Maren I were in Australia over Christmas, and spent three days diving on the Great Barrier Reef from the Nimrod III. We spent a few days in Cairns (where the Nimrod's booking office is based) before heading out to the reef, and did some checking around on dive trips. Of the live aboards it seemed like there were only two luxury operations: Mike Ball and the Nimrod. There are plenty of other boats that will take you to where the diving is just as fantastic for less cost, but these two provide excellent accommodations and superb food as well. Mike Ball's Spoilsport and Supersport seemed to be the premier luxury live aboards, with Mike Ball's Watersport and the Nimrod III being just below them in comfort level - very nice, but a little older and showing their age just a bit. A big advantage of the Nimrod (in my opinion) is that it only takes 16 divers at a time. The Mike Ball boats pack substantially more divers on board.
We were picked up from our hotel at 7 am on December 25 and were shuttled to the Nimrod's office for release form signing and such. The shuttle then took us out to the Cairns airport for a flight in a twin engine Sea Otter to Lizard Island, where the Nimrod was moored. The flight was great, cruising along the Australian shoreline at about 1000 feet; on our left was rain forest coming up to the edge of beautiful deserted beaches, and to the right was the inner fringes of the reef. The water was very clear, and while flying over we could see the shadows of some of the larger fish, rays and tortoises in the shallows below us.
After landing at Lizard Island International Airport (the sign said it was an international airport, anyway!) and after being driven to the beach on the north cove we piled into some Zodiac-like runabouts and were ferried out to the Nimrod itself. After everyone was aboard, the captain, Peter, gathered all of us in the salon/dining room and introduced himself and the five other crew members to us: Frankie, our hostess; Martine, the cook; Mike, the engineer; Wayne, the dive master; and Bob, the backup skipper/1st mate. Peter then gave us a brief overview of the boat and our trip plan. There was cold water and lemonade available at all times, and hot water for tea or instant coffee (they brewed fresh coffee each morning for breakfast, but only instant was available later in the day). There was an honor bar for beer and soda pop - beers were A$3.50 (US$2.45), and pop was A$2.50 (US$1.75). The rule on beer (or any other alcohol - they had bottles of wine for sale, too) was you could start drinking anytime, but once you had anything alcoholic to drink, you were done diving for the day. There was also a cookie jar that was kept filled, for snacking between meals.
The trip would take us south from Lizard Island to Port Douglas; 200 miles along the edge of the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. They had 11 dives scheduled, 9 dives during the days, and 2 night dives. Normally there would have been a third night dive, but since we were starting our trip on Christmas Day (didn't feel like it to me - 90 degrees 95% humidity, blue skies and sunshine. Not exactly Seattle Christmas weather, but I liked it!) they wanted to knock off a little early and have a special Christmas dinner that first night.
The first site was Cod Hole on Ribbon Reef #10 - great spot! On the very first dive we saw a 6' black tipped reef shark, 2 7' moray eels, a lion fish, bunches of huge (5'-6', 90 lbs) potato cod, and a Maori wrasse the same size as the cod (bizarre looking fish - look it up if you're not familiar with it). The first dive was also an acclimatization dive for everyone - some of the folks hadn't dived for a few months.
The second dive was also at Cod Hole, but this time the dive master brought down the food! Pretty standard set up for this type of thing - all the divers head down first and form a semi circle on their knees in the sand around the feeding area. The dive master warned us to keep our hands and fingers close to us, not dangling around in the water looking like food! The dive master then headed down, and dinner was served! The potato cod got pretty excited about this, but the Maori wrasse got downright aggressive! If he didn't get a scrap of food when he made his pass by the dive master, he'd turn around and actually bump the dive master a couple of ties, kind of like "Hey, you forgot me!". About 15 minutes into the feeding (which was supposed to take about 20 minutes), a large moray eel (about 7' long) came swimming out of the reef behind us. One of the gals on the trip had a camera, and was very into underwater photography. As such, she always wore a full 3mm wet suit. She was kneeling on the sand, and concentrating on the fish feed in front of us, and the eel swam right between her knees, wrapped himself around her thigh once, and then headed over towards the dive master. Since she had a wet suit on, she never felt the eel, and she was so busy taking pictures she had no idea what had happened until we all surfaced and told her about it! Fortunately this was one of the dives that was being videotaped, and the entire eel incident was captured on tape - when she finally saw the tape she was a little freaked, but ordered a copy of the tape right away!
After the second dive we pulled up anchor and headed to the third dive site of the day, Challenger Bay. On the way, lunch was served. Martine, the cook, told us that it would be sandwiches for this lunch, and proceeded to bring out a ham, with the bone still in, and about half the meat sliced off of it, some rare sliced roast beef, and some sliced turkey. She also brought out cheese, condiments, and a couple of kinds of breads. Not bad for a quick lunch between dives! The dive was billed as a "dusk" dive - it started right before sunset, and ended in the dark. We got to see how the character of the reef changes as the sun sets; how some of the fish settle in for the night, and others come out to start feeding. This was also the first dive we spotted some barracuda, although they became kind of common by the end of the trip.
After that dive was over we all showered up and changed into dry clothes for Christmas dinner. Martine really outdid herself this time, serving up turkey and stuffing, potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, a green salad, all cooked up that afternoon in the boat's galley and served with champagne! It was wonderful - on par with a very good restaurant! After dinner they poured more champagne, passed out little party favors and party hats (everyone got a little silly with these, and we got some really bizarre looking pictures!), and Peter came down and toasted us all and wished everyone Merry Christmas. What a way to spend Christmas day!
The schedule for the following two days was about the same - weigh anchor about 6:30 and head for the first dive site. Do one dive before breakfast (about 7:30), one dive after breakfast and before lunch (around 10:30), one dive in the afternoon (about 3:00), and one night dive before dinner (around 7:30). The sites we dived were: Fantasia on the west end of Ribbon Reef #10, Ribbon Reef #7, the Blow Hole, the Sand Box, Steve's Bomie, Temple of Doom, Ruby Reefette, and Little Anderson Reef. The dive master, Wayne, profiled all the dives, and gave us maximum depths and times we were not to exceed. This meant that the folks using computers weren't able to take advantage of them, but that didn't generate many complaints. Wayne used the PADI non-decompression dive tables, which are significantly more generous with reduction of residual nitrogen during a surface interval than are the standard navy tables I'm used to. Because of this, we tended to do our own dive profiling, and dove the 3rd and 4th dives of the day more conservatively than Wayne's dive plans.
The diving ranged from very good (Sand Box and Little Anderson) to superb (Cod Hole, Fantasia and Steve's Bomie). Visibility ranged from 40'-90' (great by my standards, but some of the crew members were complaining that it was mediocre). The water temperature was mostly in the low to mid 80's, with one dive in 72 degree water. We both wore Polartec suits, and were quite comfortable on most dives, only getting a little chilled when the water temperature dropped below 80. The food continued to be exceptional, and the accommodations were quite comfortable. Only one glitch developed, and that was with the fresh water shower system. They had some kind of problem with it, and while fixing it, they ended up introducing some salt water into the tanks, so we had to shower with brackish water, rather than pure fresh water - not really a big deal.
As far as accommodations on the boat go, there are two private cabins, with facilities. The couples that had these staterooms had booked them back in March and April for this December trip. The rest of us shared 3 4-bunk berths, with each berth having its own bathroom. Not a lot of closet space available, but then you really don't need to bring much on board with you. Shoes were pretty much dispensed with for the duration of the trip, and a pair of shorts and a T-shirt was pretty much all you needed, in addition to your dive gear. The Nimrod does provide most gear at no extra cost, but there's an extra charge for using their computers, and a A$4 (US$2.80) charge for each use of a flashlight (or torch) for night dives. The condition and quality of the gear seemed fine, although we didn't use any, since we'd brought all our own (except weights and tanks, of course). There's a (mostly) fresh water shower on the rear deck for rinsing off after a dive, and two bins of fresh water, one for general dive gear, and one reserved just for camera equipment. You're provided with a plastic bin for storing your regulators, gauges and BC's between dives (your mask, fins and snorkel get tucked back by your tank on the tank rack), and there's a hanging rod to let wet suits/lycra suits, etc. dry between dives. They really try to keep everything that's wet outside, and that way the salon stays dry, relatively cool, and comfortable.
The salon has a stereo with tapes and CDs, a TV with a VCR and a small selection of video tapes, a small paperback library, and a great selection of fish identification books, which were constantly spread out on the salon table with people pouring over them, trying to identify the new fish they'd seen on the last dive! There's also a fishing rig set up on the back deck (one of the guys managed to snag a barracuda, which Martine cooked up for us that night for dinner). Not much else to do - just diving, eating, sun bathing, and visiting with folks from around the world - tough life! (The countries/areas represented by the other folks on our trip were: Japan, Bermuda, Indonesia, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Norway, Germany by way of Brazil, England, and one guy from Australia.)
The final morning you dock in Port Douglas, and they bus you back to Cairns. You get back around noon, and the first stop is back at the Nimrod dive shop, where you're asked to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. Then they shuttle everyone back to their respective hotels, or to the Cairns airport if you're catching a flight out that day. My log book says the final dive the previous day was over by around 6:00pm, so any evening flights should be safe to book. If you book your trip so you start on a Tuesday (instead of Saturday, as we did), you do the trip in exactly the reverse order. Bus up to Port Douglas, 3 full days of diving (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday), arrive at Lizard Island on Saturday morning, and fly back to Cairns. The cost for either trip is the same, but if you start on a Tuesday, you get one extra day on board, so your schedule is a little more relaxed. You can also book a seven day trip, starting at either end.
The cost for the trip was A$770 (US$539) per person. There's also a reef tax of A$4 (US$2.80) per person everyone has to pay at the end of the trip, and the crew members shoot about a 20 minute video tape of the trip and some of the dives, which was available for A$60 (US$42). (I thought the charge for the video tape was a little high, but I don't have any other references. What have other folks seen dive boats charge for dive videos?) The only complaint I had was that the time went by so quickly, and the trip was over so soon!