Best diving on the Great Barrier Reef

Lady Elliot Island

It has been a dream of mine for a long time to dive the Great Barrier Reef. When I found out I was going to Queensland this year, I knew I had to make my dreams come true. In the past I have done some research on where the best diving is in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), and learned that it is in the south. This is because in the past decade there have been several massive coral bleaching events, some of which killed 30% of the coral. When I first came to KAUST, professor Terry Hughes gave a talk about his work on corals, and he showed devastating aerial images of the severe bleaching that he could see from helicopter surveys over the reef. When I saw those images and learned that over ⅔ of the great barrier reef was affected, I knew I had to go visit, before it was too late. I know how depressing this sounds, but I mean it. Time is limited for this incredible natural wonder, and due to human pressures these reefs are fighting for their survival. A large reason for the bleaching is due to the unusually warm sea surface temperature which can cause heat stress if there is no wind or currents moving the water over the coral. The corals then expel their symbiotic algae, causing them to turn white. When this happens, the coral is not yet dead, but it is in distress. When the corals are bleached they are more susceptible to disease, but it is also possible for them to survive. But if the stressor remains, sometimes these corals do end up dying.

Healthy coral reef on Lady Elliot Island

From the research I have done, and from friends I have talked to, Lady Elliot Island is the best place to visit. It is located in the southern GBR, and you can only get there by a tiny plane. Due to its remote location, the corals are incredible, but it can be a bit pricey to visit. But in my opinion it is definitely worth the effort. We only stayed two nights and three days, and I had the best time ever. After our training at Mon Repos Turtle Sanctuary, we flew from Bundaberg to Lady Elliot Island. The plane was absolutely tiny, and the flight only took around 20 minutes to get to this little island. I can say with confidence this was my first time landing on a field of grass, but it was a surprisingly smooth ride, with some beautiful views of the ocean. We landed at around 9:30 AM, and we were greeted by the staff of the hotel who gave us a tour of the facilities, and we enjoyed a welcome drink in the outdoor restaurant, soaking up the amazing views of the reef. 

The next three days were a bit of a blur, as we were in the water nearly all hours of sunlight. On the day we arrived we went on a glass bottom boat and snorkel trip after dropping our bags off at our room (which was just steps from the beach). That first snorkel absolutely blew my mind. The coral was unlike anything I had ever seen, there was just such high density of live coral. In addition, there were loads of fish and other amazing critters. During our 45 minute snorkel, we saw three species of sea turtles. Since this was a protected area with strict rules prohibiting fishing or disturbing wildlife, all of the animals were so chill. The turtles came so close to us, whereas in the Red Sea they bolt when they see you. This snorkel was my first time seeing an adult loggerhead turtle up close underwater, they look so prehistoric and their heads are absolutely massive (hence their name). Their heads are so big so their jaws are strong enough to crush hard shells, clams, lobsters, and crabs. After our snorkel we had lunch, which was a delicious vegan burger. At 1:30 PM we did a guided reef walk, which takes you around the reef at low tide. 

Loggerhead turtle

Afterwards we did a long afternoon snorkel. Then we went for a walk at sunset to see if we could find any emerging baby turtles (which we didn’t) but we had a delicious dinner with cold beer, followed by watching a documentary on the Great Barrier Reef which had David Attenborough in it, and they visited Lady Elliot Island. I had never seen it before so that was awesome. I highly recommend giving it a watch, it is aptly named “Great Barrier Reef”. By the time the movie was over it was around 9 PM but I wanted to go try out my underwater light and we used the strobe to look for epaulette sharks. These sharks are nocturnal, and prefer shallow habitats. They have evolved to be able to withstand extremely low oxygen levels, by increasing the blood supply to their brain and selectively shutting down non-essential neural functions. They are capable of surviving complete anoxia (lack of oxygen) for two hours without ill effects, and at a much higher temperature than most other hypoxia-tolerant animals. Rather than swim, epaulette sharks often “walk” by wriggling their bodies and pushing with their paired fins. We saw one almost right away and took some photos before some ladies came up to us and told us to shut off our lights since there was a nesting female turtle nearby. We waited for the turtle to start laying (first they create a pit and chamber, which can take up to a few hours). In the meantime Kirsty and I were practicing taking photos of the stars, since the sky was beautiful and so clear, because there was very little light pollution because we were so far offshore. The hotel also decreases its light pollution to ensure that it is not disorienting nesting turtles and their hatchlings. After about 40 minutes, we returned to the turtle, where some hotel guests were excitedly waiting. We taught them a bit about turtle nesting ecology, and once she started to lay eggs we used our lights to watch her lay, which is always such a cool thing to see. By the time the turtle stopped laying it was past 10 PM so we went to bed and got ready for a long day ahead. 

epaulette shark
nesting green turtle

The next day was our only full day on the island. I woke up bright and early to watch the sunrise on the beach right in front of our cabin. It was a beautiful way to start the day, but I was pretty tired since we were used to going to bed after 1 AM after our turtle fieldwork ended, and sleeping in until 9 AM. But I wasn’t about to waste any time, so I went to have breakfast before our first scuba dive of the day (and my first dive ever on the GBR). In the morning there were some waves, but once we were underwater the currents weren’t too bad. Some highlights included a lazy loggerhead chilling under a coral overhang, a moray eel, some garden eels hiding in the sand, many green turtles chomping on seagrass, and then some absolutely stunning coral reefs. During our safety stop we were drifting in the current over coral gardens which were just jam packed with healthy and beautiful coral, it was unreal! After the dive we did yet another snorkel, but we were careful to not freedive after diving (safety first) we saw loads of rays, some sharks, and of course, loads of turtles. The highlight of my day was our second dive. The conditions improved, and due to the tide, there were pretty much no waves. Because of this, we were able to take the boat to the other side of the island, which was unreal. As soon as we descended, we saw some curious silvertip sharks. It was almost overwhelming to have such amazing healthy coral on one side, and sharks and other pelagic fish on the other. There was so much to look at, which I can’t really complain about because I loved every second of it. The coral was stunning, I wish pictures really captured how nice it was, but my photography needs some improvements because my pics just don’t fully capture the magic. We saw some massive nurse sharks, and more friendly turtles. Towards the end of the dive we got to dive through a huge cave, which was stunning. It was overall such a great dive. In the afternoon I did a quick snorkel in the shallow lagoon near our cabin, where there were so many turtles, it was absolutely gorgeous and I was definitely in my happy place. Because I was in there until almost sunset, the sun rays were low and dancing in the water, creating beautiful lighting in the water. Afterwards I took a quick shower and headed to dinner. And afterwards we went to two talks, one was about nesting turtles on Lady Elliot Island, and the second was on the manta rays. 

hawksbill turtle amongst beautiful coral
Friendly green trutle

On our final day on the island, we signed up for an adventure snorkel to try to see the famous mantas, but unfortunately it is not the season so we weren’t lucky. Afterwards, we got off the boat and headed right back into the water for yet another snorkel. At this side of the island there are three consecutive snorkel lines in the water over the best part of the reef to snorkel, so we would start at one entrance, and try to plan the current so we would drift to the other exit/entry location, which was marked with buoys and a marker. We could also explore the deeper waters farther offshore but I personally thought the best part was the shallow reefs, which were stunning when the sunlight hit them. Also, although it was pretty shallow (around 15 ft deep) we still saw a lot of big animals like reef sharks, turtles, rays, and squids. Following the snorkel we had an amazing vegan lunch at the restaurants, and ended the day with one last little snorkel before our plane took off at 3 PM. Our time on the island was short but I am so happy that we made the most of our time there by exploring the reefs all day. I would highly recommend visiting this amazing ecoresort, they put in effort to conserve the beautiful reef and it looks like it is paying off. 

From our dive on Lady Elliot Island
More healthy thriving coral

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