Great Barrier Reef on Liveaboard Taka by Chris Prior
In May 2011, my wife and I spent four weeks in Australia and, as we are both keen novice divers, spending a few days diving on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) was a ‘must do’ on our holiday list. We decided to go on a 5 day / 4 night trip aboard the live-aboard ‘TAKA’ run by Diver’s Den in Cairns, Queensland ( http://www.diversden.com.au/ ). We chose Australia as we have friends that we wanted to visit there, rather than going for the GBR diving. We were also forced into going during May by work commitments. The bottom line up front is that we had a great time, despite some rough weather, the diving was very good and the staff on the live-aboard and all at Divers Den were friendly and very professional.
We flew to Sydney, Australia with Emirates from London Heathrow. The flight was long with a 7 hour flight to Dubai, a 2 hour stop over and then a 13 hour flight to Sydney. We flew with Emirates as we are members of their loyalty scheme. That said, the flight price was around mid range and the service was generally very good. The standard leg room in economy class is excellent (I’m 6ft 5in and had no problems). The flight from Dubai to Sydney was on an Airbus 380. This is a double-decker aeroplane and although impressive, I felt that service suffered at the expense of a quantity of passengers. The departure terminal was crowded and slow to load and the onboard service was not as slick or as prompt as you would usually expect from Emirates. Although in the big scheme of things it was still a good flight, I would avoid the Airbus 380 if possible.
We flew to Sydney as we were visiting friends there before going onto Cairns. Cairns airport takes international flights so a more efficient journey should be possible if you wish to go straight to Cairns. If you are travelling around Australia before or after the diving, the internal flights were excellent. Virgin Blue and Jet Star were both excellent internal operators and although you get what you pay for with budget airlines, they were cleaner, friendlier and more professional than their British counterparts. The internal flight logistics within the airports were especially good in Australia. We found that we were off the aircraft with baggage in hand in a slick half hour.
Emirates allowed us 30kg of luggage but the internal flights only 18kg each. This is important to bear in mind if you are planning on taking your own dive kit. The TAKA dive kit is of a decent standard with a couple of points to note listed under The Diving below.
Arriving in Cairns, Diver’s Den picked us up from the airport, after arranging it with them online prior to travelling, and were extremely prompt and efficient. A good start.
TIME OF YEAR
We travelled in May, due to fixed work commitments, and this was in the middle of Australia’s autumn. The weather in Cairns was sunny and cloudy with some overcast spells but the temperature rarely dipped below 30oC during the day. The wind was usually blowing with most days having a strong breeze and becoming blustery at times. This did affect the surface conditions on the live-aboard, but it did not affect the diving to any significant degree. We found the cooler weather, compared to the very hot summer months, meant that the day time was more comfortable to operate in and the breeze refreshing. However, the surface conditions were more of a challenge. Additionally, Minke Whales pass through the region on their migration routes in late May and June making that a good time to go also.
I am a BSAC Ocean Diver with 130 dives and my wife is a PADI Sports Diver with 80 dives. We have dived all over the world and in the UK and found this trip and live-aboard well within our comfort zone. Indeed, we were two of the most experienced guests on the trip.
On the first night, TAKA headed straight for the Ribbon Reefs of the GBR. A map of the trip can be found here http://www.diversden.com.au/maps.htm. Unfortunately, we were not able to visit Osprey Reef, the location of some large pelagic and great Reef Sharks, due to the rough seas. However, I rated the dives on the Ribbon Reefs as very good. The water temperatures were around 26C and although I wore a short wetsuit, I would recommend a full wetsuit for greater comfort. This is one of the only faults with TAKA, they only provide short wetsuits even though the staff wore full wetsuits. The surface swell was moderate around the reefs and most dives had a mooring line going down to the dive which made descents straight forward. Navigation was straight forward and, with excellent dive briefs prior to the dives, I never had a problem with navigation. The hire kit did not have compasses so if you intend to use their kit, a wrist compass would be a good addition.
There were between 2 and 4 dives per day making 14 in total and this included night dives. The currents on the dive sites were generally slight with no significant issues and the visibility was generally excellent (20 – 50m) on all but two dives. The depths descended down to around 40m. The reefs themselves were great. The coral was quite bleached and bare in places, largely due to the recent hurricanes and bleaching caused by acidity, temperature and sea level fluctuations. I found the coral and fans in the Maldives and Bahamas just as colourful and varied, if not slightly better. However, the abundance and biodiversity of life on the GBR set it apart from the latter locations. Small and large fish were in massive abundance and I saw more of the more interesting and rarer life than I have anywhere else. We saw at least one turtle per day, more white tip reef sharks than I could shake a stick at, sea snakes, moray eels swimming out of their holes, a number of Wobegongs, awesome Giant Cuttlefish, giant Rock Cods, numerous Giant Clams, Lion Fish, great Clown Fish, Rock Fish, Trumpet Fish and a stack of fascinating Nudibranch. Simply awesome. Finally, the dive sites were deserted. We only saw one other boat on the 5 day trip and that was on a distant reef. This was a great aspect of the trip – we felt as though we had the reefs to ourselves.
THE LIVE-ABOARD TAKA
TAKA is a good size ship with a sundeck and 3 main decks which sleeps around 30 people. It was only about 2/3 full so May would seem a quiet time to go on the trip. It is a relatively old ship but it is well maintained, clean and comfortable. The equipment area, where you kit up for the dive, is spacious, clean and very well organised: one of the best I have experienced. There is a comfortable lounge / dining room area with has comfortable sofas, a TV, computers and a half decent diving library. The accommodation is clean and comfortable but varies in standards. The upper decks are for couples and are more expensive. They have en suite and are worth the extra money if you can afford it. The lower deck are single beds with different people sharing the cabins – think of a back-packers hostel on the water! They were still clean but, talking to those who stayed in them, were a little tight on space and they had to share the showers and toilets which were located on the diving deck above. The food was excellent. All food is included in the price. There are snacks (fruit, cakes and biscuits) after each dive, hot and cold soft drinks are on tap, alcoholic and fizzy drinks are sold in an honesty bar. The main meals were good quality, tasty and wholesome and there was plenty of it. There was a cooked breakfast, a hot lunch and a two course dinner with a good choice of salads, vegetables, potatoes, pasta, meats and vegetarian options. I eat a lot and I was always satisfied.
For our trip, the crossings between the sites were very rough and most were seasick to some degree. This was largely at night and we found ourselves being thrown around in bed somewhat! Once we were moored in the shelter of the reefs, the swell was much calmer and most people’s sickness disappeared. People intending on diving on a live-aboard must prepare for this. I was told that the trips in the Australian summer months are much less rough.
The staff were all very professional, friendly and courteous, nothing was too much trouble. On the diving side, we received an excellent dive brief, prior to each dive, focussing on the safety aspects and also what life we would see. The briefs were backed up with photos and digitally produced maps on the TV. The staff were also very good at giving advice to divers on diving, equipment or on the site itself. They were especially good at dealing with the absolute beginners and I saw them on a number of occasions putting nervous divers at ease. The organisation of the dives was also excellent. Free guides were available for anyone who wanted one and divers were split into small groups between the 2 – 4 guides that dived. My wife and I felt confident that we didn’t need a guide and this proved to be no problem. The safety organisation was first class. There was a dive master checking everyone’s air and computers on the way in and then checking you out of the water on your return. One slight annoyance was the Australian law of no ‘reverse profiling’. This meant that a diver couldn’t go deeper than on the day’s previous dive even though the computer states that there is plenty of ‘no deco’ time left. Although this prevents reverse profiling, it does encourage one to go deeper than necessary on a dive, so that a good deal of depth is maintained for the following dive. The rule felt a little oppressive, but I believe it is an Australian law which all operators have to follow.
There was also an underwater cameraman on board taking stills and video. Although his final products were expensive at around $100 for an hour long DVD and $70 for all of his stills, they were excellent quality. However, there was some doubt as to whether ALL of the video had been taken on this trip. Who knows – but a good product nonetheless. Additionally he was more than willing to look at guests’ images and offer tips and advice on getting better stills.
TAKA has all the basic kit on board. Any special requests can be made to Diver’s Den in advance and they will do their best to source it. All the usual PADI courses are also available on the trip. NITROX is also available for those qualified and it is possible to do the NITROX course if you wish. There were no special activities available, apart from the night dive, although for visitors in late May and June, there is the chance to see Minke Whales. Fortunately, I didn’t have chance to see the emergency safety procedures. However, they were well briefed at the start of the trip and at the start of each dive and the boat handling skills were very good – these two facts filled me with confidence.
The trip cost AUD 2200 for the double en-suite cabin which included all meals, orange squash, tea and coffee, all dives and kit hire. There were a couple of extras that we had to pay once we got there such as national park diving tax, but it was stated when we booked and there were no hidden costs when we got there. The cost can be reduced by staying in a twin room without en-suite or a shared bunk. The cheapest cabins were around AUD 1500 for the trip.