The Great Barrier Reef is a diver’s paradise. They come from all over the world to discover the gems of a unique marine world. Scuba diving is the best way to experience the Great Barrier Reef. It is also a unique opportunity to discover Australia from a new perspective.
Where is Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef is located in Queensland, over 2200 kilometres long that stretches off the coast of Australia. Visible from space and also one of the “8 Wonders of the World”. It starts in the Tores Strait in the north east of Australia and ends near Fraser Island, 200km north of Brisbane.
If its size is impressive, that is not all. It is home to more than 900 islands and islets and over 3,000 reefs in an area of 350,000 square kilometres! The Great Barrier Reef can be located just a few kilometres from the Australia coast, or several hundred kilometres away. The corals are also in shallow waters as well as several hundred metres deep. This is what allows the Great Barrier Reef to offer such variety and to have many ecosystems.
What to see while diving on the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef is home to the largest variety of marine life in the world. Snorkelers and divers will encounter many species at Great Barrier Reef dive sites, including:
- 6 of the 7 species of turtles that inhabit the planet. The Great Barrier Reef is home to the green, leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, flatback and olive ridley turtles.)
Many species of rays including the fabulous manta ray that lives around the islands, the eagle ray, and huge stingrays
- Many reef sharks: grey shark, black tip shark, white tip shark, nurse sharks but also the Longimane shark, the surprising hammerhead shark and the more frightening tiger sharks and bulldog sharks.
- Several species of dolphins and dugongs, a cousin of the manatee
- Whales including the Minke and Humpback whales
- 411 species of hard corals and an incredible collection of molluscs
- 1500 species of tropical fish with incredible colours including the clown fish living in its anemone
- Emblematic fish: groupers, humpback parrotfish, Napoleons, Tazar, jacks, barracudas, dogtooth tuna, triggerfish…
- Numerous crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, etc.) and giant clams
- Sea snakes and imposing moray eels
- 200 species of sea birds
It is therefore not surprising that the Great Barrier Reef and its seabed have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981.
Where to dive on the Great Barrier Reef?
From Port Douglas you can access the magnificent Cod Hole dive site and its giant, friendly groupers on a day trip. On the other hand, you’ll have to opt for a multi-day cruise to the Ribbon Reef sites, including Pixie’s Pinnacle (Ribbon Reef #9).
You will also have to sail several days on the Coral Sea to reach the magnificent Osprey Reef. And in particular North Horn, a site renowned for the presence of numerous sharks, including the Tiger Shark. Other famous underwater sites include Bougainville Reef and Holmes Reef. Diving in the Coral Sea is exceptional. You can dive on almost pristine reefs with bright colours and exceptional visibility. Night dives are also very popular.
There are also many dive sites near the coral islands. The most famous islands are Lizard Island, Heron Island and Lady Elliot. Half-day trips can be made to the surrounding reefs. The Whitsunday Islands also offer great diving spots such as the nearby Bait Reef and Hardy Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to so many beautiful dive sites that it is not possible to list them all. Your dive centre will be able to guide you according to the conditions of the day and the season.
See whales and baby sea turtles
Minke whales can be seen and swum with in June along the Ribbon Reef, north of Cairns. You’ll need to board one of the diving cruises organised for this event. For humpback whales you will have to wait until July – November. This is the period when they come down to the Antarctic along the coast in the Topical North to the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef via the Whitsunday Islands.
Sea turtles can be seen at the vast majority of dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef. However, to see the turtles laying eggs and hatching, you need to go to Heron, Lady Eliott or Lady Musgrave Islands. Every year between November and February, thousands of turtles come ashore on the beaches of these islands to lay and bury dozens of eggs. These same beaches where they were born a few years earlier. 6 to 8 weeks later, thousands of baby turtles will return to the sea from the beach. These little turtles will come back to lay their eggs here in a few years.
Most beautiful dive sites in the Great Barrier Reef
Here are the 8 most beautiful dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia:
Cod Hole, Ribbons Reefs
Scuba diving on the Cod Hole will blow your mind! These remote ribbon reefs, on the northern fringes of the Great Barrier Reef, have amazing marine life, set against a tropical island backdrop. In addition to being beautiful, it is home to huge and curious groupers.
Yongala Dive, Townsville (near Ayr)
The best wreck dive in the world. It is only for experienced divers because of its depth. This 110 metre long wreck is covered in coral while the site is teeming with marine life. It is also possible to encounter sharks, manta rays and even whales!
Stanley Reef, Townsville (near Ayr)
A pristine reef that is home to manta rays, sharks and turtles. This unspoilt area of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef offers unforgettable scuba diving. Its proximity to the SS Yongala means that both dives can be scheduled on the same trip.
Steve’s bommie, Ribbon Reefs
A pinnacle from the depths that is home to an incredible variety of marine life. Steve’s Bommie on the Great Barrier Reef, will leave you wishing you could stay underwater forever.
The bommie is paradise for photographers, a concentrated patch with a lot going on, but around it there is much more to see. There is the resident school of bigeye trevally, sharks, rays and a few barracuda. Sea snakes are around and dwarf minke whales pass by in season during June and July.
Hastings Reef, Flynn Reef and Norman Reef
Sites close to Cairns that offer a great diversity of diving. Caves, caves and coral spats are home to a diverse range of marine life: Blacktip reef sharks, turtles, humpback parrots, octopus…
Lighthouse Bommie, Ribbon Reefs
Lighthouse Bommie is a giant tower of coral that rises from the sea floor at 25 metres and stands 20 metres tall. Located on the Ribbon Reefs, north of Cairns, this impressive pinnacle is the best place to observe and swim with the Minke whale.
Pixie Gardens, Ribbon Reefs
This dive site begins as a gentle reef slope with scattered coral outcrops progressing into an impressive wall as you proceed north. This site is home to a widely varied cross-section of marine inhabitants. Whether exploring the sandy fields of garden eels, looking amongst the coral outcrops, or gliding along the reef wall, there is something for everyone. The topography is here unique.
A dive site often swept by strong currents but the show is there. We come here to see big fish. Sharks, tunas, groupers, baracudas and sometimes even manta rays are seen here. In the more sheltered area, there are beautiful corals and many species of tropical fish.
Best time to dive Great Barrier Reef
The best time to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef is between mid-August and mid-December. This is when the visibility is best. Visibility can reach 100 metres at some sites. But even at other times, diving on the Great Barrier Reef is exceptional. The conditions are relatively good all year round.
Winter is from April to September. The weather is quite dry. The days are generally warm and sunny. However, the wind can pick up and blur visibility.
Summer is from October to May. The monsoon starts in January and ends in March. However, it does not rain all the time. It usually rains heavily at the end of the day. The rest of the day is fairly sunny.
If you want to dive on Ribbon Reef, the best visibility is between September and November. However, if you are diving in the Coral Sea or at the famous Osprey Reef, the best conditions are between June and September.
Beware of the dangerous box jellyfish in November and May. The stings of this dangerous animal are very painful and can sometimes be fatal.
Best time to see the whales or to watch the coral reproduction
Coral spawning, the famous “underwater snowstorms”, takes place in October and November. It is a natural phenomenon, so it is not possible to predict the exact date. It is an unprecedented experience for most snorkelers and divers. This phenomenon occurs when corals release their eggs and sperm at the same time.
To be lucky enough to see Minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef, you will have to come and dive in May/June. Humpback whales will be in the coral waters between August and November. It is generally easier to see the whales from the boat than by diving or snorkelling.
Diving conditions on the Great Barrier Reef
Queensland’s tropical climate and mild waters make for year-round diving in excellent conditions. The water temperature on the Great Barrier Reef is always very pleasant. It varies between 24°C and 30°C.
The dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef are not known for their strong currents. On the contrary, especially at sites close to the coast where currents are almost non-existent. Apart from the sites on the Osprey and Ribbon Reefs where the currents are strong, the currents at the other dive sites are generally weak or at most moderate.
Visibility at the nearshore spots is not exceptional, generally between 15 and 25 metres. However, as you move away from the coast on a liveaboard boat, you will soon come across dive sites with excellent visibility. While most sites have a visibility of 50 – 60 metres, some can offer dives with visibility up to 100 metres!
Most of the Great Barrier Reef dive sites are between 10 and 35 metres deep and can be accessed with a Padi Open Water (CMAS Level 1) or Padi Advanced (CMAS Level 2). Some of the drop offs may also allow you to go a little deeper.
Get to the Great Barrier Reef
In North Queensland, the most popular dive centres are in Cairns and Port Douglas. They offer day trips or multi-day dive cruises to the Great Barrier Reef.
Further south, you’ll need to find a dive school in Townsville to dive the SS Yongala wreck, fly over underwater canyons, walk along impressive drop-offs and explore underwater caves.
If you decide to go from Airlie Beach to the Whitsundays, most of the dives are on the fringing reefs. To dive the main reef of the Great Barrier Reef choose a powerboat cruise on Bait Reef.
From Mackay, day and multi-day cruises are offered by dive centres. At Heron Island, dive Wistari Reef.
At the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, dive among manta rays, turtles and numerous sharks amidst brightly coloured coral near Lady Elliot Island, which is also accessible by plane, and Lady Musgrave Island.
Dive cruise or coral island holiday?
The Great Barrier Reef is a mecca for beginners and advanced divers. However, your expectations will not necessarily be the same.
If you are a beginner diver or want to try scuba diving, I recommend you to go to North Queensland. In Cairns for example. From there you can explore the coral islands accessible on full day or half day dive trips. These are ideal if you have decided to take your PADI certification or if your fellow travellers have not caught the diving bug. On these trips you will have the opportunity to experience the full beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. The diving conditions are good and the dive sites are easily accessible, of good quality and without major difficulties.
If you are an experienced diver or more passionate, opt for a dive cruise. Cruises usually last from 3 days to 1 week. They allow you to make up to 3 dives per day and explore more remote and less dived sites. NITROX dives are possible. You will also have a better chance of spotting large pelagics, whales and manta rays. The selection of dive spots will depend on the conditions of the day.
As with diving, the Great Barrier Reef is a great playground for snorkelling. Snorkelers will discover many shallow reefs with lots of tropical fish.
The best snorkelling spots on the Great Barrier Reef are on Lizard and Heron Islands. The crystal clear waters of the Whitsunday Islands are also popular snorkelling sites.
While snorkelling, don’t neglect the sun. Remember to protect your back with a T-shirt and keep well hydrated (Avoid using sunscreen before going into the water). Beware of dangerous box jellyfish in November and May. Protect yourself with a wetsuit provided by the tour company as the stings are very painful and can sometimes be fatal.
A tax of AUD$4.5/day per person called Reef Tax to go on the Great Barrier Reef. This is levied directly by tour operators or dive centres.
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