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The Great Barrier Reef Scuba Diving

The Great Barrier Reef - Natural Wonder of the World  

by Nick Lucey


Great Barrier Reef Aerial Photo Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandWhen people say they want to dive Australia, what they usually mean is that they want to dive Queensland's Great Barrier Reef— the world’s largest and healthiest coral reef system. To put it in perspective, the Great Barrier Reef would cover an area about the same size as the United Kingdom, half the size of Texas, USA or the length of the entire Japanese island chain. In Australia, it stretches from Tropical North Queensland in the north right down to Bundaberg in the south. At approximately 135,000 square miles in size, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure on earth that can be seen from outer space. 

Great Barrier Reef Clownfish Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandSuperlatives don’t do the place justice — made up of nearly 2900 individual reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays, it is the world’s largest single structure comprised of living organisms. Divers revere the reef for its biodiversity and the local aboriginal peoples hold it as a sacred component of their spirituality. It's fitting reverence for a truly magical place.   


Cairns and Port Douglas

Ideally located in Tropical North Queensland Australia, Cairns and Port Douglas are the most accessible ports and your gateway to experience the treasures of the Outer Great Barrier Reef. From the stunning Agincourt Ribbon Reefs on the edge of Australia’s Continental Shelf, to the beautiful Coral Gardens at Flynn Reef, you can expect excellent wall dives, swim-throughs, overhangs and night diving from this section of the Great Barrier Reef. Expect to see an abundance of marine life combined with plenty of hard corals such as staghorn, table, plate and boulder coral heads and many species of soft corals. The Great Barrier Reef and its ecosystem support the greatest concentration of life on our planet.

Great Barrier Reef Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandDiving on the pristine reefs out from Cairns and Port Douglas offers the most extensive range of dive sites to visit daily. Divers of all levels from novice to experienced, will be excited by the range of experiences from drift and wall dives, bommie and pinnacle, coral gardens and swim-throughs combined with magnificent and ecologically diverse sites.

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Osprey Reef

This remote Coral Sea atoll is made up of several individual sites. But, North Horn is perhaps its most famous for its shark feed. Most of the diners are whitetips, grey whalers, silvertips and the occasional hammerhead, but you'll also see potato cod, bigeye trevally and bumphead parrotfish.

Great Barrier Reef Coral Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandRibbon Reefs

This series of coral buttresses, walls and pinnacles running north and south, hem in the deep blue off Cooktown. Steve’s Bommie, a quintessential Queensland pinnacle, is a microcosm of Great Barrier Reef marine life—big and small—orbited by bigeye trevally, anthias, yellow goatfish, lionfish, stonefish and the occasional shark.

Detached Reef

Great Barrier Reef Clams Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandIn Queensland’s north, well beyond the northernmost road in the state and part of the Great Barrier Reef's Far Northern Section are the Southern and Northern Small Detached Reefs and the Great Detached Reef. Here in the wild north, walls set the stage for a cast of characters including silvertip, whitetip and grey reef sharks, dogtooth tuna, barracuda, schools of sweetlips, pufferfish and more. It's truly remote — this is where the wild things are.

SS Yongala

The Great Barrier Reef’s signature wreck is the SS Yongala, a 109-metre/357-foot luxury passenger ship and freighter. She went down during a 1911 cyclone and sat undiscovered for nearly half a century. In just 34 metres/110 feet of water 80 kilometres/50 miles off Townsville, it is one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most popular dive sites and one of the best wrecks in the world. Expect to find the usual suspects here…just bigger. Yellowtail demoiselles, Maori wrasse, sea snakes, turtles, grouper and the occasional tiger shark all cloud this artificial reef. 

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The Whitsundays

Great Barrier Reef Boat Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandThe perfect place to combine sailing, island adventure and soft diving, the 74 idyllic islands of the Whitsundays are perfect for divers looking to complement their diving with multiple activities. You'll find one of the world’s top rated beaches, Whitehaven Beach, and the iconic Heart Reef in the Whitsundays. 

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Heron Island

Great Barrier Reef Turtle Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandFurther south than the Whitsundays and at the Great Barrier Reef’s southern reaches, this famed island is accessible via Gladstone by ferry or helicopter. Most of the dive sites are within minutes of the dock and the island itself features luxurious accommodations. When you're not enjoying the manta ray cleaning station at Heron Island Bommie — or one of the other world-class sites — keep an eye out for the turtles and birds making the small island their home. 

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The HMAS Brisbane 

A few hours south of the Great Barrier Reef on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is the great wreck dive of the former HMAS Brisbane, a 133-metre/433-foot Charles F Adams Class DDG guided missile destroyer. Weighing in at approximately 5000 tons, the vessel offers great opportunities for advanced open water, enriched air, wreck and digital underwater photography courses.  

Photo by Sunreef Scuba Diving ServicesAs a world-class artificial reef and dive site, the wreck now attracts divers from all over the world. Divers of all levels – including some that served on the HMAS Brisbane – are singing the praises of this great wreck dive. By all accounts, she seems to be in the perfect location for diving. Sitting upright, the HMAS Brisbane has 15 metres/50 feet of water over her forward decks and 18/60 feet metres over her stern. Consistently good water clarity and minimal swell both make for great diving.

There is certainly a lot of ship to see. Cruising around the outside, the sheer size of the vessel makes it an awesome sight. Water temperatures range from 17° C/63° F in winter to a high of 27° C/81° F in summer while visibility averages around 15 metres/50 feet. But, reaching 20 metres/66 feet of visibility (or more) is not uncommon.

A resident school of predatory yellow tailed king fish now buzz the schools of bait fish that surround the HMAS Brisbane. Local inhabitants include a large bull and eagle rays, angler fish, lion fish, blennies, nudibranchs, sea hares, squid and a school of juvenile red emperor and snapper. Other visitors include shovelled nose rays, greasy cod and eagle rays. An octopus has made a home in a pyrotechnic tube on the deck while divers have seen up to 10 huge Queensland Grouper at one time off the bow of the ship. A turtle has taken up residency on the aft funnel and eagle rays cruise between the two funnels. You can also see a huge amount of soft and hard corals.

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Flinders Reef

Flinders Reef is a small isolated reef near Brisbane in South East Queensland. It has the highest number of coral species of any subtropical reef system along Australia's east coast and is one of Queensland's most popular dive sites. The reef has more than 175 fish species. The diverse amount of marine life include schools of Wrasse, Sweetlip, Trevally, Parrot, Bat, Surgeon, turtles and tropical fish. Manta Rays, Wobbegongs and Leopard Sharks are among the larger creatures that reside here. Sightings of Whaler sharks are sometimes seen on the eastern side of Flinders. During the months of June to September, Humpback Whales can be seen on the surface as they pass by.

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Depth: Depths vary greatly from shallow reefs to the deep walls and pinnacles of the Coral Sea.

Great Barrier Reef Clear Water Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandVisibility: Tides, current and surge all affect water clarity inside the Great Barrier Reef, but it averages 15-21 metres/50-70 and can hit a high of 30 metres/100 feet. Outside the reef, visibility averages a reliable 18-30 metres/60-100 feet and often soars to more than 46 metres/150 feet in the Coral Sea. 

Currents: Currents vary nothing to absolutely ripping, based upon your location on this 2575 kilometre-/1600-mile long reef system.

Great Barrier Reef Coral. Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandWater Temperature: Expect water temperatures around 30° C/85° F during the summer (December to February) throughout the central and northern Great Barrier Reef. Expect around 24° C/75° F in winter (June to August). 

Dive Season: Any time is the right time, but different seasons offer different rewards. December through February mean great visibility and warmer water, while June through November pay off with whale spotting (minke and humpback) and coral spawning. 

Great Barrier Reef Maori Wrasse Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandWeather: In tropical Queensland, daytime air temperatures vary from the mid 20s C/80s F in winter to the mid 30s C/90s F in summer.  

Access: Cairns is a gateway for many carriers from Asia. Flying from other locations means you'll more than likely come through Queensland’s capital, Brisbane or Sydney.

Great Barrier Reef Distance Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandSkill Level: Whether you’re brand new to diving or been around the reef a few times, Queensland won’t disappoint.

Scuba Gear: Most dive centers and live-aboard dive boats have full gear hire, but it’s always nice to bring your own equipment.

Length of Stay: One week will let you sample part of the Great Barrier Reef (especially from a live-aboard dive boat), but if you really want to see as much as possible of Queensland, you'll want to stay a little longer.

Great Barrier Reef Ray Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandFeatured Creatures: Everything from macro life to minke whales. It's the world's largest reef system so you can truly expect to see a bit of just about everything. 

Language: English.

Currency: Australian dollar (AUD).

Queensland Culture Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandTipping: Tipping is uncommon in most situations but you’ll definitely want to tip your divemasters and live-aboard crews.

Transportation: Queensland is astonishingly large. You can drive, but flying is affordable and quicker.

Major Airports: Cairns Airport (CNS), Townsville International Airport (TSV), Brisbane Airport (BNE), Proserpine/Whitsunday Coast Airport (PPP), Gladstone Airport (GLT).

Religion: Mostly Christian.

Great Barrier Reef Clownfish. Image Courtesy of Tourism QueenslandElectricity: 240v/50Hz and Type I electrical outlets.

 Airport Entry/Exit Fees: Departure tax is usually included in the cost of airline tickets. A visa is required for most nationalities. Check the Department of Immigration and Citizenship page for complete information.

For more information, visit Tourism Queensland.  

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Nick Lucey was an editor at Scuba Diving Magazine for 15 years and now hosts a dive travel television show called Into the Drink.