Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Michael Aw
TOUTED AS ONE OF THE SEVEN WONDERS OF the natural world, from the air the Australian Great Barrier Reef looks like a string of necklaces along the northern coast of Queensland. It is the only living biological community on our planet visible from space and is the earth’s longest reef system. Labyrinths of green and blue in irregular patterns are broken up by sand cays and forested islands. They stretch out like the shadows of witches’ hands over an expanse of 2000km (1250 miles), making this barrier the most complex and extensive coral reef system in the world.
However, the name is partly a misnomer. It is a barrier, but it is not one continuous reef. It comprises 2800 individual reefs, shoals and over 900 continental and coral islands, covering a total area of 34 million hectares (84 million acres). An amazingly diverse and incredible abundance of marine life supports this ecological wonderland. It is on a shallow plateau that, in the northern sector, lies between 30 and 50 miles offshore, dropping off into the chasm of the Coral Sea. The majority of this vast ecosystem remains inaccessible to the masses and unscathed by man’s influence. Its diverse habitats support over 450 species of coral, over 1500 species of fish, hundreds and thousands of invertebrate species such as worms, crustaceans, echinoderms, molluscs, and sponges. 23 marine mammals, 16 species of sea snakes and six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are also found in the region. Migratory and resident sea birds breed on the reef’s tropical cays and islands while dugongs and whales use the area as refuge, mating and feeding ground. A juvenile whale shark was seen as far south as off Queensland in 2008. The reef has recently suffered considerably from coral bleaching.
Due to increased awareness of the complexity and fragility of this barrier, and the impact of human activity, the Commonwealth Government passed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act in 1975. The objective was to protect and regulate use of the reefs by creating designated zones in the entire complex. Divided into the Far Northern, Cairns, Central and Mackay/Capricorn sections, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), now administers the system with its headquarters in Townsville, Queensland. The zoning allows areas for tourism access, commercial fishing and scientific research. General Use zoning allows for all commercial activities except mineral extraction; the Marine National Park zoning restricts the removal of marine organisms, although limited fishing is allowed in some areas; and the Preservation and Scientific Research zones are off limits to all but scientists studying the reef. In partnership with James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the park is the benchmark of coral reef management systems in the world.
The Great Barrier Reef’s special resources and its significance to life on our planet were formally recognized with an inscription to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1981. It is one of the few to have satisfied all criteria required to receive the honour defined by the World Heritage Convention. East of the Great Barrier Reef are the reef complexes, uninhabited islands and sand cays of the Coral Sea, many of which lie over 200 nautical miles off the coast of Australia. An expanse of nearly 2.5 million sq km (1 million sq miles) of ocean, the Coral Sea contains hundreds of separate reefs, atolls, cays and seamounts. Many of these rise thousands of feet from the ocean floor to just beneath the surface.
The Coral Sea reef system differs from that of the Great Barrier Reef. Exposed to the power of the immense Pacific Ocean, the reef flat does not boast large expanses of coral. Like an oasis in a desert, the many submerged reefs attract a wide variety of fish either in schools of vast numbers or as solitary animals. The topography of the Coral Sea’s formations includes spectacular walls, steep drop-offs and lone seamounts, as well as shallow gardens and gently sloping gradients. Renowned for crystal clear water with an average visibility in excess of 40m (130ft), a diver can appear suspended in air against a vertical wall laced with huge fans. The Coral Sea Reefs present an amazing display of massive Gorgonian Sea Fans and Sea Whips, and massive bright yellow soft corals. Sharks and pelagics are ever present while nudibranchs, anemones, unusual tropical fish, invertebrates, and huge schools of fish are predictably found. Surrounded by the shear beauty of these reefs in gin-clear water, divers need to pay attention to depths and bottom time.
The Great Barrier Reef, on the other hand, is an immense shallow area, averaging 15-30m (50-100ft) deep and 80-160km (50-100 miles) wide. Between the tides, an enormous volume of water roars in and out of the system daily. Fast currents of the turbid lagoon-type flow over sites within the reef, sometimes resulting in visibility of just 10m (33ft).
However, quite a number of dive sites are not only very good, but can be reached from Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands by dayboat operators. Without a doubt live-aboards are the best option for serious divers who want to sample the Great Barrier Reef. Generally, live-aboard expeditions from Cairns and Townsville incorporate the Barrier Reef’s Cod Hole, Pixie Pinnacles, Temple of Doom and the Yongala wreck into their itineraries.
A Coral Grouper hiding among the fronds of corals, from a photo grapher mistaken for a spearfisherman. Only five per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is protected marine reserve.
Sergeant Major fish (Abudefduf spp.) shelter near stony coral. Many coral colonies are exposed at low tide in the Barrier Reef system.
Queensland’s scuba diving community, especially around Cairns, Port Douglas and Townsville, is a mature industry. It is well regulated by legislation, requiring high standards of safety control. Since most of the reef lies from 16km (10 miles) to 300km (187 miles) off the coast, most diving and snorkelling is done from boats or pontoons. There are facilities in most major towns along the Queensland coast, from where dive trips to the Great Barrier Reef can be arranged.
On a number of the day trips that are offered on catamarans at Cairns, Port Douglas and Townsville, videos about the reef are shown on the outward and return trips. Guided snorkelling tours are presented at most centres, and general snorkelling, scuba diving and introductory dive packages are also available. Some dive operators present underwater naturalist courses, which are certificate courses presented as workshops over two days full-time, or part-time over a week. Marine biologists regularly present talks on various aspects of marine biology. For extended expeditions to the Coral Sea and the Ribbon Reefs, there are over 50 vessels operating out of Cairns, Airlie Beach, Townsville, Port Douglas and Gladstone. With such an immense reef system, exploring the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea could take a lifetime and even then, one would only see a small part of it.
CAIRNS AND PORT DOUGLAS
Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef with hundreds of operators offering resort-based diving and live-aboard trips, all departing from the doorstep of Cairns or Port Douglas. These vary in degree of comfort, exclusivity and budget, from single day trips to 10-day live-aboard expeditions to the clear waters of the Coral Sea. While some of the sites easily reached by day trip from Cairns are spectacular, the top sites are in the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. North of Cairns, the Ribbon Reefs comprise a string of 10 coral ramparts and cover a distance of about 160km (100 miles) from Lizard Island almost to Cape Tribulation.
There are many famous sites to choose from such as Pixie Pinnacle, The Temple of Doom, and Dynamite Pass, but there are also many spectacular sites not frequented by the ‘regular-departure’ live-aboards, and one can stop almost anywhere and expect a fabulous dive. Coral formations vary from beds of huge plate corals to isolated pinnacles sustaining an amazing display of fish life, to walls and channels for perfect drift dives as well as caves, canyons and shallow coral gardens. The best way to appreciate the Great Barrier Reef is a short live-aboard trip to the Ribbon Reefs. One boat offers four to five day trips leaving Cairns every Tuesday and Friday. The Friday trip includes Osprey Reef renowned for an abundance of sharks and a couple of dives at the world-famous Cod Hole. During winter you may even swim with the Dwarf Minke Whales around the Ribbon Reef area. As always, the sites on the edge of the very outer Great Barrier Reef have better visibility than fringing islands and patch reefs closer to the mainland.
1 MICHAELMAS REEF
About 45km (28miles) northeast of Cairns, Michaelmas has extensive coral coverage and a number of pinnacles, which serve as food stops for pelagic fish. Tunas and jacks are often seen. Endowed with lush Gorgonian Sea Fans and soft corals, the reefs are popular. Thousands of sea birds nest at the sand cay at the southern end of the reef. Just off this cay are some lovely coral gardens and large numbers of pinnacles. Wayne’s Bommie 2 consists of dozens of pinnacles that seem to be packed with fish life. You are likely to find giant clams nested on the bottom, shy cuttlefish, turtles, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Bluespotted Ribbontail (Fantail) Rays wedged under plate corals and even Manta Rays. There are more towering pinnacles at the Coral Gardens 3 which seem to attract a large selection of pelagic fish. Divers regularly encounter Dog-tooth Tuna, Spanish Mackerel, Coral Grouper, Humphead (Napoleon or Maori) Wrasse, schools of fusiliers and barracuda, and reef sharks. The pinnacles are riddled with small caves and coated with lovely coral growths. Small reef fish are omnipresent and numerous invertebrates hide in the corals.
4 TEMPLE OF DOOM
One of the fishiest dive sites in the world, the Temple of Doom is a massive pinnacle on the western side of Ribbon Reef No. 3. It is over 30m (100ft) in diameter and justifiably known as the fish aquarium of the Barrier Reef. As soon as you hit the water you find yourself surrounded by large schools of yellow goatfish, Bluefin Trevallies, Bluelined Snappers, fusiliers, tuna, mackerel, barracuda and Coral Groupers. The site pulsates with life and luxuriates in a lush coverage of staghorn corals on the reef top. Because of its abundance and variety of fish and invertebrate life, Temple of Doom was the location selected for Metamorphosea, the world’s first 24-hour dive that documented the cycle of life on a coral reef continuously from 12 noon to 12 noon in 1995. The pinnacle falls steeply to 30m (100ft) and the slope is generously covered with gorgonias, black coral trees, sea whips, sponges and some lovely soft corals. A number of small ledges cut into the pinnacle, making a suitable habitat for moray eels and crayfish. Whitetip Reef Sharks are also commonly seen, as are sweetlips, groupers (known locally as gropers), stingrays and Eagle Rays.
5 PIXIE PINNACLE
Located 165km (103 miles) north of Port Douglas, on the western end pass of Ribbon Reef No. 9 and No. 10, Pixie Pinnacle is like a large coral bommie protruding from the bottom, overflowing with colourful sea fans, and home to a profusion of reef life. It is one of the most illustrious dive sites in the world, home to every group of organism found on the Great Barrier Reef. Divers should take time to explore the many overhangs and small caves that riddle the pinnacle - each packed with beautiful, spiky soft corals, hydroid corals, Tubastrea corals and small gorgonias. The pinnacle rises from 40m (130ft) to near surface where it is just 15m (50ft) in diameter.
The walls are steep and coated with corals, anemones, sea whips, soft corals and gorgonias. Among the feather stars, sea whips and fans are swarms of pink Anthias (Fairy Basslets) feeding in passing currents. The fish life includes lionfish, groupers, hawkfish, wrasse, butterflyfish, cardinalfish, squirrelfish, filefish and angelfish. Reef sharks, Eagle Rays, barracuda, jobfish, fusiliers, mackerel and batfish swim off the pinnacle. Photographers will find that they quickly run out of film here. After dark, Pixie Pinnacle is even more colourful under torchlight. Many small reef creatures appear, including Mantis Shrimps, flatworms, coral crabs, molluscs, decorator crabs, coral shrimps and nudibranchs. Nestled within colourful coral and caves are parrotfish, sea turtles, fusiliers and butterflyfish, somehow creating a surrealistic landscape worthy of a lifetime of exploration.
Goatfish swarm over the reef in large shoals, feeding as they go, at the Temple of Doom.
Colonial or Seafan Anemones (Amphianthus spp.) are colonial and found mostly on dead whip corals and wrecks in deeper water.
WHALES ON THE GBR
DWARF MINKE WHALES
The Ribbon Reefs are a string of twisting coral fortifications stretching along the outer edge of the Northern Great Barrier Reef. Designated Reef No. 1-10, the Ribbons can be up to 25km (15 miles) long, but rarely over 500m (1640ft) wide. On the ocean side, the reef plummets to several hundred metres, while the other side of the reef falls gently to shallow gullies conducive to lush coral gardens and outcrops.
Between June and July, the Dwarf Minke Whales visit the Ribbon Reefs and interactions with snorkellers are frequent. Though they are smaller than those of the North Atlantic, any encounter with whales underwater is an unforgettable experience. Cetacean biologists have yet to determine this Minke’s taxonomic status, but it does appear to be a distinct subspecies of the typical Minke, Balaenopera acutorostrata.
The maximum length reported of Great Barrier Reef Minke Whales is 9m (30ft), but those regularly sighted average about 5m (16ft). Females are usually about 1m (3ft) longer with an estimated weight of 6-7 tonnes. They belong to the suborder of Mysticetes in the 78 known species of cetacean (the biological classification/order of whales and dolphins). Minkes are rorquals. Their distinctive prominent head ridge and acutely pointed triangular snout with an all-round broad lower jaw, seemingly in perpetual smile, give them character. Their robust physique, insulated by several centimetres (inches) of blubber, makes them the roly-poly of the family. Like dolphins, minkes also use sound to ‘see’ their environment and look for food, friends and predators. Since enlarged outer ears would be useless underwater, their skulls sense sound vibrations directly, as do other cetaceans.
Though our Dwarf Minkes are similar in shape and form to their bigger cousins, they have some distinctive characteristics. The outer half of their flippers is dark grey to black, whereas the inner section is almost pure white. There is also a pure white patch on the shoulder area where the flipper meets the body. The area between the mouth and the flipper is dark grey to black. The top of the head is distinctly lighter than other parts of the body; this combination is said to be unique to the ‘junior’ minke whales.
Whales lead one of the most inconvenient lives on earth. They live in the ocean, but they must come all the way to the surface to breathe. They live with all the glorious chewy seafood around them, but they have no teeth. Minkes are baleen whales; rather than teeth, they have 200-300 pairs of baleen plates hanging from the roof of the mouth. The throat of the minke is designed to expand enormously and between their 300 pairs of baleen plates, they engulf tons of water in one gulp; usually full of krill and small schooling fish. There are no recorded sightings of feeding by the ‘junior’ minke in Australian waters. In fact, no one knows of their diving capabilities.
We do know, however, that our ‘junior’ minkes prefer to live in the southern hemisphere; they are sighted in warm, temperate and tropical waters of Australia, New Zealand, Southern Atlantic coast of South America and New Caledonia. Sightings have also been reported in Sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters as far south as 65°S latitude in the summer months from December to March. Like other baleen whales they probably follow the same migration pattern between feeding grounds in the southern ocean and the tropical sea, but this is far from conclusive.
According to an Australian authority on minke whales, Dr Peter Arnold of the Museum of Tropical Queensland, they are sighted during the austral winter from as far south as the Swain Reef to as far north as Lizard Island. Sightings are seasonal and research indicates that 80% of encounters are in the months of June and July and they are frequently found near the southwest corner of Ribbon Reef No. 3, commonly referred to as Steve’s Bommie and Temple of Doom. Swimming with whales is an incomparable experience - the awe of an eye-to-eye meeting with a massive cetacean several times your own size.
6 COD HOLE
In the northern end of Ribbon Reef No. 10, a patch reef of 10-25m (33-80ft) wide, is Cod Hole, world famous for its boisterous Potato Cod. As soon as divers enter the water, from six to twelve 100kg (220 lb) fish will show up for a free hand-out. Waltzing among the divers, the cod are accustomed to look out for the divemaster who will put on a show, hand-feeding them with offerings of fish and sometimes even a kiss on a fleshy cheek! A débâcle sometimes ensues while the big fish jostle each other, and sometimes the divers, to get the food. They have to be quick because several Leopard Morays, other groupers and large Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse also home in for a free meal. Beware, the cod can be overzealous during feeding time and are known to swallow gloves, which will inevitably cause their demise. Strictly speaking, gloves should not be worn on this dive. Even without food offering, the cod are easily approached and will indeed pose for photographers. Though the Potato Cod is the main attraction, the reef is also populated by a variety of ornamental reef fish, rays, reef sharks and invertebrates. Pelagics often sweep past the reef; mackerels, tuna and Giant Trevallies are frequent visitors. Indeed, the Cod Hole is the signature dive of the Great Barrier Reef.
NORTHERN CORAL SEA
Blue, gin-clear water is the signature of Coral Sea diving. It is one of those magical places that give the illusion of being able to see forever underwater. Harbouring some of the most photogenic seascapes in the world, the marine life is astounding and spectacular. Some say the best diving in the world can be done here - with drop-offs one kilometre (half a mile) deep, pinnacles the size of office blocks, countless numbers of caves, huge gorgonias and soft corals, sharks, Manta Rays and schooling pelagic fish. The Northern Coral Sea reefs are completely different to most of those found in the south. Significantly, there are more sharks but fewer sea snakes. All these reefs are the tips of ancient mountains, long covered by rising seas. Some form large lagoon basins, others are just towering columns of coral, but all fall quickly into the abyss.
Several Potato Cod (Grouper) (Epinephelus tukula)of up to 100kg (220 lb) will show up for a free hand-out as soon as divers enter the water at Cod Hole.
7 8 HOLMES REEF
Split into two halves, the reef structures of Holmes Reef lie just 220km (120 nautical miles) to the east of Cairns. It is a good example of the Coral Sea, which can be visited by day trip. It consists of East and West Holmes and two small sand banks that break surface at low tide. Below, steep slopes and vertical walls rise from 1500m (5000ft); and caves, tunnels and caverns are dotted around shallow, sheltered lagoons. When the current is running, the diving at the Golden Wall 9 - a sheer coral wall covered with lush yellow sponges and soft corals - is an adrenaline fix, as one flies along the wall that dissolves into the blue yonder with its incredible visibility. Enormous gorgonias lace the walls. Turtles, Manta Rays, schools of pelagics, sharks and even the occasional Whale Shark can be seen here. Nonki 10, a dive site named by a Japanese diver, is a comparatively easy-going site comprising three huge pinnacles rising from 30m (100ft) to 5m (16ft). There are overhangs and caverns cut into the pinnacles, all covered with sessile animals and soft corals. Various colours of sea fans jostle for space against a profusion of stony corals, which cover the entire pinnacle slope.
11 HERALD CAYS
Lying 100km (62 miles) to the southeast of Holmes Reef, the Herald Cays are two sandy islets that are home to a unique selection of rare sea birds, including terns and frigates. This twin reef complex is surrounded by steep drop-offs, with a sheltered lagoon between them. The drop-offs are packed with a variety of stony and soft corals, delicate hydroid corals, Tubastrea corals, black coral trees, verdant soft corals, orange Gorgonian Sea Fans, Gorgonian Sea Whips, sponges and expanses of stony coral. Reef fish are abundant and large schools of pelagic fish, groupers (locally known as gropers), Humphead (Napoleon or Maori) Wrasse or Eagle Rays visit. Reef sharks become constant companions, and the occasional Whitetip Reef Shark sleeps in a cave. Herald Cays is also nesting ground for Green Sea Turtles which visit the region to lay their eggs in the last few months of the year. Hundreds of turtles come into the cay for a night to nest. Hatchlings emerge in January. Herald Cays is seldom visited and a treat for divers who also enjoy the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea above the tide.
12 FLINDERS REEF
One of the larger of the Coral Sea reef systems, Flinders Reef includes a cluster of reefs in an area of 66 by 26km (41 by 16 miles). Because it is only 220km (137 miles) from Townsville, it is the most popular and regularly visited of all the Coral Sea Reefs. The Flinders Reef is multifaceted with coral formations, cays and two islets just above the surface, which are home to sea birds, turtles, and hermit crabs. Sites vary from 1000m (3281ft) walls and arrays of pinnacles, to coral gardens and seamounts emerging from the ocean depths. Grey Reef, Blacktip Reef and Silvertip Sharks, barracuda, Bigeye Trevallies and rays as well as the exotic cuttlefish, sea hares and White-mouth Morays are seen. In sandy lagoons, small coral heads are home to parrotfish, triggerfish, pufferfish, Humphead (Napoleon or Maori) Wrasse, coral trout, gobies, blennies and various molluscs and sea stars.
On the western side of Flinders is Watanabe Bommie 13, a giant pinnacle regarded as one of the most action-packed dive sites in the Coral Sea. Though the towering pinnacle is encrusted with wonderful corals, it is the swarms of barracuda, Bigeye Trevallies, Rainbow Runners, Leopard Coralgrouper, Dog-tooth Tuna, surgeonfish, and clouds of fusiliers that make this site appealing to divers. Often one can find oneself engulfed in an electrifying commotion as the sharks and jacks chase the fusiliers through a whirlpool of silvery barracuda - an experience one will want to relive frequently. China Wall 14 is another exciting dive in the Flinders vicinity. The wall face is covered with soft corals, sponges, gorgonias, feather stars and small stony coral colonies. Large fish such as tuna, mackerel, Rainbow Runners and Giant Trevallies are predictably sighted.
NORTH HORN AND OSPREY REEF
Osprey Reef 15 lies in the Coral Sea nearly 160km (100 miles) to the east-northeast of Lizard Island. This Coral Sea reef is 21km (134 miles) long and boasts more than 30m (100ft) visibility and 1000m (3300ft) vertical walls. Many divers consider this reef to be the ultimate reef diving adventure. Not only can the largest and most spectacularly coloured soft corals in the world be found here, but the large reef system also has a healthy shark population and North Horn 16, a reef shelf at a depth of between 12m (40ft) and 45m (150ft), is world famous for its shark action. Often divers will descend into a group of five or six resident Whitetip Reef Sharks and several Grey Reef Sharks. In deeper water Silvertip Sharks are often found among coral outcrops and, if one is moderately lucky, oceanic Whitetip sharks, Great Hammerheads, Thresher and the odd lone Tiger Shark. North Horn is also the site where most live-aboards conduct their shark feeds. However, even without the hand-out, the shark interaction is exceptionally good. One of the most significant features of this reef is the population of hammerhead sharks. In winter and spring large schools of hammerheads are predictably seen off the wall. Besides the sharks, the shelf is also home to large friendly Potato cod, schools of trevallies and barracudas. Eagle Rays and Manta Rays are also often seen. Of course, when you get bored with the big-fish action, there’s always the giant soft corals found in deeper water.
17 WRECK OF THE YONGALA
Undoubtedly Queensland’s best wreck dive is the SS Yongala, a passenger and general cargo steamer lost in a cyclone in 1911. The wreck owes its popularity not to its history or superstructure, but to the amazing concentration of fish life that now resides on the wreck. It is now protected under both the GBR Marine Park regulations and the Commonwealth’s Historic Shipwreck Act (1976). Resting on a 30m (100ft) bottom, just 24km (15 miles) offshore, the wreck is easily accessible from Townsville and easily located by permanent mooring. The vessel lies on its starboard site, with the deepest point at 33m (108ft) under the bow. Descending to the wreck is an overwhelming experience, requiring a swim through myriad layers of batfish and Sweetlips. The deck at 15m (50ft) is completely encrusted with sessile life, anemones with clownfish and one will be surrounded by groupers, sea snakes and Blotched Fantail Ray. One particularly overgrown grouper is nicknamed VW - because of its size. Large oysters line the wreck’s interior and underside, and piles of dead shells lie on the sand. The entire surface of the hull is covered with chunky sponges and coral growth. Seemingly this 110m (360ft) wreck has become the oasis in the desert sea. Many consider the Yongala to be one of the world’s top dive sites. However, due to its proximity to shore, dives are often cancelled due to bad surface conditions and, of course, the Yongala is addictive - once is never enough.
Wrecks are protected under the GBR Marine Park regulations and also the Commonwealth’s Historic Shipwreck Act of 1976.
A yacht sails by a sea arch carved from volcanic rock as it enters South Harbour off Aorangi Island.
The rugged islands are protected as a marine reserve and landing is strictly forbidden without prior permission. The intention is to protect ten per cent of coastal waters.