At the northern reaches of the 1,200-mile-long Great Barrier Reef, you’ll find a region called the Ribbon Reefs, which are numbered one through 10. Stretching for more than 50 miles like a gem-encrusted necklace along the edge of the continental shelf, there are dozens of famous dives great for any level of diver.
At the top of the heap is number 10, Cod Hole, which has become one of the legends of the dive world. At one time, giant potato cod were hand-fed here, so as soon as the boat moors up, these massive fish instinctively wait for divers and make great photo ops since they let you come in close. But take time to explore the finger reefs for everything from clownfish to napping whitetips or leopard morays to large Maori wrasse.
The Pearl Islands off Panama got their name from the thousands of pearls found here when the Spanish settled the island in the 16th century. But today the biggest draw is the water, where two oceans meet creating an underwater metropolis. Coral Dreams knows the waters; www.coral-dreams.com.
A little farther south, all the elements of a prototypical Ribbon Reef dive converge at a site called Steve’s Bommie. Plan to dive this site several times — first to explore the large aggregations of batfish, snapper and trevally, and then, if you go in June or July, to come face to face with a minke whale. But you’ll almost always see whitetip reef sharks and barracuda circling the bommie. After the big dive, go on a macro hunt. Look for leap scorpionfish, several species of anemonefish and nudibranchs. Of course, like most sites along this part of the Barrier Reef, you’ll get wrapped in a cloak of purple and gold anthias and bright-orange fairy basslets that rise and fall in unison above the reef.
Check off a hit list of spectacular dives as you explore the Ribbons such as Pixie Pinnacle with its giant sea fans and macro life, the cuttlefish haven of Challenger Bay or Clam Gardens with its giant Tridacna gigas clams. — TS
Need to Know
Getting There Fly Qantas to Cairns (CNS). Live-aboard will leave from Cairns or Port Douglas, about 30 minutes north.
When to Go It’s warm and tropical year-round. The rainy season, which the Aussies call “the wet,” is October to May; dry season is April to November.
Dive Season Year-round, although the viz will improve slightly by diving during the dry season. Water temps range from 71°F to 84°F.
Operators This, like the Coral Sea, is live-aboard country. Mike Ball Dive Expeditions (www.mikeball.com); Taka Dive (www.takadive.com.au); Pro Dive Cairns (www.prodive-cairns.com.au); Spirit of Freedom live-aboard (www.spiritoffreedom.com.au). A three-day Cod Hole/Ribbon Reefs trip aboard the Spirit of Freedom starts at about $1,125.