Rare access to an Australian wonder

A live-aboard boat affords travellers a much closer look at the country’s psychedelically beautiful Great Barrier Reef – without any of the day-tripper crowds.

Standing on the sun deck of the Spirit of Freedom, a live-aboard tour boat on the Great Barrier Reef, I noticed something was missing: land. The shoreline had disappeared overnight and now there was just sky and sea – nothing else – for 220km in every direction.

Also missing were the crowds, a nearly unavoidable part of the more popular day trips that launch from Cairns, the gateway city to Australia’s most popular natural attraction. Every day, tour boats bring hundreds of holidaymakers to the mega-pontoons stationed on the reef, offering a Disney-fied experience of the world’s largest living structure.

I chose instead to board a live-aboard boat and tour the Coral Sea over a number of days and nights. It’s a holiday that evades the day-trip crowds, allows for more than a day’s diving on the reef and affords travellers a much closer look at the pulsating, psychedelic-looking, 2,300km-long ecosystem that scientists predict could be overrun by seaweed by 2050.

After a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, and an hour-long flight to Lizard Island (so named by Captain Cook for its suitably large population of monitor lizards), I motored out to my new home for the next four days, joining 26 other passengers and 10 crew on the decks of the 37m-long Spirit of Freedom.

Lizard Island, home to a large population of monitor lizards (Credit: Ethan Teas)

A large population of monitor lizards earned Lizard Island its name. (Ethan Teas)

Once we settled in, the small cabins didn’t matter. Days were spent on the deck, with passengers draped over every available surface, napping or holding up a book to shade their eyes. The boat’s close confines meant making friends was inevitable.

Three Chinese students, a German veterinarian, an elderly Kenyan free diver – our group came from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.

Of course, the one thing that most of us had in common was a love for diving and a desire to see the Great Barrier Reef like no day-tripper ever would. We got below the surface nearly five times a day.

Rarely did we dive in the same place twice. More often, each excursion explored a new section of the reef’s coral-covered walls, which dropped off into to unexplored shadows, the sea floor resting 2,000m below.

There was always something new and exciting to see – blue spotted ribbontail rays, clownfish nestled amid the noodle-like tentacles of their anemone, mind-bogglingly big manta rays and bursts of colour and light from schools of iridescent fish suddenly changing direction. Four dwarf minke whales appeared during a dive on our second-to-last day and lingered for two hours, passing improbably close to those of us who were suspended in stillness, staring.

Schooling trevally (Credit: Spirit of Freedom)

Schooling trevally at the Great Barrier Reef. (Spirit of Freedom)

With the right currents, divers could drift along the wall, passively enjoying the changing scenery while surrounded on three sides by the unbroken blue of open ocean. Closer to the surface, sunlit pinnacles of coral pierced the gently sloping beds of sand.

Eventually, when our eyes just couldn’t take anymore beauty – and our tanks ran low on air – we would kick towards the light and climb back aboard the only dry surface for miles. After a shamelessly lazy hour on the sun deck, I was always ready to do everything all over again.

Practicalities
Spirit of Freedom and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer four-day live-aboard trips to the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea year round. They also have the permits needed to bring divers close to dwarf minke whales – the whales migrate to the area between June and July to mate and calve in the warmer reef waters.

Cyclone season lasts from November to May. The wet season is from December to February but can offer up great visibility and calm waters because of low winds and warmer water temperatures.

Peak season is during the dry months of June to October. June to August is the winter season with cooler air and water temperatures (bring a jumper for brisk nights).

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