The Great Barrier Reef doesn’t need any introduction. Everyone wants to experience the world’s most extensive coral reef system at some point, from simply cruising the turquoise seas, snorkeling or diving the area in search of its world-famous marine life. As divers, this was a must-do! The Ribbon Reefs are among the most pristine sites and should be a definite stop for all dive trips.
Diving the Ribbon Reefs
With over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands, the choice for divers is unlimited. And for us a paradise to be discovered. These Reefs, also known as the Northern Reefs, are about 60 miles (100 km) north of Cairns and require a three to five-day trip for navigation and dive time. A remote but easily accessible site, the area is also a diving paradise with flats, walls, and bommies (pinnacles). The current is mostly gentle, and the visibility excellent in warm water, and made it perfect for PADI Open Water divers that we were, barely a dozen dives in our log.
The liveaboard was the only option to access reefs further away and enjoy more time on site. We booked our trip as a liveaboard on the TAKA dive boat, their particular itinerary visiting Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs which we had read a lot about and were very excited to dive!
We did 10 dives during this trip, including two-night dives.
- Challenger Bay
A popular dive site with excellent coral, the reef top starts at about 16 ft (5 m) and goes down to roughly 65 ft (20 m) to a sandy bottom. We saw numerous Teardrop Butterflyfish, a juvenile midnight Snapper, and several common Lionfish, as well as several large schools of Trevally and Surgeonfish.
Dive log: BT: 40 mn / Depth: 60 ft (18 m) / Visibility: 50-65 ft (15-20 m)
- Cod Hole
The visibility of the dive site is amazing, and the white sand area is relatively shallow and protected, a great place for divers of all levels. We saw a giant Clam which was purple inside, Parrotfish, Common Lionfish, Maori Humphead Wrasse, Harlequin Sweetlips and a very rare Lacey Scorpionfish! The coral was pretty great too, from brain coral, staghorn coral, and mushroom leather coral. Worth mentioning was a purple Sea Star and several Colonial Sea Squirt.
Dive log: BT: 32 mn / Depth: 60 ft (18m) / Visibility: 65-82 ft (20-25 m)
- Cod Feed at Cod Hole
Famous for its family of large potato Cod, this is a very popular stop while diving in the Ribbon Reefs. The area is the natural habitat for large potato cod potato cod (also known as Queensland grouper), which can reach up to 6 ft (2 m) in length. The regular feeding by the humans in the last two decades probably helped them reach this size more than their regular diet. Now I have to say we were not thrilled by this human feeding. We had not realized this was happening or did not pay enough attention. We usually don’t like to feed any animal. After researching this, it appeared that dive operators need to secure a fish feeding license first and only “Advanced Eco-Tourism” operators can apply. The feeding is permitted as long the volume doesn’t exceed 2 pounds of fish per day. The idea behind this is that this quantity is not enough to feed the Cod properly and that they still have to hunt by themselves, ensuring they don’t develop a dependent behavior to visiting divers. I guess this is better than free for all, but we still feel this could be approached differently. Even if that means you don’t get to see them that close and don’t get a selfie with a large potato cod up to 200 lbs (60 kg) right by you.
Once we made our way to the shallow sandy area, our divemaster had us kneeled in a large circle around him. He carried a box with him and even before he had time to open it up, a large Potato Cod headed straight to him. Pretty soon, several Cod were swimming around us, together with a myriad of other fish eager to catch some left over. Our divemaster would come around to each of us so that the potato cod would come close to each of us. I have to say that facing the gentle giant was something of a kind. Again, while this was a thrilling moment, I would have preferred this to happen by chance more than the draw of free food.As we were leaving the site after the Potato Cod feed, our instructor pointed out a nearby white tip shark swimming around us. Though the shark stayed at a distance and did not appear aggressive, there was a definite sense of concern seeing so close and moving around us, especially just after the feed. We were hoping not become his feed! We stayed as a tight group and close to the bottom until he moved away.
Dive log: BT: 60 mn / Depth: 42 ft (13m) / Visibility: 49-65 ft (15-20 m). Max depth is 100 ft (30 m).
- Night Dive at Challenger Bay
This was our first night dive and to be honest, I was quite anxious about it. Many horror stories came to mind covered from all our lamps dying, strong drift current carrying us away, to losing sight of our divemaster, as well as encountering large sharks that would happily feast on us for dinner. But on we dressed and with powerful lights hung from the line, we jumped into the dark water. I grabbed Bruno’s arm and made sure to stay close to him. As usual, I started to relax within minutes and looked in amazement into a whole new world. Granted, safety was even more critical given the conditions and our divemaster made sure to swim slowly so that the group would stay together, and kept checking back on us. The lights attracted lots of fish around the boat as we headed back, a spectacular sight in itself. We saw bigger fish during this dive, from two white-tip Reef Sharks, a hunting Moray, a huge red Reef Crab, a lobster and a red Seabass.
Dive log: BT: 39 mn / Depth: 46 ft (14 m) / Visibility: 16 ft (5 m)
- Deep Dive at Steve’s Bommie
This dive was part of our PADI AOW certification, and we started the day with our deepest dive at 100 ft (30 m). Steve’s Bommie was the perfect site for that, and we dropped low along the single pinnacle. We stayed a few minutes at that depth, pretty much the bottom of the bommie, but quickly started our way up, slowly circling the bommie.
This was probably our best dives, at least the one that I fully enjoyed. The pinnacle was teeming with marine life, with school after school of yellow snappers. Beside this aquarium-like surrounding, we got lucky to find a Flame Shell, a Clown Triggerfish, and a giant Starfish.
The site is such a treat that we went for a second dive where we saw lots of Anemonefish (Clark’s, Spinecheek…), so cute and funny hiding in the tentacles of their anemones, many Holford Half Chromis, Damselfish, etc. The site also held many nudibranchs, all more beautiful than the others.
I really loved these little creatures, their colors, and patterns so amazing.There is no confirmed information as to who Steve was and why the bommie is named after him. Each boat, each person seemed to have a story and explanation of their own!
Dive log: BT: 37 mn / Depth: 100 ft (30 m) / Visibility: 65-82 ft (20-25 m). Max depth is 100 ft (30 m)
- Night Dive at Beer Garden
The second dive felt more comfortable though the first minutes were high in adrenaline as usual. We saw an Epaulette Shark for the first time, an interesting pattern design. Lots of parrot fish and nudibranchs.
Dive log: BT: 42 mn / Depth: 40 ft (12 m) / Visibility: 16 ft (5 m)
- Two and Two Third
This was a nice site, but nothing spectacular. I guess we were spoiled from the day before when we dived Steve’s Bommie. We still saw a Blackspotted Pufferfish among other interesting fish.
Dive log: BT: 38 mn / Depth: 49 ft (15 m) / Visibility: 49-65 ft (15-20 m).
- Troppo Lounge at Norman Reef
Our last dive, this was also the first one we dived independently, just us as a buddy-system. No divemaster to show us around, no one to help us navigate or watch time and depth! This was a big step for us (well, for me!). The pre-check dive review was a thorough as usual, and our divemaster made sure we had all the information we needed to do this safely. The site offered several canyons, horseshoe-shaped bay, shallow reefs, side walls, all made for great exploration. The current was low though we could feel it pushing us slowly along the walls. We encountered several Maori Bumphead Wrasse, Shepherd Parrotfish and even a Stingray laying on the sandy floor.
- Troppo Lounge at Norman Reef
Dive log: BT: 50 mn / Depth: 75 ft (23 m) / Visibility: 65 ft (20 m). Max depth is 100 ft (30 m)
Ribbon Reefs Diving Season
Thanks to its tropical climate, the Ribbon Reefs can be visited anytime. Best time to dive is from August to December, which covers the end of winter to mid-summer. Visibility is also constantly good, though September to November is the better time. December to February are the rainiest months and might make for rough water. June to August, the winter months in that part of the world, might offer sightings of the Dwarf Minke Whales on their migration. Humpback whales are mostly seen from August to October. Coral Spawning is best observed in October and November.
Watch for the “Stinger season,” when the dangerous box jellyfish rifts along the East coast from November to May.
Ribbon Reefs Summary
- Location: 62-87 miles (100-140 km) from Cairns, Queensland, Australia
- Surface: mostly calm, though winter can be moderately rough with some swells
- Water: 72-86º F (22-30º C)
- Depth: 16-130 ft ( 5-40 m)
- Visibility: 16-82 ft (5-25 m) depending on the site. Best time is September to November on the Ribbon Reefs
- Current: mostly gentle close to the dive sites but can be strong in some of the Ribbon.
- Level: beginner to advanced