Soon more than a dozen of us were hanging onto the rope and peering into the blue water, hoping and praying that the whale would come in for a close look at us.
After 10 minutes and no whale, most people headed in for a cooked second breakfast. I stuck it out, and was rewarded another 10 minutes later, when the whale finally decided to have a look at me.
It was an incredible sight, that 6m whale gliding by. Over the next hour it made nine more passes, allowing me to observe it closely and photograph it.
One of the most interesting aspects of the encounter was listening to the strange noises emitted by the whale. It is a very surreal sound, almost industrial. Researchers have called it the “Star Wars Vocalisation”.
After that, there was time for another rewarding dive at Steve’s Bommie.
Heading further north, our next stop was at Google Gardens. This was discovered only recently by the Spirit of Freedom crew, and it was good to hear that they’re still finding new sites in such a regularly dived area.
The hard corals at Google Gardens were wonderful, and we had a great time exploring a maze of coral canyons in the shallows.
All the common reef fish were on show, but the highlight was a large broadclub cuttlefish, displaying a technicolour range of dazzling colours.
Our afternoon and night dives were at nearby Challenger Bay. Almost as soon as we tied up to the mooring at this site another dwarf minke whale was spotted, though this one didn’t come in to play.
On some trips two, four or a dozen whales can come in to circle the boat, and often snorkellers exit the water cold and tired long before the whales lose interest.
Challenger Bay has always been one of my favourite sites on the Ribbon Reefs. Unfortunately, the site was hammered
by a cyclone a few years ago, so its hard corals are not the best, though fortunately they are making a slow recovery.
But you don’t dive this site for the corals – it is the fish life that really impresses. My favourites were a school of diagonal-banded sweetlips and pinnate batfish hovering together over a coral head. These pretty fish are so used to divers that they simply stayed in place as I photographed them from every angle.
Exploring the rest of the site, we found a colony of garden eels, whitetip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, sting rays, trevally and a large pufferfish.