Diving & Snorkeling: Great Barrier Reef

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West Stock
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (WestStock)

MICHAELMAS REEF
Location: Northwest reef back
Depth Range: 1-20m (3-66ft)
Access: Boat
Expertise Rating: Novice

Michaelmas Reef is 10km (6 miles) longwith a sand cay — an important rookery for sooty and crested terns. It hasenormous potential for diving. This sitedescription is an amalgamation of manysites here, but is demonstrative of mostdives available.

Giant clams are the most commonand delightful feature of this reef. Youwill see them whether snorkeling theshallows or diving to 20m, althoughthey are more prolific in shallower areas.Also look for soft corals with hard basesthat contribute to reef growth throughout this area.

Walls, swim-throughs, gullies, smallcaves and overhangs are found in mostareas and are often homes to whitetipreef sharks. Snorkeling takes you overshallow reeftops riddled with holes,crevices and many giant clams. Smallerburrowing clams are common and tendto be more iridescent and varied in colour. Blue-spotted rays and sea cucumbers are common on the sandy floors,with schools of damsels and fusiliers allover the corals.

If you dive or snorkel near the beachof the cay, you’ll have the disconcerting experience of fish, and sometimes evensmall sharks, dashing in and ‘biting’ atyour heels as you walk on the sand. Fearnot! They are merely trying to catch theshrimp and other animals lifted from outof the sand as you walk, having learnedthat humans are useful for something.The faster or more vigorously you movethe more excited they will become, asyou stir up more food for them!

As you explore the bommies, you’llencounter batfish, cleaner stations,nudibranchs, crayfish, turtle weedclumps and a constantly changing parade of life.

On lucky days you may see the cow-tail ray, eagle ray, or schools of pelagicscruising by in deeper water. Anemonesare scattered all over, thickets of blueand brown staghorn corals adding colour to all activities.


HOLMES REEF — AMAZING
Location: Holmes Reef
Depth Range: 5-40m+ (16-130ft+)
Access: Moored boat only
Expertise Rating: Intermediate

From the sheer walls and pinnacles,swim-throughs and sandy floors to theabundant life throughout the wholearea, this site is truly amazing in its appearance from the surface and as youdive it. There are many dive sites oneach of these Coral Sea reefs with elements of Amazing, often with great pelagic action in clear waters.

If the whitetip reef sharks haven’toverly distracted you as you descend,you may see thousands of tiny ‘umbrellahandles’ sticking out of the sand, seemingly dancing and disappearing as youapproach. Take your time and approachslowly; you’ll seldom get closer thanabout 4m before they vanish into theirburrows.

Down the slope at 35m are two largecoral outcrops called The Matterhorn,resembling mountains protruding fromsnow. These have glorious sea fans, softcorals, fairy basslets and cruising greyreef sharks. Be careful of your depthhere as it drops away to 60m and intothe abyss.

Back up the slope, the reef starts at25m and rises quickly to 10m. This wallis where awesome swim-throughs canbe found. On a sunny day they havea laser show of sunbeams streakingthrough the holes above, so you don’tneed a torch for daytime entries. Watchfor several resident potato cod andspotted sweetlip schools. Banded coralshrimp also give themselves away withtheir long white antennae poking outof crevices.

As you finish your dive with a safetystop at the top of the mooring pinnacle, entertainment is often provided byclownfish, passing bluespot trevally andoccasionally giant trevally.

Night diving here is easy due to theshallows and complex of gullies andswim-throughs. If you face your torchtoward yourself (so the beam is hidden),you’ll see a spectacular display of flashlight fish.


HASTINGS REEF — THE FISH BOWL
Location: Mooring
Depth Range: 0-16m (0-53ft)
Access: Boat
Expertise Rating: Novice

Hastings is a large, popular diving andsnorkeling reef, with over 13km of reefedge and back reef sand floors to explore. Upon entering the water at TheFish Bowl, head to the wall that runsalong the reef’s back edge and drops toa sandy floor at 8m to 12m (as you move along the wall it is possible to go left outto a series of bommies).

Anemones and clumps of staghorncoral are regular features, with giantclams perched in the shallows on thereeftop and bommies. Sweetlip, codand trout are regulars and schools ofdamsels are common. Pairs of butterflyfish and angelfish feeding among thecoral add more splashes of colour. Thewall winds around and along, bringingyou to more clams and a good swim-through up into the reef. After exploringhere, go left around the group of bommies. Note also the giant clam on theouter edge’s base in 12m.

By making your way back along thewall, you can return the way you cameor take a different depth or route outover the floor. Whitetip reef sharks andlagoon rays are often seen, along withless common turtles.

On some of the coral patches youwill see long white tentacles extendingout over the sand. These are the feeding threads of a Terrebellid worm andif you get close enough to the ribbonlike tentacles, you will see lumps of foodbeing carried along inside them. Alsonotice the daytime coral, with polypsout about 6cm to 10cm. You will oftenfind broken off satellite pieces establishing new colonies.


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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