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The dive master unclips your tag and notes your bottom time, maximum depth and remaining air pressure.


Wreck and reef diving near Brisbane

By Andrew Whitehead

Published in Dive Log Australasia March 2003


We glided down through the deep blue water like skydivers with arms and legs extended, breaking occasionally with bursts of air from our power inflators. At 30 metres, we could clearly see a steel wreck laid out before us on the white sand.  The anchor chain from “Big Cat Reality” lay next to the stern of the wreck of the St Paul. The ship was a French freighter of 1633 tones bound from New Caledonia to Brisbane in 1914.  It struck Smith Rock in rough seas, and sank in 40 metres of water to the east of Smiths. It is reported that 18 lives were lost. The wreck’s location was found by James McVeigh, the owner of “Big Cat Reality”.

In very clear water and a slight head-on current, my buddy and I swam past the two boilers towards the bow. I found a good reef anchor lying on the wreck and tried to unhook the rope, but had to leave it.  You cannot do very much and you have very little time to do it at 40 metres!  We reached the bow and checked computers and gauges.  With 120 cu ft of 28% Nitrox, I had a considerable safety margin over the divers on air.  My buddy was diving on Nitrox under supervision but he was using an air computer, so we had to follow its conservative rulings. As expected, it was flashing a decompression ceiling as we slowly ascended the anchor chain, making deep stops at 20 and 10 metres. A beautiful dive!

Big Cat Reality

The size of “Big Cat Reality” 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. On this trip Neil Harris from Absolute Scuba ‘N’ Snorkeling was conducting the practical part of the Advanced Diving Techniques, Nitrox Diver and Night Diver courses.  A group of divers from another shop were also doing an advanced course.

We met at Newport Waterways, Scarborough, on Friday afternoon and loaded our gear on board ship. Big Cat Reality is a 25 metre, luxury liveaboard vessel with facilities to accommodate up to 24 divers and 7 crew including a K180 dive compressor, and a 4.2 metre rigid inflatable rescue vessel.  The ship has the latest navigation equipment with a professional and experienced crew. Big Cat Reality has a 10 metre beam which provides a large stable dive platform. 

The group of students and a few of us pleasure divers claimed our air-conditioned bunks downstairs in the starboard hull and placed our tanks in the slots behind the starboard seats.   We were welcomed aboard by James McVeigh and made to feel very much at home. 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. One thing about liveaboard diving that I really like is that you can have a hot shower, a shave, and a good breakfast on the way to the dive site!

Dive Preparation

On this vessel there are two sets of back-to-back seats with numbered tank racks, and room for big dive bins underneath.  You set up your gear in one of these racks and this becomes your allotted number for the duration of the trip.  You then write your name on the Safety Log next to your rack number, with diving qualifications, and whether you are using a computer, prior to each dive.

One of the instructors presented the pre-dive briefing on a board which is conveniently placed on the back of the door to the rear lounge.  You then retrieve your fins from the big fin bin and walk around to the starboard side to be checked off by the dive crew.  Your tank pressure is duly noted and the dive master clips your tag onto a convenient D-ring on your BCD.  Then hang on to your mask, torch, regulator, etc, take a giant stride over the side, give the OK signal and follow the current line to the bow.

Cementco Wreck Dive

The Cementco is a big barge that was built in 1944 and 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 easy access to divers.  The barge was 67 metres long and weighed about 2000 tonnes.

For this dive, my buddy and I teamed up with Mark and Lyle who were also on this trip as pleasure divers.  Mark has penetrated the Cementco a few times before, so he led us around a few corridors, through the upside-down engine room, visited a large Queensland grouper in a pitch-dark room, and exited through a narrow slot below the rudders.  As I eased my way out trying not to damage the wings on my BC, a surge through the wreck popped me out like a cork out of a bottle!

Back on board, the dive master unclips your tag and notes your bottom time, maximum depth and remaining air pressure.  When your hands are dry, you must sign the safety log beside your name.  This paperwork is required in order to comply with Queensland’s Workplace Health & Safety diving industry code of practice.

Nitrox Diving

Once your gear is back in the rack, all you have to do is remove the first stage from the tank valve and the cylinder is re-filled with air by the instructors.  There was an interesting mix of dive gear on board.  The usual range of alloy air tanks with open-faced valves (ie yoke type) were in general use.  However the Nitrox students used 12 litre working capacity (100 cu ft) oxygen-cleaned steel tanks with the distinctive green and yellow Nitrox band.  The tanks had high pressure DIN valves so they can be filled to their maximum working pressure of 230 Bar.    I went along as a pleasure diver equipped with one 15 litre (120 cu ft) and two 12 litre (100 cu ft) steel tanks, all filled at the shop with EANx 32, 36 and 38 respectively.  I also took my Poseidon Jetstream Nitrox regulator with analogue gauges attached. In addition, I wore a Nitrox computer which can be set for any gas mix.

Under Neil’s careful supervision, we calculated the correct amount of pure oxygen to put in our tanks, so that it would end up with the required mix when topped up with air.  When each tank was full, the diver analysed the mix, filled in the tag and the log sheet with the pressure, gas mix and maximum operating depth.  Since most of the Nitrox students had air computers, they were able to dive these to their deco limits and still have a safety margin due to the reduced nitrogen in their breathing gas.  One of the students was a bit heavy on the air consumption, so I lent him my 120 cu ft tank after the first dive and then for the rest of the trip.

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.  Three more dives were conducted during the day on this beautiful coral reef at around 14 metres.  Neil’s Advanced Diving Techniques course covers boat diving, waves tides and currents, dive computer use, and navigation. There were endless opportunities to practice the many skills that are acquired during this course. They also gained some experience at landing on the big rear stairs in the choppy conditions and hauling themselves out of the water.  Neil took them on a little underwater orienteering exercise to hone their navigation skills.

The hungry divers lined up at the galley servery for a smorgasbord lunch of lasagne, chicken, ham, potato salad and garden salad.  With two dining areas and a huge covered upper deck, there is plenty of room for 24 divers to eat in comfort.  After the night dive, we headed in to the sheltered anchorage at Bulwer where the cooks prepared a barbeque for us.  We were treated to another smorgasbord, this time with steak, sausages and onions on the “party” deck.

The following day the conditions were windy and rough in the open ocean. On these occasions we dive on the inside of Moreton Island at sites called Comboyuro Drop Off, The Pines, Curtin Artificial Reef and Tangalooma Wrecks. The mid-morning low tide would be ideal for Curtin Artificial Reef, giving time for a dive at The Pines beforehand.  We prepared for a drift dive in the outgoing tide.

Drift Dive

I had managed to miss this dive in the past, but this time I was determined to go.  I am glad I did, because it is a great dive!  Neil was organising a commando style entry from the rear gate, so we decided to tag along with his group of Advanced and Nitrox students.  We jumped in within seconds of each other and descended straight to the bottom at 14 metres.  There are long sections of “coffee rock” walls and boulders, which we drifted past in good visibility with big schools of fish. We saw many wobbegongs asleep under ledges and two turtles.  The students with reels practiced sending their safety sausages to the surface to indicate their position and enable them to stay at the 5-metre level.  After completing a drifting safety stop, Big Cat Reality was right there to pick us up.

Curtin Artificial Reef

The skipper moved the ship to the southern end of Curtin Artificial Reef for a dive at low tide.  My buddy and I descended the anchor chain to the massive Cairncross Drydock Gate, then explored the gravel barge “Estrella Del Mar”, the tug “Loevenstein”, and across to the self-propelled barge “Etmor” at 22 metres. The Etmor is often used for wreck diver training since it has some good penetrations below the deck of the ship.    As usual, my buddy’s air computer started flashing a 3-metre deco stop even though my Nitrox computer was nowhere near deco time.  We retraced our course to one of the drop lines under the stern of Big Cat Reality and did our safety stop. Our 100 cu ft tanks gave us plenty of air for this little tour of the wrecks.

Night Dive

At dusk, the skipper anchored over the northern part of Curtin Artificial Reef.  Since there are about twenty good-sized wrecks making up the reef, it is important on a night dive to not only find something other than sand, but to also identify the wreck so that you know exactly where you are.  The skipper announced that the anchor was a few metres east of the “Bremer” so we decided to have a really good look at this old barge.

The “Bremer” is one of several self-propelled barges that were sunk by the URGQ to add to the Curtin Artificial Reef.  It is 50 metres long and was scuttled in 1992.  It lay on its starboard side for several years, but now lies upright on the sand at 22 metres.

With torch beams lancing through the water and safety lights flashing, we descended the anchor chain to the bottom, followed it along the sand and found the anchor behind a big concrete pipe.  I pointed my compass to the west and we swam a few kicks to a steel wall with a big hole in it.  The skipper was spot on again!  We swam around the two big holds and through the corridors to the bow.  Back again to the hole-in-the-wall, over the side, heading east this time, and there was the anchor chain still lying in the sand. Accurate positioning of the ship and good navigation make diving a pleasure.

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 3881 2384, Mobile 0438 812 384.

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