Barrier Reef by Mark Kallman

My brother had arranged a holiday to Australia and since conditions in Coffs have been unreliable we decided to arrange a trip up to the far north of Queensland. John Featherstone, editor of Spearfishing DownUnder Magazine, arranged an exploratory trip out of Cooktown. We would be living on a mothership and using smaller boats to explore the surrounding reef. From Coffs Harbour we travelled the 3000km north, collecting the rest of the colourful characters along the way. We meet the skipper and load the boat in Cooktown. The 2 smaller boats are attached behind the mothership and we are underway. The less said about the mothership and crew the better. In spite of these rather dubious characters, the group of divers were amazing people and made up for the cirumstances on the mothership. We continued steaming north from Cooktown until we reached the outer edge of Ribbon Reef 8, 9 and 10 about another 100km north of Cooktown.

Day 1

The diving started proper. Everyone was up and kitting before the sun made it above the horizon. We divided into 2 teams, boarded the smaller boats and headed in our chosen directions. The first target was doggies! We jumped in and were surrounded by sharks. This became the order of things. If no sharks showed up, you might as well get out and move because there would be no fish around. The only doggies that showed up stayed well out of range but Michael Featherstone did get a small fish of around 10kg. We got in some deep diving around 28m and I took my first shark mackerel. A new species but not particularly good to eat, so it became berley for the doggies. The sharks responded to the burley trail and some white-tip oceanics made for exciting diving. My brother Andrew was looking to land his first couta. He has shot many, especially in Sodwana and lost them to Zambezi or potato bass. The couta responded to the burley and we all managed to land fish. My brother was ecstatic with his fish. John found a good Green Jobfish of about 13kg. In the afternoon we drifted along a massive coral wall and a bunch of different parrotfish were landed. Michael returned with a Lyretail Rockcod. Mick de Rooy got a really nice couta and watched as a massive doggie swam into view while he was busy with the couta. Everone was full of stories and excitement around the meagre supper. Thank goodness for the fish we landed or we might have starved.

Day 2

We moved along to inside of the fringing reef and looked for Red Emperor and large-mouth nannygai. These fish were not very accommodating and no-one took any. But the other reef fish more than made up for it. Coral Trout were in abundance and everyone got their fair share. They are very similar to marbled leopard-grouper. Fortunately most trout occur in far flung areas or they would be decimated. They taste great and may be the stupidest fish I have encountered. Shoot one and all the others pop out to have a look. Make a bad shot and they will drag your gear into their intricate cave systems and make a great job of wrecking it. Most fish were taken with accurate close shots but John did mange to have one take his slip-tip spear into the reef and keep him busy for about an hour. To say he was sour, is an understatement. Trout may only be landed between a minimum and maximum size, the max being 80cm. I watched my brother take an 80cm thumper and then see a fish that was easily 3x as big, come over to look at the speared individual. I cannot see how catch and release fishing can be good for a fish of this size. It would be dragged up on a line, then be released with a punctured swim bladder. That is called responsible fishing? So much better to see the fish and not take it at all, maybe spearfishing is a better alternative. The downside of diving in this area is that the maps are very inaccurate. It is much better to look for reef and dive that than go to what appears to be reef on the map. We went looking for a 1km stretch of reef, that according to the map, actually broke the surface, to find absolutely nothing there. I suppose that is a part of the joy of exploring far-flung regions. In the afternoon we looked around some of the coral walls and after landing a kawakawa, set up a good burley trail. Couta arrived quickly and I landed one before giving the remains of the kawakawa to John. I returned to the small boat and a little voice seemed to warn me of impending doom. I swung around to find a 3m tiger at my fins. It turned away and moved toward John who had just clobbered another couta. The fish dragged his gun out of his hands as the tiger swam into view. He threw the remains of the kawakawa at it, which it chomped. It then turned and made a concerted move toward him. I heard him screaming and after throwing my fish into the boat turned to help. The shark had decided to follow his couta and left him alone. The shark ate a parrot that was hanging on my stringer but did not bother with John's fish.

We all headed in and met up with the other team who had had an equally spectacular time. They had landed some Spangled Emperors and Purple Cod in addition to trout and parrots. They then elected to try out one more venue while we cleaned up and relaxed. The skipper saw fit to move the boat without consulting anyone and it looked as if we might have lost the smaller boat. Some heated exchanges took place and we turned back toward where we thought the guys might be. We found them camped on an island north of us. They had a roaring fire going, had found fresh water and had secured a pile of fish for supper. That took them about 2 hours! Imagine how efficient they would be on Survivor?

Day 3

Aches and pains were started to show. Blisters were slowing us down and the mothership had run out of water. That was okay because the skipper still had lots of beer and since it looked like he did not eat anything and just drank beer, he would be fine. Also it seemed that when he catered for 8 men he was expecting pygmies from the Congo. We persevered because the conditions were great. One of the divers from Cooktown had a great spot that he took us to. It was a pier where ships are loaded with silica sand. The area was a fish magnet. There were schools of massive GT's, some easily over 50kgs. They swam with huge numbers of Golden kingies and there were Queenfish thrown in for good measure. Around the rocky headland was the remains of a wreck with huge numbers of barramundi, massive mangove jacks and coastal trout. We all dived in and started taking fish like it was going out of fashion. Around the piling, were more big jacks and some fingermark (another snapper species). Andrew knocked over some good GT's but since they do not taste too good compared with the other fish, they were used as burley. I shot a golden and a Queenfish but had an enormous tussle with a GT. The GT swam back to the pier where a huge Queensland Groper tried to eat it. Groper are probably the same as Brindle Bass. Thank goodness the groper stayed interested in the kingie and left me alone. The thing was a beast of a fish, around 200kg. I ended up well away from the pier and saw 2 small sharks come into view. Only when they had swum passed did I realise they were 2 good couta. I dived and chased them making a reasonable shot on the back fish. John came over and made a second shot just as my spear pulled free. I loaded and made another shot just before John's spear fell out. That fish was meant to be landed. When we got back to the pier, Andrew had seen a massive shark and since the viz was becoming poorer as the swell increased, sanity prevailed and we moved back to the mothership.

The decision was made to continue back towards Cooktown as divable reef was becoming hard to find. The flat calm seas and great viz had been churned up by the big swell that was pushing in. We soldiered on and experienced some very rough seas. We That night many of us were almost thrown out of our bunks as we were battered by the prevailing weather front. This was going to have a dramatic effect on the diving.

Day 4

We continued steaming south until we came to the site of a wreck that should hold Red Emperor. We sounded around until the wreck was located and a volunteer was sent to take a look. Mick de Rooy, the stalwart, made his dive and hit his head on a chunk of metal, the viz was that bad. we decided to pack up and start heading into Cooktown but we would try along some of the headlands on the way. Now diving on the headlands in this area carries some very definite: box jellyfish, Irukanji (a small box jelly) and a big nasty critter known as a Salty: the Estuarine Crocodile! We kept our wits about us and fortunately no jellies plagued us. John and I were moving at a reasonable clip along the coast covering as much water as possible. I got a Mangrove Jack, then a Couta in 3m of water before finding some Black-spot Tuskies and stalking them. These are great eating fish and my attention was focused on a 5kg specimen. I took one of 3kg and the larger fish stayed in the vicinity. Suddenly the boat arrived and I was instructed back in immediately! A croc had been spotted and it appeared to have been stalking us. Well that did it. The trip came to an end.

We returned to Cooktown for the start of the journey home. What could have been the end of a great trip was then teribly soured when we discovered that the mothership's freezer facility was not working properly and we had to distribute our fish in Cooktown as fast as possible. We would be taking nothing back home! It was spectacular getting the opportunity to dive with my brother in Australia and I hope it will not be the last time we dive together here.