The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef formation on the planet and in it you can find the greatest variety of coral reefs. There live 400 species of coral, 1 500 types of fish and 4 000 kinds of mollusks. As it is 2000 kilometers long, it is also the largest formation made by living creatures. Only from the air one can fully appreciate its size, and as far as its beauty and details are concerned – you should see it underwater. Some people put it among the seven wonders of the natural world – it is larger than the Great Wall of China and is the only organic thing which can be seen from the moon.
There is a marine park which is parallel to the shore of Queensland. It is more than 3 000 kilometers long, from the town of Bundaberg up to Cape York, nearly reaching Papua New Guinea. The reef is located from 15 to 150 kilometers away from the coast and in some parts is about 65 kilometers wide. The total territory of the reef is 348 700 sq kilometers which means it is larger than the UK. The reef is included in the World Heritage list and is the most extensive marine park on Earth. Not to mention the priceless underwater experience it offers.
The Great Barrier Reef has three types of reefs – fringe, ribbon, and platform. The fringe reef is the one you can find near the shore of island or the mainland. The ribbon reef can be seen only around Cairns and it forms thin lines along the Reef itself. The platform reef represents patches of corals, coming to the surface from the continental shelf, stretching along Queensland and it is the most widely-spread type of reef. The islands in the marine park are continental – part of Australia’s land or cays – deposits of broken corals and sand.
If you want to fully appreciate the Reef, you can learn more things about it before seeing it at the Reef Teach. This is an evening presentation, which will tell you what to avoid on the Reef, how it was formed and many other useful things. Another useful experience would be visiting the show Reef HQ in Townsville, where there is an aquarium with a recreated living reef in it.
Every visitor of the Reef should pay a small fee, called EMC or reef tax, which goes for the preservation and management of the reef.
Species of the Great Barrier Reef
The Reef shelters a huge variety of creatures, including some endangered ones. There are around thirty known species of dolphins and whales, including the Dwarf Minke Whale, Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin and the Humpback Whale. There also come 6 kinds of turtles for breeding – Green Sea Turtle, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Flatback Turtle and the Olive Ridley. There live fifteen kinds of sea grass and more than 200 types of birds (40 of which are water birds), including the White-bellied Sea Eagle and Roseate Tern. The mollusk kinds are even more – five thousand, including the Giant Clam and various nudibranches and cone snails. There also live seventeen kinds of sea snake and over 1500 types of fish, including the Clownfish, Red Bass, Red-Throat Emperor and several kinds of Snapper and Coral Trout. On the Reef are found four hundred kinds of corals (hard and soft) and five hundred types of seaweed. The irukandji jellyfish also lives there, plus sharks and giant manta rays.
Diving the Reef
If you want to go diving around the Great Barrier Reef, you can do so with many companies, offering from a one-day tour (about 2 dives) to a one-week tour. The companies also offer full diving gear, if you don’t have one already. From Cairns you can choose from around 20 places to dive on the Outer Reef and you can also get guided dives in order to see the best things. If you dive from Port Douglas you will get to see many unforgettable sights – huge clams at Barracuda Pass, shoals of parrot fish, anemone fish, unicorn fish and eels and many other animals and corals in Nursery Bommie and Split-Bommie.
Townsville offers one, two or three day diving not only around the Reef, but also in a wrecked ship, called Yongala – around thirty meters down in the water. You can also explore the Reef from the Whitsundays Islands.
In Queensland you can take diving lessons. First you will need passport photos, a medical examination and ability to swim in order to begin them. The lessons can teach you to simply dive or to become a dive master or rescue diver and they usually last around five days.
Major Reef Sites
Around Cairns there are around twenty reefs, the farthest of which are 2 hours away with boat. The reefs there are the most popular of all, because they are close to the shore and offer some amazing experience. Some of the reefs are small in circumference and even rise above the water, but others are really wide and big. Most of them have many good places for diving, like the Norman Reef which has four. The most famous reefs around Cairns are Hastings, Saxon and Norman, suitable for both divers and snorkelers. There can be seen colourful corals, rainbow-hued coral fish, eels, barracuda, octopus and huge clams. From time to time you can spot there (mainly around the Saxon reef) Green sea turtle and white-tip sharks. Around South Norman there picturesque coral shelves and you can swim through the caves where you will see boulders and plate corals.
If you want the best place for diving, you should visit the Ribbon Reefs – along the coast of Cairns and Port Douglas. There you can admire the colour and diversity of magnificent coral walls and plenty of different fish. There might be stronger currents there as the reefs are the last protection from the open ocean, so drift diving is a possibility. The Ribbon Reefs are pretty away off shore and to visit them you will need to take a live-aboard boat. According to experts, diving is most suitable in Steve’s Bommie, where you can see barracudas, other fish and corals in 30 meters depth. The other recommended place is Dynamite Pass which is a channel, where many fish like barracuda, grouper, mackerel, and tuna come to feed. There are also black corals on the walls, surrounded by eels and reef sharks.
Another perfect place around Cairns is Cod Hole, where meet many types of fish like Maori wrasse, eels, coral trout and huge potato cods that you can even feed yourself. This reef is around twenty kilometers away from Lizard Island and 240 kilometers from Cairns, so it is a long trip to it, unless you are staying at the Lizard Island. But you can take a live-aboard boat to Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs (around four days) or to Cod Hole and the Coral Sea (up to seven days), both of which make a terrific vacation.
If you are a devoted diver and you want to visit places as far off-shore as possible, than the Far Northern region of the Reef is the place for you. The region is unspoilt by crowd of divers as most of the boats don’t go there and it has a variety of good places. There is always good visibility in the Far Northern region and the recommended sights are: Silvertip City on Martin Reef where you can see sharks, potato cod and lion fish around a 46 meters deep wall; the Magic Cave which is a swim-through full of soft corals, fish and fans; also the caves around Raine Island, which is the largest gathering place for green turtles. The Rainbow Wall is also a beautiful spot with visibility of about 24 meters.
In the Coral Sea (around 100-200 kilometers east of Cairns) there are gorgeous reef mountains more than a kilometer high, that make out a perfect diving spot. Despite the fact that the Coral Sea is not a part of the Reef’s Marine Park, there are some live-aboard tours that visit the Coral Sea, the Ribbon Reefs and Cod Hole (around 7 days). In the place you can spot many kinds of ocean creatures, fish, corals, gorgonian fans and pretty often even sharks. The best place in the Coral Sea is the Osprey Reef (100 square kilometers) where the visibility is up to seventy meters throughout the whole year. In the area you can even feed sharks yourself but only if you are a part of a guided tour. The kinds of sharks you can see there include white-tip reef shark, gray reef shark, silvertips and hammerheads. You can also spot green turtles, tuna, barracuda, potato cod, mantas and grouper.
Near Cairns there are many islands surrounded by coral reefs. One such island is the Green Island, which is only an hour away from the shore. There is a fifteen hectare coral cay suitable for both diving and snorkeling and you can visit the place for half a day only.
Another heavenly place is the Frankland Islands – pure and uninhabited islands with rainforests, sunny beaches and reefs only 45 kilometers south of Cairns. These are also a place where green sea turtles gather and can be seen. If you are lucky enough and go there from February to March, you may even see many little turtles hatching on the shore. Good places are also Michaelmas Cay and Upolu Cay – beautiful sand blips surrounded by reefs, only 30 kilometers away from Cairns. Michaelmas Cay even has vegetation and is inhabited by 27 thousand sea birds. In Upolu you can see manatees. Both cays are perfect for snorkelers and inexperienced divers.
From Port Douglas
The places of interest around Port Douglas are no less attractive than the ones around Cairns. The most popular places are Tongue, Opal and St. Crispin Reefs. Another suitable diving place is the Agincourt complex. Some places, recommended by experts include the swim-trough of the Three Sisters where one can see baby gray whaler sharks and the walls of Castle Rock full of marvelous corals and stingrays, hidden in the sand. Nursery Bommie is a 24 meters high reef often visited by barracuda, rays, sharks and eels. You can see hidden giant groupers under the plate corals of the Light Reef. You can admire the fascinating staghorn corals at the Playground, swim through the Maze where parrot fish and huge Maori wrasse come or visit the Stepping Stones and admire the beauty of the clownfish. Other places of interest are the Turtle Bommie where one can see hawksbill turtles and Harry's Bommie, where manta rays are seen from time to time. Also in Turtle Bay you can see a nice and friendly Maori wrasse, called the Killer for some reason. Visit the Cathedral – a complex of swim-throughs and coral formations and Barracuda Pass where live corals, huge clams and barracudas, of course.
The nearest reef from Port Douglas (only 15 kilometers north-east) is the Low Isles. It represents two small cays from sand and corals; densely vegetated and inhabited by many seabirds. The corals are better on the Outer Reef than here, but you can see here many kinds of fish and even sea turtles. It is a good place for snorkeler as it can be reached by wading from the shore. The Low Isles are also a good place for rest as you can not only dive or snorkel, but also sunbathe or walk under the palm trees (beware of your shoes as the coral sand can be rough).
From Mission Beach
Mission Beach is the land, closest to the Reef – only one hour by boat. The most popular place around is the Beaver Cay which is a cay from sand and corals, full of marine creatures. As the waters are not deep, it is suitable for beginners in diving and snorkelers, eager to explore the beauties of the corals and perfect for a first lesson in diving.
Around Townsville there are many huge reefs and some of them are scarcely visited. The waters there are swarmed with beautiful corals, different types of fish like manta rays, sharks and turtles, plus canyons and channels. There is good visibility and the best place there (actually in the Coral Sea, out of the Marine Park) is the Flinders Reef. It is 240 kilometers away from the shore and has 30 meters visibility. There is a diversity of corals and big fish such as sharks and barracuda.
But actually the most popular place around Townsville is Yongala – a wrecked ship, attracting many divers. Most of it is still intact and is located 90 kilometers away from Townsville, 16 kilometers away from the shore and from 15 to 30 meters under water. The Yongala steamer was sunk by a cyclone in 1911 along with 49 passengers and 72 people crew. There is up to 18 meters of visibility there and the place is also full of corals and sea life including barracuda, huge grouper, rays, sea snakes, turtles, moray eels, shark and cod. You can also enter the ship and swim through it. But beware that the ship is deep and the currents are strong which makes Yongala suitable only for experienced divers. There are both live-aboard and one-day tours, going to the ship-wreck.
From The Whitsundays
If you visit the Whitsundays, don’t miss going to the Outer Reef where there are many excellent diving and snorkeling places around the islands. The reefs are pretty good, like the ones in Cairns, and some of them are almost never visited. The reefs offer drop-offs, drift dives, a huge variety of corals and a great number of sea animals like whales, mantas, shark, reef fish, morays, turtles and more. The visibility is good, up to 23 meters.
The most widely-known place on the Outer Reef is the Bait Reef which has caverns, swim-troughs and channels. Another place is the Net Reef, where in the Groupers Groto you will almost certainly be welcomed by a family of groupers. There are also dolphins around the south-east end of the Net Reef. And among the corals in the Oublier Reef you will see more then 2 meters wide plate corals.
Many people also visit the Blue Pearl Bay near the Hayman Island for diving and snorkeling. There you will see many corals like gorgonian fans and different fish like Maori wrasse and manta rays. As it is near the beach, it is another suitable place for a first dive. Also famous is the Mantaray Bay on Hook Island for its diverse ocean life – from small fish to huge pelagic and manta rays in November.
Worth visiting is also the Black Reef (or Bali Hai Island) where you can see soft and wall corals, plus Maori wrasse, octopus, turtles, reef shark, different kinds of rays (mantas, eagles and cow-tails) and even hammerhead shark.
The reefs on the south are in no way inferior to the ones on the north around Cairns. But this region of the coast is less inhabited and therefore the reefs are not so visited by divers and snorkelers and there are some still untouched.
The only regularly visited reef around Bundaberg is the Lady Musgrave Island (80 kilometers from the coast), which is a 14 hectare vegetated area. It is surrounded by a lagoon which holds many corals and almost all of the 1 500 kinds of fish found on the Great Barrier Reef. Lady Musgrave Island is part of the Bunker Group of islands and is actually closer to Gladstone, but it doesn’t offer boats to any of the isles. And despite their beauty, the reefs there are almost not explored.
Another great island on the south is Lady Elliot Island which is part of the Woongarra Marine Park of Bundaberg. The small park is a popular attraction and the area is known as Bargara. There are many coral, both soft and hard, plus nudibranchia, wobbegongs, epaulette sharks, sea snakes, 60 types of fish and green and loggerhead turtles. Most of the water is only nine meters deep.
After Woongarra there is another interesting sight – the Cochrane artificial reef. It is actually several Mohawk and Beechcraft aircraft that have been thrown in the water in order to become home for fish. Another place (23 meters in the water) is Evan’s Patch which is a manta "cleaning station" and actually a Beaufort bomber from World War II with many ocean creatures to be seen there.
Day Trips to the Great Barrier Reef
There are motorized catamarans from Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Mission Beach, and the Whitsunday Island which are actually the most popular way of getting to the Reef. These boats can settle up to 300 people and are quite comfortable. There is also a marine biologist who lectures during the trip. Each boat has its own pontoon and there are even glass-bottomed boats for the ones who don’t want to get into the water.
Another means of transport is a smaller boat. They usually visit more than one reef and settle no more than 20 people. This means that you can get more attention from the guide and look at the corals without a crown of people around you. However the boats are not as comfortable as the catamarans and the trip may take longer.
Great Barrier Reef Health & Safety Warnings
Be warned that the corals are very sharp and if you cut yourself, the wound might quickly get infected. If you eventually cut yourself, be sure to ask for an antiseptic and apply it on the scratch.
It is important for you to know that your skin might burn pretty fast, especially under the water. Therefore be sure to put sunscreen on your back and on the back of your legs (especially behind the knees), neck and even ears. Put the sunscreen before you dive and after you get to the surface.
And finally, you should protect the Great Barrier Reef as it is a marine park. It is illegal to remove any corals, shells and other natural things. Consider the fact that if everyone who visits the Reef takes a piece of it, there will soon be no Reef to visit.