Diving & Snorkeling: Great Barrier Reef

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The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) extendsalong the northeastern Australian coastfrom Lady Elliot Island in the south,almost to Papau New Guinea in thenorth. The world’s single largest livingsystem, the reef is part of the superbIndo-Pacific coral reef systems, extendingfrom the Red Sea to Easter Island.

Australia, the island continent, is themost desirable tourist destination in theworld. Yet many travellers are dauntedby the long haul of jet travel it takesto get to this wonderfully unique andfriendly country. Those who do makethe trip find the effort well worth it. Sophisticated,modern cities and remotecountry towns lie adjacent to scorchingdeserts, rolling green and brown pasturelandsand winter snowfields. Theextremes of climate supports mining,vineyards, crops of all varieties, a profusion of strange wildlife, and a uniquehuman history woven out of the world’soldest human culture, isolation andmulticulturalism. All this and some ofthe best, most accessible diving foundanywhere in the world.

Australia has superb diving around itsentire coast and in several inland freshwatercave systems, but the big draw-card is the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) — theworld’s largest and best known reef system.Bigger than Britain, almost the sizeof Texas (but a lot deeper!) and stretching2300km (1429 miles) from north tosouth, the GBR is enormous. This bookconcentrates on the GBR Province,which encompasses an area of over1 million sq km (386,109 sq miles), includingthe whole GBR, nearby CoralSea reefs (under Australian jurisdiction)and the Torres Strait (under joint jurisdiction with Papua New Guinea).Most people consider the Great BarrierReef as being the area that lies withinthe GBR Marine Park Region (south of10°41’S at the tip of Cape York Peninsula),whereas the GBR does in fact extendwell to the north of here.

Even though the area is lauded asthe best protected marine area in theworld, it is under severe pressure. Sincehumans began harvesting marinespecies, occupying the nearby coastand agriculture about 180 years ago,the near-shore systems have almosttotally deteriorated while the mid-shelfand some outer-shelf systems continueto degrade today — some at alarmingrates.

Pressures include long-term insidiouscoastal runoffs, the resuspension of sediments and removal of harvestedspecies and by-catch, through trawling,cyclones, storms, bleaching events,coral growth and crown-of-thorns seastar invasions, which combine with timeand the passing of seasons to continuallychange the appearance of each reefand its surrounds.

The GBR is alive with about 400 speciesof coral, 2000 types of fish, 4000molluscs and countless other invertebrates.Six of the world’s seven speciesof sea turtles breed here, and the diversitydoesn’t stop there. GBR habitatssupport a myriad of parasitic and single-celled organisms that free-float inthe warm tropical waters — between thesand grains, in and on mud flats and sea-grass beds, and among reefs and rocks.All play an important role in the complex food chain and transfer of geneticmaterial throughout the system.

The islands of the GBR range fromsmall, bare sandy ‘deserts’, often sweptaway with major storms, to lush rainforestor mangrove masses. Some arehome to nesting seabirds and a vastarray of wildlife.

Between the reefs and islands areshoal areas of coral and algae (bioherms),with incredible bottom-dwellinganimals living on the mud, sand,algal and shell substrates.

With a huge variety of habitats stretchingacross the continental shelf, thepotential for diving, snorkeling and scientificdiscovery is immeasurable. Thosewho have dived the GBR thousands oftimes have only glimpsed the whole system— there are about 3000 reefs!

Many people describe the GBR ashaving the best diving in the world — ithas the potential for that title simplybecause of its size, accessibility, habitatand species diversity. Keep in mind,however, you will not necessarily experience‘brochure weather’ — when clearsunny days, calm seas and beautifulpeople all come together.

To really discover the GBR, you needto be willing to experience it in allweather and seasons. Stick by the oldsayings, ‘The best diving is in the water’and, ‘A bad day’s diving is better than agood day’s work,’ and the GBR will notlet you down.

In this guide book, accessible sites aredescribed to enhance your understandingand enjoyment of the GBR’s uniqueecosystems. In addition, you’ll get abrief overview of the primary accessibleCoral Sea reefs. For organisationalpurposes, the dive sites are divided intonine regions and surrounding areas.These include the Capricorn and BunkerGroups (in the south), the SwainReefs, Pompey Complex, WhitsundayIslands, Townsville and Magnetic Island,Cairns, Port Douglas, Far Northern Reefsand Torres Strait. Several adjacent, regularlydived Coral Sea Reefs also appearin this book.

Some of the sites described are whatwe refer to as supersites, which give youthe choice of diving the whole area or asmaller portion.

Specific information is provided oneach dive site. Further details are alsoincluded on the behavioural patternsof some of the marine life you can expectto see at various sites, informativenotes on reef formations, depth, andrecommended diving expertise. Thereis also some historical insight into someof this area’s most famous shipwrecks(the GBR has tortured navigators forcenturies!).

When it’s time to dry off, turn to theTravel Facts chapter for helpful topsideinformation.

Reproduced with permission from D & S Great Barrier Reef 1, 2006, Lonely Planet Publications.

Note: This text contains standard British spelling.


Published: 15 Jan 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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