AUSTRALIA’S COASTAL WILDERNESS: Ribbon Reefs – The Aquatic Gardens of Eden

Wearing our dive and snorkel gear we are lowered into the water on the hydraulic platform on the stern of the Coral Discoverer. Surrounded by a vast expanse of dazzling blue, we are at the edge of the coral wall poised to enter a different world.

We’re on a voyage to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef to discover an extraordinary marine wonderland of coral gardens and charismatic marine life living on the fabled Ribbon Reefs.

Located 50-100 km from the mainland and extending 200 km from Cooktown to Lizard Island, this string of long narrow reefs numbered #1 to #10 is where the wide ribbons of coral reef meet the great ocean; where the continental shelf gives way to deep, dark waters.

As well as its sheer size, the Great Barrier Reef’s incredible diversity is part of what makes it so impressive. It is a natural treasure that many Australians feel is part of their identity: home to 5,000 types of molluscs, 1,800 species of fish, 125 species of sharks, 30 species of whales and dolphins, 18 species of sea snake, 6 species of sea turtles and countless miniature organisms.

Divers with a lionfish, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef. Image: Darren Jew/ Tourism Tropical North Queensland

But the most fascinating sight of all, and the main reason for World Heritage status, is the vast expanses of coral. From staghorn stalks and wave-smoothed plates to giant boulders draped with coarse brown leathery corals, soft corals grow atop hard ones, algae and sponges paint the rocks, and every crevice is a creature’s home.

Although the origins of the Reef date back over 500,000 years, the reef complex was first introduced to Europeans by the British explorer, James Cook. In 1770, his ship HMB Endeavour had run into the largest living structure on Earth; more than 250,000 square kilometres of coral ribbons and isles forming a constellation of interlinked reefs for more than 2,000 winding kilometres (GBRMPA). A few decades after Cook’s run-in with “the labyrinth”, English cartographer Matthew Flinders, who also had an accident or two while “threading the needle” among the reefs, gave the reef its name, inspired by its size.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef region, and evidence of their sea country connections goes back over 60,000 years (GBRMPA). Culturally, the reef has been a rich part of landscape and story for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who have canoed, fished and shared myths about its creatures for generations. Their history and spirituality are intertwined with extensive knowledge of the marine world.

Indigenous knowledge of the reef is reflected in some modern terminology. For instance, Australians familiar with the Reef refer to coral clusters as ‘bommies’, stemming from the indigenous term ‘bombora’, which referred to an area of bulging sea waves over a large underwater rock or reef.

“The reef owes its existence to organisms typically no bigger than a grain of rice” explains Master Reef Guide, Daniela Matheus-Holland as we prepare to jump into the water.

“Coral polyps, the reef’s building blocks, are tiny colonial animals that house symbiotic algae in their cells called zooxanthellae. As those algae photosynthesise, using light to create energy, each polyp is fuelled to secrete a ‘house’ of calcium carbonate, or limestone. As one house tops another, the colony expands like a city; other marine life quickly grabs on and spreads, helping connect all the pieces together.”

With over 400 species in the region, “they form the architecture of the entire environment; they’re the habitat for everything else here.”

Descending beneath the surface, we find parrotfish teeth grinding against rock, crab claws snapping as they battle over hiding spots, and a giant potato cod grouper pulsing its swim bladder to announce its presence with a muscular whump.

There are soaring coral columns and canyons, bright blooms of tree-like staghorn coral and flat, veined discs that look like outstretched palms. Below these hide lumpy brain corals, and everywhere, with a beautiful otherworldly touch, there are crumpled blue lips of burrowing clams smiling back at you.

One of the Great 8 marine species of the Great Barrier Reef, the distinctive humphead wrasse, greets us with Mick Jagger lips and round bulbous eyes. These Queensland groupers are quite a sight to behold with their colossal size, often as large as the humans who momentarily share the ocean with them.

Maori Wrasse

Maori Wrasse – Image by Andrew Watson

Whilst the divers gaze upwards at schools of fish, snorkelers hover above a garden of furled, stony rose petals and clusters of tangled branches.

A black Bennett’s feather star dances past, softly swaying reminiscent of a burlesque dancer’s silk fan. Silver jacks flash by and black tipped reef sharks lurk in the shade of bommies. Clown fish peer through fluttering anemone arms, and tiny fish and shrimp seem to dance a jig as they guard their nooks. Anything that can’t attach to something rigid is tugged and tossed with each ocean swell.

Immersed in this extraordinary marine wonderland, time is quickly forgotten and minutes slip into hours before we are called to return to the Coral Discoverer.

‘What is the most magical thing you saw in your life; the most magical moment?’,” asks Sir Attenborough in his Great Barrier Reef series. “I always say, the first time I put on a mask and went below the surface and moved in three dimensions with just the flick of my fin.”

The words take on a new meaning after having experienced ‘the Ribbons’. The beauty here is so profound and deep and marvels so sensational, that it’s little surprise that the Great Barrier Reef is known as one of the most astonishing places in the world. To stay on top of the water is like staying outside the circus tent.


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