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
RIBBONS OF LIFE
Text and photos by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Hovering over the top of the pinnacle we really didn’t need to go any deeper than 6m as all around us were swarms of fish. Schools of big-eye trevally, chevron barracuda, yellow-finned goatfish, blue and gold fusilier and yellow-lined snapper circled us, plus darting between this mass of fish were even larger giant trevally and mackerel. But if we didn’t go any deeper we were going to miss out on the reef sharks, turtles, stonefish, pipefish, leaf scorpionfish and many other creatures that gather on this tower of coral known as Steve’s Bommie.
This amazing pinnacle was just one of the fabulous dive sites we explored on a recent trip to Australia’s Ribbon Reefs. Our adventure started in the tropical north of Australia in Cairns, a city almost over-run by backpackers, where we had travelled to spend a week on the liveaboard vessel Spirit of Freedom (SOF). While Cairns has many attractions for the hoards of backpackers, we were happy to leave the crowds, board SOF and set sail for the Ribbon Reefs, located around 200km north of the city.
SOF is the largest liveaboard operating on the Great Barrier Reef, 37m long and very comfortable. The vessel is air-conditioned throughout, has eleven cabins for guests, each with its own bathroom, a large lounge, a very large dining room and a spacious sundeck. The dive deck is huge and guests can either dive on air or nitrox. SOF offers three day and four day trips, which can be combined into a week long trip to explore the best of the Ribbon Reefs and, if conditions allow, a visit to Osprey Reef, deep in the Coral Sea.
While receiving our boat briefing the crew cast off and we were underway. The conditions, we were diving in March, couldn’t have been better, calm seas, no wind and very warm. We had a few hours before we reached our first dive site, time to unpack in our roomy cabin, set up our dive gear and have lunch, the first of many spectacular meals during the trip.
In the afternoon we tied up to the mooring at Jorgy’s Patch for our checkout dives. This site is visited by day boats from Cairns but still has very healthy coral gardens and a multitude of reef fish and invertebrate species. As we explored the site we encountered white tip reef sharks, blue spotted lagoon rays, a range of anemonefish and even an ornate wobbegong shark resting in a cave. The water temperature was a balmy 29°C and the visibility 25m.
Overnight we headed 200km north to the very top of Ribbon Reef No.10 where a very special dive site is located, the famous Cod Hole.
Cod Hole is a legendary dive site of the Great Barrier Reef and it certainly lives up to its reputation. Stepping off the back of the boat we were greeted with 30m visibility, a school of red bass and a very large potato cod. After a few photos of this giant fish hanging in mid-water we descended to explore the gutters and coral gardens that drop into 35m. We were hoping to see the resident pygmy seahorses, but they seemed to have moved to new stables, or we just couldn’t see them. But at 30m we did encounter three grey reef sharks patrolling a ridge and several bump-headed parrotfish.
Working our way back into the shallows we encountered white tip reef sharks, a school of beautifully patterned diagonal-banded sweetlips hovering over a coral head, a thick school of snapper and a lovely reef cuttlefish. But we spent most of the dive observing and photographing the very friendly potato cod. These giant fish, with mottled coats of black and white, are completely at ease with divers and just sit on the bottom or rest under the plate corals. They have wonderful comical faces, with their fat lips and bulging eyes, and are happy to sit eyeball to eyeball with divers as they get their photos taken. They seemed to be fascinated by their own reflection in my camera dome port, staring at the port for minutes at a time, one even bumping it with its fat bottom lip. It is really tempting to reach out and pat or hug these friendly fish, but no touching is the rule to avoid infection to their sensitive skin.
Our second dive at Cod Hole was the cod feed, and this seemed to get the cod a little more active. All the divers kneel or sit in a sandy gutter while one of the crew hand feeds the cod only inches from your mask. Three of the two dozen or so potato cod in the area turned up for the feed, but only one greedy individual got all the food. The best part of the feed was watching the behaviour of these giant fish; the big boss chasing the other cod away, the other cod then sneaking up again and hiding behind divers legs. One of the cod sitting beside us was watching the feed like it was one of the guests, rather than the star attraction.
Over the next two days we dived some wonderful sites around Ribbon Reef No.10. Lighthouse Bommie was one of the best, a pinnacle of coral rising from 25m to 5m and swarming with fish life. We first explored the small outcrop to one side that was engulfed by a school of yellow-lined snapper. But we quickly forgot this mass of fish when we spotted an olive sea snake foraging on the far side of the reef. These highly venomous reptiles are extremely docile and generally ignore divers, but are fun to watch, especially when they sliver between the fins of nervous divers. We photographed this one for several minutes before it headed to the surface to get a breath of air.
Back on the main pinnacle we found common lionfish, reeftop pipefish, long-nose hawkfish, a variety of rock cod species, squirrelfish, gorgonians, sea whips and several nudibranchs. But the best action was on the top of the pinnacle where a whirlpool of big-eye trevally where circling. Each one of these pinnacles we dived on the Ribbon Reefs had a massive concentration of marine life and everyone was a sensational dive.
At nearby Pixie Wall we slowly drifted along the drop-off seeing coral trout, angelfish and all the usual reef fish. But this is one spot where you need to keep an eye out to the blue water; we were rewarded with views of grey reef sharks and a large all-black manta ray.
Each day we explored at least three dive sites, enjoying dives on the coral gardens at Pixie Gardens, Challenger Bay, Stepping Stones and Wonderland. But the highlights continued to be the pinnacles, or bommies as Aussies know them. At Pixie Pinnacle we saw some lovely gorgonians, soft corals and sea whips, and many large reef fish, but the highlight was all the little critters. A close look at the corals revealed reeftop pipefish, commensal shrimps, nudibranchs, hermit crabs, flatworms, blennies and juvenile boxfish. But the most memorable resident were several flaming file shells. These psychedelic flashing red scallops, with neon-like blue lights playing across their bodies, are found in the crevasses and put on quite a show.
Another outstanding dive site we explored in the calm conditions was the Snake Pit. This site consists of twin bommies surrounded by coral gardens, ledges and a drop-off. We encountered several olive sea snakes, plus turtles, a school of barracuda, white tip reef sharks, blue spotted stingrays, coral trout, titan triggerfish, Maori wrasse and a wonderful cuttlefish. But the most exiting part of the dive was when a 2m long bull shark buzzed us several times, unfortunately never close enough for a good photo.
After three days of magic diving we headed to Lizard Island to drop off some of the passengers and pick up some new ones. We had a chance to go ashore on this picturesque island, where there is an expensive resort, and even saw one the creatures it was named after, a large lace monitor lizard or goanna.
The plan then was to head out to Osprey Reef, but our calm weather was forecast to change - and change it did – the wind suddenly blowing 30 knots and the seas rising to 5m. Unfortunately we were to miss the shark feed and sheer walls of Osprey Reef, but still being able to dive in the calm sheltered waters behind the Ribbon Reefs in these terrible conditions was a blessing, in most other places we would have been heading home.
For the next four days we had very wild weather, but we didn’t miss a dive. We returned for two more great dives at Cod Hole, our new friends seemed happy to have us back. We then did an exciting drift dive at Dynamite Pass, drifting along a colourful reef wall and seeing mackerel, trevally, coral trout, reef sharks and a large Maori wrasse. We even ventured across a sandy plain that was home to a colony of garden eels feeding in the current.
The best dives continued to be the pinnacles, with Two Towers another spectacular dive site. A double set of bommies rising from 25m where we encountered all the usual suspects; reef sharks, turtles, olive sea snakes, gropers and schools of snapper, sweetlips, barracuda, trevally and batfish.
As we continued south we dived several coral gardens at Yarbies, Clam Garden, Flair Point and Joanies Joy, which were all quite enjoyable. On our last day we arrived off Ribbon Reef No.3 to explore not just one of the best sites on the Ribbon Reefs, but one of the best dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef, Steve’s Bommie.
As mentioned in the introduction this bommie is on steroids with the amount of marine life it attracts. The bommie rises from the sand at 30m and stops just short of the surface. Coated in lovely hard corals, soft corals, gorgonians and sea whips it is pretty dive site, but we were too busy looking at all the fish to barely notice this. Though we saw several white-tip reef sharks, a flowery groper and a green turtle, we spent most of our first dive engrossed by the massive schools of fish.
Fortunately we had two dives at Steve’s Bommie, so after going mad with the wide angle lens with the schools of fish we switched to a macro lens to concentrate on the smaller creatures that also inhabit this tower of coral. And we were glad we did as there were pipefish, blennies, anemonefish, lionfish, nudies, flatworms, moray eels, hermit crabs and several mantis shrimps. But the resident leaf scorpionfish had mysteriously disappeared, which had the crew baffled as they had been here for years. At least the colourful reef stonefish were still around, though hiding amongst the coral and rubble made them difficult to photograph.
Even with the horrible conditions for the last four days we still had a wonderful week on the Ribbon Reefs, seeing the best that the Great Barrier Reef has to offer. But next time we will go back in winter (June/July) as the weather tends to be more stable and the Ribbon Reefs are also visited by dwarf minke whales at that time of the year, adding an extra dimension to these already magic reefs.
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