AS GOOD AS THE DIVING IS on the northern Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea reefs, I have to tell you about the nine days’ diving I spent in the care of Cairns Deep Sea Divers Den on Norman and Saxon Reefs on the outer GBR.
Some of the dives there would be rated world-class even for very experienced divers. Model Kirtley Leigh joined me, and we set out to get some of our best-ever photographs.
We went out over Christmas, which meant that we escaped the hype, carols by candlelight, corny old TV movies, drunk relatives, Christmas trees, gluttony fuelled by boredom and a myriad other tedious customs of the “festive” season.
We were able to commune spiritually and physically with one of Nature’s (God’s, if you like) most wondrous creations, making up to five dives a day/night and keeping slim and well exercised despite the bountiful Christmas fare served on board.
The Playground on Norman Reef is one of the favourite sites. Turtles and cuttlefish are always in attendance, and a bommie right beneath the boat has lionfish and, when we dived, a mess of tiny silver baitfish.
I was soon shooting Kirtley swimming with the lionfish and then, using slow shutter speed, with the baitfish. This was fun.
I even attempted to get a “different” picture of a lionfish waving its rays and spines while keeping its eye still. Not easy, and I couldn’t get the background I wanted, but I was happy.
Nearby Shark Mountain has some soft corals and whips, so I used those to get some artsy-fartsy shots. It wasn’t that deep, but Leigh was so narcosed I could hardly see her.
The digital age has provided far more opportunities to experiment. You need to shoot a lot of images – and get feedback. With film, apart from the expense, it took too long to see the results to make reasonable progress.

BUT IN THE EVENINGS at the Playground, giant trevally and red bass congregate to feed on the regulation 1kg of Queensland-approved fish-food pellets the crew are licensed to distribute under the stern lights.
The fish get very excited, which brings in a family of up to a dozen adult grey reef sharks.
It’s fabulous. Guests go to the back of the boat and watch the sharks on the surface just a metre away. Then we go diving.
As Leigh and I kitted up, a Japanese tourist started pleading with Leigh not to jump in with the sharks. He didn’t bother to warn me.
But of course we did jump in, and the sharks just treated us as fellow-predators and ate us both. Just joking, they kept swimming and ignored us.
Other divers jumped in, swam past the sharks and descended to the reef to watch the night critters, find sleepy turtles and spotlight potential food for the trevallies. Hint: don’t keep your torch-beam fixed on any small fishes.
The surface waters were a little bit murky, and at night this translates into almost inevitable backscatter, no matter what cunning photo techniques I used. But Christmas Day greeted us with mirror-calm seas and 30m-plus visibility.

WE HAD SPECTACULAR DIVING at Troppos, where we encountered a flock of huge bumphead parrotfish, and returned to the Playground for the evening.
As tourist snorkellers lined up on the barely submerged dive platform, and in clear water, we were able to shoot some exciting photos.
Whenever I try night-diving with sharks it always ends up with the sharks getting a bit too excited, but I have discovered a useful trick.
If you find yourself next to another diver and a large silvertip is tracking down your torch-beam towards you, move your torch in front of your buddy, keep shining it at the shark – then turn it off.
It’s a great relief to see the shark change direction slightly just as you turn it off. I’ve never been bitten doing this, so it obviously works, and I mostly prefer solo-diving anyway.
Eventually the sharks wandered off, and we descended to photograph trevallies and the reef at night.
The Deep Sea Divers Den liveaboard stays out at Saxon and Norman reefs for most of the year, with a fast ferry service to take you out and back. You can stay as many nights as you wish. The fish and turtles are very friendly to divers– and the night dive with sharks is truly exciting.

Jamie Watts

As the sun approaches its southernmost point over the Earth, it has dragged a huge amount of wildlife with it, and there are various gatherings of big animals at their respective southernmost points.
If my pockets were deep for Christmas I’d opt to head south – Galapagos if I’d hit the Lottery – for hammerheads, mobulas and turtles. Second place would probably be a leisurely wander from Mozambique down to Sodwana Bay and Aliwal Shoals, for sharks of several kinds and turtles.
More “Christmas-appropriate”, perhaps, Christmas Island has its annual red crab spawn, guaranteed to bring in a few whale sharks. Closer to home, the angel sharks and an assortment of other sharks and rays are inshore at the Canaries.

Tim Ecott

Spending Christmas aboard the Four Seasons Explorer liveaboard in the Maldives with friends and family would be heaven. What could beat diving and snorkelling all day, followed by Christmas dinner on deck under the stars

Gareth Lock

The best diving Christmas would be somewhere I could sneak off for a cheeky wreck dive some time during the day while the kids were engrossed in their toys and they wouldn’t miss me. Give it a few years and they might be able to join me in the water!

John Kean

Despite 14 years of living beside the Red Sea, my idea of Christmas is still a big Christmas dinner at home in the snow and cold, and all that’s traditional in the UK at that time of year.
The next best thing would probably be going somewhere hot, far away and exotic where everyone has buoyancy control and the guides don’t use shakers or rattlers.

Lisa Collins

Eight miles across the bay from Cancun in Mexico, Isla Mujeres is the starting point for the beginning of the sailfish season.
Large groups of sailfish, often upwards of 40, converge for Mexico’s equivalent of the Sardine Run in the crystal-clear, warm tropical oceans surrounding the Isle. This high-adrenaline event would be the most incredible way of celebrating Christmas!
The worst way to spend Christmas would be stuck at home in the dreary UK, in front of the TV, watching Blue Planet and wishing I was there diving and interacting with all the incredible marine life. [Isla Mujeres sees incredible whale shark gatherings too – more next month]

Safe in Scotland
Keith Hiscock

I’ll be shore-diving in the Scottish sea lochs. Finding a spot with rich and interesting marine life as well as often spectacular underwater views to photograph is pretty easy, it’s unlikely to be too windy to get in the water, and there’ll be no midges in midwinter.

Nigel Wade

For me the perfect Christmas would be spent staying at Tawali Resort in Papua New Guinea. I would have a Christmas-morning dive at my favourite site on the planet.
Set under the jungle canopy, Deacons Reef is as spectacular as it gets. The sun’s rays dance through the leaves onto a collection of the most perfect corals I’ve seen.
I’d spend some time hanging in the blue water at the reef drop-off looking for large pelagics. Then back to the resort to open presents with my lovely wife Karen, before a full turkey lunch with all the trimmings and a bottle of Merlot on the deck enjoying the panoramic views over Milne Bay.
Alternatively, I could spend a grey day freezing my bits off in the UK; all I’d have to look forward to would be the Queen’s Speech followed by a repeat of The Great Escape on TV.

Jack Ingle

The most enjoyable way I can imagine spending Christmas is to wake up on a luxury liveaboard dive-boat with my family and friends around me.
Everybody opens the numerous presents we have with us (hopefully diving-related) and before Christmas lunch we drop a shotline on the wondrous shipwreck HMS Repulse in the South China Seas.
Complete a fabulous dive and return to the boat to continue the Christmas celebrations.

Beth & Shaun Tierney

It was way back in 1988, early on Christmas Day, and we descended the anchor-line to 26m and came face to face with a whitetip shark. Right there and under our noses. It was our first ever open-water dive, and we were completely hooked. It was probably the best ever Christmas we had had, and even now the memory makes us grin. Imagine the excitement!
Sometimes it’s not a good idea to go back and try to recreate an experience like that. We have been to the Maldives several times since and always loved it, so if we could reproduce that Christmas Day, we would in a heartbeat.

Andrea Marshall

All I want for Christmas (with regards to diving) is to go home. Having lived abroad for over a decade, exotic diving holidays are not on my Christmas list.
Rather I would prefer to indulge in my nostalgia and head home to California to spend some time in our coastal kelp forests.
California will always be the place where I learned to dive, where I fell in love with the ocean, and where my passion for research began.

John Liddiard

In the days when I had a real job, I would tend to use up holiday time by going travelling at Christmas, but working with DIVER I tend not to do that now.
One exception was the Millennium, when I felt that I should do something special.
My friends and I had left it late, but as it turned out by booking a couple of weeks in Sharm around 18 December, 1999, we avoided paying all those massive premiums others had paid upfront earlier.
Departure was on Christmas Eve, but the holiday cost next to nothing, and we had a great time. Of course, people who had paid those massive premiums were a bit sick when
I mentioned it! I don’t think I’ve been away over Christmas since then.

Monty Halls

Simple! Me, the family, and the dog, on a beach somewhere distant and warm. There would be a perfect lagoon full of highly co-operative, charismatic large animals at one end of the beach, and an impossibly glassy, totally consistent surf break at the other.
I’d divide my time between surfing, shore-diving with Tam, paddling in the shallows with Isla, throwing driftwood for Reubs, taking bad underwater photographs (my forte), cooking Christmas dinner on an open fire, and reading tatty adventure novels by the light of a hissing lantern. No wireless Internet, no phone, no telly, no agenda. Bliss.

John Boyle

I have a great memory of an amazing two-tank dive at PNG’s Walindi Resort Xmas morning and then my Xmas present to myself arrived – a helicopter hired for an hour to film the reefs from above.
Xmas lunch with the Walindi team – and the pilot – on the beach under the palm trees.
All got pretty boozy and hazy after that – I remember us all singing that festive favourite New York, New York several times before the helicopter pilot finally left, flying several extremely low-level passes in farewell. One Xmas Day I would gladly repeat!

Doug Allan

My perfect diving Christmas would be to repeat one that I enjoyed way back when I was in the Red Sea in 1974.
I was working with marine biologists, and we used to live for up to a week at a time on a 4m x 4m platform, made of scaffolding poles and wooden planks, about four miles off the Sudanese coast.
Perched on top of a patch reef, you could literally tip your chair back and drop onto the reef. 25 December, 1974 was a post-Christmas lunch dive to remember.

Steve Warren

New Year was always better for me than Christmas. I saw the Millennium in under water in Camp Bay, Gibraltar with Joe Azzapardi.
Standing on the sand in 10m, I could look up and see fireworks streaking across the night sky.
We surfaced to the sound of ships’ sirens in the bay, cracked a few bottles of San Miguel and toasted Y2K. I miss my New Year’s Eve dives.

Mike Ward

My ideal Christmas dive would involve setting off to dive while it was still dark and seeing the sun rise on the way to the site in a display of early-morning colour.
The hills and roadsides would be covered with frost. The site would be an inland lake and the morning would be so still and cold that there was a thin mist coiling over the surface of the water, just thick enough to part and move as we get in and commence our descent.
Under water, the vis would be phenomenal, but it wouldnt matter if there was nothing much to see. The cold biting through our gloves would bring the dive to an end sooner rather than later.
Back on shore, the frost wouldnt have gone and wed be able to trace our own earlier footsteps back to the car.
And finally, a traditional cafe with pie and chips and windows steamed up by their central heating before driving home.

Gavin Parsons

My worst Christmas diving story happened at about 11pm on Christmas Eve in the late 1990s. I was on my way home from a Red Sea trip, and as we touched down at Gatwick we were informed by the captain that another aircraft that had landed just before us had declared an emergency. Someone on board had said that they had a bomb.
Our aircraft was held in position and we were on the tarmac doing nothing for more than an hour, so I finally got off the plane on Christmas Day. Not the best way to start Christmas. Luckily the bomb threat turned out to be a false alarm.
My ideal Christmas would be a dive on Cousteau’s Conshelf submarine hangar, where it’s possible to surface in 6m of water. I know it’s not a good idea to drink and dive, but a small glass of buck’s fizz at 6m beneath the Red Sea would be a good way to celebrate Christmas.

Andy Torbet

There’s something special about getting out for a dive on a day when the other guys wouldn’t consider it.
I went for a quick solo shore dive on Christmas morning once. The dive would have been nothing special on any other day, but with air crisp and water cold, it was Christmas, and Christmas is meant to be cold. It seemed as if I had the whole ocean to myself, the usual crowds a distant memory.
Under water, I felt removed from the usual Christmas chaos. The fact that I hadn’t stayed in bed or curled up by the fire left me feeling triumphant as I emerged from the festive sea.
So try taking a dip over the festive period, no matter how crazy it gets – make it a gift to yourself. it’ll leave you feeling cleansed and justifiably smug, and you’ll really feel you’ve earned that sixth mince pie. Merry Christmas!

Alex Mustard

Dream Christmas would be a top-class liveaboard like Indo-Siren in the Raja Ampat.
The best reefs in the world, and Christmas is right in the middle of the season there. Although I would have to have been a very good boy to get such a great present from Santa. Water warm enough to dive in just a rash vest, the perfect midwinter thaw.
The bad news is that the food is now so good on these top liveaboards that you can forget about losing a few pounds. Christmas gluttony will be in full effect.
The dream is also possible at home, too. A crisp, sunny winter’s day at one of the UK’s inland sites with a couple of dive mates can be Christmas heaven. All my best dives in Stoney Cove have been in December.
But pick the wrong day and it can get pretty miserable. Especially when the wind is blowing the rain so strongly that when you open your car’s hatchback, it soaks everything up to and including the inside of the front windscreen.

Dan Burton

The perfect getaway location over the Christmas / New Year period would probably be the Maldives, or a pristine sandy island in the South Pacific. A place for all of the family to relax and snorkel, a chance to teach my children to dive, and leave my computer and mobile phone at home.