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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


I have dived the Ribbon Reefs many times, you could say I am hooked on the Ribbon Reefs. This delightful section of the Great Barrier Reef keeps luring me back year after year with its beautiful corals, towering pinnacles, diverse reef fishes, massive schools of pelagic fish, great macro critters and many friendly marine reptiles. And my most recent visit in July only reinforced why this area is so special, as I got to play with dwarf minke whales!


The Ribbon Reefs are a string of reefs north of Cairns. Spread over 100km, the only way to explore these fabulous reefs is to join a liveaboard vessel. Only a handful of boats visit this area, including the wonderful Spirit of Freedom. Based in Cairns, Spirit of Freedom is a 37m long vessel that each week does a three day trip to the Ribbon Reefs, followed by a four day trip to Osprey Reef. I have often stayed on for the entire week, but for my most recent trip I wanted to focus on the Ribbon Reefs and hopefully see a dwarf minke whale, so the three day trip was perfect.


Boarding Spirit of Freedom in the late morning, we were soon underway heading to the outer reefs off Cairns for our checkout dives. On the way we had the boat and safety briefings by trip director Lucy Hutchinson. I quickly met the crew and my fellow divers, a great mix of divers from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the USA.


By the mid-afternoon we were moored at a site called Troppos on Norman Reef. Cairns dives sites are often underrated, generally by people that have never dived them, but this site had pretty corals and a great assortment of reef fish and pelagic fish. Over two dives we encountered batfish, bumphead parrotfish, barramundi cod, reef sharks, mackerel, trevally, turtles and stingrays. But the highlight was an over-friendly giant Maori wrasse that took a liking to me and my buddy Dave. The large fish closely inspected us, peering into our masks and followed us around for several minutes.


After a very filling dinner, the fabulous food always a feature of a Spirit of Freedom trip, we set sail for an overnight trip to the Ribbon Reefs. The next morning I woke to find we were moored at Steve’s Bommie, one of my favourite dive sites on Ribbon Reef No.3. The sighting of a dwarf minke whale before we entered the water was a good omen, and we had a spectacular dive with 30m visibility.


Exploring this pinnacle of coral we encountered schools of trevally, snappers, fusiliers and unicornfish. I spotted a dwarf minke whale in the distance, but it decided to avoid the bubble-blowers. As usual this site had a great mix of big and small species; turtles, nudibranchs, gropers, pipefish, mackerel, stonefish, stingrays and anemonefish.


With the dwarf minke whale still hanging around the boat when we surfaced, it was time to play with this gentle giant. Dwarf minke whales migrate to the Great Barrier Reef over the winter months, but are best seen on the Ribbon Reefs in June and July. These small whales only grow to 8m long, but are the most curious and friendly of all the whales, and seek out the company of stationary boats and snorkelers when in reef waters. Spirit of Freedom have a special swim-with-whales permit and the crew briefed us on the procedures to encounter minke whales – snorkel only, hang onto the float line, no splashing and no chasing the whale.


Hanging in the blue water it took twenty minutes for the dwarf minke whale to finally come in close to check-us-out. Its initial shyness overcome, the 6m long whale did about ten passes around us, often only a few meters away. After an hour hanging with the whale it departed and we did another great dive at Steve’s Bommie.


Heading north our next dive was at Google Garden, a site that is loaded with very healthy hard corals. Anyone that tells you the Great Barrier Reef is dead needs to see the great corals at this dive site. Exploring the coral heads at Google Gardens we encountered a good range of reef fish and invertebrates, but a large broadclub cuttlefish was the main highlight.


Our afternoon and night dive was at Challenger Bay. This site was hammered by a cyclone a few years ago, so its hard corals are not the best, but the site is still home to a great variety of fish species. My favourites were a school of diagonal-banded sweetlips hoovering over a coral head. The night dive was even better, with a pack of whitetip reef sharks hunting the reef for small fish. It was a dramatic dive with a dozen sharks zooming around, as they were competing with some very hungry red bass and giant trevallies.


Our final day of diving found us moored at Lighthouse Bommie in the morning. This tower of coral is always an incredible dive and it didn’t disappoint. A massive school of bigeye trevally were swarming around the top of the pinnacle, while at its base were dense schools of snapper. Over two dives we saw turtles, reef sharks, pipefish, nudibranchs, mackerel and several olive sea snakes. Lighthouse Bommie is also a hotspot for minke whales, and between dives we saw two whales while snorkelling on the float line.


After another filling lunch we were ready to dive one of the most famous dive sites on the Ribbon Reefs, Cod Hole. I jumped in to find the visibility almost endless, well over 45m, and heading to the bottom I could already see four potato cod had arrived for the feed. The crew only give the gropers a small supply of fish, and as usual it was consumed by one bossy fish. With the food gone, the gropers settled down and allowed us to get very close for some great photos. Of course the gropers are not the only residents of this site as we also encountered reef sharks, red bass, surgeonfish and trevally.


Our final dive was a drift dive at Dynamite Pass. This site always has great fish life, but flying over the bottom I also admired the pretty corals – gorgonians, sea whips, sponges and soft corals.


All too soon we arrived at Lizard Island for our final night, a barbeque under the stars. The next morning I, along with the others departing after the three day trip, transferred to Lizard Island for the low level flight to Cairns. It was sad to leave Spirit of Freedom and the wonderful Ribbon Reefs, but I know it will not be long before I return to explore more of this wonderful region of the Great Barrier Reef.


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