It is quite a long bus ride from Townsville to Airlie Beach. As the bus pulled into town, it was clear that there had been quite a lot of development since my previous visit a few years ago. One less welcome change was that they had moved the bus stop to the other end of town. My dive trip was leaving that evening, so I planned to just leave my stuff at the dive shop, which was right next to the old stop.
I did my PADI Open Water course in Airlie Beach with a shop called Oceania Dive. I had since returned to Airlie in 1997 and had gone on a trip with Pro Dive Whitsunday. As you can see from the report, it wasn't the best trip I'd ever been on. Since that trip, the original company operating as Pro Dive had changed their name to Reef Dive. Oceania Dive had bought the rights to the name and were now running two shops independently. The Pro Dive boat, Ocean Pro, suited my schedule a bit better so I booked on them.
|Airlie Beach at low tide|
The paperwork consisted of the longest waiver I've ever seen in my life. It was four sides of A4 and seemed completely over the top. I spent the day sitting around and reading my book by the beach. Despite the name, Airlie Beach doesn't have a very good beach. When the tide goes out, it reveals a lot of muddy rocks.
So that evening, I returned and we went down to the boat. It was an impressive sight inside. There was a long table which was big enough for everyone to sit at and the interior was all wood. The cabins were rather less impressive. I was in a 5-share and it was pretty cramped and there wasn't much storage space for your luggage.
We sat down and the dive supervisor asked for all the certified divers to go up one end. Then he asked who had a computer. Only I did, so he said that we would all have to dive to tables. As you can imagine, I was not best pleased and pointed out that I actually had two computers. But the only other people who weren't doing a course that I could dive with were a pair, so I would have to dive in a three, so it didn't help.
So then he explained that the first dive was to 18m for 40 minutes, the second to 16m for 40 minutes. I got this sudden feeling of deja vu as this was exactly what had happened on my last Airlie Beach liveaboard. Except this was even worse, because they insisted on using the PADI tables incorrectly. You are supposed to use your bottom time on the PADI RDP. They used the whole dive time and even included the three minute safety stop. So in fact, you were really doing a dive with a 35-36 minute bottom time, but they were working it out on the tables as if it were a 40 minute one. I was not happy and made this rather obvious.
The boat slowly chugged out to the reef overnight. Its top speed was only about 5 knots. This meant that we would head back from the Great Barrier Reef after out third dive on the second day. The night dive and the two dives of the third day would be around the Whitsunday islands. This again was a bit disappointing and it's not something that was mentioned anywhere on their website when I booked it. I think it should be.
The vast majority of the 25 or so people on board were doing the Open Water course. They showed just how seriously they were taking the whole thing by playing drinking games the night before their first ever dive in open water. The dive supervisor was about as impressed as I was.
The next morning we had arrived at Little Black Reef and the first dive was on a site called NW Shoals. This was our checkout dive and we were given instructions on how we should check that we were weighted correctly. The instructions were wrong because they would have just ensured we were weighted OK at the beginning of the dive. Then, as we breathed down about 3-4lbs of air, we would then be too bouyant.
I jumped in and with my two buddies sank to the bottom and waited for the others. They took a couple of minutes before they managed to get down and we eventually met up with them. At this point, the instructor was happy with our buoyancy and waved us off. The site itself was nothing special but the coral was healthy, and there was plenty of live staghorn coral, unlike the reefs I'd visited near Cairns. Our dive time was 40 minutes, of course, though I went a bit deeper than 18m, by about 30cm. When we got out, they didn't attempt to work out my pressure code on the tables and just wrote computer. I took this to mean that I could go a bit deeper.
The boat stayed moored in the same place and we then dived the NW Shoals Outer Wall. This was a better site. As the name implies, it was a wall, so having to stick to 16m was annoying. We saw lots of fusiliers, a napolean (Maori) wrasse and some yellow tailed snapper. The visibility was about 15m and the water temperature was 24ºC. This time we stayed a bit longer, 45 minutes after agreeing it before hand. My computer showed that we'd done a very conservative dive, but one of my buddies dipped below 16m, which put her on the edge of the table. Fortunately, they then used the tables correctly, not including the safety stops to work out her real pressure group. However, this meant that we were restricted on the third dive of the day.
For our third dive, the tender boat took as off to a part of the reef called South Lagoon. The visibility was a bit down in places, but it was never much below 10m, and usually 15m. We swam along a wall of the bommie and then came around the corner and into the lagoon area of the reef. We saw the usual small tropicals, but nothing unusual. Our dive time was only 38 minutes because of my buddy's previous indiscretion.
That night we did a night dive at South Lagoon again. It was one of those dives where you had to look closely. The coral polyps were all out feeding. There were brittle stars moving around and small hermit crabs. At one point, a large prawn was obviously dazzled by my torch as it free swam around inside the beam. I'd never seen anything like it, so it was a definite highlight.
When we got back to the boat, the OW students were on the drink again. They had only done two dives in the morning and had only been allowed to snorkel in the afternoon. PADI rules say that the 4 Open Water dives must be done on separate days, but there's nothing to stop operators from taking divers on extra, experience dives in between. I've been on boats in Cairns where they do this. Obviously, the more dives you get, the better diver you're going to be when you're certified.
|One of the smaller Whitsundays|
The second dive was at a site called the Keyhole. It wasn't actually supposed to be, but everyone followed me and I missed the gap where I was supposed to swim out onto the outer wall. It must have been quite a bit shallower than on the dive brief. However, we were quite pleased we'd gone the wrong way because it was one of the better sites. There was lots of really nice staghorn coral and some interesting gullies to swim through. On one of the sandier patches, we found a blue spotted stingray as well as plenty of smaller stuff.
For the third dive, they actually moved the boat some distance to a site called Fejj's Bommie. This was without doubt, the best dive of the trip. There were big shoals of fusiliers and yellow tail snapper and there were mackerel and tuna hunting them. The coral itself was good and there were some nice swim-throughs and little caves which were well worth exploring. This was the first dive the new certified OW divers did on their own. Several of them bust their depth limits. They were warned that they were risking the DCS by the staff, but I'm not entirely sure it was going in.
After the third dive, the boat set off for the Whitsunday islands; Hayman island to be precise. We anchored in Blue Pearl Bay and waited for it to get dark. We set off on our night dive, which was OK but nothing special. There were some prawns, mostly visible because of their eyes which glow in the torch light, and some squirrel fish. The light also attracted some worms and some bugs which looked like a kind of underwater insect. The visibility was worse than the dives on the Great Barrier Reef. It was definitely less than 10m, though it's hard to tell in the dark.
The OW divers were doing their first night dive under the supervision of a DM. Half of them managed to lose the other half, didn't surface and continued on without them or the DM. So about half of them only got to do a 5 minute dive.
Next morning and we were to dive the south end of the Blue Pearl Bay. We made sure that we went down to 17m, so we didn't restrict later dives under the Queensland regulations, but most of the dive was about 10m or less. The coral was good, though a lot of it was fire coral, and there were some bumphead parrot fish, sweetlips in overhangs, some snapper and the compulsory fusiliers. The visibility ranged between 5-10m on the dive.
Our last dive was the other end of the bay at a site called the Maze. We saw a napolean (Maori) wrasse and some snapper. Some of the really shallow coral was very coloured and quite pretty. It would have made a nice snorkel site. Just snorkelling, you would still have seen everything. Our maximum depth was 13m and we were down for 42 minutes. As all the divers were in the water, it took a long time to get picked up by the tender. In the end, I just swam back, but it was a fair surface swim. Neither of my buddies felt like doing it.
I really don't think I can recommend Pro Dive Whitsunday to certified divers unless you're sure you've got a computer and so has your buddy. The Open Water training looked fine, and it wasn't the instructors' fault that some of the students clearly weren't taking things seriously enough. They said all the right things to them, it just didn't seem to register. The coral was healthier than around Cairns, though I did think that the boat could have moved around a bit. I'm sure there are better sites than some of the ones we visited.
The fish are different in this part of the reef compared to off Cairns. It's hardly surprising as it's a fair distance and the water is a bit cooler. One of the instructors said she'd never seen a lion fish there. They're quite common further north and I saw several on my trip a week earlier. It was a cheap trip and the accommodation reflected that, as did the food, which was OK but not great.
However, that said, the fact that computers aren't available on board severely limits the diving you can do. A lot of the Cairns operators will hire you a computer and as long as you don't dive deeper than your previous dive and don't bend the computer, that's fine. You get longer dives. You can do multi-level profiles and check out things of interest that are deeper. And you don't run the risk of being banned from the water for 6 hours just because you momentarily dropped 2½ metres too deep. It's easy to go a bit too deep on walls as there aren't that many reference points.
There are only two dedicated dive operators currently in Airlie Beach, Oceania Dive/Pro Dive and Reef Dive. I've now tried both and wouldn't recommend either of them. Tallarook also do some diving, but their emphasis seems more to be about sailing around the Whitsundays with some diving. If that's of interest, then they are worth a try. For certified divers, I think they're better off going somewhere else like Cairns or Townsville. I thinks this is a great pity as Airlie Beach was where I started my diving career and it does have a lot to offer in terms of dive sites. If anyone hears of an operator with more reasonable limits for certified divers in the area, let me know. I'm sure I'll be back in the area sometime.
After the dive trip, I spent a couple of days in Airlie Beach itself. I stayed at the Airlie Waterfront Backpackers and got woken up fairly early every morning by the washing machine located just below my window. One night whilst watching the television, what looked suspiciously like two rats ran in and out of the communal area.
One new feature of Airlie is what they call the “lagoon”. It's really a large swimming pool with a couple of sandy areas and grassy areas all around. It's very popular and it's free. Lifeguards are on duty too. As the beach isn't really that suitable for swimming even when there aren't jellyfish in the water, it's a good addition to the resort.
The other thing that Airlie is renowned for is its nightlife. It's second only to Cairns in that respect. There are a number of nightclubs, one of which featured jelly wrestling one night. Sadly I was on the boat at the time. There are also quite a few bars, takeaways and cafes.
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