Five Decades of Diving

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.


7 Responses to “Five Decades of Diving”

  1. Tony McLaughlan says:

    Mike (aka Bouncy)
    Many congratulations on your 50 years and retirement. I still remember our 1st trip together on Paradise Sport in February 1998 … not to mention the many, many other trips done with the Reindeer Dive Club which was formed with Tui on Spoilsport in December 1991.

    Craig (aka Haggis)
    Congratulations on your 25 years as Bouncy’s wing-man and now at the helm of the great MBDE. Hope to see you on the exploratory late April 2020.

    Tony McLaughlan (aka Strop)
    Founding Member
    Reindeer Dive Club

  2. Vinni Sedgwick says:

    To Mike, Craig and all the team,

    Congratulations on 50 years. I have been diving with you since 1991, so have been on the journey for over half of it.

    With 115 dives off Paradise and 599 of Spoilsport I recon I’ve paid for a few nuts and bolts over the years.

    Have seen a lot of changes in the sites over time (gone are the days of diving inside Yongala), but one thing has never changed is the way MBDE has run the operation.

    I travel a lot within the coral triangle a lot and have dived with a lot of outfits, but MBFE is still the best overall operator I have dived with.

    I have been to a lot of great resorts, some fabulous live
    a-boards (and some pretty bad ones) but Spoilie is still my spiritual diving home and I don’t really care where she is moored up, the best diving is off the back of Spoilsport .

    Best wishes Mike, stay well and I will see you all soon.

    Vinni RDC001

  3. Stuart Jones says:

    Dear Mike
    Congratulations indeed on the marvellous achievement of remaining the premier, award-winning and most successful dive operator in Australia for the past 50 years.
    You have worked incredibly damned hard Mike from that fateful day in Townsville. Survived the unknowns which to name but a few :
    National Airline pilots strike to unscrupulous Japanese business ethics from typhoons and tropical cyclones to coral bleaching and the crown of thorns starfish from government sales tax to exchange rates to irate employees to marooned vessels, they have all been thrown at you and you have survived.

    From a previous employee of 4 years 1991-1994 (engineer Spoilsport )I salute you Mike and wish you a great retirement and you can take the rest of your life off
    Stui Jones

  4. Maggie Reeves says:

    Dear Mike Ball Team,
    What a lovely tribute to a wonderful adventurer, and someone who has raised the standards for safe and enjoyable diving in Australia. We’ve loved every minute aboard and the skipper and crew have always delivered nothing short of the best customer service experience. We are so looking forward to our upcoming Turtle Spectacular trip in November. We send our very best wishes to Mike, and thank him for all that he has contributed the past 50 years.
    Best wishes,
    Maggie and Ken

  5. Eric Simpson says:

    I’ve had the opportunity to have dived three times with Mike Ball. I have to say I love the vessel. The staff have been absolutely excellent; from the host, great guides, to the catering. The safety is second to none and the dive briefs very thorough. Apart from the diving, the food has been so so good. I have raved about all of the above to many people.
    To add to all this, I’ve booked on another trip to the Yongala next April. Can’t wait.
    Lastly, I would like to wish Mike all the very best in retirement.
    Eric Simpson

  6. Bob and Karen Godwin says:

    It was our honor and privilege to meet Mike and all the people that work at MBDE. We will cherish the memories and the friendships from the spoilsport , forever. Oh yah, the critters, too!
    Bob and Karen Godwin

  7. EDWARD ARNOLD says:

    Thanks for giving me an exceptional experience way back in 1990, something I will never forget. Ed

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