Night diving at the Heron Island Diving Festival 2012

Night-diving at the Heron Island Dive Festival 2012.

Night diving at the Heron Island Diving Festival 2012
Divign at Heron Island

Heron Island is known around the world for having some of the most beautiful dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef, and it celebrated that fact again this year by hosting the second annual Heron Island Dive Festival. Held over five days in July, the festival attracted dive enthusiasts from all over the country, including yours truly from Trade-a-Boat HQ in Melbourne.

Located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, 72km off the coast of Gladstone, Heron Island is a tiny cay formed of broken-down coral from the huge reef that surrounds it. Its pristine beaches are a nesting ground for green and loggerhead sea turtles, while its waters teem with 900 of the Reef’s 1500 tropical fish species, as well as mega fauna favourites like manta rays, whales and a variety of shark species. It’s a special place indeed, and the ideal location for a dive festival.

The event started on a Wednesday, but due to commitments in the so-called "real world" I missed the first couple of days, arriving instead on the Friday. Eager to complete my first-ever night dive that evening, I needed to get to the island in time for the last afternoon dive in order to demonstrate my skills and qualify for the night shift. Certainly I enjoyed the cloudless boat ride over and the heart-warming display of acrobatics by the local population of mega fauna, but I was also itching to pull-on my wetsuit and take a giant stride into the blue.

After disembarking from the boat — and once I’d collected my jaw from the wooden jetty where it fell in awe of the sight of Heron Island at high tide (by far her finest hour) — I politely declined the offer of lunch and tried to maintain tunnel vision in order to race to my room and change into my gear. This was easier said than done for one with my desperate vulnerability to remote tropical islands, but I managed to convince myself I’d have plenty of time to explore later, while right now I was on a mission.

I made it back to the jetty just in time, and stepped down onto a dive boat full of healthy-looking, salt-encrusted punters who chatted happily as they hooked-up regulators to air tanks, loaded weights into BCDs, filled masks with anti-fog, played with the settings of expensive-looking underwater cameras and made adjustments to the gear of their buddies.

We were bound for Tenements, an 18m-deep dive site comprised of large, flat bommies, where I would come face-to-face with innumerable vibrantly-coloured fish, a green sea turtle (the first of many over the weekend), a nudibranch and perhaps the strangest fish I ever did see — an Oriental flying gurnard, I would later learn — who bore an uncanny resemblance to a moth with its large, mottled wings lined with spikes. The little guy flared them out with all his might as he eyeballed the giant pink and black thing hovering gracelessly over him like a newborn calf.

Having successfully proven my ability to breathe underwater, I was given the go-ahead for the night dive. Despite my expectations of verifiable wetsuit pooping, I was more nervous while munching on a Kit Kat in-between dives than I was as I plunged into the darkness, the sun but a distant, glowing memory on the horizon where the mainland used to be before it was obscured by a vast expanse of nothingness.

Still floating on the surface, I put my face in the water and was greeted by a surreal yet beautiful sight: shafts of blue light dancing far below me — my fellow divers, already descended and finding their buoyancy by torchlight. I emptied my BCD and sank gently down the mooring line into the famous Heron Bommie, for a truly amazing dive.

We saw hundreds of fish, some suspended sleepily in large, stationary schools, others darting around busily, apparently on the night shift. We also saw turtles and black-tipped reef sharks, whose eyes glowed menacingly in our torchlight. But perhaps the most striking thing about the dive was what was left to the imagination; the creatures lingering just wide of our torch beams, who would never make it into our serotonin-fuelled debrief at the bar later that night.

Later, as I floated on my back on the surface in the middle of the ocean waiting for the boat to collect me, I watched a million stars blazing in the wide, uninterrupted sky above me and felt like about the luckiest person on earth. Heron Island tends to have that effect on people.

This year the Dive Festival saw numbers almost double from the inaugural event in 2011, lending a fantastic vibe to the island and serving as a testament to the health and vibrancy of the industry. The event was supported by key
industry sponsors — including Oceanic, Underwater, and Aquanaut — who maintained a strong presence throughout the festival, encouraging punters to test new gear and buy it if they liked it (and buy they did).

The event was tightly run and a huge amount of fun for all involved, thanks in large part to a friendly and exuberant dive crew, whose love for the place was infectious. The festival closed with a serious bang on the final night, as organisers threw a gala ball complete with an amazing seafood feast and probably one too many cocktails.

There were some bleary eyes boarding the boat to go home the next day, partly thanks to the cocktails and partly thanks to the stark reality of returning to the alleged "real world". Exactly how many days until next year’s event?

Top photo: A tiny dot in the vast Coral Sea: what Heron Island lacks in size it makes up for in sheer natural beauty and an astounding abundance of life.

A bird’s-eye view shows how vast Heron Reef is, with neighbouring reefs and cays in the background.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 431, Sept-Oct 2012. Story: Emma Ryan. Photos: Emma Ryan; Tourism QLD.


Want the latest stories delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for the free TradeBoats e-newsletter.