Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Northern Gutter
In March 1998 I travelled to Darwin in the Northern Territory. While this was not primarily a diving trip, I took the opportunity to do some dives while I was there. While the majority of the diving in Darwin is on wrecks, there are also many reef dives.
On this trip to Darwin I went on a exploration diving trip with Cullen Bay Dive. The first dive of the day was at the Northern Gutters. This was about one hour and fifteen minutes in a very fast boat (25 knots - almost 50 kph) from the Cullen Bay marina. This was out towards Bathurst and Melville Islands and was so far from Darwin (say 50 kilometres from Darwin) that the mainland could not be seen at all.
The second dive was back towards the mainland at a location called the Vernon Islands on a wreck called MV Marchart.
The seas are absolutely flat, like we get in Sydney once every couple of years. It certainly makes a change from what I had experienced a week ago in Sydney. We arrive at the location and after running around for 10 or 15 minutes we have the dive location pinpointed. The reef here drops from 35 metres to over 50 metres in less that 50 metres distance. There is a bit of a current running, probably two knots or so. No-one has ever dived this location as far as we know so this is a bit of an experiment (the location has apparently come from fishers' reports of the dropoff).
A buoy is dropped on the planned entry site and we start to gear up. The boat pulls in close to the buoy and we enter the water and swim without too much trouble to the buoy. Our first task is to tie off two Nitrox tanks at three and six metres for later decompression. This is quite difficult as it is hard holding on and trying to hook the clips into the loops we have previously tied in the rope. After what seems like ages but is actually only a minute (from when I later download my dive computer), we continue to the bottom at 45 metres, finally arriving there after five minutes. This has been a hard descent, more than two minutes longer than my normal descent to similar depths in Sydney.
The others arrive (four of us in total) and we lift the small anchor off the bottom and start our rapid drift to the south-west. The visibility is very poor, only about two metres and it is also very dark due to the depth and dirty water. At first there is a lot of sponges, sea squirts, some gorgonias, a few sea whips and some other fixed marine life. The bottom is sand and the slope is very gradual.
We get a bit deeper, reaching 50 metres. We are really flying along. I check that everyone is still on the line and am very pleased to see that the other three are still holding on to the rope. There is very little fishlife to be seen, at least in the small circle of area we can see and that is lit by my 50 watt light. The fixed growth starts to peter out after six or seven minutes on the bottom (that is, 10 or 11 minutes in the water) but we stick it out, hoping that the fishlife and the marine growth will come back again.
After 10 minutes on the bottom we decide that there is little point in continuing the dive and accumulating even more decompression time (two minutes at six metres and five minutes at three metres) than we already have run up. We ascend and do our stops on Nitrox. Finally we ascend and we are collected by the dive boat.
Unfortunately, this has not been a great dive but, like many exploration dives, you win some and loose some.
The water temperature when I visited was 30°C and I only wore a Lycra suit as protection against the deadly box jellyfish.
While I travelled to Darwin at the end of the Wet Season, I would recommend avoiding this time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the days and nights are unbearably hot and humid, with temperatures of 35° and humidity of 95% most days. Even just sitting around you sweat profusely. The cost of travelling to Darwin is also quite high, with a 21 day advance purchase airfare costing $730 from Sydney. If you can travel at relatively short notice, then you can get this airfare down to $470 or thereabouts when the airlines offer special prices. For example, in April to June 1998 two people could travel for $457 each.
During my visit I dived with Cullen Bay Dive (08 8981 3049) and can recommend them for their excellent service.
Michael McFadyen travelled to Darwin using his own funds and dived courtesy of his own money, so he reserves to write about the dive operators he actually used and enjoyed.