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Divers gear up on the dive deck of Big Cat Reality.


Wreck and reef diving near Brisbane

By Andrew Whitehead

Published in Dive Log Australasia
January 2006


The Skipper anchored the ship over a section of an extensive reef known as Hutchison Shoal, five nautical miles north of Cape Moreton near Brisbane. He said that, in this particular spot, we were very likely to see one or two Grey Nurse Sharks. The dive supervisor divided us up into two groups and gave us an additional briefing on how to conduct the dive in the presence of these now rarely seen sharks.

We followed the anchor chain down to the rocky, coral-encrusted reef. A ridge loomed ahead indicating that there might be some interesting country on the far side. The ridge dropped away steeply leaving an overhang where I spotted a potato cod. Further along, there were several wobbegong lying on the bottom, two large lionfish and a school of rainbow runners.

Then I saw a big tail about 15 metres away, cruising slowly along the gutter, well below us. We slid down to 28 metres and stopped as the big male grey nurse turned back and swam straight past us. The shark did not seem to be bothered by us. In fact, it appeared to be quite oblivious to our presence. We froze in place on the sloping rock and waited. A second smaller shark cruised past us in the deeper water. This was only the second dive on what promised to be an adventurous weekend.

Big Cat Reality

Our weekend trip coincided with a window of good weather since we had smooth seas, hot and sunny, perfect diving conditions. We met at Newport Waterways, Scarborough, on Friday afternoon and loaded our gear on board Big Cat Reality, a 25 metre vessel which can accommodate up to 24 divers and 7 crew. The size of the ship and the diversity of sites in the Moreton Bay Marine Park, make a weekend on this vessel a popular choice for pleasure divers and dive shop owners wishing to conduct specialty courses. Big Cat Reality has a 10 metre beam which provides a large stable dive platform.

We were welcomed aboard by Skipper Gil and made to feel at home. I claimed my favourite bunk in one of the air-conditioned hulls. We crossed Moreton Bay on Friday night and anchored in a sheltered bay on the west coast of Moreton Island. At first light, we headed out to Flinders Reef, about 5 kilometres north of Cape Moreton. I enjoyed a hot shower, a shave, and a good breakfast on the way to the first dive site.

Our Dive Supervisor for this trip was Harry from Nautilus Scuba. Harry is a part time instructor who works full time as an Army Officer in the Australian Defence Force. He gave us the detailed dive briefings on the position of the ship, the dive site, and the diving conditions. The dive crew checked us in and out of the water with great care and attention. Some of the ship’s crew even managed to squeeze in a few dives themselves while being attentive and looked after us very well.

Cementco Wreck Dive

Our first dive on the trip was the wreck of the Cementco north east of Flinders Reef. The Cementco is a barge that was built in 1944 and carried dead coral from Moreton Bay up the Brisbane River to the Darra cement works for many years. It was scuttled in 1985 near Flinders Reef at about 25 metres. Heavy weather caused the barge to turn upside down and sink prematurely. Later on, large panels were cut out of the bottom giving divers easy access to the interior. The barge is 67 metres long and weighed about 2000 tonnes.

While the group of students swam around the outside of the big rectangular box-shaped barge, my son and I dived down into the hold through the open bottom and headed towards the bow. Switching on our torches, we entered a corridor which led us down the port side, through the upside-down engine room to the stern, then back out into the sunlight in the hold.

Back on board, the dive supervisor unclipped my tag and noted my bottom time, maximum depth and remaining air pressure. When my hands were dry, I signed the safety log beside my name. Every diver is carefully accounted for on this ship and there were no incidents of any kind over the entire weekend. No one got lost. No one had to be rescued by the tender. This is indicative of a well-run operation.

Flinders Reef

Flinders Reef is covered in a variety of hard and soft corals and is classified as a “Protection Zone” which extends 50 metres seaward from the exposed reef. Boating and diving are allowed in this zone but no fishing. The recent introduction of permanent moorings is a welcome addition to protect the coral from boat anchors and chain.

The skipper moved Big Cat Reality into the lee of the exposed reef where there were some smaller charter boats. One more dive was conducted during the afternoon on this beautiful coral reef at around 14 metres. My son went off for this dive with two of the girls on board while I had a nap in preparation for the night dive.

At night, Flinders Reef came alive: nudibranchs, crayfish scuttling around, and numerous species of coral in full colour. The macro life is also more easily observed, as we discovered many wobbegongs, leopard sharks and two huge turtles asleep under ledges.

After the night dive, the hungry divers lined up at the galley servery for a smorgasbord of barbequed steak, sausages, onions, eggs, potato salad and garden salad, ice cream and apple pie. With two dining areas and a huge covered upper deck, there is plenty of room for 24 divers to eat in comfort. It was so calm out there, we spent the night anchored at Flinders instead of heading back into the shelter of Moreton Bay.

In order to avoid gear problems from salt corrosion, I always take 100 ml of SALT-X Concentrate and a bucket with a lid. I add the SALT-X to 7 litres of water in the bucket on the first night. I soaked my regulators, power inflator, gauges, reel, torch and knives for a few minutes to remove any accumulated salt and then hung them up to dry. The SALT-X can be re-used each day and then used with wetsuit wash to clean your BCD and wetsuit at the end of the trip.

Less Frequented Sites

Because of the calm conditions, we were able to venture outside Cape Moreton heading south down the outside of Moreton Island. This was a rare treat and I took numerous digital images of the colourful strata in the formidable cliff at Cape Moreton. The lighthouse sits on top of this huge lump of rock which forms the north east corner of an otherwise sandy island.

Looking at the chart, it is not surprising to see an extensive chain of reefs and shoals near the cape from Hutchison Shoal down to Henderson Rock. There is another patch of rocks and headlands down at Point Lookout which forms the north east corner of Stradbroke Island.

We anchored over a completely different rocky reef called Cherubs which is just north of Henderson Rock. The first thing I noticed was the kelp that filled the gullies and the two degree drop in water temperature down to 20 deg (Celsius). Brrrr! There were dense kelp beds everywhere and they hid all sorts of little surprises including sea horses, pipefish and nudibranchs. We swam through two large caves but I am not sure whether either of them was the famous Cherubs Cave. I managed to get down to 29 metres which is quite unusual around here.

Back on board, we cruised north to Brennan Shoal which is one nm east north east of the cape. With the spectacular backdrop of Cape Moreton we dived on another open sea reef that is usually far to rough and exposed for safe diving. While not as rugged or as deep as Cherubs, Brennan Shoal is a large rocky outcrop sitting on sand down to 20 metres. We did a big circuit around the northern end of the rock and back over the top with the current where we encountered our anchor chain. Easy navigation in superb visibility!

Marietta Dal

For our last dive, the skipper took us over to Smith Rock where he anchored directly over the wreckage of the former Liberty ship Marietta Dal which hit the rock and sank in 1950. Liberty ships were not built to last, and there is not much left of this one after 55 years in the shallow, often turbulent water. We followed a compass course south from the main drive shaft and found the remnants of the cargo of tractors. Unless you know what you are looking for, it is hard to identify the caterpillar tracks after all this time. We explored the nearby rocky outcrops which must have torn the bottom out of the ship. There are several caves with wobbegongs and crayfish, and even a small piece of the ship that you can swim through.

If you want to have your own adventurous weekend of great diving on Big Cat Reality, you can book online or phone James McVeigh on 07 3203 0633, Mobile 0438 812 384.

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