WHEN PEOPLE DISCOVER that I lived in Cairns for a year, the questions flood in: So wheres the best place to dive... Is the Great Barrier Reef really that great
Its the largest tropical reef system in the world. Roughly the size of Japan, it consists of more than 2900 reefs, so thats a hard call to make.
There are plenty of day trips to nearer reefs, but if you really want to experience the best of the GBR a three-, four- or even seven-day liveaboard to the Outer Barrier Reef is a must.
Its situated right on the edge of the continental shelf, and only a few boats do the journey, heading 100 miles north of Cairns to the Ribbon Reefs.
Here divers can explore isolated pinnacles, walls, channels, sandy gullies, canyons and shallow coral gardens.
On the cards is a plethora of tropical fish life, pelagics, eels, turtles, reef sharks, giant Napoleon wrasse and the famous potato cod at Cod Hole, as well as giant clams, stonefish and even lacy scorpionfish.
For once, snorkellers also get in on the action, with almost all the dive sites boasting accessible shallow reef areas.
And, on top of all this, some trips include an all round reef experience, with a spectacular low-level flight back to Cairns over the Great Barrier Reef from Lizard Island.
I have been out to the reef many times, including many trips on the liveaboard Spoilsport, operated by Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.
Gday mate, and welcome aboard!
- thats the greeting youll receive when you first hop aboard, shortly followed by a glass of champagne, some tasty meat pies and a juicy fruit platter. It isnt a bad way to start a holiday.

THE 30M VESSEL ISN'T NEW, but its spacious and comfortable, and the crew of 11 are dedicated to making the trip as memorable as possible for its 29 passengers. Theres a large dive deck and photo table, and the lounge and dining areas are roomy.
The bedrooms are a little small (unless you fork out for the premium suites) but most have en suite facilities, and you spend little time in them anyway. Most divers can be found on the alfresco and sun decks, catching some rays between dives, and filling in dive logs.
There are few complaints when it comes to the food, which seems to be a never-ending pit of yumminess.
The ride out to Ribbon Reef No 3 can sometimes be bumpy, but thats all forgotten when you jump in for your first dive at Flare Point. Its a check-out dive, so expect a leisurely fin around shallow coral gardens engulfed with tropical fish.
On this fish menu youll spot smoothmouth flutefish, trumpetfish, fusiliers, pufferfish, goatfish, parrotfish, butterflyfish, triggerfish, and a small school of chevron barracuda - pretty much all the usual suspects of the tropical underworld.
Flare Point isnt a bad introduction to the Reef, but fortunately it gets much better as you move north.
The highlight for most divers is exploring the pinnacles that loom from the reefs depths. Steves Bommie and Pixie Pinnacle are like magnets for marine life. Add to this an average 25-30m visibility, and they will delight even the most seasoned diver.
Steves Bommie is one of my favourites, an isolated pinnacle rising from 32 to 5m. Just off to the side of the main bommie at 24m is a smaller bommie and a memorable name plaque - ask the crew to tell you the story of Steve, its legendary!
Its worth having a poke around here, as youll often find lionfish, nudibranchs and a unicornfish cleaning station. Spiralling up the main pinnacle, its hard to miss the big school of resident yellow-lined snapper, trevally and barracuda.
Steves attracts many pelagics, and its the big fish in large numbers that divers often rave about when they surface.
The pinnacle itself is covered in colourful ascidians, brittlestars and thorny oysters. I saw my first ever flame file shell here too, but its not easy to spot, as it lives in a hole.
This is nature at its quirkiest - the clam has a symbiotic relationship with light-producing bacteria, so when you light it with a torch it appears to pulsate with electricity. Very cool.
Two other locals to the bommie are the leafy scorpionfish and grumpy stonefish, both of which hide under neighbouring lace coral at 12m.
Dont stress about missing any of these weird and wacky critters, either. The crew often jump in first and mark them with glow sticks (then retrieve them later, of course).
Between 8 and 14m there are plenty of overhangs and ledges where wobbegongs get some shuteye. By the time you get to the 5m mark youll be knocked out by the infestation of anemones, with five species to count. The variety is amazing, including a false clownfish nesting by the mooring line, and the ever-radiant red spinecheek anemone.

STEVES ISNT GOING TO WIN awards for best coral, but it does hold its own when it comes to plate and boulder corals scattered on the edge of its flat basin. Besides, the cloud of colourful anthias will often obscure your view, and lead you to miss mantis shrimps bobbing in and out of the holes.
Pixies is another of the Outer Barrier Reefs signature dives. Situated on Ribbon Reef No 9, its much smaller than Steves, with only a 15m diameter. Normally divers are split into two groups to avoid overcrowding.
Its worth peering into the blue now and again for the big stuff - giant dogfish tuna, mackerel, barracuda and schooling fusiliers are common, and youll occasionally see manta rays and sharks. In June/July, dwarf minke whales cruise past this site.
Pixies is a pretty pinnacle with pink and yellow gorgonian fans and pristine soft corals guarding overhangs. Its also worth peeking into the black coral for longnose pipefish, and examining whip corals for gobies.
Leafy scorpionfish and stonefish are also resident here, as well as a more photo-friendly flame file shell. I was lucky enough to spot a lacy scorpionfish on one of my trips, which apparently isnt such a rare sight on the GBR.
The best part of the dive is around the 3-5m mark. This is where the colour of the reef really shines. Pink, orange, purple and blue anthias and fairy basslets literally rain down on the divers, often obscuring pristine and colourful coral on the top of the bommie itself.

CLAM BEDS AND CHALLENGER BAY are some of the best coral gardens on the Reef. Clam Beds is made up of four large coral bommies in around 15m, rising to within metres of the surface. Its no surprise that there are plenty of clams here! Some grow to 2m in length, taking some 150 years to reach that size.
Turtles are attracted to these coral gardens, often around shallow caves, which barely reach deeper than 5m.
To appreciate these sites you have to be on cruise control, delving into nooks and crannies to spot moray eels, nudibranchs and Christmas tree worms. The blankets of hard coral are pristine and often attract octopus and cuttlefish.
I spend many minutes watching fish dart in and out of lace and staghorn coral, blue surgeon palettefish being far the most photogenic of these.

AND FINALLY WE REACH the jewel in the crown - Cod Hole at Ribbon Reef No 10. Just off the back of the boat, you can drop straight onto the sand at 22m. Its a long swim to Shark Alley, but youll almost always be rewarded with circling grey reef sharks. Ive have always seen at least two.
Youre pretty much guaranteed to see large potato cod, too, and these guys arent shy. I practically had my wide-angle lens in the mouth of one of these fish, as it patiently waited to have its teeth cleaned by hungry wrasse.
I always thought of Cod Hole as being a site for big stuff, but recently hairy ghost pipefish have taken up residence, a rare find indeed for the macro enthusiast not necessarily impressed by sharks, large fish, giant blue clams, or big schools of sweetlips and bannerfish.
Trips out to the Ribbon Reefs arent cheap, and both Mike Ball and Spirit of Freedom have similar prices and offer 11-12 dives. Nitrox, camera hire and PADI courses are also available, and Mike Ball is one of the few operators to offers solo diving, a big draw card for photographers.
Taka is a cheaper option if youre on a tight budget - it offers similar diving, but with less luxury. Mind you, if youre willing to put in some hard graft, you can get the trip for free.
Mike Ball and Taka offer volunteer spots on their respective boats. In return for helping out in the galley or on the dive deck (for DMs and above) you normally get two dives a day and as much food as you can poke a stick at.
But if youre an avid dive the world type and are going to Australia just for the GBR, go as a passenger. Its a long and costly road to the land down under, so why skimp when you finally get there
Is the Great Barrier Reef really that great You dont really want me to answer that, or you wont have an excuse to find out for yourself. Just remember, if the scientists are anything to go by, the GBR may be gone within the next 25 years, so best to hurry up!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly direct into Cairns in Queensland, or go via Sydney, with BA, Qantas, Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Liveaboards include Spoilsport, www.mikeball.com (29 berths); Spirit of Freedom, www.spiritoffreedom.com.au (26 berths); Taka www.taka.com.au (30 berths); Undersea Explorer, www.undersea.com.au (20 berths).
MONEY: Australian dollar
WHEN TO GO: With its tropical climate you can go to northern Australia at any time, but the best vis is from September to November. Water temperature is 22°C in winter and 29°C in summer.
PRICES: International flights from £860. Accommodation in Cairns from Aus $20 per night (backpacker) or from $100 for a 3* hotel. Average meal $10-20. Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offers three- and four-day fly/dive trips on Spoilsport from AUS $1385 including GBR flight; Spirit of Freedom does three and four-day fly/dive trips from $1250; Taka four days from $1100 (no flights); Undersea Explorer 3-6 days from $1365 (no flights). All operators charge a small fuel and separate marine levy.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 0906 863 3235, www.queensland-holidays.com.au