There is arguably nothing more thrilling for worldly scuba divers than the opportunity to explore the Great Barrier Reef, or GBR as it’s known by locals and frequent visitors.
Hailed as the world’s “largest living thing,” GBR is the brass ring for reef and wreck divers of all skill levels, and every trip presents a daunting decision on where to explore first. After all, this massive attraction spans 1,400 miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia in the Coral Sea, and boasts 2,900 individual reefs that are spread out over 900 different islands.
As such, this is not the time to try shore diving or to lug along gear on daily expeditions into the Coral Sea and back. Instead, this is the time to book a stay on a liveaboard – and get access to the best dive sites in the region.
But even if you’re able to spend a full two weeks on the water – with a couple evenings reserved for clubbing in Cairns, or relaxing in Port Douglas – there’s no way to see it all, and really, that’s a good thing. The GBR is one of those destinations that divers return to again and again, on the promise that there are new reefs, new sites, and new discoveries among the 1,500 species of fish that call the GBR home.
Wrecks, reefs and lesser-known gems are the hallmarks of Great Barrier Reef diving at its best. While a knowledgeable liveaboard guide can point newcomers in the right direction, there are some “musts” that every GBR diver should explore, as well as some rarely dived sites that can surprise and impress even the most seasoned Australia visitor.
Aptly named, this almost secretive site in between Ribbon Reef #9 and #10 is rarely explored, namely because the weather conditions have to be perfect — with a wind shift from the prevailing southeast to the northwest — which is a phenomenon that happens for just a few days each year in October or November.
But if your timing’s right, you’ll be rewarded with access to a soft coral-lined reef wall that descends to 130’ and serves as a home for innumerable nudibranchs, pink anemonefish, reef sharks and herds of large green bumphead parrotfish. Photographers will want to look for lacey scorpionfish as well, which flutter along the wall and are almost hidden, despite their vibrant stripes, by the endless sway of soft coral movement.
The Snake Pit
Not for the skittish, this isolated reef between Ribbon Reef #10 and Lizard Island is famed for its population of olive sea snakes – curious creatures who seemingly love the spotlight, and who aren’t afraid of divers or their camera lenses. Depths range from 30’ to 100’, and the isolation attracts a world of other intimidating and larger species, including sharks, barracudas, eagle rays, and monster-large trevallies. Smaller treasures, like clams, sea stars, and sea cucumbers can be readily admired too, although divers should note that weather conditions will have to be good in order to reach this slightly exposed site.
The Cod Hole
This dive site that straddles No Name Reef and Ribbon Reef #10 is famous for its population of Potato Cods — giant but docile fish that can grow up to 10’ long, and which have no problem posing for a few photos. It helps if you or your dive guide bring along some fresh pilchards as a snack – although don’t be surprised if barracuda show up to munch on the leftovers.
The Cod Hole shallows also present a fine opportunity to spot a number of colorful corals and slightly rare marine species. Look for pygmy sea horses, lacey scorpionfish, spine cheek anemonefish and ghost pipefish while following the terraced reef. Though currents can be occasionally strong, Cod Hole is reliably an exceptional drift dive.
Located on the edge of the Ribbon Reefs’ #10 Patches, Pixies Pinnacle is essentially a 50’ wide column of coral that ascends from a depth of 130’, and stretches vertically to just 6’below the surface. Covered with a vast variety of hard corals, soft corals, gorgonians and sponges, the column is teeming with life, and is an impressive and vibrantly colorful dive that will impress even the most salty diver.
This is the site to pay attention and look for smaller species, like the incognito weedy scorpion fish, flame file shell, mantis shrimp, and small octopus. Larger species, like barracuda and Trevally, may also make an appearance and surprise divers who are concentrating on the small stuff.
Known as the signature wreck of the GBR, this more than 350’ long passenger ship sank to the ocean floor after a 1911 cyclone, losing all 122 people aboard. Beginning 50’ below the surface and extending to 95’ deep, everything about this dive is simply massive – from the decaying ship itself to the flurry of critters who call it home. Expect to encounter some of Australia’s biggest and bulkiest residents here, including sea turtles, giant trevallies, sharks, manta rays, Queensland gropers, and some of the largest sea snakes in the ocean.
In the cooler months, you may even encounter humpback whales, which dwarf all the other critters that school around the lopsided vessel. Expect a lot of adrenaline rushes while exploring.
Liveaboards are the most convenient way to see it all, and will save money and precious time in the long run on scheduling dive trips, packing equipment, and scooting to and from the offshore reefs and dive sites. And while most liveaboard patrons will spend the majority of their time on the water in resort-style accommodations, which is not a bad life at all, there are options to have land-based fun along the way.
Cairns, which is one of the main departure points for liveaboards, is the most active of the local communities, and features a wealth of clubs, pubs, restaurants, and activities for night owls. Divers who appreciate a slower pace will want to visit Cairns’ distinctive opposite, Port Douglas, which has a much more laid-back style and much less activity.
If you’re spending a few days on dry land, consider renting a car and taking a trip to the Daintree National Forest, one of the oldest forests in the world, or book a white water rafting trip along the Tully River. This lush corner of Australia is inherently wild both above and under the water, so nature-loving visitors will find plenty of solid reasons to explore.
Major airports are found in Brisbane, Townsville, Gold Coast and Cairns – and most liveaboard visitors will want to fly into Cairns, which is the major docking and launching point. Rental cars and taxis are available at the airport for area transportation, and smaller “puddle jumper” flights are available as well to access some of the more remote islands along the GBR.
Going to Australia isn’t as much as a culture shock as other worldly diving destinations, thanks to the prominence of English as the primary language and a westernized culture.
When to Go: Queensland has a nicely tropical climate, and year-round daytime temperatures can range from 80-90°F. Remember that the seasons are the opposite from Europe and the states, with December, January and February as the summer season, and June, July and August as the wintertime. Also, divers should note that some of the rarest dive sites are only accessible a few days a year – you’ll want to plan accordingly if one of these unique destinations is on your bucket list.
Average Surface Water Temps: Winter, averages 75°F / Summer, averages 85°F
Average Visibility: 40’- 60’ year-round inside the GBR, and 50’-100’ outside the reef. In the open waters of the Coral Sea, visibility can even extend up to 200’.
Image attribution: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48722974@N07/