1969. It was the year man first set foot on the moon, thousands of rock ‘n’ roll fans descended on Woodstock, and the first Concorde test flight was conducted. It was also when Mike Ball Dive Expeditions started Tropical North Queensland’s first dive school. While humans have never been back to the moon, there’s never been another music festival to rival Woodstock, and Concordes no longer grace our skies, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has continued to thrive over the past five decades and today, its industry experience is second to none. The pioneering scuba-diving company is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2019 and, with it, a changing of the guard as founder Mike Ball moves into retirement, officially handing over the helm to his right-hand man of 25 years, Craig Stephen.
When a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ by the name of Mike Ball arrived in Australia and headed north from Sydney, the last thing he expected to be doing was working at a sports store in Townsville – the place he ended up when his car broke down. Never one to miss an opportunity, he seized on an idea to open a watersports section in that Townsville shop. In a short space of time, Mike expanded into a very successful dive school. The rest, as they say, is all part of a remarkable 50-year history in the dive industry.
To get some insight into this award-winning business, Renee Cluff sat down with Craig Stephen, the general manager of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.
Q: What have been some of the highlights and milestones for the company over the past 50 years?
A: After Mike started a successful dive school in Townsville, he then built a world-class state-of-the-art dive facility in Walker Street, Townsville (still there today!) and his frustration with charter boats either breaking down or not meeting his own high standards forced him into bankrolling the world’s first custom-built scuba-diving liveaboard catamaran in 1981. Three more vessels followed, including our current flagship Spoilsport, which was built in 1989 and is Australia’s most-awarded dive vessel. In 1997, our newest liveaboard Paradise Sport was built specifically for a venture into PNG, where we operated for a decade before ceasing operations there. As a company, we’ve championed the protection of reefs, particularly as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Representative Areas Programme. In 2004, we helped secure protection for the Ribbon Reefs sector to the north of Cooktown. Last year, the Federal Government’s Parks Australia finally announced similar protections for the Coral Sea Marine Reserves, and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions worked very closely with the government to help secure a fair outcome for all stakeholders and user groups. We are now part of the advisory committee as we move forward with management. To us, one of the biggest achievements during this process has been securing a sanctuary for our iconic sharks at Osprey Reef.
Q: How has getting in the game early impacted the Mike Ball Dive Expeditions experience of today?
A: As a pioneer of liveaboard diving, Mike Ball’s vision set the standard very high way back in the 1970s with customer service and great diving. From these early days of exploring the reef with expeditions from Townsville to Cape York and out into the Coral Sea, a wealth of knowledge has been built about where we can safely dive all year round. We take advantage of the calmer months to explore the wider reaches rarely visited because of weather and sea conditions. Our roving permits allow us to keep our expeditions as just that, real diving expeditions constantly exploring and discovering new ‘world-class’ dive locations.
Q: How has the company adapted to constant change in the industry over the years?
A: We’ve seen several technological advances in dive equipment and we’ve adapted to the demands and increased popularity of technical diving to accommodate ‘rebreather divers’ with extensive staff training and safety procedures. Another big advancement has been dive computers calculating a multitude of variances, constantly monitoring and advising you on your ‘safe status’. While dive computers cannot guarantee your safety because many other physical factors contribute to dive-related illness, they’ve dramatically reduced incidences of decompression illness (the bends). Workplace Health and Safety plays a very large part in ensuring the safety of staff and guests. Dealing with the elements certainly keeps us on our toes at sea, and a great deal of effort is invested in staff training to maintain a safe environment. The technology in photo and video has also made great advances. Gone are the days when you had to wait overnight to see the results of your 36mm film from our onboard E6 processing lab – nowadays you can just shoot, review, adjust and shoot again, all while you’re still underwater. Many things, however, have stayed the same. Our new state-of-the-art vessel we built didn’t meet expectations and wasn’t as good as the one we use now. Plus, the basic diving system hasn’t changed since Jacques Cousteau invented the aqualung in 1942. We need something to breathe with, sink with, swim with and see with – it’s that simple. At the end of the day, all we really want to do is get out there and swim with the fishes, marveling at the beauty and wonder beneath the waves.
Q: What principles has the company stayed true to?
A: As a pioneer of the dive industry, when we first ran exploratory expeditions during the 1980s, it was the excitement of the unknown that made what we did unique. To this day we still continue along this vein, constantly exploring and introducing new and exciting dive locations and growing new itineraries to kept the most-adventurous explorer satisfied.
Q: What has been Mike Ball’s greatest legacy?
A: Providing exploratory, expedition-style diving, combined with customer service excellence. Plus, he invented the stinger suit, which is used by every dive and snorkel operator on the Great Barrier Reef today.
Q: Now you are at the helm, how do you plan to draw on that legacy?
A: Working with Mike over the past 25 years has been a privilege. Drawing from my own experience and the opportunities to explore the remote regions throughout the Coral Sea and PNG, Mike and I grew itineraries that have kept divers smiling for many, many years. Our close working relationship has bonded me to his vision, adventurous spirit and demand for the provision of excellent customer service. So for me as the GM moving forward, I’m delighted to say it’s quite simply business as usual for Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.
Q: What’s in store for the future of Mike Ball Diving Expeditions?
For now we’ll be steering a steady course ahead, continuing to offer sensational world-class diving and customer service. We have a philanthropic obligation to the environment and to ensure we continue to strive for further protection and educate our guests as to just how important it is to protect this most-amazing resource. Now more than ever, industry, conservation groups and government agencies need to step up, read from the same song sheet and start making changes to ensure the protection of our ocean’s future.
The Mike Ball difference
The best dive sites including the Cod Hole, Osprey Reef, the Ribbon Reefs, Raine Island and the SS Yongala wreck.
A passion for photography with two dedicated camera stations on Spoilsport, as well as underwater cameras for rent and a dedicated photo video pro on staff. There’s also a free onboard underwater photography workshop.
Longer bottom times because it’s the only liveaboard dive company on the Great Barrier Reef with qualified rebreather supervisors. Open dive deck and solo diving policies also mean there are no restrictions on bottom time.
11,000+ dive certifications
52,000+ passengers on current flagship Spoilsport
Stinger suit vision
At the age of 25, after designing a nylon onesie he believed would protect him from deadly box jellyfish, Mike Ball put his body on the line by exposing himself to live tentacles. Luckily, he emerged unscathed and the stinger suit was born. Before his 1973 invention, swimmers and divers had been using pantyhose to protect themselves, but the material proved too fragile. Today’s stinger suits are made from Lycra and are widely used in tropical North Queensland to protect from both box and irukandji jellyfish.