I’ve been Scuba diving for about eight years and have been fortunate to dive some amazing places. When people think of coral reef’s and scuba diving, they often think of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It had been on our dive bucket list for a while and a couple of weeks ago we were able to make it happen.
The Great Barrier Reef is known for being the biggest reef system in the world that has amazing scuba diving. However, recently the GBR has become more well known for the coral bleaching caused by climate change.
Before the trip I watched “Chasing Coral”on Netflix, it shocked me, it made me cry. I read blog posts and dive reports from the barrier reef and was preparing myself for the worst.
Luckily it wasn’t all bad, in fact most of it was pretty damn amazing.
I’m not a scientist. In this post I comment on things I saw with my own eyes, studies I’ve read or information gathered from Dive Masters and others’ working in the area. I also only saw the area from Osprey Reef in the North down to the Ribbon Reefs north of Cairns. I recommend you check out the link below from the Australian Governments’ Great Barrier Reef Website for more info on the state of the reef. Generally speaking, it’s not good news.
What Is Coral Bleaching?
“ When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white and eventually die.”
The Great Barrier Reef has suffered two recent heavy bouts of Coral Bleaching, one in 2014 and one in 2016. It’s predicted that bleaching events will get more frequent and more severe with time.
Coral bleaching caused by pollution, cyclone damage and a destructive starfish called the “Crown of Thorns” are combining forces to threaten the largest reef ecosystem in the world.
So now, with those points out of the way lets look at the good and the bad things I observed in the Great Barrier Reef.
The areas that we dove in the GBR had the largest, most epic coral structures i’ve ever seen. I compare it to hiking through huge mountains that tower over you and make you feel small and insignificant. That’s how it felt diving through some of the large coral valleys on the trip. Unfortunately a lot of the coral seemed pretty dead.
We started our trip from Lizard Island and immediately headed out to Osprey Reef and were treated to amazing visibility, this continued for the next few days all the way to Bougainville Reef. 40+ meter visibility is the best i’ve seen anywhere, ever. The second part of the trip around the Ribbon Reef’s were unfortunately not so good with visibility ranging from 10-20 metres.
Like all dive locations, The GBR around Cairns has certain species it’s known for, specifically Potato Cod, Sharks (White tip reef sharks, Grey reef sharks and if you’re luckier than we were, Hammerheads).
Here’s a few of my personal highlights from the trip:
Shark feed is a really interesting dive. After many years of practice, the boats in the area have figured out a way to bring in large amounts of grey reef sharks and feed them right in front of the divers. A stainless steel cage is filled with huge Tuna heads. Once the cage is shut tight it’s lowered to a depth of ten metres by ropes and pulleys. Once the sharks are in a frenzy and swarming the cage, the lid is opened and it becomes a free for all. Sharks jockeying for fish heads and chasing each other all around us. The closest I’ve ever been to a large amount of sharks.
Spending time with the Potato Cod
What a funny creature the Potato Cod is. Being up to 8.5ft long and weighing 200+ lbs, they seem inquisitive by nature and can be a little intimidating when they swim close by, as they often do. We spotted this guy out in the blue when diving at “Corner Shop” on Bougainville Reef. As I slowly approached him he seemed to pay no attention to me whatsoever. Fairly slow moving and kind of dopey looking, I won’t forget him anytime soon.
If I had to pick a favourite dive site for the trip it would be Steve’s bommie. We didn’t have the best visibility but the dive was an amazing one. The site is a pinnacle that rises up from 35m to about 3m. We started deep and slowly circled the structure, gradually ascending. We saw colourful soft and hard coral, large schools of snapper, leaf scorpion fish and a cool Nudibranch I’d never seen before.
The conditions of the coral varied wildly from dive site to dive site as you would expect but several of the dive sites we visited were in really bad shape. Areas that were once packed with living coral now looked like a coral graveyard. Brown and algae covered.
Having dived in Indonesia and The Phillipines we’re pretty spoilt for super diverse species. We saw a lot of awesome stuff in the GBR but we found it quite limited in comparison. There wasn’t a huge amount of good macro such as Nudibranchs or Pygymy sea horses.
We probably saw the best there is to offer
It goes without saying that the tour company took us to the areas that have the healthiest coral and the most abundant marine life. We’ve heard from several people that doing day trips from Cairns is basically a waste of time as the reef that is reachable by day boat is in a terrible state. It worries me that we saw plenty of dead coral and we probably visited the best sites the GBR has to offer…
Having talked to different people that have been working in the GBR for years, some believe the corals are still in decent shape. Of course it’s in their best interest to say that but I do believe some of the media claims have been blown out of proportion. Many people we spoke to said that the GBR has been used as the poster child for the negative effects of climate change and documentaries such as Chasing Coral give it an unfairly negative outlook.
However, changes need to be made otherwise this natural wonder of the world could be damaged beyond repair.
One of the best things we can do to help preserve the reef is to go visit it with a responsible tour company that cares about the reef. Every tourist entering the Marine Park has to pay an environmental fee which helps fund the day to day management of the park and helps improve it’s long term resilience. Responsible diving practices also help, don’t apply sunscreen just before diving or snorkelling (it has adverse effects) and never touch or hold onto coral. We can also do our part in helping to reduce pollution, climate change and the unchecked use of plastics.
I had an amazing time diving in the barrier reef, even if it did make me a little sad.
Go see it now, before it’s potentially too late.