N I G E L    M A R S H    P H O T O G R A P H Y

U  N  D  E  R  W  A  T  E  R      I  M  A  G  E  S     A  N  D     A  R  T  I  C  L  E  S


by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose


We have a policy of trying to avoid returning to the same diving destination too often as there are so many new sites still to explore. We rarely break this rule, but one destination that keeps dragging us back for many return visits is the wonderful Ribbon Reefs.


It is a combination of factors that keep bring us back to the Ribbon Reefs, north of Cairns. The first is naturally the diving, which is just brilliant at any time of the year, as there are lovely corals, a variety of terrains and a wide variety of species to see on every dive. Another factor is the regulars, the animals you are guaranteed of seeing; such as olive sea snakes, stonefish, reef sharks, turtles, schooling fish, dwarf minke whales (in winter) and the famous potato cod of Cod Hole. The final factor is the boats, with some of the best liveaboard boats in the world visiting the Ribbon Reefs, even if the diving was average (fortunately it isn’t) you will still feel spoilt by the service on these boats.


One of these boats is Australia’s premier liveaboard, Spirit of Freedom, and after our first trip on this incredible vessel we were hooked and knew we would return. The crew are superb, looking after your every need, the cabins roomy, the dive deck is spacious and well laid-out and the food – well lets just say that you may have to move up a wetsuit size before the end of the trip!


Our recent trip on Spirit of Freedom was a good example of why we keep coming back to the Ribbon Reefs. Boarding the boat on a Monday morning in Cairns, we had a mixed group of passengers from Europe, USA and Australia. The crew quickly settled us into our cabins and then trip director Chris conducted a number of briefings as we got underway.


Our first two dives of the trip were just to blow out the cobwebs and see everyone’s ability, so were done on Saxon Reef, just north of Cairns. This was a pretty dive site with plenty of fish and invertebrates, but we knew the best was yet to come.


Overnight we headed north, waking in the morning to find ourselves at Challenger Bay at Ribbon Reef No. 10, about 200km north of Cairns. This first dive on the Ribbons was just superb, 30m visibility and fish everywhere. Under the boat was a massive school of big-eye trevally, with a few giant trevally thrown into the mix, and during the dive we saw barracuda, garden eels, lionfish, grey reef sharks, Maori wrasse, gropers, coral trout and abundant invertebrates. But the highlight was a school of over two hundred humphead parrotfish in the shallows, the most we have ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef.


Our next dive was at one of our favourites – Cod Hole. The potato cod here are like old friends and it is always a joy to jump into the water and be greeted by one of these enormous gropers. Of course there is much more to be seen at Cod Hole beside the gropers, such as reef sharks, numerous reef fish and passing pelagics, but we always spend most of the dive with the very photogenic potato cod.


The second dive at Cod Hole was the cod feed, always entertaining. We had three of the gropers turn up, but as usual only one got the food and spent half the time chasing the other two away. A very enjoyable twenty minutes with these always engaging gropers.


Our final dive of the day was at Two Towers, twin pinnacles that are home to a variety of species. During our hour long dive we encountered olive sea snakes, stingrays, reef sharks and schools of snapper. While some enjoyed a night dive, we relaxed with a glass of wine and enjoyed the sunset.


Next morning we headed to Pixie Reef for two dives, the first a drift dive along Pixie Wall. Here we saw schools of trevally and barracuda, reef sharks, Maori wrasse and a colourful cuttlefish. Then it was onto Pixie Pinnacle, a great spot for macro with its pipefish, long-nose hawkfish, lionfish, nudibranchs, flatworms and flaming file shells.


After lunch it was time to explore Lighthouse Bommie, another wonderful tower of coral that is home to sea snakes, moray eels, turtles, gropers and thick schools of snapper. Our final dive was at another favourite site, The Snake Pit. This group of bommies is home to masses of fish, plus turtles, eagle rays, stingrays, reef sharks and also quite a few olive sea snakes.


That afternoon Spirit of Freedom anchored at Lizard Island for the night. It was the final day of the three day Ribbon Reef trip and the last night before some of the passengers departed in the morning. We enjoyed a lovely barbeque dinner on the spacious sundeck and were also entertained by four tawny nurse sharks and a Queensland groper that were hanging around the duck board waiting to share our meal.


The next morning was a little sad, time to go ashore on Lizard Island and say goodbye to some new friends, but fortunately we were also welcoming a new group of passengers that were joining Spirit of Freedom for the next four days to explore more of the fabulous Ribbon Reefs and also the legendary Osprey Reef. To be continued.


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