Gliding along effortlessly in the current, I was able to marvel at some of the grandest and most healthy coral structures I had ever seen. Massive, battleship-grey Queensland groupers took turns to cruise in alongside me, take stock and see me safely off their territories. I reflected that these animals were at least half as big again as the over-sized potato cod in their grey-blotched carnival clothes that I had witnessed being hand-fed by our dive-guide earlier in the day.

Large cuttlefish posed in an ever-changing spectrum of patterns that rippled across their bodies. The odd banded sea-snake searched unmolested for small prey among the nooks and crannies. Grey reef sharks buzzed in like busy F16s and zipped away again.

Too soon I found myself back under the shadow of our boat. Most of the passengers had preferred to dive in its immediate vicinity but I had been solo-diving and gone right over to the other side of the reef.

Solo-diving Surely I jest No, if you can prove that you have the necessary abilities under water, and if you are suitably equipped with an independent bail-out rig or pony bottle that you can demonstrate you can use, and a surface signalling system such as an air-horn plus a safety sausage, you are allowed to solo-dive here if you want to.
Some fellow-divers hung on the trapeze under the boat, doing a 3m safety stop. A couple of fat potato cod hovered in the shade of the twin hulls, still apparently belching comfortably after their earlier hand-fed feast.

Such was my last dive on Ribbon Reef No 10, site of the Cod Hole. It was a wonderful finale to a short trip on Mike Balls diving liveaboard SuperSport. The next day I would make a low-level flight in a light aircraft back to Cairns, the undisputed capital of diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

For most non-divers, the term coral reef is synonymous with the Great Barrier Reef, but Queenslands most famous natural attraction is not simply a single large feature but a system of reefs that work together to form a barrier between the coastline and the impinging ocean. It stretches from just north of Brisbane, the capital, all the way to a point beyond Cape York in the north, and Cairns is geographically at its centre.

Unsurprisingly, Cairns is full of dive centres, but there is no real shore-diving here. You need to take a boat out to the reefs. What is surprising is the number of familiar faces you will meet in Cairns, after having travelled all the way to the other side of the world. Its full of people from Britain and uncannily English in its culture, even though it is in the tropical South Pacific, a town of neat bungalows.

That makes it very handy for us Brits. We fit in straight away and it all seems very familiar. There is no shock of having to deal with foreigners or cope with a difficult language. If you enjoy Neighbours, youll enjoy Cairns!

Many people have their first taste of scuba-diving courtesy of the many dive-schools in the town, and once they have learnt the rudimentary techniques, theyre out there on the reef.

A few years ago, a dive-boat operator from Queensland made the news when the skipper inadvertently left a couple abandoned on a reef. There is no such thing as bad publicity, because the vessel Outer Edge has been fully booked ever since!

This does however mean that Australian boat operators are exceedingly safety-conscious, and concentrate hard on getting their divers safely into and out of the water. This can make it seem a little over-organised but its for your own good.
SuperSport is one of a fleet of Mike Ball boats and is the one that most will go on for their first experience of liveaboard diving. Thats because the trips fall over a long weekend rather than for a full seven days, and many feel that there is less risk of over-commitment if they find they dont enjoy the experience. Most do, of course, and many will be able to cite a trip on this well-known vessel as the occasion when they first did proper diving.

With its massive twin hulls, it makes a very stable diving platform and few people seem to get seasick when staying aboard. It carries up to 18 passengers in spacious twin cabins and there is a typical atmosphere of informality aboard. Underwater experiences are shared over the long saloon table during mealtimes. Its great fun.

The highlight of the trip is the dive at Ribbon Reef No 10 and the famous grouper-feeding session at the Cod Hole. Not every reef out here is as healthy. Some have been blighted by the great coral-bleaching of 1998 and others have suffered the pillaging of an explosive crown-of-thorns starfish population that, back in the 80s, everyone thought would demolish the whole of the Great Barrier Reef.
But assuming that your dive-guides are discerning, there are still some spectacular sights to see. For those who want to be more adventurous, SuperSport has a sister vessel, SpoilSport, that departs from Townsville for trips to the wreck of the Yongala and the reefs beyond the Barrier Reef.

The Yongala is probably Australias most famous wreck, not because it is so spectacular, but because it was lost in a great human tragedy, amid much media publicity and speculation.

A supply ship serving the coastal towns of Queensland, she had left the Airlie Beach area of Brisbane on her regular journey, making her way up within the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, but never arrived. That was 90 years ago and it was more than 50 years before the wreck was discovered, and finally confirmed lost. It is assumed that the vessel foundered in an instant but violent storm.

The 100m-long wreck now lies on its side in around 30m of water in the vast, sandy plain in the 60 miles between the reef and the Australian coast. As such it gives shelter and a food source to vast numbers of animals. It is swept by a gentle current and smothered in soft corals and hydroids.

Glassfish, and the lionfish and grouper that prey on them, loiter in the shadows. Maori wrasse, sweetlips and trevallies hang in the current. Giant sting rays gather in great piles on the ocean floor. Once youve had your fill of wreck diving, SpoilSport goes on to visit the closer reefs of the Coral Sea beyond the Great Barrier Reef, but thats another story!

Divernet
Coral
Coral extravaganza at Cod Wall on Flinders Reef
potato
potato cod at Cod Hole
grouper
grouper and glassfish on the Yongala wreck
colourful
colourful soft corals on the Yongala

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Qantas code-shares flights with BA from London via Singapore with a brief stop at Darwin and on to Cairns. Its a long trip.
DIVING AND ACCOMMODATION: SuperSport and SpoilSport liveaboards, overnight stays in Cairns or Townsville, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, 00 617 40530 500, www.mikeball.com.
WHEN TO GO:Any time. Wet season is November to May.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 26-29°C.
MONEY: Australian dollar, credit cards.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All levels of diver.
FOR NON DIVERS: They either enjoy a diving liveaboard or they dont, but this would probably be part of a bigger holiday.
COST: Return flight from the UK to Cairns, plus four-day, all-inclusive Cod Hole trip on SuperSport, with twin-share accommodation and three nights at Cairns Colonial Club, costs from £1,199 from April through Bridge the World Travel Service, 0870 4447474, www.bridgetheworld.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Australian Tourist Commission, 0870 5561434, www.australia.com