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Tues 7 Oct. Cairns, Australia.

After three months in the wilderness, it is great to meet up with old Sydney diving friends Strike, Julian and Helen, Dave and Simon. Also on board are Georgie and Fiona, who were along on the mediocre dives in Ningaloo Reef. Sunset chases us on board Taka II for three full days on the Ribbon reefs at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

The boat is a converted trawler, not exactly the prettiest live-aboard in Cairns but certainly one of the sturdiest sea boats. Dinner and introductions, followed by bed as the Taka steams north through the night.

Wed 8 Oct. The Northern Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Wake up to flat sea and blue skies - perfect diving weather. A southerly current has slowed the journey, and we get to the first site about 10 O'clock.

Dive 1: The Cod Hole.
Max depth 18.4M, 38 min. Viz 15-20M.

Working down to the bottom against a head-current, there are thick schools of blue Surgeonfish and swarms of Parrotfish, an infestation of Damsel and a plague of Anthea. A few White-tip Reef Sharks snooze on sandy patches, until we get too close for their comfort and they whisk off with a sullen flick of the tail.

A small gang of free-swimming Remora follow me shiftily along a sandy corridor between a shallow wall and some small bommies. Fish of taste, obviously they recognise the king of the sea when they see him! No hitching a free ride on me, though.

I'm supposed to be navigating, but on this first dive I'm overweighted, off balance and guzzling air, and get completely lost. Strike, as my buddy, is no better, however, doing a safety stop round a coral head we gratefully see the silhouette of a boat bobbing welcomingly above our heads. We can smell coffee brewing even from five metres, so we drift slowly up towards the stern.

My head breaks the surface, and I signal 'OK' to a complete stranger who replies "You'll have to bring your own breakfast if you want to come on here, mate!" Blast - wrong boat! Strike rises to the occasion and manages "But we heard your food was good!" before the skipper comes back with "Hang on, I know you - you're David Strike!" - as any hope of us slipping away anonymously fades...

Naturally, only later do we think of the perfect come-backs. "We've checked your hull, she looks fine. Will that be cash or cheque?" - "Who ordered Pizza?" etc etc.

Dive 2: The Cod Hole.
Max depth 18.0M, 50 min. Viz 15-20M.

Drop three weights off my belt, from four to one(!), and feel a mile more comfortable, coming up with air to spare after 50 minutes. The dive starts with a feeding circus amid a swirl of pushy giant Potato Cod and Flowery Cod, a couple of minutes looking cute for the videographer before another pair gets their turn in the spotlight and we swim off.

Spot several Pipefish and an Octopus moving house, blushing through several colour changes. Towards the end of the dive, we get eyed up balefully by a couple of Titan Triggerfish and give them a wide berth. Before navigating back with inch-perfect perfection, to the right boat for a change.

Dive 3: Pixie Pinnacle.
Max depth 18.0M, 49 min. Viz 10-15M.

A slow spiral up a slender tower of coral from 20 metres to the surface, a riot of hard coral getting thicker and thicker, past several Lionfish including a very cute baby, into a thick fish soup of Antheas, Fusilers, Pipefish and Surgeonfish.

The slender dimensions of the pinnacle mean it's a bit like some kind of sub-aqua Piccadilly Circus down there at times, but it's still a great dive.

Dive 4: Challenger Bay.
Max depth 11.4M, 53 min. Night Dive.

Discover soon on that there is enough glow in the water from the bright moon to read my computer and see the landscape. After this, I (probably very annoyingly for Strike) swim around with the torch off much of the time, getting a whole new perspective on the night dive experience. Huge schools of fish hide in the shadows from the hunting alien lights of other divers - with the torch off, I swim into a school without disturbing them, and watch them scatter when it clicks on.

With torch on, red eyes of Coral Banded Shrimp glitter, a Lionfish sleeps on a bed of Coral, a huge Yellow Moray twists between a couple of bommies. On the flickering of some dull instinct, turn the light up to see a Barracuda cruising no more than a foot above our heads.

A pure, Zen calm pleasure of a night dive.

Thurs 9 Oct. The Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Dive 5: Clam Gardens.
Max depth 31.1M, 51 min. Viz 15M.

Nao, a tiny Japanese diver, joins Strike and myself, dropping down the anchor chain to a sloping bed of white silt - the dull weather turns it into a glowing plain of soft monochrome green, us into three dark explorers hovering above an alien landscape. Follow the slope up til dark coral heads start to appear out of the sand, and find the first Giant Clams, glowing blue and green like pillows for an emperor.

Put up with an itchy nose for ten minutes til I just have to rip my mask off and give it a good scratch. For some reason, this seems to amuse my buddies...

A White Tip Reef Shark drifts past in the (green) blue, passed by a large Mackerel which swoops round to end in a standoff with Nao. Until it swims off to find something it's own size to pick on.

Dive 6: Steve's Bommie.
Max depth 24.5M, 45 min. Viz 15M.

A fierce current blows past the slender spire of Steve's Bommie - so fierce that one buddy pair completely miss the dive site, get blown right under the boat and have to be picked up in the tender before they end up in Queensland, and everyone sucks air fighting the drift.

For the benefit of those that failed to make it to the right bit of ocean, Steve's Bommie is covered in rippling Anemones with attendant Clown fish, an ugly Stonefish in a crevice. A tiny Picasso Triggerfish, not to be outdone by his bigger Titan cousins, swims some threatening sorties at Strike, while Nao and I swim past with impunity.

clownfish and anemone

Dive 7: Temple of Doom.
Max depth 17.1M, 52 min. Viz 15M.

Yet another Triggerfish has a go at Strike. What does he do to them? Swarms of Yellowfin and Blue Trevally shadow the deeper water as we climb up the side of the huge bommie onto the spreading top.

A small Loggerhead Turtle seems more intent on troughing it's face than paying any attention to us, a largish Octopus glares from under a rock - he's been forced out several times by another indelicate diver, so is absolutely not coming out to play.

Dive 8: Beer Gardens.
Max depth 14.5M, 52 min. Night Dive.

Night dive under another brilliant moon. A huge crab tries (and completely fails) to hide in a small cave, and several Parrotfish sleep in duvets of snot.

Our torches pick up a creamy white flatworm, swimming with it's skirts like a tiny white can-can dancer flouncing through the water; a clawless Slippper Lobster scuttling for shelter on long legs; tiny dancing black Nudibranchs; a perambulating green Featherstar, going for a walk across some coral.

Fri 10 Oct. Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Wake up doing a headstand while still lying in my berth. Weather's picked up a bit! Get up to stroll the heaving deck, lash down a scuba tank which has broken loose and pick up a tumbled basket of fruit playing pinball in the galley. Which prove increasingly bad moves, and I have to go and breathe the open air and stare fixedly at the horison for a bit. The live-aboard bore corners me and drones on for a bit about storms he's known. I ignore him and continue to stare at the sunrise spreading across the sky.

Strike emerges, and strides about booming "Good to feel a heaving deck beneath ones feet again!", every inch ex-navy, trying to pretend he's not rattling full of ginger tablets. Georgie emerges from a head looking green, and hunting seasickness drugs.

Dive 9: Agincourt Reef.
Max depth 20.0M, 51 min. Viz 10M.

Into the soothing water to calm stomachs for a good macro dive - read, the viz was awful. See some gorgeous little Clams and Nudibranchs. A huge Napoleon Wrasse and Carpet Cod swim standoffishly past.

Towards the end of the dive, think I hear my regulator making the most godawful noise. On further investigation, it turns out to be Strike singing 'Jingle Bells'. Each to their own!

Dive 10: No-name Bommie.
Max depth 13.1M, 50 min. Viz 15M.

Long, slow, shallow decompression dive all round a large bommie - a pleasant and safe way to finish off ten dives in two-and-a-half days.

It's been a fantastic trip, with great company - in a crowded field, one of the very best memories of my trip. And it's been a real priviledge to dive with Strike, despite the fact that he tried to drown me on every dive, by making me flood my mask giggling.

Six short months in Australia have flown by - the time to move on has arrived, Asia is calling and my sister is in Thailand aiming to rendevous. But it's a wrench having to leave behind so many friends. I'll be back...

On to Travel Tales - Singapore.

All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter.