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Spirit of Freedom – 3 Day Diving Review

Cairns Dive Adventures Trip Review

Spirit of Freedom is a professional operator committed to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef and delivering their guests a luxurious, first class experience in paradise. The boat is spacious and comfortable. The dive deck, equipment, briefings and crew are modern, friendly and informative. They even help you put on and take off your...

Spirit of Freedom – 3 Day Diving Review

Trip Review By: Julie

Spirit of Freedom’s 3 Day Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs trip combines the very best of the Great Barrier Reef, scuba diving and Tropical North Queensland. Enjoy up to 11 dives on numerous sites across the pristine northern ribbon reefs, before flying back to Cairns on a stunning, low level scenic coastal flight. Modern equipment, a luxurious boat and a friendly, professional crew of 10 ensure this will definitely be the trip of a lifetime.

The dive sites are excellent, offering a variety of experiences and critters. A highlight is definitely meeting the giant, friendly potato cod at the world famous Cod Hole, diving with lionfish on Pixie Pinnacles and being amongst vibrant schools of fish, of all shapes and sizes, as they roam this amazing coral reef system.

Out of the water, Spirit of Freedom provides a spacious, luxurious vessel to enjoy the magnificent surrounds. The chef prepared meals are delicious and plentiful, cabins are serviced daily, dive briefings are thorough and timely and the crew ensures everyone enjoys their time at sea.

DAY 1. Your Spirit of Freedom adventure begins at noon at Cairns’ Trinity Wharf. Guests from across the city and world converge on the stately 37m (122 foot) monohull vessel moored in Trinity Inlet, with a backdrop of rainforest clad mountains. It is an overcast / rainy day as we are welcomed aboard by the crew, shown to our cabins and provided with an orientation of the vessel. Once everyone is aboard, all guests gather on the top deck for an introduction to the crew by Trip Director Chris, and given a briefing of the day ahead. Photos are taken and everyone is issued with name badges / stickers (a handy way to get to know each other’s names).

As Spirit of Freedom fires up its Rolls Royce engines and commences its journey to the Great Barrier Reef, guests gather in the spacious, air-conditioned saloon for a delicious buffet style lunch of cold meats, prawns, salads and rolls. Chris continues his introductions and briefings, including providing an overview of the Great Barrier Reef its World Heritage values, as well as providing tips on “things not to do” when diving on the reef, to help protect it for future generations.

The extensive briefing provides a thorough welcome aboard, outlining the trip ahead and guest amenities including the tea and coffee station with the “never ending” biscuit container, the “never ending” fruit bowl, the location of water dispensers, ginger tablets, the library and computer / camera stations, as well as the honesty system with the on-board bar.

There is a notice board which has named pictures of the crew and guests, a quick reference tool throughout the trip. Complimentary water bottles are issued to guests and we are reminded to stay hydrated during the trip. Our scenery changes from Cairns harbor to rainforest-covered ranges and on to the Coral Sea, cruising past Green Island and Michaelmas Cay, we pass by several day trip boats making their return journey to Cairns.

Dive Master and Trip Director Chris meets with each guest one on one to review their individual dive experience, including level of certification, maximum dive depth, date of last dive and number of dives completed. He explains that the first two dives of the trip will be an introduction to the Great Barrier Reef and accompanied by dive guides, who will ensure everyone is comfortable in the water, using the equipment. Maximum group size is four people per dive instructor.

DAY 1 – DIVES 1 & 2: NORMAL REEF “Caves”. Norman Reef is one of Cairns’ northern reefs and is approximately 60km offshore. Usually this site offers excellent water clarity however, as Cairns has recently received weeks of heavy rainfall from a tropical cyclone system, the presence of freshwater has reduced visibility to 5-10m. That being said, the divers were not disappointed, as there was plenty of marine life to welcome you to the Great Barrier Reef including a blue-spotted stingray, sea cucumbers, giant clams, flowery cod, butterfly fish, titan triggerfish, dotted sweetlip and a giant maori wrasse, to name just a few. The first dive was at 4pm, followed by another at 5.50pm when we saw a white tipped reef shark, lionfish, hawksbill turtle and swarms of schooling glass fish.

All divers were back on deck before dark and after a hot shower, we assembled in the stateroom for dinner. Table service was provided by the hostess, serving each guest a delicious meal of roast beef accompanied by smashed potatoes and vegetables. Complimentary red and white wine was served with dinner, which was followed by individual pavlova shells filled with fresh cream and garnished with passionfruit, strawberries and kiwi fruit.

It’s been a big first day and as we tumble into bed in our air-conditioned cabins, each with private bathroom, Spirit of Freedom begins its 240km journey to the Ribbon Reefs, which it will complete while we sleep.

DAY 2. The official wake-up time is 6.30am, with the first dive of the day at 7am. I woke early, grabbed a coffee and headed up to the sun deck to enjoy the solitude of sunrise over the Coral Sea. Other guests enjoyed the “first breakfast” of the day, which was a selection of cereals, sliced fresh fruit, yoghurt, tea, coffee and juice.

Having assessed each diver’s capabilities on yesterday’s dives, Chris is comfortable that most divers can now explore the Great Barrier Reef on their own. For the few inexperienced divers on board, the dive crew on hand to provide extra support and assistance, both in and out of the water.

DAY 2 – DIVE 3: RIBBON REEF #10 “Cod Hole”. We had arrived! The first dive of the day was on the world famous Cod Hole. Chris provided a dive briefing on the back deck as the sun peeked out from behind some early morning clouds. The water was clear, still and a deep blue. Descending the mooring line, we were immediately greeted by a giant, inquisitive potato cod. Definitely friendly, this gentle giant swam right up to your face, even following you around as you explored his reef home. My big what big lips you have Mr Cod.

Other than being home to several potato cod, this dive site offered early morning divers a range of experiences including seeing white tipped reef sharks still resting on the sandy ocean floor, green turtles cruising around the coral gardens, vibrant blue star fish, giant flowery cods, black spotted puffer fish, emperor angelfish, pennant banner fish, giant clams and sea cucumbers, to name just a few. Time of Entry: 7.07am – Maximum Depth: 20.4m

It was a good dive, in warm, clear blue waters and a great way to start the day. Surfacing back at Spirit of Freedom the first thing I smelled was cooking bacon: this day was getting better and better. To keep diver batteries charged, Spirit of Freedom serves two breakfasts each morning. The “second breakfast” is cooked and comes straight after the first dive, this morning it was bacon and scrambled eggs, beans, chipolatas, hash browns, toast and condiments.

Grabbing a plate, we headed up to the top deck to enjoy the morning looking out over the Coral Sea and at the surrounding islands. Digestion complete, it was time for our next dive briefing. Chris explained that this dive would be the “Cod Feed”. He was taking down a container of pilchards and all divers would gather in a circle on the bottom, while he fed the friendly giants. This comprehensive briefing covered a range of issues, ensuring divers would know what to expect during the dive.

DAY 2 – DIVE 4: RIBBON REEF #10 “Cod Hole”. Descending into the warm, blue waters again, all divers followed Dive Master Jeremy to a sandy location, but due to the presence of titan triggerfish, we moved to a new location with the potato cod and flowery cod eagerly following us through the waters. Along the way, we saw butterfly fish, dotted sweetlips, six-bar wrasse, forcepfish and trumpetfish.

Settled in our new location, Chris commenced the Cod Feed and it was everything I had expected and more. Giant potato cod and flowery cod moved around the group, enjoying their pilchard breakfast. Swiftly moving red bass converged on the group, darting amongst the divers to get their share of the spoils. Time of Entry: 10.19am – Maximum Depth: 11.9m

Surfacing, we called for a tender pick-up which returned us to Spirit of Freedom for a warm shower and some down time. Relaxing in the air-conditioning, we reviewed our dive pictures and noted some of the species we had seen. As Spirit moved to a new location, we feasted on an amazing lunch of tacos (my favourite!) and burritos. There was a choice of chicken, mince and beans accompanied by avocado, lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream and chilli sauce.

Chris had put a weather download on the notice board: Cairns was getting pounded with heavy rain, but on the Ribbon Reefs, we watched fluffy clouds race across the sky. Rain threatened, but did not eventuate.

DAY 2 – DIVE 5: RIBBON REEF #10 “Two Towers”. This dive site is so named for its two coral bommies, which rise from the seabed and plateau 5m under the surface. The most memorable moment of this dive was swimming through a mass of schooling blue lined snapper. Seemingly of one mind, these vibrant yellow fish streamed around the site as one, breaking around divers and coming together again. Feather stars clung to hard and soft corals, while bicolour angelfish and scalefin anthias darted in and out of the corals. Even the mooring line offered a visual feast, encrusted with sea life. Time of Entry: 1.29pm – Maximum Depth: 10.5m

There was a three hour break between this dive and the next, so as Spirit of Freedom moved around the reef, we relaxed downstairs with coffee and cake. This is living! Dive Master Jeremy went around to each of the guests inviting them to be involved in the “Eye on the Reef” program.

Spirit of Freedom has Advanced Ecotourism Certification through Ecotourism Australia and is committed to protecting the precious reef environment, while educating its guests about its importance. Spirit of Freedom voluntarily participates in the “Eye on the Reef” program, an initiative of the Australian Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (BBRMPA) designed to foster stewardship and appreciation of the reef environment, whilst providing cost effective means of obtaining ‘trend and trigger’ information about specific sites on the reef.

Spirit of Freedom keeps its “Eye on the Reef” at Challenger Bay, providing weekly reports to GBRMPA on various aspects of reef health including, but not limited to: spawning / mating activity, presence and quantity of reef reptiles, fish, sharks and rays, marine mammals and the health of the coral.

Four guests were keen to participate and were provided with an introduction, briefing and some waterproof paperwork (!) to take diving with them, for accurate record keeping.

DAY 2 – DIVE 6: RIBBON REEF #10 “Challenger Bay”. Descending on Challenger Bay, armed with the task of helping to gather / record information for “Eye on the Reef”, it was amazing how much we saw. Whether it was because we were looking closer and taking notes, or just because this is a great dive site (and it really is), I can’t be sure; but I can report, with total confidence, that I saw 35 sea cucumbers, several lionfish and angelfish, a massive barramundi cod, schools of diagonal-banded sweetlips, anemone shrimp, mushroom coral, giant clams, magnificent sea anemone and sea fans, amongst other things.

It was a great dive and it is a good feeling to know we were helping to collect data, reporting on the health of the amazing Great Barrier Reef. Time of Entry: 4.37pm – Maximum Depth: 9.5m

Surfacing at Spirit of Freedom, we could smell dinner and it smelled great! Hustling down to our cabin for a warm shower, we arrived at the stateroom just in time for a delicious, fresh and light dinner of seared tuna steaks served on a rice noodle salad with snow peas, capsicum and mushrooms. Tonight, there is the option of a night dive, but I decided to stay dry and relax with a good book and glass of red wine.

As the night divers returned with stories of schools of fish so thick you could barely swim through them and prowling reef sharks and red bass, we tucked into a decadent desert of sticky date pudding with caramel sauce. A great way to end a brilliant day of diving on the magnificent Ribbon Reefs.

DAY 3. Spirit of Freedom has moved again during the night, so we wake up to watch the sunrise over Ribbon Reef #9. For those that were feeling peckish, the first breakfast buffet was served from 6.30am. The first dive of the day was scheduled for 7am and as I looked down into the deep blue water, little did I know that it would be the dive of the trip for me.

DAY 3 – DIVE 7: RIBBON REEF #9 2/3 “Pixie Pinnacle”. This site is so named for its single, isolated coral bommie that rises 30m from the ocean floor to plateau just metres beneath the surface. Diving deep, so we could maintain the reverse profile dive throughout the day, we wound our way to the bottom of the bommie were I saw my first ever nudibranch, a minor notodoris. I also saw a rather unhappy looking titan triggerfish, we quickly moved on and commenced our ascent on the bommie. I have never seen so many, rainbow coloured, vibrant, beautiful schooling fish. Neon blue, bright purple and red, goldfish orange, the fish of the Great Barrier Reef swarmed around me, creating a myriad of colour and motion. Simply stunning.

Clownfish darted in and out of anemone around the bommie, striking coral cod (trout) lay hidden under coral ledges, sea fans branched out in front of you and soft corals brightened my way and day. Every lap around the bommie more and more wonders were revealed, banded pipe fish and a flame file shell, with its arching electrical current, from larger flowery cod to the smallest damsel and fairy basslet, they were all out and about on Pixie Pinnacle that morning.

Just when we thought it could not get any better, we reached the top of the bommie where five lionfish were floating gently in the water, looking for breakfast. Delicate, beautiful, mesmerizing and dangerous, a potent combination, but heartbreakingly beautiful to witness and share their underwater world. Time of Entry: 7.06am – Maximum Depth: 28.6m

Climbing out of the water, I was in heaven and again my nose led me straight to the stateroom where a buffet of bacon, beans, poached eggs, toast and pancakes were waiting for us. We grabbed a plate headed up to the top deck to compare notes with other divers and enjoy the morning views over the Coral Sea.

After breakfast, we completed the “Eye on the Reef” paperwork with Jeremy over coffee, while Spirit of Freedom continued its journey across the Ribbon Reefs, taking us to yet another dive site, ‘Rod’s Rock’.

DAY 3 – DIVE 8: RIBBON REEF #10 “Rod’s Rock”. After the dive briefing we started to get ready when Chris noticed a sea snake had surfaced just at the back of Spirit of Freedom. Not sure that I was entirely happy to be entering the water just now, especially when Chris told us that “if the snake comes up out of the water right next to your face, don’t worry, he is just being inquisitive”. How calming.

Anyway, I was not going to miss out on diving because of a sea snake, but it was with a little trepidation that we entered the water. Descending to the bottom, imagine my horror when the first thing I saw was a massive sea snake that seemed to rival the anacondas in size (ok, slight exaggeration, but I do not like being in the water with snakes), fortunately it was resting passively on the sand and we quickly moved by without incident.

For such a manly sounding dive site, Rod’s Rock delivered delicate beauty and little treasures. Highlights were definitely the sea squirts, which clustered together at various places across the site. Hard and soft corals provided homes for many beautiful little fish including the sailfish queen, clown fish anemone, 3-spot dascyllus, pufferfish (not cute, but interesting) and larger residents including angelfish and emperor angelfish. Time of Entry: 10.27am – Maximum Depth: 23.2m

Surfacing, we climbed aboard Spirit of Freedom (snake free), had a quick wash in the freshwater showers on the dive deck and went inside to enjoy another hearty feast. Lunch today was pasta with tomato-based sauce, meat stew, salad and garlic bread. Outside, the wind was picking up and things were not looking good for our next dive at the alarmingly named, “The Snake Pit”.

DAY 3 – DIVE 9: RIBBON REEF #10 “The Snake Pit”. During the dive briefing, Chris informed us that the current had a rating of 3 and visibility was at 5m. Waves washed up against the dive deck and we were advised to use the mooring line to find the dive site. The Snake Pit is an isolated reef between Ribbon Reef #10 and Lizard Island, it ranges from 10-30m and is so named for its olive sea snake residents.

As you can probably gather from aforementioned story, snakes do not rock my world, but I was lucky on this dive as apart from one rather large resident that swam across our fins at the very beginning of the dive, we survived The Snake Pit, snake free. This dive site did deliver a number of other interesting residents though, including two moray eels, Moorish idols, parrotfish, butterflyfish and nudibranch. Time of Entry: 1.08pm – Maximum Depth: 19.5m

Afternoon tea was waiting for us aboard Spirit of Freedom, a repast of sliced fruit, tim tams and corn chips. As we snacked, a rain squall blew in and passed over, whipping up white caps on the waves. The rain was short-lived and by the time we had reached our final dive site for the day, it had passed and blue skies had come again.

DAY 3 – DIVE 10: RIBBON REEF #10 “Black Coral Bommie”. I decided to sit this dive out, but my dive buddy joined some other divers and tells me it was amazing (of course). As I relaxed on the top deck sun lounge, reading my book and glancing across the Coral Sea and nearby Lizard Island, the divers beneath the waves enjoyed seeing some more nudibranchs, anemone and their resident clown fish, vibrant giant clams, hard and soft corals. I am reliably informed that this site delivered nearly as much as Pixie Pinnacle, but as I sipped on my Corona, I did not feel any regrets as my time alone on the deck with the sun and the waves was completely restorative and blissfully peaceful.

With all divers back on deck, Sprit of Freedom motored towards Lizard Island and as the sun set, we moored for our final evening aboard in Watsons Bay. The clear blue waters were teeming with life and the crew hand fed some tawny nurse sharks off the dive deck. The sharks were so friendly that they lifted their noses out of the water, greedily sucking in air and fish. These delightful creatures were beige under the water but when above, glistened a gorgeous matte gold.

Measuring around 2.5m, the sharks created quite a spectacle for guests, who nearly fell overboard when a simply enormous Queensland Giant Grouper emerged from the depths to partake in dinner. This giant fish must have been about 3m long and the crew thought it might be around 60 years old. It is such a treasure that Australia has this protected natural paradise, providing a safe haven for these majestic creatures.

Once the fish feed was finished, it was time for the divers, who wasted little time in descending on a magnificent Aussie BBQ dinner that was being served on the top deck. The spread was impressive and delicious. We feasted on steak, marinated chicken, lamb chops, kangaroo, tuna, potato salad, garden salad, corn on the cob and bread rolls, washed down with complimentary red and white wine. Truly a fabulous last night, on an amazing dive trip.

Guests shared stories of what they had seen, highlights and most memorable critter / moment. Many vowed to return to Cairns’ Great Barrier Reef and Ribbon Reefs, this time to try out Spirit of Freedom’s 4 Day Cod Hole Coral Sea trip, but that is for another day.

DAY 4. Our day does not officially start until 6.30am, but I am up early to grab a coffee and watch the sun rise over Lizard Island on the top deck. In the soft morning light, I marvel at how lucky I am to be here on this morning.

Meantime, in the stateroom below, guests were helping themselves to cereals, fruit, yoghurt and juice. With my second coffee in hand, I arrived just in time for the chocolate croissants, which are warm and crumbly. As everyone relaxes, Chris outlines the morning ahead and reminds everyone to please pack their bags in preparation for departure.

The guests assemble on the top deck for a final farewell with the crew. Photos are taken and thank yous are made: they have certainly exceeded all of our expectations with their service and professionalism, making for a memorable trip on the Ribbon Reefs.

Then it is down to the tender to transfer to Lizard Island, where we arrive on sandy white beaches, with crystal clear waters gently lapping on the coast. Chris takes us on a quick tour past Mrs Watson’s House, along elevated mangrove boardwalks, under weeping paperbark and gum trees and up a hill offering panoramic views over the bay and Lizard Island’s lush, green interior.

The weather is stunning! The water glistens blue and calm beneath us as Spirit of Freedom sits gently in the bay, awaiting the arrival of its new guests and the rest of its trip to the Coral Sea. Climbing down the hill, we explore the beach before heading over to the airstrip for the arrival of our Hinterland Aviation flight back to Cairns.

It’s a low level flight, for diver safety reasons (nitrogen and decompression), and we hug the coast enjoying amazing views over Cooktown, Cape Tribulation – where the rainforest meets and reef – Low Isles off Port Douglas and further along, Palm Cove and Double Island.

Landing at Cairns Airport on Thursday around noon, our Spirit of Freedom 3 Day / 3 Night Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs adventure has come to an end. It has been a brilliant few days of diving, exploring new reefs and meeting new friends. The Spirit of Freedom coach stands by, to return guests to their accommodation or preferred destination in Cairns.

THE VERDICT: Spirit of Freedom is a professional operator committed to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef and delivering their guests a luxurious, first class experience in paradise. The boat is spacious and comfortable. The dive deck, equipment, briefings and crew are modern, friendly and informative. They even help you put on and take off your fins, as well as defogging your mask prior to every dive: now that’s service! The Ribbon Reefs were a joy to dive, vibrant hard and soft corals, feather stars, sea stars, lionfish, reef sharks, turtles, stingrays, giant potato cod, tiny jewel-like damselfish and everything in between. This is a once in a lifetime trip, creating many memories. It is highly recommended.

Spirit of Freedom Liveaboard Dive Boat in Cairns Australia

Spirit of Freedom: 3-Day/3-Night: Cod Hole & Ribbon Reefs

The cod hole & ribbon reefs offer spectacular diving over coral gardens, deep coral walls, protruding bommies. Magnificent diving in the remote untouched outer edge ribbon reefs!

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