trip report: Australia – diving the Great Barrier Reef, December 2019

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the CNN’s Seven Natural World and UNESCO World Heritage Site covering approximately 133,000 sq mi (344,400 sq km) off the coast of northeastern Australia in the Coral Sea (wikipedia). With recent coral bleaching (wikipedia) from climate change (The New York Times), there was no question of where we were going in Australia. So in this edition of travel2dive, aka just my dive log, we boarded the Ocean Quest liveaboard and really went down under 17 times over the course of 4 days to bring in the New Year.


This is the third entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series covering our diving adventures on the Great Barrier Reef (3) from day 4 to day 8. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.


click to expand
1 planning & research
2 trip report: getting in to Cairns, Australia
3 trip report: diving the Great Barrier Reef
      3.1 dive videos
            3.1.1 part 1 – liveaboard Cribs ft. Ocean Quest
            3.1.2 part 2 – a day on the boat
            3.1.3 part 3 – the friends you meet
      3.2 transfer & life on the liveaboard Ocean Quest
      3.3 dive log
            3.3.1 Plate Top on Norman Reef with Sea Quest
            3.3.2 Turtle Bay on Norman Reef
            3.3.3 Sandra’s on Norman Reef with Ocean Quest
            3.3.4 night dive of Sandra’s on Norman Reef
            3.3.5 Sandra’s on Norman Reef 
            3.3.6 Troppo’s on Norman Reef
            3.3.7 Troppo’s on Norman Reef
            3.3.8 Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef
            3.3.9 night dive of Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef
            3.3.10 Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef
            3.3.11 Sandra’s on Saxon Reef
            3.3.12 Sandra’s on Saxon Reef
            3.3.13 Playground on Norman Reef
            3.3.14 night dive of Playground on Norman Reef
            3.3.15 Playground on Norman Reef
            3.3.16 Troppo’s on Norman Reef
            3.3.17 Troppo’s on Norman Reef
      3.4 impressions & rating
4 trip report: Sydney & travel to New Zealand
5 trip report: diving Milford Sound
trip report: Rees-Dart Track in Mt. Aspiring National Park
trip report: Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
trip report: Tasman Glacier viewpoint, Christchurch, & getting out
final impressions, New Zealand top 5, & budget

dive videos

part 1 – liveaboard Cribs ft. Ocean Quest

part 2 – a day on the boat

part 3 – the friends you meet – premiering 11/21

transfer & life on the liveaboard

Early in the morning, we checked out of our hostel and asked them to store our unneeded luggage for the boat. We were then picked up about the same time as all the other tours from town. From there, we were driven to Diver’s Den dive shop to finish our paperwork and to pay the National Marine Park fees (AUD$20 per day during our trip). Then we piled back into the vans and were taken to the docks.


Liveaboard and day trippers alike boarded the smaller Sea Quest catamaran. The liveaboard boat, Ocean Quest, actually stays on the reefs continuously while the smaller Sea Quest runs new passengers and supplies out to it daily.

briefing on Sea Quest

After two dives from Sea Quest, we were transferred over to Ocean Quest while Sea Quest headed back to port.

Ocean Quest (Diver’s Den) was our liveaboard ship and it is a 3 deck 35m catamaran.


We stayed in a twin room with our own bathroom and shower. I found the only negative was if our side of the ship is in the sun, then it became a bit too hot to stay in our room.


In the back of the boat, there were sundecks on where you could relax, dry your things out, and the location of our dive briefings. 

I’d recommend bringing a polarized sunglass while you are chilling on the sundeck, they cut down the reflections from the water so you can see down to the corals below and even catch some the turtles coming up for air.


The ship had a large dive deck and can seems a bit hectic during your initial dives with everyone going their own ways. However, it gets easier once you are familiar with the procedure to leave the boat. The crew were great with everyone’s equipment and checking everyone out and back into the boat. There are also crew keeping watch from up high for divers that surface a ways away from the boat, which easily happens when you start to navigate yourself and may have happened to us. They’ll send a raft after you if you are too far out to swim.

Included in our initial cost was 3 meals and a desert a day, any diving rental gear, and all the coffee or tea we want to drink. I had no complaint about the meals. They are served sit down during dinner and buffet style from breakfast and lunch. You can typically get seconds during breakfast and lunch, but do leave food for the crew.

Alcohol was extra, but I didn’t partake as much since I was zonked from nitrogen fatigue on most days after 4-5 dives. Ofcourse, we had to get a few drinks to celebrate New Years (kinda want 2019 back now) in the 3rd deck lounge and after we finished our last dive. 

Heather & Harry celebrating New Years with Coronas and lime, the champagne of beer. Cheers!

The other cost on the ship was a diving guide, at the cost of AUD$15 a dive per person. Because the divemaster didn’t know what my prescription was, I was required to dive with a guide at the beginning of our trip. We didn’t mind since we were looking to start with a guide to begin with to familiarize ourselves with the areas we were diving. Plus, this was Mark’s first dive outside his training dives and I surely didn’t want to be responsible for fixing the problems that comes with being a new diver. We had different guides for most of the dives, but they all did a good job.

our dive guide Saga with mark checking out some coral caves

Everyday, the schedule on the boat was the same and allowing for five dives. This included a morning dive before breakfast and a night dive. You can go on as many or as few dives as you’d like. I ended diving every opportunity I had, but it was a bit exhausting with 5 dives a day. We debated whether to get the Nitrox certification (even though I know the materials and dived Nitrox a plenty previously) to help with the fatigue, but decided to just to enjoy our time there rather than do course work. As an aside, it seemed like Australia takes into account of dive certifications more stringently that other places we’ve been, which makes sense since guides were optional. My favorite time were the morning dives as more fish were out and visibility was better from the calm ocean over night. They sell a fluorescent night dive experience to look at the corals, but we just did the regular night dive.


Lastly, the liveaboard diving experience isn’t complete without mentioning the many new friends we made on trip from around the world. Like our previous experience backpacking from hut to hut or the tramily, everyone’s on the same schedule and many were open to being social since we had no where else to be but relax on the boat. It was blast to share our experience with our new friends.


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dive report – Norman Reef & Saxon Reef

Ocean Quest & Sea Quest mainly travel around Norman Reef and Sexon Reef depending on the conditions. They also travel out to Hastings Reef dependent on the conditions. 


During our time on board, we spent it on Norman and Saxon Reef diving at 7 different sites total.


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dive 1: Plate Top on Norman Reef with Sea Quest

The water being so warm, we didn’t wear any wetsuits so it took me a dive to find the right weight. Rather we only had a skin suit to protect against jellyfish bits.

dive map picture from Sea Quest taken by diveplanit

dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/29
  • depth: 56 ft (17m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • weight belt: 15 lbs
  • dive guide: didn’t get his name

Our first dive started on the sallower reef. We were greeted early on by a White Tip Reef Shark. There were plenty of Yellow-Tail Fusilier hanging around the reef with a few Unicornfish mixed in. 


We then dropped deeper to the side of a reef wall


where we were met with even a larger school of Yellow-Tail Fusilier.


A few members of our dive group was running low on air after this, so the guide took them up to the surface before returning to continue to lead us around the shallower reefs. Along the way, we saw a giant calm and


a mascot of the Great Barrier Reef, Nemo or better known as the Clown Anemonefish.


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dive 2: Turtle Bay on Norman Reef

I didn’t get a picture of the map of our second dive on Sea Quest unfortunately. 

dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/29
  • depth: 46 ft (14m)
  • duration: 50 min
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • dive guide: didn’t get his name

We descended into the reef on a sandy patch. The first thing of interest of a pretty large Stingray.


Our guide then pointed out what I think was a Nudibranch, not sure…


We then made our way through some corals descending as we went.


At the end of the descent was a coral canyon that took us to the bottom of the reef. We turn right and returned toward the ship after that.


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dive 3: Sandra’s on Norman Reef with Ocean Quest

After lunch on Sea Quest, we were transferred to our liveaboard. That was following by orientation and moving into our rooms on the boat. Before we knew it, it was dive time. This made the first day feel extremely busy.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/29
  • depth: 52 ft (16m)
  • duration: 38 min
  • air usage: 200 to 90 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • dive guide: did not get her name

Immediately after we descended, we were greeted by a sea turtle. A group of divers had gathered around and we hovered around him for a few minutes before moving on.


We then swam over some shallower coral fields 


before curving around to our left and dropping along the vertical reef wall. 


We were then met by another mascot of the Great Barrier Reef, a Humphead Maori Wrasse. They are known to swim up to divers.


This was near our turn around point and we swam over more coral back toward the boat and anchor line.

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dive 4: night dive at Sandra’s on Norman Reef

For night dive, we were each given a flashlight and signalling in the dark was gone over during the briefing. We would dive the same site as our previous dive as Ocean Quest only moves twice a day. 

dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/29
  • depth: 36 ft (11m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • air usage: 200 to 80 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • dive guide: didn’t catch his name

Even though we were diving in the dark without the sun, the water remained warm so we only had our light skin suit and no wetsuit.

This dive was a bit of a mess. The group was probably a bit too large for one guide to handle in the dark. I had a difficult time recalling our route for this dive being the first night dive I’ve done in a while. Mostly, I saw a few White Tip Reef Sharks and  


Big-Eye Trevallies swimming around us and using our lights to hunt down smaller prey.


I was pretty exhausted after the first day and was glad to shower and head to bed afterwards.

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dive 5: morning dive at Sandra’s on Norman Reef

The day on the liveaboard starts early with the morning dive, if you are up for it. 



dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/30
  • depth: 62 ft (19m)
  • duration: 37 min
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • air usage: 200 to 80 bar
  • dive guide: same guide as dive 3

Diving the same site, we started up on the reef first.


However being the first dive of the day, we looked to get some depth so we descend to toward the sandy floor.


We went along the reef wall seeing a couple of Moray Eel.


On our way back to the ship, we saw a big clump up near the surface.


I was surprised to see these large Bumphead Parrotfish in a school.


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dive 6: Troppo’s on Norman Reef

During breakfast, Ocean Quest is moved to our next dive site. This is one of 2 times our liveaboard moves.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/30
  • depth: 64 ft (19.5m)
  • duration: 48 min
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • air usage: 190 to 55 bar
  • dive guide: Saga, finishing her guide certification

Troppo’s is a dive site at the northern edge of Norman Reef and are known for the vertical coral walls. We went to the north from the boat (left on the map above). As we reached the sandy slope, a huge school of Bumperhead Parrotfish swam in front of us.


Afterwards, we continued along the wall and found a sea turtle to follow. We went against the current until someone in our group reached halfway point of their air.


We returned the the sandy area around the boat and found plenty of smaller stingrays in the sand.


A few of our group surfaced at this point as they hit 50 bars, but we still had plenty of air. We headed over to coral inlets to the south (right on the map) of the boat.


Looking around the sand here, we were able to find a juvenile Razorfish.


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dive 7: Troppo’s on Norman Reef

After a few dives, the divemaster heard back from their doctor and realized my prescriptions has no issues with diving. That is the last time I put it on the medication list. So we were able to start buddy diving without a guide and we felt comfortable enough at this point.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/29
  • depth: 56 ft (17.2m)
  • duration: 38 min
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive (no guide) with Mark

Our dive plan was to head south (right of the boat on the map) and then follow the wall from there.


Because I was leading the dive, Mark took charge of the camera.


The visibility wasn’t great along the wall, though we did see a pair of White Tip Reef Sharks sleeping on the floor.


Leading and navigating lead me to guzzle up my air relatively fast, so I played it cautiously and turned around relatively early. We spent the rest of our time in the shallow reefs.


This included visiting a outcrop of coral, which was home to many young Dory fishes (aka Palette Surgeonfish).


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dive 8: Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef

During lunch, Ocean quest moved for the second time during the day. Now that we are on the liveaboard, there was a much longer break between our 3rd morning dive and the first dive in the afternoon. We had much more time to lounge around a relax, even take a nap. 

During this break, the boat headed over to Saxon Reef. Unfortunately my GoPro froze at the beginning of the dive, so there are no pictures from here. Our dive plan was to head south (right) on this dive and I really don’t remember much about it. I do remember getting to the fish bowl and then turning around.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/30
  • depth: 47 ft (14.4m)
  • duration: 39 min
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark

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dive 9: night dive at Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef

For our second night dive, we decided to go with a guide. Our dive plan was pretty similar to our first dive at Coral Gardens, we would head south (right) and return at half tank after getting to the fish bowl.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/29
  • depth: 44 ft (13.5m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • dive guide: John

As we descended, we saw another big bate ball of Bumperhead Parrot Fish. I’m pretty sure they thought we were pray as they “pooped” to create a cloud in the water. I was keen on avoiding that.


We were one of the first to be in the water for this dive, so we still had some daylight at the start. Pretty soon, it was dark once again and the Big-Eye Trevallies once again followed our light to hunt.


The cool part of our dive was that we found a Cuttlefish, though I couldn’t make it out at all during the night even with my light directly on it. I had to go back to instant replay on my computer to actually see it.


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dive 10: Coral Gardens on Saxon Reef

Another morning, another beautiful sunrise on the ocean.


We were again diving at Coral Gardens. For our first dive of the day, we wanted to go as deep as possible. However, it would be difficult with how shallow most of the dive site was (14 m). So our plan was to head toward the north (left) of the boat and head for the Garden Eels. However, this would be a navigation challenge since we would be in the sands without many way points. We were buddy diving on this without a guide.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/31
  • depth: 56 ft (17.4m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • air remaining: 60 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark

So we spend the majority of our morning in the sands and never found any eels. I found a few coral islands, but it was impossible to know where exactly we were. Once got got to roughly 17m depth, we turned back toward the reefs.


For the rest of the time, we spend following around a White Tip Reef Shark along the coral.


I can’t remember if this was one of the dives where we didn’t find the anchor line for the boat and had to surface to find it, but this could very well have been. It wasn’t the most successful navigational dives for me.

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dive 11: Sandra’s on Saxon Reef

So you are asking ourselves, rather I’m asking myself, didn’t we already at Sandra’s. Well, apparently Saxon Reef also has a dive spot with the same name. Mark and I buddy dived this one as well. We planned start off the boat heading south (right) and follow a few coral islands to the big coral toward. We planned to make a figure 8 around it and then returning to the boat.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/31
  • depth: 61 ft (18.6 m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • air left: 60 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark

We were pretty good about following our dive plan for the dive. We started off near the mooring blocks for the boat



and followed the islands of corals south. Along the way, we encountered a Boxfish. 


It appeared we were on target as we reached the edge of large coral structure we were looking for.


We found a couple of Barracudas as we neared the structure.


We went through the canyon in the middle of the reef as planned


and then continued to circle the structure. We woke a napping White Tip Reef Shark


and found Nemo once again once we started to make our way back to the ship.


Along the small island of reefs, we found swarms of tiny fish.


We also ran into a school of Barracudas.


What we didn’t run into was the ship or the mooring lines as we overshot those all together and ended up on the north (left on the map) side of the dive site. Luckily for us, our friend Louisa and Rickard were over in this direction and pointed us to a napping Cuttlefish.


We never did find the mooring and had to surface to locate the boat at this point. However, this was one of my favorite dives during our trip.

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dive 12: Sandra’s on Saxon Reef

Our dive plan for the second dive here was to go north (left of the dive boat this time and keep it simple.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/31
  • depth: 47 ft (14.4m)
  • duration: 38 min
  • air left: 90 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark

As planned to turned left after descending. Pretty quickly we found another Cuttlefish, this one was awake and keen on moving away from us. 


This area of the dive site wasn’t as interesting, but we found that first sleeping Cuttlefish once again.


Other thing of interested was a really pretty Giant Clam.


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dive 13: Playground on Norman Reef

After lunch, the boat returned to Norman Reef and we would be diving at the Playground. The highlight of the dive was the a coral island that is home of several Lion Fish. So our dive plan was to head toward the island and then turn north along the coral wall.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/31
  • depth: 51 ft (15.6m)
  • duration: 33 min
  • air left: 90 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark

So it seemed like everyone had the same dive plan. We decided to leave the island relatively quickly as it was swarmed by other divers and save it for the morning dive.


From the island, we followed a White Tip Reef Shark back toward the reefs.


Along the reef, we found some Pink Anemonefish


and another clam.



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dive 14: night dive Playground on Norman Reef

Mark was feeling the nitrogen fatigue at this point after dinner. Being New Years Eve and know we’d be staying up a little bit longer, he took the night dive off. Louisa and Rickard welcomed me in their buddy group for this final dive of 2019.


Our plan was to head south (right) of the dive site. They had seen a school of Trevallies that way earlier.


dive log stats

  • date: 2019/12/31
  • depth: 47 ft (14.4m)
  • duration: 36 min
  • air left: 70 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Louisa & Rickard

While we never did find that big school of Trevallies they saw earlier even as we went always to the next dive site over, we we did see more White Tip Reef Sharks


and individual Trevally out hunting.


The cool part was that because we were one of the first ones to leave the boat that when we returned, there were a couple of Grey Reef Sharks still lingers around from their Shark in the Dark experience (Diver’s Den). It was fun watching them as we made our safety stop.


After that, it was shower and New Years Eve celebration time. Typical for me, I did not make it to midnight. It was midnight somewhere in the world.

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dive 15: Playground on Norman Reef

Ah 2020, so full of promise and so innocent. Little did we know at the time …


After the celebration of the previous night, the dive deck was light in the morning. Our plan was to head north (left) along the reef wall before turning around and going to the Lion Fish island. We figure there wouldn’t be too many other there at that point.


dive log stats

  • date: 2020/1/1
  • depth: 51 ft (15.4m)
  • duration: 33 min
  • air left: 60 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark

Our dive plan went as we planned, but we didn’t see to much of interest along the coral walls. 


We didn’t go very far though since we were looking to spend some time by the Lion Fish island. It was indeed less busy allowing the Lion Fish to swim out from their hiding holes.


There were a couple different types here, but I couldn’t tell you the specific ones.


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dive 16: return to Troppo’s on Norman Reef

For our last couple dives on the liveaboard, the boat headed back to Troppo’s, where we had our 6th and 7th dive. Our plan for this time was to head toward the south (right) wall.


During our briefing, a newly certified diver was looking for a buddy team to dive. That’s how we met our new friend Amy.


dive log stats

  • date: 2020/1/1
  • depth: 60 ft (18.3 m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • air left: 230 to 60 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark and Amy

As we started our descent, we saw every other group head toward the south (right). So we called an audible and headed toward the north (left) instead. It was a pretty easy communication since there are pretty much only 2 ways we could go. The currents were very strong this morning as we made our way along the coral wall. There weren’t too much out of what we’d already seen, just a lot of Yellow-Tail Fusiliers. 


With the strong currents and the deeper depth, we burned through our oxygen pretty quickly.


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dive 17: return to Troppo’s on Norman Reef

For our final dive, we decided to head left again as the coral wall was among our favorite parts of the site. We through we’d go up the sandy slope into the shallow corals on our return to change it up. 


dive log stats

  • date: 2020/1/1
  • depth: 60 ft (18.3 m)
  • duration: 40 min
  • air left: 50 bar
  • weight belt: 12 lbs
  • buddy dive with Mark and Amy

There was less current during this dive. As such, the fish were also able to dictate where they wanted to go. This included the Yellow-Tail Fusiliers, who swam downwards along the reef wall and it looked like it was raining fish at times.


Otherwise, there weren’t anything else that stood out. However, I’m not the most observant of smaller fish and organism that hang around the coral.


With that dive, we were done with the current excursion into the Great Barrier Reef. All that was left was to grab a last beer with new friends before caught the Sea Quest to continue on our adventures.

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final impressions

view/experience (rating scale explanation): 3. 

First, I want to specify a specific caveat before I delve into my rating. The Great Barrier Reef is enormous and we only dived at two of the many reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. So this rating is specific to Norman and Saxon Reefs and I would travel back to dive at other areas. 

Now, the reason I would rate the diving experience here as the 3 may be specific to what I enjoy seeing during my dives. I want to see large fish and animals and also big coral structures. While we saw a bit of both here, it seemed a lot of what is best are the smaller animals such as Nudibranchs and the coral. There are definitely a more diversity of coral here than other places I’ve dove. I was happy with all that we saw during the liveaboard, but I think I was also really to do something else by the end.


Next time I’m back in the region, I’ll return to dive in the Great Barrier Reefs. However, it probably wouldn’t be the only reason I am back and would look for a different area within these reefs.

As to the liveaboard experience, I enjoyed it a lot and it reminded me of a backpacking trip in some regards. All you have to worry about during your day is to dive, in this case instead of hike, and you meet a lot of new friends that’s there for the same reason. It would something I look to for future diving adventures.


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4 thoughts on “trip report: Australia – diving the Great Barrier Reef, December 2019

  1. Ah, brings me back 20 years to the good old days in 2019… Looking forward to the videos! I’m glad you kept track of all these things because I sure didn’t.

    1. Do we even remember how to scuba dive anymore? Lol.

      Yea, the only reason I keep track of anything like that is to write about it here. Going through all the clips actually help a lot in recall.

    1. Yea, I can understand that. I didn’t even think of being scuba certified when I started this thing. However, I do appreciate the different views and the shear number of different critters that we see in comparison to hiking. Plus, it opens up more activities for us to travel to more tropical regions in the world. We aren’t much for sitting on a beach, so this gives us something to do.

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