Nov 30

Living on a Natural Wonder of the World: the Great Barrier Reef

Our summer travels allowed us to do many things we’d only dreamed of, including visiting the legendary islands around Tahiti, learning to scuba dive, seeing sharks in the wild and visiting a rainforest.  In our last week in Australia, we didn’t just fulfill our lifelong dream to visit the Great Barrier Reef, we surpassed our dreams by living on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef for a full week.

Spirit of Freedom Live-Aboard on the Great Barrier Reef.

Our home for the week, floating above one of the most beautiful reefs in the world

We stayed on the Spirit of Freedom Live-Aboard which we would highly recommend to anyone in an instant.  The concept of a live-aboard was new to us, although it is very popular among divers, and for good reason we quickly learned.  It gave us the chance to live and breathe diving for a full week.  In fact, we did a whopping 27 dives during the week we spent on the boat!   An average full day of diving went something like this:

  • 6:30 am – a staff member yells out a wake-up call and we all roll out of bed for “Brecky 1″.  After eating a light breakfast, it’s time for the dive briefing and we get in the water by 7:15.
  • 8:15 am – as we climb the ladder into the boat, we can smell the sausage and bacon.  We quickly take off our gear and head in for our second breakfast.
  • 10 am – with our breakfast digested, it’s time to get back in the water for another dive.
  • 12:30 pm – after warming up with hot showers (a luxury to have this on boat after some of the places we’d stayed), and grabbing a quick snack, it’s time for a delicious hot lunch
  • 2 pm – time to get ready for dive number 3!
  • On two of the days, we got to go on night dives at dusk, before another delicious meal spent sharing dive stories with the other guests and filling in our logbooks.
  • 9:30 or 10 pm – time to get some well-deserved sleep to prepare for another full day of diving.
Time to dive!

How nice is it to be able to roll out of bed, get geared-up, and jump right in the water?

After 27 dives, it’s impossible to describe all the highlights, not to mention that you may not all want to hear the excruciating details of every dive, down to the colour of each nudibranch we spotted.  Basically, the Great Barrier Reef was everything we expected and more.  Not only did the Live-Aboard give us the chance to do an insane amount of diving, it also allowed us to get to the untouched parts of the reef that few people are lucky enough to see.  In fact, other than a stop at an island, we didn’t even see another boat.  Spirit of Freedom is one of only three companies that travel to the outer reef.  As a result, we dove at pristine reefs, unaffected by tourists, a stark contrast to the parts of the Great Barrier Reef closer to Cairns that see hundreds of divers a day. We were blown away by how diverse and immense the reef is – every dive site was unique.  The diversity and abundance of coral, fish, and invertebrates was incredible.  The photos (taken by the amazing staff at the Spirit of Freedom) are just a taste of some of the highlights of what we saw.

Anemone Fish

Clownfish bravely protecting their home in a sea anemone.



Jeff became an expert at spotting tiny nudibranchs, in many unique shapes and bright colours.

Lionfish, Great Barrier Reef.

Like nudibranchs, the numerous lionfish on the reef came in many shapes and colours.

Diving around a coral bommie on the Great Barrier Reef

The coral itself was a sight to behold, with a wide variety of hard and soft corals.

Lagoon Ray in the Great Barrier Reef.

Lagoon rays like to sleep on the sandy bottom, leading to quite a surprise when they wake up!

Reef sharks on the Great Barrier Reef

While the sharks weren't the highlight here, they are always exciting to see!

Oriental sweetlips

We shared the water with schools of beautiful fish, like these oriental sweetlips.

Shrimp in an anemone.

It's often most exciting to spot something small, like this tiny shrimp hiding an anemone.

Sea turtle, Great Barrier Reef.

We never get tired of seeing turtles.

It was busy enough doing so many dives, but we also did our Advanced Open Water certification on the boat to improve our diving skills.  We did readings and dives to get certified in Deep Water Diving, Navigation, Night Diving, Peak Performance Buoyancy, and Multi-Level Dive Planning.   Thanks to this and the experience we got from so many consecutive dives, we really felt like we improved as divers, and by the end we felt confident diving alone (with the comfort of knowing there were instructors in the water somewhere nearby!)

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

With improved buoyancy, we got to explore tighter areas and, most importantly, avoid damaging coral.

Flame file shell, Great Barrier Reef.

We were instant fans of night diving that allows divers to see unique sights, like this flame file shell.

Warming up after a night dive.

The best way to end a night dive: hot water down the wetsuit!

While it was amazing underwater, I won’t mislead you into thinking it was all fun and games.  As people who had never been on a boat for longer than a few hours, and certainly had not even heard of the term “steam overnight”, we were unprepared for what it would feel like to travel full speed overnight.  During our trips the water was, thankfully, very “calm” according to the crew.  We would hate to find out what rough seas feel like because the calm sea was enough to make us wonder if we’d starve to death on the boat after consuming just a tiny part of the sinfully delicious first dinner.  We popped a sea-sickness pill that allowed us to get some sleep, stumbled around the boat to our room, and willed our dizzy mind and rocking body to get some sleep.  Luckily, we started to get used to life on a boat and weren’t queasy for long.  When we stopped on Lizard Island to drop off and pick up divers who were only staying for half the trip, it was a strange sensation to be on land again.

Lizard Island.

Enjoying the feeling of land beneath my feet on Lizard Island.

This trip offered us some unique experiences, including the Cod Hole, the infamous site where the dive staff feed giant potato cod.  These fish are unnervingly friendly and inquisitive and swam right up to our faces.  In fact, when our dive instructor was going through our navigation course with us, a potato cod swam up to him and was biting a string out of his hands!

Giant potato cod, Great Barrier Reef.

An odd mix of fear and fascination at seeing a fish the size of a human so close!

Hello, beautiful!

The potato cod seemed to enjoy posing for photos.

On this trip we also got to dive with olive sea snakes, a highly venomous snake, that is luckily quite friendly and bites only if seriously provoked.  It is easy to forget that these are not eels, but air-breathing reptiles.  We even saw one uncurl itself from a hiding spot under coral, swim 20 metres to the surface to breathe, then return to its nap under same piece of coral.

Olive sea snake having a nap.

Olive sea snake having a nap under some coral.

Diving with an olive sea snake in the Great Barrier Reef.

Giving the venomous sea snake a bit of space.

One of the highlights of our trip took place at the surface when we spotted a humpback whale calf with its mother.  The calf seemed to be learning to swim, waving and flapping its tail erratically at the surface. Its mother gave it some pointers by swimming under it and guiding it up to the surface with her nose.

Humpback whale calf and its mother.

A humpback whale calf learning to swim beside the watchful eye of its mother.

It got even better when the enormous father arrived on the scene!  It was incredible to see all three splashing around in the water together, then as quickly as they arrived, they disappeared into the blue.


Humpback whales - Mom, Dad, and a calf!

A male and female humpback whale play in the water with their calf.

Dad arrives on the scene.

The male humpback whale looked enormous when he surfaced right next to the boat.

It seemed like it would be an incredibly long time to be diving, but before we knew it, we were on our last dive, about to head home for months without diving.

Getting back on the Spirit of Freedom.

Do we really have to leave this place?

Thanks to the amazing photography talents of the Spirit of Freedom’s staff we have outstanding photos to help us relive this unforgettable trip. They also posted a gallery with great descriptions and more incredible photos of the first and second part of our trip.

With the disappearance of the Great Barrier Reef a real possibility in the not-so-distant future, we feel lucky that we were able to visit it while it’s still healthy.  Decisions like Australia’s recent move to make the Coral Sea the world’s largest marine preserve, are a great step towards preserving this incredible area of the world.


  1. cindy

    A truly amazing blog. The photographs are incredible. I would not be able to do this trip due to huge sea-sickness so kudos to all of you for taking the risk to see such amazing sites. A dream come true.

  2. Adrian

    Some insane photos there! Glad to see that you loved Australia. Better than Canada?

    1. Carolyn
      Twitter: anorthernnomad

      This time of year, there’s no question that Australia is better than Canada!

  3. Jeff
    Twitter: NHLfantasyREF

    Take me back, Take me back!

  4. Andrea
    Twitter: InspirngTrvlrs

    I really love looking at underwater photos of fish – these are incredible!

    1. Carolyn
      Twitter: anorthernnomad

      I wish we could take credit for them! We’re lucky a lot of the diving staff were such good photographers. They were also amazing at spotting all the cool life underwater – it’s great to dive with someone who knows what to look for!

  5. Amer @TendToTravel
    Twitter: TendToTravel

    ohh wow..stunning photos! pretty much speechless! Love the photo of the flame file shell!

  6. Nadia @ ShahAlamCity

    such a great blog! I love to read your story and the pictures are all nice too! ;)

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