The Ribbon Reefs

Cover photo courtesy of Amy Stevens #beyond_amy

The Ribbon Reefs are an impressive representation of how varied life on the Great Barrier Reef can be. World class diving, the Ribbon Reefs are Nirvana for  this woman scuba diver. The Ribbon Reefs benefit from nutrient rich currents, providing a haven for tuna, barracuda, reef sharks, rays, mackerel, bumphead parrot fish, giant clams, potato cod and more. Sandy passages meander through the Ribbon Reefs like roadways, allowing larger animals and boats to navigate the maze that is the Ribbon Reefs. The inner Ribbon Reefs offer protected diving, amazing diversity, minimum current and good visibility. The outer Ribbons have sheer 1000m drops creating exhilarating wall dives for scuba divers.  As a female scuba diver I find looking out to the breath-taking blue exciting with huge pelagics cruising by. Located north of Cairns the Ribbon Reefs are one of the most popular dive destinations on the Great Barrier Reef marine park.

What are the Ribbon Reefs Great Barrier Reef?

The Ribbon Reefs, Northern Great Barrier Reef, is a collection of coral reefs spanning approximately 100km from Lizard Island and Cooktown to the edge of the Continental Shelf. The Ribbon Reefs epitomize how varied life on the Great Barrier Reef can be. Diving the inside of the Ribbon Reefs is good all year round with excellent visibility, virtually no current, and amazing diversity. 

Dive the Ribbon Reefs

Liveaboards offer the best access to the unspoiled Ribbon Reefs for scuba diving. Fringing the continental shelf, the Ribbon Reefs are numbered from 1 to 10. Spanning approximately 100km the reef dive sites seem endless. Most have good visibility, low current, and a plethora of marine life both pelagic and macro. Diving is good all year round, with water temperatures ranging from 22 degrees to 29 degrees, the good visibility exceptional between the months of September and November. Tropical north Queensland, experiences a wet season between December and February, when it is more likely to rain, though mainly at night or early morning. A cyclone possible between January and February.

Whilst the Ribbon Reefs can almost stand in a category of their own, technically they still provide a barrier and are classed as a barrier reef. Many are extremely narrow, often no more than 450 metres. Uniquely the reefs often push up vertically creating huge monoliths which are simply spectacular. Trevally, reef sharks, turtles, sweetlips, rays, and barracuda can be found swimming in the sandy gulley’s separating the reefs. On the sheltered inside, bommies loom from the sea floor averaging depths of thirty metres, often finishing in the shallows at five metres, perfect for snorkelling or a picturesque safety stop for divers.

Ribbon Reefs

Ribbon Reef Number 1 is located just north of Cairns and Ribbon reef Number 10 is approximately 20 km from Lizard Island. The infamous and beautiful Cod Hole is found on Ribbon Reef #10 and the world renown Steve’s Bommie between Ribbon Reefs #2 and #3. The Ribbons are also home to a variety of macros including nudibranchs, flatworm, coral crabs, shrimps, and the diminutive pygmy seahorse.

A SCUBA WOMAN with giant potato cod, The Cod Hole, Ribbon Reefs EMPTY NEST DIVER
The Cod Hole

As a woman scuba diving, I am amazed at the diverse topography of the Ribbon Reefs. Large plate corals, coral gardens, sea whips, soft corals, gorgonian fans, and pinnacles soaring from the oceans’ bottom are astounding. The Ribbon Reefs play host to the Dwarf Minke Whales between the winter months of June and July. The Humpback whale may be seen between August and October. Diving on the Ribbon Reefs is a photographer’s delight. With the best diving often at 18 metres or less, the diving is ideal for both open water and advanced scuba divers.

The Ribbon Reefs are a liveaboard dive, the reefs are too far out for a day trip unless you are staying on Lizard Island. Liveaboards depart from Cairns regularly often including a small aircraft scenic flight over the reef between Cairns and Lizard Island at the start or end of the trip.


Ribbon Reefs Dive Sites

The Vertical Gardens Ribbon Reefs No’s 10 and 9

The Vertical Gardens are located between Ribbon Reefs numbers 10 and 9. A truly pristine site, a scuba diver is lucky to dive the Vertical Gardens. Only accessible when conditions are right, usually a brief period between October and November. With two steep walls ranging from 5 to 40 metres separated by a large sloping bay, there is plenty to see on this dive site. Advance divers may see the elusive pygmy sea horse below 35 metres; nudibranchs, pink anemonefish and surgeon fish also call the Vertical Gardens home. Current can be strong here, so hug the walls and enjoy watching the variety of marine animals as they swim by. Manta rays, unicorn fish, Maori wrasse, wobbegong sharks, epaulette and reef sharks may also be seen on this section of the Ribbon Reefs. Be awed by these vertical garden as you pause in your dive to look up at the stunning coral filled walls.

Male scuba diver on Steve's Bommie, Ribbon Reefs, Australia
Photo courtesy of Amy Stevens #beyond_amy

Clam Gardens Ribbon Reefs #5 and #4

Home to giant clams the Clam Gardens are situated between Ribbon Reefs numbers 5 and 4. Found in the shallows the giant clams may grow as large as two metres and live to be one hundred years old. The Clam Gardens are also home to smaller species of clams, their vibrant colours exquisite. Lots of small caves and crevices await exploration, providing hidey holes for rock cod or large groper.

Smaller bommies, outstanding hard and soft coral gardens, tons of schooling fish, shallow depths and ample sunshine make this an extremely easy and pretty dive site. Several green turtles call the Clam Gardens home giving divers an opportunity to swim alongside or watch them lazily feed. Large schools of bumphead parrotfish camouflaging as a coral bommie can also be found here. If you do decide to dive deeper garden eels will reward you, swaying in the delicate sandy bottom. My nemesis the Titan triggerfish also resides in the Clam Gardens – ensure they are not protecting their nest, or you will be beating a hasty retreat. A lucky diver may also see octopus, cuttlefish, or trumpet fish.

Cracker Jack Ribbon Reef #5

Cracker Jack is located near Ribbon Reef Number 5. Another huge monolith soaring from the undulating bottom forty metres below. My deepest dive to date was at Cracker Jack at 31 metres. I was hoping to see the mysterious pygmy seahorse camouflaging in one of the magnificent coral fans that cling to the walls of the mighty pinnacle. At 10 metres vibrantly coloured anthias swim around the summit of Cracker Jack. Soft coral, sea whips and broccoli coral make this yet another beautiful dive site. Eels hiding in holes, scorpion fish and schools of big-eyed jack, not to mention trevally and large tuna swimming by. As always there is macro with several different nudibranchs to see on this dive site along with mantis and cleaner shrimp.

Lighthouse Bommie Ribbon Reef #10

Surrounded by deep water this isolated bommie resembles a light house!!  Lighthouse Bommie is located at the southern end of Ribbon Reef Number 10, attracting an assortment of marine life from its’ deep-water surrounds. Dwarf Minke Whales are often encountered here during the months of June and July as they visit the Ribbon Reefs.  We had our first memorable interaction with the inquisitive minkes at Lighthouse. Lighthouse was my first bommie on the Ribbon Reefs and my first swim with the Dwarf Minkes. As a scuba woman I fell in love with Lighthouse Bommie. I remember it as being picturesque and teeming with life – soft corals, gorgonian fans, and sea whips, schools of fish swimming by.  Green sea turtles use the pinnacle as a cleaning station as do Manta rays and spotted eagle rays. Lighthouse bommie is easy to dive, descending to twenty-five metres, gradually winding around the base to the five metre shallows. Any snorkellers have plenty to see.  Schools of yellow lined snapper are dense, as are the schools of trevally and barracuda. Olive sea snakes weave their way around divers, pipefish, lionfish, and butterfly fish swim by.


Steve’s Bommie Ribbon Reefs #2 and #3

World renown, Steve’s Bommie is located just inside Ribbon Reefs number 2 and 3.  A sad story behind the name, a free diver died whilst diving the Ribbon Reefs. A favorite site if his, Steve’s mates dedicated the bommie to his memory, a plaque in his honor at 25 metres.  It is a beautiful memorial and a revered dive site for its natural beauty and abundant life. Steve’s Bommie is the perfect dive site to practice your underwater photography.

There are lots of macro creatures to be seen on Steve’s Bommie including mantis shrimp, red spotted porcelain crabs, squat lobsters, nudibranchs, and anemonefish. Interacting with nature it is easy to become engulfed by schools of fish. Rising from 35 metres and finishing at 3 metres this unspoiled site is stunning diving. A vibrant cornucopia of hard corals surrounds the base of Steve’s Bommie As scuba divers begin to corkscrew their way around the bommie, be prepared to be amazed by the sheer grandeur of the spectacular corals. Acropora, brain coral, plate corals and large fans to name a few. Beware the venomous stonefish, disguised and hiding, squat and fat, a contrast to the vivid beauty of the corals. As the bommie narrows at the top, and divers begin to bottleneck it is the perfect opportunity to sit back and enjoy the exquisite beauty of Steve’s bommie, red and black anemone fish, lunar fusilier, royal grammas, the always beautiful anthias a wave of colour at the top of the bommie with large schools of big eye trevally and blue lined snappers hanging to the side.

For more information on the Dwarf Minke Whale Project

Cover photo courtesy of Amy Stevens #beyond_amy

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Published by emptynestdiver

Learning to dive in my fifties has been a great adventure, I am a senior scuba diver but young at heart.

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