A lack lustre Ribbon Reef #5

Life on the Ribbon Reefs is going along fine, although the snorkels are lack lustre. We have sunshine, light conditions, a leisurely pace. When not in the water we read, develop photos, snooze, eat, muse at our surroundings. We move every few days and see what we can find.

Passages between anchorages are short and very cruisy. There is not a lot of hard work especially when the breeze is very light. Sometimes we raise the sails, sometimes it is not worth it and we just motor.

Cockpit action – not a lot happening!
Maree and Murray

Where to go

To choose our stopping points along the Ribbons we look for an anchorage that is not too deep (less than 15m), with a 80-100m radius free of bommies or we target a public mooring which is typically set up near interesting dive spots. We study the satellite maps ahead of time, identify possible options and aim for one of these.

From Lena Reef, the Ribbons 1 and 2 did not offer much so we had intended to move to Ribbon Reef 3. However the moorings were taken and the anchorage spots not appealing, dropping off too deep too quickly. Maybe we will get a chance to stop there on the way back. Our backup was No 5. Two moorings are located at the southern end of this reef, with a series of bommies forming a kind of hook at the southern end.

Southern end of Ribbon #5 where the two moorings are

On the first day at No 5, we ended up picking up a mooring which backed onto a large bommie then moved to the other mooring when it became free, as it was closer into the reef for a bit more protection when the wind picked up. It never was very windy: maximum 15 knots. We were able to snorkel from the back of the boat.

Snorkeling – the best of a bad lot

After our positive experience around isolated bommies at Opal and Lena Reefs, we have been favouring these rather than the inside edge of the Ribbon Reefs for our snorkels. There is generally more life along the sides of the pinnacles than along the leeside of the reef platform. However at Ribbon No5, there was not a lot to write home about. We found the large bommies quite damaged by successive bleachings, some with algae over dead coral, generally looking drab and sad.

We did notice there were slabs of encrusting and rubbery coral colonizing sections where hard reef building coral no longer grew. These coral are low spreading. They creep along the rocks and substrate, covering the bare rock with a cement like layer or thick rubbery growth.

Typical Seafloor – drab and colourless
Rubbery soft coral colonising the substrate
Sarcophyton colony
A rare patch of life
Deep down
In the shallows

Amongst the greyness and rubble were a few interesting finds. The first was a yellow Trumpetfish appearing to be attracted to a yellow Coral Rabbitfish. It followed it, rubbed itself against it, shadowed it everywhere. Never had we seen anything like it before! It made us smile.

For the love of yellow
Inseparable trumpetfish and rabbitfish

As usual we saw a few colourful fish like the Blackback Anemonefish, the Regal Angelfish, a pink Steephead Parrotfish, which is unusual because we normally see the blue variety.

And of course there was the obligatory whitetip shark, cruising along at close quarters. Although our family is getting used to seeing reef sharks without triggering the panic reflex, it really is a fine line between a little excitement and fear.

Whitetip Shark over rubble, very close

A surprise was spotting a sea cucumber on the move (these are normally stationary), but not only that, it also had its feeding tentacles out (the black feelers)!

Sea cucumber with feeding tentacles out

The highlight of all our snorkels at No 5 was discovering a pale pink Gorgonian in a crevice surrounded by green algae called Halimeda, reminiscent of maidenhair fern on land in looks. It took a few goes to get pleasing images of this ‘ferny creek’, but it was worth it. This type of find makes a dive worthwhile.

We saw quite a lot of the Halimeda algae. It is distinctive with bright green segmented leaves. A bit of research revealed that these algae produce a chemical deterrent to protect themselves from the onslaught of grazing herbivorous lawnmowers such as the parrotfish and surgeonfish. Halimeda produce chemicals in a multi-pronged approach: It not only uses chemicals to deter predators but it also impregnates its tissues with inedible calcium carbonate. Fish won’t get much nutrition from the algae; those fish relying on acid for digestion will have their digestive processes disrupted if they eat it; and other fish like some parrotfish that don’t rely on acid in their digestive process will be deterred by the distasteful chemical! It is not easy being green, so the Halimeda does its best to survive!

Pink Gorgonian and Halimeda

Crinoid and Halimeda
Halimeda and bright red encrusting coral

Meanwhile, Wade was trying to catch us a fish, not an easy task in a well frequented area. He did spear one, however later realised it was not a tasty snapper but a red bass – poisonous! It went back in the water, unfortunately dead. It pays to know your species well. It was a waste, but better to throw it back than all end up with ciguatera poisoning!

Poisonous Red Bass

The wind picked up a bit, between 15 and 20 knots, but we were comfortable and continued taking our time exploring. We moved a little further up along the reef for a change of scenery and anchored in a shallow little cove between bommies. We were only in 6m of water over seemingly sand, yet found it took a few goes to set the anchor in the coarse crushed coral and steeply sloping bottom. But we managed. It was scenic at low tide, with fantastic aqua graduations.

The aerial shots really highlighted the beauty that surrounded us. We wish it was similarly breathtaking down below the water line, but the underwater seascape was poor. We had thought that the Ribbon Reefs with their position on the very outer edge of the GBR would be spared the destruction of some of the more accessible reefs, but unfortunately, this is not the case to date.

We have now moved on to Ribbon Reef No7 and will tell you about our finds in the next post. We don’t hold a great deal of hope things will be different, but it is worth checking!

And for those of you who like to hear about our pussycat, Bengie is very slowly recovering from her bout of cystitis. After a few worrisome days watching her decline and a horrible night when she was in pain, whimpering, we decided it was time for antibiotics, not just anti-inflammatories as recommended by the vet. Five days later, she is now slightly better, but not eating much and looking very skinny. We are still very worried about her and will make a return visit to the vet when we get back to Cairns. We learnt a couple of things out of this extended episode, we need a reserve of both anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics as Bengie gets older and we cruise remote areas. We are glad we insisted on getting these at our last visit. We also need a reserve of her favourite food to entice her to eat a little at a time!

22 thoughts on “A lack lustre Ribbon Reef #5

  1. Oh Bengie, please get better! ❤️ So many beautiful photos, and it’s easy to see what is dead too, I so hope that these reefs will recover in time. Safe travels, guys! 🙏🏻🇦🇺

    • Hi John, there is a lot of damage and it takes so long for anything to recover – 10 years plus – so if more bleaching or cyclones occur, the outlook is bleak.
      Bengie is struggling a bit. We will see the vet again when we get back to Cairns.

      • Wow, ten years! Very sad, I hope no more bleaching or big storms slam the reef. Please give Bengie a little hug for me. 🙏🏻❤️

  2. Beautifully-written update. Thanks Chris.
    I have memories of reefs with expansive Halimeda growth which were stunning with their oval green habit. When they die the calcium carbonate that makes up their structure falls to the sea floor and in some areas the sediment can be composed largely or even solely of their remains. It forms distinctive calcareous Halimeda sand which is almost fluffy, as opposed to the common sand formed from decomposed coral.
    I too, am surprised and saddened at the poor state of my happy place.

  3. Stunning photos and a marine biology lesson all in one.
    You and Wade open an amazing world. Congratulations.

  4. Gee … it’s a surprise finding lack lustre coral cover in the Ribbon Reefs. Disappointing snorkeling as a result. But the condition of those reefs is the bigger concern. Looking forward to your Lizard report card! A

    • Hi Amanda, we try to find interesting snippets wherever we go, but we expected much better from those iconic reefs. The damage is widespread and recovery patchy. With a 10 year turnaround time for regrowth we struggle to see this happening, especially with successive bleaching and cyclones!

    • We do, Leanne. It is increasingly hard to keep positive and hope. With a 10 year recovery cycle and back to back bleaching from global warming, the outlook is dire. It is exciting when you see new coral growth and lots of fish, but it is like being on a seesaw and good regrowth is not the norm. I am not sure where the Institute of Marine Science is doing its surveys reporting a 35% coral cover, but we are not seeing this!

      • I have to admit that we are also finding it hard to stay positive. Even Dave was saying the other day what is the point if the powers that be and most people don’t want to do anything, why should we keep restricting our lives in the hope that we can save a planet that so many people don’t seem to care about.

      • We are doing our best to make people aware with photos, stories, magazine articles because we really believe people protect what they care for, but if they don’t know, they don’t care! But like you and Dave, we think the industrialists and government need to drive change and quickly before it’s too late. Until then, little people like you and I get frustrated and lose hope.

  5. The public is being shielded from the truth re the reef. Hopefully with the new govt this will change. Poor Bengie. I do hope she gets better soon. Give her a hug eh.

    • Hi Susie – yes we find the general public knows little about the actual state of the reef. People also see a bit of colour and fish and think it’s all fine. This is where conservation photography is important as is telling the story as we see it.
      Bengie has her good days and bad days. Last night was worrying, but today she was chirpy. Don’t really understand what’s going on, but we try and feed her stuff she likes so she eats. We will get her checked out properly when we get back to Cairns.

  6. Languid and beautiful experiences! Yeah, the trumpet and rabbit fish were surely a highlight …

      • Sadly, you’re seeing just one indicator of world environmental degradation. Pity we can’t turn the clock back to pre-industrialisation of our world ….. in the meantime, we catch your snippets of some of the amazing natural beauty that is still left!

  7. Sending lots of hugs and love to Bengie! We know it is not easy being remote with an ailing fur baby. As for the Ribbon Reefs – perhaps next year, when we finally hope to get a ‘normal’ cruising season in, we might be able to follow in your footsteps. Great Photos. xxx Trish

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