It’s the world’s biggest living coral reef—of course it’s on every diver’s dream list. Made up of nearly 2900 individual reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure on earth that can be seen from outer space.
Make the most of your trek to Australia and visit the beloved Great Barrier Reef to see incredible corals and the richest areas of biodiversity.
SS Yongala, Townsville (near Ayr)
Some call it the best wreck dive in the world. An underwater museum encrusted with corals and teeming with marine life, including some of our favorite megafauna like groupers, manta rays, and whales. This 110 meter (360 foot) steel passenger ship tragically sank in 1911 during a cyclone. Due to its depth and strong current, this top-notch dive is reserved for experienced divers only. Day trip divers can access the SS Yongala via a three hour fast boat ride from Townsville, or a thirty minute boat ride from Alva Beach near Ayr.
Cod Hole, Ribbons Reefs
Possibly the most well-known dive site in the world can be found roughly 96 kilometers (60 miles) north of Cairns, at Cod Hole. Part of the string of long narrow Ribbon Reefs, Cod Hole is home to a group of very friendly potato cod! Drop in at this coral reef to swim alongside potato cod so massive, most rival a diver in length and can reach up to 100 kilograms in weight. This fish, like its relative across the pond, the goliath grouper, is wildly curious about people, willing to approach and ask questions. And by ask questions, we mean take you in with its eyes and swim slow circles around dive groups.
Moreover, sites like this one allow divers to see giant clams. This mollusk may not sound exciting, but there is a rush to seeing an animal that’s cobalt blue in color with threads of neon turquoise.
Stanley Reef, Townsville (near Ayr)
Slip beneath the surface of year-round warm tropical waters to get up-close and personal with this pristine coral reef. With great protection from wind, Stanley Reef generally experiences calm surface conditions with only a slight current below – great for divers of all skill levels. Be on the lookout for passerby manta rays, sea turtles, and whales as you get lost in the sea of colorful reef fish and intricate invertebrates. This untouched area of Australia’s Outer Great Barrier Reef will truly deliver an awe-inspring underwater experience. Since they are close in proximity, and offer two vastly different (and incredible!) experiences, divers often enjoy visiting Stanley Reef and the SS Yongala on the same trip.
Steve’s Bommie, Ribbon Reefs
In Australian, it’s a Bommie. In American, it’s a pinnacle. Either way, this stand-alone towering mount of coral is an oasis of life, attracting everything from grey reef sharks and schools of trevally to smaller finds.
This site, found along Ribbon Reef #3, shelters a wealth of tiny life, from leafy scorpionfish to false clownfish—the species that Nemo was modeled after. Octopuses, eels and nudibranchs are all common finds among the crevices of the site. Swim out from the reef and the wider view includes the resident school of barracuda and more.
Hastings Reef, Flynn Reef and Norman Reef
This collection of incredible dive sites near Cairns are some of the most popular reefs to dive in the area, and will offer the novice to the very experienced diver plenty of memorable underwater experiences. You’ll find bright coral gardens, deep outer reef walls, swim throughs, caves, and the occastional bommie. Slip beneath the surface for the opportunity to be surprised and delighted by maori wrasse, reef sharks, giant clams, anemone fish, giant humphead parrotfish, stingrays, octopus, sea turtles, and so much more. These dive sites are conveniently located close to Cairns, making them easily accessible via boat for a spectacular daytrip.
Lighthouse Bommie, Ribbon Reefs
Located on the Ribbon Reefs, north of Cairns, this impressive pinnacle is visited each week by liveaboard dive boats. Lighthouse Bommie is the world’s premier dive site for dwarf minke whale interactions. These gentle giants visit the northern Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Tropical North Queensland between June and July each year, forming the only known predictable aggregation in the world. An encounter with a dwarf minke whale is sure to be an unforgettable underwater experience. Apart from spending time with those amazing creatures, Lighthouse Bommie offers everything, from micro to macro, from snakes to sharks, from massive plate coral to fragile soft coral, Lighthouse Bommie is truly a photographer’s delight.
Yes, this site is magic. Scores of nudibranchs, some fat as Twinkies, amble over the corals. The reef structure here has tunnels and cutouts, creating a little maze that’s waiting to be explored. Plus, the overhead environment provides ample shelter for eels, damselfish and loads of shrimp.
Strap your fins on tight for this current-swept site. Eddy Reef is located off Mission Beach, two hours south of Cairns, and is accessible on day boats. The dive starts with a tour that leads around a corner of the reef—and as you pass the corner, the current picks up. It’s here that the big stuff hangs: tuna, black-tip reef sharks, barracuda, coral trout, barramundi cod, and groupers. Then, when you’ve had your fill of fast, drop into the protected nook of the curve where whitetip sharks sleep on the sand and epaulette sharks nestle among the coral.
Divers exploring this reef will find a maze of coral ridges in depths from 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) that are covered in some of the most beautiful corals – wide gorgonians, lovely pink whip corals and delicate soft corals. Between these corals live angelfish, surgeonfish, boxfish, pufferfish, lionfish, wrasse and many other reef species. A close inspection of the coral will also reveal many small critters like nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimps and coral crabs.