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Trips of a lifetime: Great Barrier Reef

The world’s largest coral reef system pulses with a staggering diversity of marine life. Dive into a first-timer’s tips for navigating this underwater world.

By Tamsin Wressell
Published 18 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST
Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef.
Photograph by Getty Images

This was very much a ‘book now, logistics later’ trip. I’d never dived before, and just a month before I flew to Brisbane, I got in touch with Oyster Diving in London. I spent a few evenings in an art deco swimming pool in Soho kitted out in scuba gear, and a weekend in a lake near Heathrow to complete my course in time. 

I planned to hop between islands in Queensland and dive different parts of the Reef. Most days, I’d wake up early to catch a ferry out to a new island. I’d stay there either for the day or a few nights, then make my way to the mainland to catch another ferry the next morning. 

Every island was different, but I got into a routine starting with snorkelling the reef at sunrise. The rest of the day involved more snorkelling, scuba diving and sea kayaking. I’d only stop to eat, consuming just enough to give me the energy to get back out there again.

My first dive was terrifying. I actually called it off. Diving in the ocean, it turns out, is very different to diving in a swimming pool or still lake. The conditions made it really difficult to descend, so I got back on the boat and hopped out in calmer waters closer to the shore. My nerves hadn’t calmed though — the instructor held my hand for the full 60 minutes of the dive. 

There are people living in Queensland who really care about the reef’s health and future. I met a lot of people whose lives revolve around educating others and fighting the effects of climate change and coral bleaching. Though each dive was beautiful and filled with an incredible diversity of coral and marine life, it felt very important not to take anything for granted. 

On my first day I caught a small boat out to Fraser Island. On the way, a couple of humpback whales surfaced right beside us. After grabbing our snorkels, we listened to instructions from the expert guide to ensure the encounter was ethical (establishing a safe distance and enabling the whales to control the interaction), and bobbed in the ocean as they swam around us for the best part of half an hour. It was surreal — a year later, I still don’t think I’ve processed the experience. 

How to do it: Emirates flies from Heathrow to Brisbane Airport in Queensland, with a stopover in Dubai, from £700 per person.

Heart Reef.
Photograph by Getty Images

Diver's checklist

Manta rays 
Eagle rays, bull rays and cownose rays can also all be spotted along Queensland’s Capricorn Coast, but with a wingspan of up to 20ft, manta rays are undoubtedly the most impressive rays to see. Lady Elliot Island is the place to go; it’s a feeding and cleaning ground for mantas. 

Humpback whales
Between July and October, mother humpback whales nurse their calves in the warm, calm waters of Hervey Bay before migrating to Antarctica. To encounter these beautiful beasts, check your boating company is responsible and it should have an expert guide on board, too.

Six of seven turtle species — all of which are endangered — live along the Great Barrier Reef. From January to May, green turtle and loggerhead turtle hatchlings emerge from many of the islands’ beaches, including Heron Island, and make their way to the water.

Of the 440 known species of shark, around 170 of them reside on the Great Barrier Reef. More than 50 species can be found in Queensland. Black tip, white tip and grey reef sharks are all fairly common, but look out for the ornately mottle-patterned and bearded wobbegong. 

Giant clams
Hard on the outside, soft and vibrantly coloured on the inside, giant clams flourish in these warm waters. Once they find a spot, they stay there for life, growing up to 5ft in length, weighing up to 250kg and living for over 100 years. No two giant clams have the same colouration.

Click here to see our full list of the 20 unforgettable places for 2019 from our Trips of a Lifetime cover story.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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