examples!”.  I paused for a second and then realized, this might just be easier than I thought…

“Well, it goes like this…In January, the seas are like glass. In March, the baby turtles hatch. In May, the humpbacks remind the Minkes it’s time to come to Queensland, so in June, they do. Hot on their heels, the Hammerhead Sharks arrive at Osprey, and that reminds the Marlin it’s nearly time for them to show up in September. Then in November the Coral Spawns so that tells the turtles it’s time to go to Raine island just in time to lay their eggs so the babies can hatch in March…you see it’s like mums yearly planner”.  A quick glance in the rear vision mirror told me I had successfully bluffed my way through this particular inquisition, but when I thought about it later…I realized, the ocean calendar kind of does exist. If I were to look out the wheelhouse windows and see a Minke, I would know it was mid-winter…and now that November is upon us…well, Raine Island here we come, the turtles await.

 


In a remarkable achievement, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Written by Renee Cluff – Tropic Magazine

1969. It was the year man first set foot on the moon, thousands of rock ‘n’ roll fans descended on Woodstock and the first Concorde test flight was conducted. It was also when Mike Ball Dive Expeditions started Tropical North Queensland’s first dive school. While humans have never been back to the moon, there’s never been another music festival to rival Woodstock and Concordes no longer grace our skies, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has continued to thrive over the past five decades and today, its industry experience is second to none. The pioneering scuba diving company is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2019 and with it, a changing of the guard as founder Mike Ball moves into retirement, officially handing over the helm to his right-hand man of 25 years, Craig Stephen.

When a “Ten Pound Pom” by the name of Mike Ball arrived in Australia and headed north from Sydney, the last thing he expected to be doing was working at a sports store in Townsville – the place he ended up when his car broke down. Never one to miss an opportunity, he seized on an idea to open a water sports section in that Townsville shop. In a short space of time, Mike expanded into a very successful dive school. The rest, as they say, is all part of a remarkable 50-year history in the dive industry.

To get some insight into this award-winning business, Tropic sat down with Craig Stephen, the general manager of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.

What have been some of the highlights and milestones for the company over the past 50 years?

After Mike started a successful dive school in Townsville, he then built a world class state-of-the-art dive facility in Walker Street, Townsville (still there today!) and his frustration with charter boats either breaking down or not meeting his own high standards forced him into bankrolling the world’s first custom-built scuba diving liveaboard catamaran in 1981. Three more vessels followed, including our current flagship ‘Spoilsport’ which was built in 1989 and is Australia’s most awarded dive vessel. In 1997 our newest liveaboard ‘Paradise Sport’ was built specifically for a venture into PNG where we operated for a decade before ceasing operations there. As a company, we’ve championed the protection of reefs, particularly as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Representative Areas Program. In 2004, we helped secure protection for the Ribbon Reefs sector to the north of Cooktown. Last year, the Federal Government’s Parks Australia finally announced similar protections for the Coral Sea Marine Reserves and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions worked very closely with the government to help secure a fair outcome for all stakeholders and user groups. We are now part of the advisory committee as we move forward with management. To us, one of the biggest achievements during this process has been securing a sanctuary for our iconic sharks at Osprey Reef.

How has getting in the game early impacted the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions experience of today?

As a pioneer of liveaboard diving, Mike Ball’s vision set the standard very high way back in the 1970s with customer service and great diving. From these early days of exploring the reef with expeditions from Townsville to Cape York and out into the Coral Sea, a wealth of knowledge has been built about where we can safely dive all year round. We take advantage of the calmer months to explore the wider reaches rarely visited because of weather and sea conditions. Our roving permits allow us to keep our expeditions as just that, real diving expeditions constantly exploring and discovering new ‘world class’ dive locations.

How has the company adapted to constant change in the industry over the years?

We’ve seen several technological advances in dive equipment and we’ve adapted to the demands and increased popularity of technical diving to accommodate ‘rebreather divers’ with extensive staff training and safety procedures. Another big advancement has been dive computers calculating a multitude of variances, constantly monitoring and advising you on your ‘safe status’. Whilst dive computers cannot guarantee your safety because many other physical factors contribute to dive-related illness, they’ve dramatically reduced incidences of decompression illness (the bends). Workplace Health & Safety plays a very large part in ensuring the safety of staff and guests. Dealing with the elements certainly keeps us on our toes at sea and a great deal of effort is invested in staff training to maintain a safe environment. The technology in photo and video has also made great advances. Gone are the days when you had to wait overnight to see the results of your 36mm film from our onboard E6 processing lab; nowadays you can just shoot, review, adjust and shoot again, all while you’re still underwater. Many things, however, have stayed the same. Our new state-of-the-art vessel we built didn’t meet expectations and wasn’t as good as the one we use now. Plus, the basic diving system hasn’t changed since Jacques Cousteau invented the aqualung in 1942. We need something to breath with, sink with, swim with and see with – it’s that simple. At the end of the day, all we really want to do is get out there and swim with the fishes, marveling at the beauty and wonder beneath the waves.

What principles has the company stayed true to?

As a pioneer of the dive industry, when we first ran exploratory expeditions during the 1980s, it was the excitement of the unknown that made what we did unique. To this day we still continue along this vein, constantly exploring and introducing new and exciting dive locations and growing new itineraries to keep the most adventurous explorer satisfied.

What has been Mike Ball’s greatest legacy?

Providing exploratory, expedition-style diving, combined with customer service excellence. Plus, he invented the stinger suit which is used by every dive and snorkel operator on the Great Barrier Reef today.

Now you are at the helm, how do you plan to draw on that legacy?

Working with Mike over the past 25 years has been a privilege. Drawing from my own experience and the opportunities to explore the remote regions throughout the coral Sea and PNG, Mike and I grew itineraries that have kept divers smiling for many, many years. Our close working relationship has bonded me to his vision, adventurous spirit and demand for the provision of excellent customer service. So for me as the GM moving forward, I’m delighted to say it’s quite simply business as usual for Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.

What’s in store for the future of Mike Ball Diving Expeditions?

For now, we’ll be steering a steady course ahead, continuing to offer sensational world-class diving and customer service. We have a philanthropic obligation to the environment and to ensure we continue to strive for further protection and educate our guests as to just how important it is to protect this most amazing resource. Now more than ever, industry, conservation groups and government agencies need to step up, read from the same song sheet and start making changes to ensure the protection of our ocean’s future.

 


We Deliver

Captain Trevor Jackson

We were moving almost indiscernibly… three white buoys appeared in the loom of the front flood lights, our day was all but done. First Mate Ricky hauled the mooring line aboard and secured it. He turned and threw me that look, the one that says… it’s been a long, but very good day. We have a lot of these on-board Spoilsport, but this one was particularly special. Today we had pulled the proverbial rabbit, from its magic hat.

At lunch time, a few hours earlier, on the final day of the trip, we were staring down the barrel of our first ever minke expedition, without a ‘Big Group’ interaction. A ‘Big Group’ interaction is where 10 or more minke’s swarm the boat and hang round for ages. It’s that KA-POW moment that Spoilsport is famous for. That signature event that we pride ourselves on delivering, 100% of the time… but so far this week, the dozen or so minke’s we had already seen had only arrived in pairs and singles… The mood on board was very jovial, the diving had been great, and the whales had put on a great show, but still, we knew we could deliver more.

That old showbiz adage… “Never work with kids or animals” was careening around in my head. You see, whilst the minke’s decide how much fun to have once we’ve met up, we first have to find them. And if we wanted that KA-POW moment, we had to find them en masse!

After lunch I gathered the crew to the wheelhouse and spelt out our predicament; “Guys its 2.30pm. We’ve got another 2 hours to find a monster sized pod to really give our guests something they’ll talk about forever! After that our schedule has us leaving for Lizard Island. We’ve got one last throw of the dice, I’m gonna try a few sneaky spots from the old playbook, and we are going to need every set of eyes on the top deck… let’s do this”

The crew was pumped, I was pumped, but the minke’s… well not so much. Another two hours went by with nothing. The Trip Director came in and asked, “How long till we have to head to Lizard?” I went to answer, but was interrupted by the crackle of the radio… “MINKE’S ON THE PORT BOW, ELEVEN OCLOCK”

15 minke’s! The monster pod we’d been searching for! It was playtime!!!

We drifted with them till it was simply too dark to see, and in return, they put on a show for the ages. Intimate close passes, spy hops, breaches…the full monte. In a decade of minke expeditions, I’d not seen its equal. It was as if the minke’s had sensed our relief and joy at having found them. It was almost as if they felt the same way, or felt they owed us in some fashion. Whatever was going on, no one that was there, would ever forget it.

As the last snorkeler was counted back on board, Ricky came in and asked how far behind schedule we now were…”About two hours Ricky, but you know what……schedules don’t matter, only the KA-POW moment matters! And when it comes to those moments, we deliver!”


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