Beauty Beneath the Surface: Dive the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

The glories of the Coral Sea's Great Barrier Reef are impossible to overstate, but we'll let statistics tell the tale: more than 2,500 individual reefs and shoals and over 900 continental and coral islands form the 1,250 miles of the world's largest coral system. It supports over 400 species of coral, well over 1,500 fish species, thousands of species of mollusk and crustacean, 350 echinoderm species, 23 species of marine mammal, 16 species of sea snake, and 6 kinds of sea turtle—all residing in waters so clear that experiencing vertigo isn't unheard of when gazing into the water's depths. While these stats may overwhelm, the Queensland tourist infrastructure is robust enough to make the experience easily digestible, even for the most jaded of intrepid travelers. A variety of day outings and live-aboard, multi-day outings for both casual snorkelers and tried-and-true, deep-blue scuba divers are easy to organize.
Established in 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the most accessible part of the reef system; it is divided into the Far Northern, Cairns, Central, and Mackay/Capricorn sections. The northernmost tip of the reef contains the remains of the HMS Pandora, one of the most explored shipwrecks in Australia. The Great Detached Reef, also in the Far Northern section off Cape York Peninsula, is home to whales, sharks, turtles, and numerous shipwrecks, while a series of mile-long undersea caves sets Tijou Reef apart from the other reefs at the southern end. Cairns and Port Douglas operate as the Reef's central tourism hubs and are the best departure-points for day trips to such attractions as Agincourt Reefs, Michaelmas Reef, and the beautiful hard coral gardens of Moore Reef.
Further south, Holme's Reef has what many consider to be the best wreck dive site in the world. The SS Yongala, a cargo steamer that sank in 1911, is now completely encrusted by gardens of vibrant hard and soft coral and makes for an otherworldly diving experience. More untouched sites lie within the reef's southern half, enticing divers with their blue holes, channels, sheer walls, and whirlpools. The Swain Reefs and Pompey Complex are wilderness dive sites accessible only by charter boats. There, whales, dolphins, and leatherback turtles can be seen.
Those who plan on multi-day or expedition trips should keep in mind that some of Australia's best diving is to be found to the east, beyond the Great Barrier Reef, in the expansive Coral Sea. The Capricorn and Bunker groups comprise 21 reefs with thriving coral colonies, boasting opportunities for reef-walking and humpback whale-viewing (from May to October), along with the promise of lesser crowds. Get a permit from the National Park Service to camp on the islands, where you can gaze at the jewels of the night sky after a day spent beneath the waves. If you intend to spend over a week exploring the Coral Sea region, sites such as Osprey, Flinders, Lihou, and Marion Reef should not be missed.

Published: 1 Oct 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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