Just offshore of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef stretches out along Australia’s coast like a brilliant beacon for underwater enthusiasts. It is the largest living thing on Earth, and can even be seen from space! With more than 2,900 reefs and 900 islands, the Great Barrier Reef boasts one of the richest marine environments in the world. While there are certainly well-known dive sites throughout the Great Barrier Reef (like these 8 Top Dive Sites of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), there are still so many hidden dive sites yet to be explored.
Introducing Johnny Gaskell
Johnny Gaskell is Daydream Island’s Master Reef Guide and resident Marine Biologist in the Whitsunday Islands. You also might know him as the guy that discovered an enormous blue hole in 2017. Over the last two years, Johnny, a PADI Divemaster has visited more than 200 lesser-known reef sites in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, on a personal mission to travel the length of the Great Barrier Reef surveying its health. After his latest expeditions in 2020, he announced his top 10 dive sites on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef. Note: this is not a list of world renowned reef sites, but rather an extraordinary list of lesser-known reefs. If you’re looking to explore beyond the popular Great Barrier Reef dive sites, this is for you!
When asked about the project overall, Johnny said, “In 2020, I visited 35 reefs to conduct reef health surveys as part of the Master Reef Guide program, run by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Tourism & Events Queensland, the Great Reef Census, and personal dive expeditions. On these trips, I found some amazing, relatively unknown sites which were the inspiration to create my personal top 10 list. Obviously, the ranking is subjective, but it takes into consideration coral cover, general reef health and disturbance of the sites. In all cases, it was clear that these reefs were under some stress, but there were still some pretty incredible sections when it comes to coral cover and diversity of marine life. That’s exactly what motivates me to continue exploring.”
Want to play an important a role in determining the health of the Great Barrier Reef too? Learn how anyone with an internet connection can help to save the Great Barrier Reef (from your sofa)!
Crystal Blue Hole, Yeppoon (Capricorn Coast)
Johnny Gaskell: “My number one reef site from my latest expeditions would have to be Crystal Blue Hole, a small reef with a perfect lagoon anchorage right next to a 45 meter deep Blue Hole. The site is 270 kilometers offshore from Yeppoon and part of the Swains Reef National Park. For me, it doesn’t get any better. Inside the hole there is coral cover all around the edge, then a steep drop down into the Blue. You can’t even see the bottom.”
Elisabeth Reef, The Whitsundays
Johnny Gaskell: “On the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the Whitsundays (approximately 110 kilometers north of the Whitsunday Islands) sits Elisabeth Reef. The water here is crystal clear with thousands of fish zooming around the reef. This site has considerably high coral cover, particularly on the reef edge. Up to 100 percent in some parts, which is outstanding and makes it one of my favourite dive sites. It is truly one of the most incredible coral habitats I have ever seen.”
Secret Reef, The Whitsundays
Johnny Gaskell: “Secret Reef is a spectacular system of lagoons with very high coral and fish diversity. It’s very delicate but an incredible ecosystem not too far from one of the more popular dive sites in the Whitsundays. Not ready to reveal the location of this particular reef yet, it’s always good to keep a secret or two. I encourage people to check out my Instagram account @johnny_gaskell for updates.”
Briggs Reef, Cairns (Tropical North Queensland)
Johnny Gaskell: “Briggs Reef is a smaller reef sitting snugly between the larger Moore and Sudbury Reefs near Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns. I was blown away by the variety of coral on the reef walls and bommies. Compared to other sites, Briggs Reef has a very high hard coral cover and we saw a few turtles and small sharks. The site was a real surprise to me. Being so close to Cairns, it’s a great spot for novice or advanced divers.”
Tiger Reef, Bowen (The Whitsundays)
Johnny Gaskell: “Tiger Reef is a semi-exposed reef east off the coast of Bowen in the Whitsundays, right next to Kangaroo Reef. We were excited to visit Tiger Reef because firstly – it’s called Tiger Reef – and secondly, it is close to the path Cyclone Debbie took in 2017, so we were very interested to see if the protected side still had coral cover. We were relieved to find that it was in great condition and had barely any cyclone damage.”
Fitzroy Reef, Great Keppel Island (Capricorn Coast)
Johnny Gaskell: “Fitzroy Reef is the largest of 22 reefs that form the Capricorn and Bunker groups in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. This area is popular with divers and snorkelers because the reef forms a ring around a large, deep lagoon that offers protection and anchorage points. This particular lagoon, it is an amazing light blue color with reefs scattered throughout. The highlight is the coral slopes near the channel entry to the lagoon. The slopes are completely covered in tightly compacted diverse hard corals with lots of fish life, particularly parrotfish. It reminds me of some of the spectacular sites right up at the top of the Great Barrier Reef, near Raine Island.”
Unnamed Reef, Yeppoon (Capricorn Coast)
Johnny Gaskell: “This little gem is part of the Swains Reef National Park – a large collection of small reefs, most of which are unnamed. Unnamed reefs can be located with the help of the reference maps provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). The GBRMPA refence for this particular reef is 21-227. It is located roughly 280 kilometers offshore Yeppoon. This particular reef has spectacular swim throughs, caves and coral cover that are inhabited by a high diversity of fish species and a few species of friendly sharks. The underwater topography at this site is unbeatable with dramatic walls and gutters for deep swim throughs.”
Kangaroo Reef, Bowen (The Whitsundays)
Johnny Gaskell: “Kangaroo Reef (East) sits inside a protected green zone offshore from the small seaside town of Bowen at the top of the Whitsundays region. The reef has a channel running through its middle, creating a spectacular drop-off. The coral cover, vertical walls and fish life at Kangaroo Reef are incredible. There is a fast current running through the channel which is great for coral growth as this keeps the surface temperatures well-mixed and cooler in summer while also delivering food to marine life in the form of plankton.”
Little Baron Reef, Yeppoon (Capricorn Coast)
Johnny Gaskell: “Little Baron Reef is one of over 500 separate coral reefs within the Swains Reef National Park, located just 200 kilometers off the coast of Yeppoon. The reef here is mostly hard coral and in great condition with spectacular drop-offs. We also saw a huge loggerhead sea turtle which was amazing. In winter, it is not unusual to see humpback whales in the waters around these reefs as they provide a safe and calm calving ground.”
Sudbury Reef, Cairns (Tropical North Queensland)
Johnny Gaskell: “Sudbury Reef is tucked behind Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland with a beautiful white sand cay at its northern end. From steep drop offs to shallow clam gardens – Sudbury Reef offers a variety of snorkel and dive spots. This reef is different than most of the other reefs I visited last year. It is dominated by soft coral and has a very high number of parrot fish and mullet which reminds me of the Whitsundays. The marine life here is incredible and something you’d expect to see at much deeper dive sites usually.”
Ready to Dive In?
These top 10 hidden dive sites, along with the incredible array of already known Great Barrier Reef dive sites, are sure to make any diver lengthen their bucket list. Whether you’re lucky enough to call Australia home, or you’re looking to plan your next dive holiday to the Great Barrier Reef, here are four resources to help you make the most of your underwater adventures:
- PADI Travel’s Guide to Liveaboard Diving in the Great Barrier Reef
- Everything you need to know about coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef from Tourism & Events Queensland
- The latest information on COVID-19 travel restrictions in Queensland and PADI’s COVID-19 Scuba Diving Status Map
- Explore, discover and plan your GBR adventure with PADI Adventures and PADI Dive Guides Australia