Ten Delicious Places to Dip into Diving

Diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef

At 2,000 kilometers—about 1,200 miles—the Great Barrier Reef of Australia's northeastern coast is the only life form to be seen from the moon.

The biggest misconception about the reef is that it's one long unbroken fence of coral. Instead, there are actually 2,900 individual reef systems, which hook together like a giant Paint-by-Numbers painting. It's up to the individual divers to fill in the space with their own experience.

The GBR is not only the largest reef system in the world; it's also one of the healthiest. And its biodiversity is nearly off the charts as the result of its clean, toasty, shallow waters and its sheer isolation from land—and the associated human impacts. Compare it to the Florida Keys, for instance, where the list of fish species numbers 400; along the GBR, count 1,500—with 4,000 types of mollusks and 400 species of hard and soft corals to boot. Staghorn corals, a reef builder that may average an inch or two in the Caribbean, can grow eight to l2 inches yearly here.

The entire reef is now protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a worldwide pioneer in zoning the reef by usage and closely monitoring impacts.

As a general rule, from Cairns northward, waters are warmer and calmer and the reef is closer to shore. The reef in the far south begins 120 miles from shore; at Port Douglas just north of Cairns, it's only 20 miles way. High-speed 300 passenger catamarans zoom out to the reef edge from both Cairns and Port Douglas (carrying only a small portion that are actually divers). Beyond that, the northern reef is mostly the territory of liveaboards, all the way up to the Torres Straits.

On this reef, everything is big and colorful—the coral, the fish (including the 500-pound Queensland groper), even the giant tridacna clams, the ones with the iridescent mantles. As for shark attacks, you should worry more about the box jelly—more die from it than great whites. The dive skin was invented here for just that reason!

PRACTICALLY SPEAKING
Australia is a haul to reach—at least 18 hours from Los Angeles—so be prepared. If you're lucky, you can find a flight on Qantas or Air New Zealand from L.A. to Cairns for $1,000 and under (round-trip). Once you get there, you can low-budget it with European backpackers at the many hostels or book a private room at one of the many motels and hotels. A hostel bunk will cost you $20 to $25 a night, usually with a communal kitchen with cheap meals. Single rooms will go from the low end of $50 to $500 at the exclusive resorts. Cairns has the best selection and widest range of rates. Liveaboards, booked before your trip, give you the best look at the reef, but it's a shame to go that far and not sample at least some of what Aussies call the exotic "Reef and Rainforest Coast" of far north Queensland.


Bill Belleville, an Away.com contributing editor, is a Florida-based writer specializing in nature and marine issues. He contributes widely to national magazines and has scripted and co-produced two PBS documentaries. River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River has recently been published by University of Georgia Press.

Published: 30 Nov 1999 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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