Mike Ball Dive Expeditions - Blog and Company News

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!”

By Julia Sumerling

Sweetlips schooling on the Ribbon Reefs

Stretching 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) along Australia’s northeast coastline—the same distance from New York City to Miami—the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the planet’s largest living structure and the only one of its kind on Earth visible from space. This World Heritage Site is a system of some 3,000 individual reefs and around 900 coral islands, home to a highly biodiverse collection of marine animals, including over 1,500 different species of tropical fish. Immediately to the east of the GBR is the Coral Sea Marine Park, which is approximately the same length but covers around four times the area.

In the remotest parts of the region, underwater photographers can expect to see pristine hard corals with a biodiversity unequaled anywhere else. You can spot seven species of shark on a single dive and drop-offs where sharks number in the hundreds. The visibility can be breathtaking, reaching almost 250 feet in the Coral Sea. But most of all, the GBR and its surrounding sea are all about expecting the unexpected—there is so much still to learn about this vast region of the planet.

Incredible colour at the Holmes Reef

Stunning shallow corals on the Ribbon Reefs

Top Six Places to Dive in the GBR and the Coral Sea

1. SS Yongala

A 350-foot shipwreck located 11 nautical miles from the shore, the SS Yongala is easily accessible from Alva Beach, just south of Townsville, or via liveaboard. The vessel sank in a very exposed area that gets no protection from the reef, and it lies on its side on the sandy bottom at a depth of 90 feet. The Yongala has become an oasis to marine life. At times, it is so densely populated with life that one can hardly make out the wreck due to the sheer number of fish.

The constant presence of apex predators makes this a wild and exciting dive. The wreck is also a huge cleaning station for the megafauna in the area, and is regularly visited by Queensland groupers, marble rays, eagle rays, guitar sharks, manta rays, bull sharks, maori wrasse, sea snakes, turtles, and occasionally even whale sharks and humpbacks. On a single dive, schools of barracuda, sweetlips, batfish, trevally, queenfish, cobia, cardinalfish and snappers can be seen. The hardest thing for the photographer is choosing where to point the camera. It’s very easy to forget that this shipwreck is the site of one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters, where all 121 lives on board were lost in March 1911.

The coral-encrusted SS Yongala

2. Far Northern Great Barrier Reef

The region encompassing the Great Detached Reef to the North Broken Passage is home to some of the remotest reefs in the GBR. Its an overnight steam north of Lizard Island by liveaboard from Cairns, but those who make the trek will not be disappointed. Over 150 different species of coral can be found here—some of the most stunning coral structures anywhere in the GBR region.

On one dive, seven species of shark are regularly photographed: whitetip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, great hammerheads, tawny nurse sharks, leopard sharks, epaulette sharks, and blacktip reef sharks, but lucky divers will also be treated to whale sharks and oceanic whitetips. Manta rays, eagle rays and mobula rays are also common photo subjects, as is the macro life, including Rhinopias, harlequin ghost pipefish, scorpionfish, and nudibranchs of all colours, shapes and sizes.

Great Detached Reef in the far northern GBR

3. North Horn, Osprey Reef

The Coral Sea’s Osprey Reef is a big coral atoll, the shape of a teardrop, and North Horn is its very northernmost point. The currents here can get very strong, but this is what brings in the big animals, including a large school of gray reef sharks that ride the current and use it to assist them in cleaning. Certain times of the year will bring whale sharks, schools of scalloped hammerheads, dogtooth tuna, potato cods, and manta rays, as well as occasional sightings of thresher sharks, tiger sharks and great hammerheads.

The western facing wall has spectacular soft corals of bright reds, yellows and oranges that cascade from 30 to 250 feet. Visibility is often 200 to 250 feet and the wall plummets straight down into the depths at 6,500 feet. On night dives, you’ll see flashlight fish and countless different crustaceans. Photographers can literally spend the whole day here for four or five dives and they still can’t get enough.

The Western Wall at the Osprey Reef’s North Horn

4. The Ribbon Reefs

The Ribbon Reefs are the long, skinny reefs that lie between Lizard Island and Cooktown on the edge of the continental shelf of the northern GBR. This is a great place to get those classic GBR images of turtles, sea snakes, cuttlefish, scorpionfish, and many species of anemonefish in bright, colourful anemones. The dives are relatively easy and the area can be visited all year around in most weather conditions as the outer reef acts as a barrier to big ocean swells, making it comfortable for vessels.

Many of the dive sites are narrow pinnacles that rise from around 100 feet to just a few feet at the surface. Pinnacles such as Steve’s Bommie, Lighthouse Bommie and Pixie Pinnacle are favourites of macro shooters. Peacock mantis shrimp, leafy scorpionfish, Rhinopias, anemonefish, pipefish, nudibranchs, stonefish, and longnose hawkfish are all easy to find and photograph.

On Ribbon Reef #10, you’ll find one of the world’s best-known dive sites—Cod Hole. As the name suggests, this is the hangout of Australia’s famed potato cod, or giant Queensland grouper, and after years of being fed by divemasters, these heavyweight fish are very willing photo subjects.

A green turtle cruises the Ribbon Reefs

A pair of potato cod at the famed Cod Hole

5. Minke Whale Season on the Ribbon Reefs

In the winter—June and July—the Ribbon Reefs play host to migrating dwarf minke whales. These small rorqual whales, which average between 20 and 25 feet, frequent the waters where the dive sites are and will actively engage with snorkelers at the rear of the vessel. If you hold onto a line and move as little as possible, the whales get particularly inquisitive and will swim as close as 10 feet from you.

Encounters typically last 90 minutes, with as many as 20 individual animals during an encounter. Some encounters have lasted up to 14 hours—with divers losing interest before the minkes! Whales have also been known to follow boats and continue to engage with divers when they re-enter the water.

A graceful dwarf minke whale

6. Osprey, Bougainville and Holmes Reefs

This collection of small coral atolls in the Coral Sea is approximately 100 nautical miles east of the GBR and between 60 and 100 nautical miles from one another. Each atoll is well worth spending a full day at, and when the weather allows, all three can be visited in three days on a Coral Sea expedition.

Far from land and unaffected by land runoff, the waters here commonly boast visibility of 130 to 230 feet. Large caverns and swim-throughs have been formed from many years of big ocean swells and water rushing in and out of the lagoons. Big schools of barracuda, trevally and sharks patrol the area. And the soft corals have the rich reds and yellows that every underwater photographer craves.

Anthias hiding from hunting trevally at the Bougainville Reef  

Underwater Photo Equipment for the GBR and the Coral Sea

Choosing the right equipment for diving the GBR and the Coral Sea is always a tough decision, as many of the sites have both excellent macro and wide-angle subject matter. It’s all too easy to have a macro lens mounted when a manta ray shows up. As such, shooters that have a flexible rig with macro and wide-angle wet lenses (preferably on flip mounts) will be at a natural advantage. High-quality wet lenses not only make it easy to get great wide and close-up shots on the same dive, but they are also ideal for shooting video and telling stories in varied and interesting ways by using different focal lengths and camera angles.

If you aren’t using wet optics, be sure to check with your dive guide before getting in the water and finding out what they are expecting to see—this will help you to make the right choice of lenses to use for which dives. However, keep in mind that sometimes having the “wrong” lens mounted can produce the most extraordinary results, giving the photographer a unique and special image that is very different to everyone else’s.

There’s just far too much colour on the GBR’s reefs to not bring them out in all their glory with strobes—preferably two powerful units mounted on wide arms for those epic reef scenes. Compact shooters should avoid the use of built-in flash, which has a very limited range and will simply create undesirable backscatter. Even a single small strobe or a moderately powerful video light mounted on an arm will allow you to direct your lighting and achieve much more satisfying results.

Pink anemonefish—a GBR classic!

A manta ray soars overhead at the Holmes Reef

Tips and Techniques for the GBR and the Coral Sea

1. SS Yongala

  • Use a wide-angle lens or a wide-angle attachment to capture the immense size of the wreck with the big schools of fish.
  • If you can peel your eyes away from all the big stuff, there’s outstanding macro opportunities in the form of nudibranchs, snails, shrimps, and octopuses.
  • There are often lots of particles in the water here and visibility is commonly only 30 to 50 feet. Maintaining good strobe placement is the most important thing to get right, as it will save you hours of editing later on. Strong currents can really move strobes around, so be sure to check and recheck them all the time.
  • Diving with a nitrox blend of 32–34% will be advantageous. Having to leave the wreck because you are running out of deco time can be very frustrating, when the dive is so good and you still have another 15 minutes that you could spend there. Get certified before you go, if you are not already.

A shovelnose guitarfish glides over the wreck of the SS Yongala

2. Far Northern Great Barrier Reef

  • Venturing into the shallows is always rewarding, as some of the most spectacular hard corals are found above 15 feet. This is where to shoot the classic over-under image for some really beautiful light on the corals. Knowing when the low and high tides are will help you choose the best time of day to try coral split shots.
  • A 16–35mm lens is ideal to get that little bit closer to animals like sharks. For over-unders, use a wide-angle lens and the largest dome port you have. Use a short (60mm) or ideally long (100mm) macro lens for the small stuff.

Spectacular colour at the far northern GBR

The shallow hard coral is a great opportunity to work on your split shots

3. North Horn, Osprey Reef, Coral Sea

  • The Western Wall has everything. For Rhinopias, rare anthias, dart fish and scorpionfish, use a long (100mm) macro lens to fill the frame. Use the widest lens you have for all those stunning corals, and a 16–35mm lens to compose sharks in the frame perfectly.
  • Sharks have really white bellies so when they are swimming close overhead, it’s very easy to overexpose them. To avoid ruining a great photo, make sure your strobes are set to half power or less.
  • The red soft corals on the wall absorb a lot of light, so setting your strobes on high power is necessary to bring out the rich colours.
  • Again, diving on nitrox will be very advantageous here.

Gray reef sharks at North Horn

4. The Ribbon Reefs

  • From larger subjects like turtles and potato cod to smaller critters like shrimps and nudibranchs, the Ribbon Reefs will give your lenses a serious workout. Unless you have a very flexible setup that allows you to quickly switch from macro to wide angle, it’s better to dedicate each dive to one or the other and plan accordingly.
  • To find well-camouflaged macro subjects, work with a small group of divers. Alternatively, go with a dive guide, who will know where to look, as critters are often in the same places for months on end.
  • Compact shooters should make use of the built-in macro settings, where applicable. Otherwise, use a dedicated macro wet lens attachment to focus really close.

Rhinopias is a classic subject found on the Ribbon Reefs

An early morning aggregation of bumphead parrotfish on the Ribbon Reefs

5. Minke Whale Season on the Ribbon Reefs

  • At 72–75°F (22–24°C), the water temperature may sound quite warm, but many snorkelers are forced out of the water after an hour because they get too cold. Having a 7mm wetsuit will increase the amount of time you can stick around.
  • If exciting, interactive encounters are happening, you don’t want to miss anything. Having spare batteries, memory cards and different lenses in a dry bag on the dive deck will shorten the time you’re away from the action.
  • Make sure you regularly clean bubbles away from your port. They will often collect on the outside of the dome when at the surface.
  • Use faster shutter speeds to avoid camera movement experienced at the surface. Compact shooters shouldn’t forget to remove red filters or white balance settings that you were using for diving.
  • For most encounters, a standard wide-angle lens (16–35mm or 17–40mm) is ideal. A fisheye lens (10–17mm or 8–15mm) can be a little too wide, unless it’s one of the exceptional occasions during the year when the whales decide to come in really close.

A graceful dwarf minke whale

6. Osprey, Bougainville and Holmes Reefs

  • Leave the macro lens behind. This is the home of the classic images of rich blue waters and bright red fans, and if you’re lucky, you will get a shark swimming through it all.
  • Try to get divers or wildlife in the background of fans and soft corals to give the viewer a sense of scale.
  • While it’s all about the wide angle here, the determined macro photographer will come across different species of anemonefish to those found on the GBR. Look out for leafy scorpionfish watching over them or a porcelain crab hanging off the anemone.

Anthias hiding from hunting trevally at the Bougainville Reef  

Planning Your Trip to the GBR and the Coral Sea

How to Get There: The gateway to the GBR, Cairns is accessible via direct international flights from places such as Singapore, Manila, Tokyo, and Bali. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar offer direct services to Cairns from nearly all of Australia’s state capitals.

When to Go: The GBR’s Ribbon Reefs and the Coral Sea’s Osprey, Bougainville, and Holmes Reefs are year-round destinations, though the water clarity in the Coral Sea can be particularly good from October to January, which is also the best time to visit the far northern GBR, when the prevailing southeasterly winds drop. The SS Yongala is best visited from May to January, after the wet season, while the minke whale season on the Ribbon Reefs happens every winter, in June and July.

Hotels: Cairns offers a wide selection of accommodations to suit all budgets and tastes if you require a place to stay before or after your trip. Check with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions for preferential rates.

Visas: All foreign visitors to Australia require a visa, applied for online. Passport holders from Europe are generally eligible for a free eVisitor visa. An Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) is also available for most European nationals as well as passport holders from Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Canada, and the USA.

The Western Wall at North Horn, Osprey Reef: The amazingly vibrant colours found in the Coral Sea will stay with you long after you return home


Good For a Look

Captain Trevor Jackson

I almost choked and fell from the skippers’ chair in the Spoilsport wheelhouse! There it was in the 2019 Queensland tide book, written in black ink in an official government publication. I had joined the ranks of Captain Cook, Matthew Flinders and Abel Tasman. I had named a place in the sea, and it seemed that that name had become official.

A few years ago I walked into a corner hardware store. It was the type of store that came before the giant hardware chains. The kind that sold nails by their weight and fiberglass resin in a jam jar. The owner was a lovely old veteran with weather-beaten hands. He stood talking to a policeman about the fact that the night before some vandals had thrown a cement garden ornament through the window at the front of the shop. Once the police left, the store owner picked up the ornament and wrote on it…For Sale $5. I grabbed it up, slapped a $5 note in his hand and said “This is just the thing, this little cherub”. The old man enquired what I meant and I told him about a cave we had recently discovered off the coast and how sometimes, our divers had difficulty finding the entrance amongst the kelp forest. “I will paint this statue white and use it to mark the entrance of the cave, that way we will be able to find it easily”.

And so, it was that the cave soon became known as ‘Cherubs Cave’. A year or two later the Queensland Government decided the site was to be designated a Grey Nurse Protection Area and drew up a 500 metre no-fishing zone around the cave entrance. Naturally they had to make the public aware that the zone existed, so in their official notifications they kept the name ‘Cherubs Cave’.

It’s no big deal really, but it got me thinking. As we drive up and down the coast in Spoilsport we pass multitudes of islands and headlands that all have a name. Indeed, most of the reefs we dive at also have a name. But all of these places can be seen from the deck of a boat. Once you are in the water, all it takes is for you to go a slightly different way than someone has gone previously and you could literally be exploring someplace that has never been seen before. Think about this for an experiment. If you were driving along in a boat just about anywhere in the world and you just randomly stopped, put your dive gear on and jumped in, there would be a 99% chance you have just jumped in and explored something that has never been explored. It is by its very nature that the sea cloaks its contents in a curtain of blue, that has only occasionally and sporadically been lifted.

In a small but very real way, diving can sometimes give us the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the famed explorers of yesteryear. There aren’t many places on this earth that haven’t already been named, or are there? Maybe we just have to look at things from a different perspective. It’s fantastic to work here in an environment that allows us to put the ‘expedition’ back into dive trips. I guess that’s why they call us Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Come on, get your gear on, let’s go for a look!



Compare ExpeditionsWhich expedition best suits you!Click here to read »