Tropical North Queensland

The Heart of the Great Barrier Reef

Text and Photography by Bob Halstead

G’day mate! Want to know the best place in the world if you want to take a Captain Cook at tropical fishes? Fair dinkum, it’s Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, particularly the section between Townsville and Lizard Island, which includes Cairns, Australia’s diving capital, Port Douglas and historic Cook Town. It’s really ridgie didge.

We all know the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is huge, in fact it is often touted as the World’s Largest Living Organism. But it is not only huge in size, it also has prolific biodiversity. You can expect to see at least four times as many different species of corals and invertebrates as you’d find on Caribbean reefs. It is estimated 1,500 species of fish swim in Great Barrier Reef waters.

I first dived the Great Barrier Reef in 1973, before moving to Papua New Guinea. The few dive boats were small, slow and made a lot of exploratory dives searching for the best sites. Divers knew little about the marine life and fish were either edible, pretty or dangerous.

I recently returned to live in Cairns and found some big changes. The best sites are now well established and protected by moorings, which also limit the number of boats on a site at any one time (usually just one). Divers visit these sites almost daily and the reef fishes have grown accustomed to them. Some areas have been declared “Green” by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which means all fishing and collecting are prohibited. On some sites, such as the famous Cod Hole, where Potato Cod, Giant Maori Wrasse and other fish are regularly fed, they demand attention. Even at sites where there is no feeding the fish have learned that divers are harmless and come very close. Boats have an onboard marine life specialist and teach divers identification and fascinating details of the lifestyles of local marine creatures.

I took a live-aboard cruise from Cairns to Lizard Island and, for the first time in my photographic life, ran out of film. Fish I had struggled for years to photograph in PNG swam up and posed in front of my camera lens. In just four days I had a fabulous collection of fish pictures, then had to book a return trip to get shots of the reef and other critters.

Although it is possible to dive deep, by far the best part of the GBR is the shallows. There are many exquisite coral gardens with a bounty of nudibranchs and other invertebrates. The shallow depths enable divers to make multiple dives and stack up considerable bottom time. Individual dives in my case were limited by the film in my camera rather than air or bottom time. Most dive sites are in sheltered water, protected by the outer barrier reef, which actually dries in many areas at low tide. Snorkeling is enormously popular and most visitors to the GBR see it by snorkeling. Diving groups are usually small and do not overload the sites.

Night dives can be particularly rewarding for macro photographers and are a good reason to take a live-aboard trip, even for just a couple of nights. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the few places in the world where coral spawning can be reliably predicted. The nighttime orgy of spawning after the full moon in November attracts a pilgrimage of divers. An option is to stay at one of several island resorts right on the GBR; Lizard and Green Islands are probably the best known in this section.

Beautiful reefs and a multitude of fish would be more than enough for most divers, but when I surfaced after one early morning dive, the crew pointed out we had Minke Whales around the boat. I reloaded my cameras and immediately returned to the water with my trusty snorkel to hang on a line conveniently trailing from the back of the boat. Minke Whales are common on the GBR from Cairns to Lizard Island from about May through September, with July being the month of choice. They are remarkably friendly and will approach a drifting or anchored boat. Divers are advised not to chase the whales; the best encounters are had by staying still and allowing the whales to swim to you. Humpback Whales are also seen and recently a sensational and rare albino Humpback swam around the reefs for a month.

You will hear the word “bommie” used a lot in Australia. Derived from an Aboriginal term it refers to an isolated coral head and can be quite small, such as an individual Brain Coral or a complete coral tower such as Steve’s Bommie. Steve’s and other bommies such as Pixie Pinnacle are spectacular, rising from deep water to just a few feet from the surface. The best dive plan is to go to a comfortable depth then spiral round the bommie, making a gradual ascent. Reef passages such as the one at the Cod Hole provide big fish action since they are affected by tidal currents, however, these are predictable and dive operators are skilled at avoiding the times of maximum flow.

At other sites coral labyrinths on top of the reef are particularly scenic, with many channels, swim-throughs and overhangs. This is beautiful, relaxing diving with a multitude of interesting creatures to satisfy both beginning and experienced divers. Dive guides are available for those who want them, but experienced divers are not required to use one. Advanced open water diving skills are preferred for the Coral Sea reefs or on the renowned wreck of the Yongala.

The Coral Sea boasts vertiginous walls, sharks, large pelagics and deeper reefs sporting giant and gaudy soft corals and seafans. Large, fast boats have reduced the discomfort of the previously long bumpy Coral Sea voyage to an easy overnight passage, making these extraordinary reefs, with their legendary visibility, more accessible than ever before.

The Yongala, offshore and exposed, is not always accessible because of the weather, however, it is a truly awesome dive. Well distanced from any coral reef, the wreck acts as an oasis, attracting marine life from miles around. Giant groupers, stingrays, turtles, sea snakes and a multitude of other marine creatures are resident. The best months for the Yongala are usually October to December, when the seas are calmest, but as with the other sites on the Great Barrier Reef, all months have a possibility of excellence and diving services are offered year-round.

Visitors like to see our Aussie icons such as Uluru (Ayers Rock) or the Sydney Opera House but may not be familiar with the multitude of other activities available. In tropical North Queensland tag and release big game fishing and low level scenic flights are thrilling reef activities, but the rain forest is the other big attraction. You can trek or whitewater raft through it, Skyrail or balloon over it, join an eco-tour and learn all about it or just enjoy the ambiance by staying in one of the many rain forest resorts. Visiting the bush inland or the cape can be an adventurous four wheel drive safari, which may include Barramundi fishing and crocodile spotting or a more leisurely rail journey. And, no trip to Australia would be complete without experiencing the fascinating Aboriginal culture-its art and dance are unique and extraordinary.

The really good news is that with the fall in the Aussie dollar, prices have never been better for a holiday in Australia. A true blue experience with bommies, LBJs and Noah’s arks on the reef, salties out at woop woopas and you won’t have to put the bite on anyone. Now, don’t be a drongo, get on your dog and bone and call your travel agent, grab your cozzie and she’ll be right!