Snorkelling or diving the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best ways to explore this natural wonder. There are more than a hundred dive sites scattered across the Great Barrier Reef and no matter how avid a diver you are, you will not be able to dive all of them in your lifetime. So if you’re like me, you will want to know which dive sites are the best and which ones come highly recommended. This post is dedicated to listing the top ten Great Barrier Reef diving sites with a brief explanation about why it has made the top ten, what you can expect to see as well as important statistics about the dive site.

 

Top 10 Great Barrier Reef Diving Sites

 

1. Cod Hole

 

Location: North end of Ribbon Reef No 10

Depth range: 10-22m (33-72ft)

Access: Boat from Port Douglas

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Novice/Intermediate

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Macro

Highlight: Large potato cod

 

The Cod Hole is famous for one reason – for the large potato cod that reside at this dive site. While a higher number existed in the 70s, today their numbers are diminishing at an alarming rate (numbers now reported from two to 15). This is probably due to inappropriate feeding and handling by divers. Today only those with a Marine Parks permit can feed them with special food.

Expect to dive right off the boat into a cloud of waiting cod, large Maori wrasse, red bass, emperor and many other species. You drop to the sandy floor areas between the bommies, which provide amphitheatre-like viewing areas among great coral outcrops, to watch the fish feeding.

Tidal currents keep this area interesting and on a rising tide you get much better visibility, making the sandy floors among rich coral heads stand out. If the cod don’t show up, this is still a great dive site as it’s a typical back reef channel area.

Other features that make this our top dive site includes excellent coral cover, occasional moray eels, anemones, whitetip reef sharks, giant clams, schools of pyramid butterflyfish, Solomon’s sweetlip, cleaning stations and feather stars.

 

Tip: At the start of the dive, ensure you know what the bottom of your boat looks like and return to it. If you hear boat engines, watch out for propellers above.

Photo tip:  The fish here generally come close and are superb wide-angle subjects.

 

2. Pixie Pinnacle

 

Location: Northwest corner, small plug reef between Ribbons No 9 & 10

Depth range: 1-30m (3-98ft)

Access: Boat from Port Douglas

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Novice

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Micro

Highlight: Active marine life on the pinnacle

 

Pixie’s Pinnacle has the best of everything the Great Barrier Reef has to offer. This site can be done in five minutes or, by slowing down, you can see examples of almost every group of organisms found on the Reef.

The coral pinnacle rises from 40m to the surface, where it is about 15m across. By following a slowly descending spiral you will see plenty, finishing with an ascending spiral and a safety stop.

This dive site is famous for its hard coral diversity; however, at 20m, you will find a talus (rubble) slope, with more soft corals and an occasional large, black tree coral colony. This slope then drops off slowly at varying angles to a 30m bottom which is, often, a resting spot for large cod, feeding sea cucumbers, rays and whitetip reef sharks.

Above the talus slope is a series of vertical walls, overhangs and multitudes of small caves. All provide great hangouts for lionfish, moral eels, shrimp, anemones and their clownfish, cleaner wrasse, hanging spiky soft corals, gorgonians, yellow turret corals, lace corals, sponges, hydroids and molluscs.

On some occasions fairy basslets provide an amazing pink cloud while they feed in the current that bathes the pinnacle. Many animals are well-camouflaged, such as the resident stonefish, so be patient and observant.

 

Tip: Occasionally tear your eyes away from the life on the pinnacle and be reward with the shoals of fish that regularly cruise by or hover. Fusiliers are regulars, with trevally, barracuda, mackerel, sharks, batfish and the occasional ray providing a charismatic megafaunal experience.

Photo tip: Expect to take a lot of photos at this dive site; medium to close-up will be your best lens choice.

 

3. SS Yongala Wreck

 

Location: 25km (14 miles) east of Cape Bowling Green

Depth range: 15-33m (49-108ft)

Access: Boat from Townsville

Snorkelling: No

Expertise rating: Advanced

Best time to visit: June to August

Feature: Macro

Highlight: Wreck of SS Yongala

 

The SS Yongala is undoubtedly Queensland’s best wreck dive. Some even say this is the best wreck dive in the world. This 110m-long marine grave is truly an oasis in a ‘desert’ of sand.

The Yongala was a passenger and general cargo steamer which was lost in a cyclone in 1911 when she was headed to Cairns on her 99th run along the Queensland coast. The ship departed Mackay Harbour without telegraph equipment and was too far out before it could be warned of the oncoming cyclone. Details of the ship’s sinking are unknown, but it was likely swamped by massive waves that left its 121 crew and passengers no way to escape.

The Yongala is a significant cultural site and is protected under both the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park regulations and the Commonwealth Government’s Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976). Several dive shops offer tours to the wreck. However, if you’re not diving with a charter vessel, you will require a permit for a private vessel.

Access to this site is weather dependent – tide runs and sea state can make this a hazardous dive. A giant stride from a moored boat down a buoyed descent line makes an exciting beginning to an incredibly interesting dive. As you descend, the port side of the vessel comes into view first. As the entire hull is richly encrusted with soft and hard corals, hydroids, oysters, fan and whip gorgonians, it is a superb macro site. Marine life you can expect to see include sea snakes, bull rays, eagle rays, turtles and enormous grouper. One grouper, usually found under the bow or stern, is called V-Dub, because it’s as big as a Volkswagon!

Thousands of oysters line the interior and under the bow and stern of the wreck, leaving piles of dead shells on the bottom. The wreck also features coral trout, stripeys, surgeonfish, fusiliers, lionfish, damsels and often clouds of baitfish.

In winter, this dive site attracts pelagics from the big blue so expect to see manta rays, sharks and the occasional migratory humpback whale.

 

Tip: If the tidal current is running you can ‘hide’ in the lee of the hull and work your dive from there.

Photo tip: The cruising schools of kingfish, trevally, turrum and barracuda provide good wide-angle shots.

 

4. Osprey Reef – North Horn

 

Location: Mooring at northwest tip of reef

Depth range: 2-20m+ (6-66ft+)

Access: Boat from Port Douglas

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Intermediate

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Macro

Highlight: Whitetip reef sharks

 

Osprey has many sites, with the entrances providing several spots for overnight anchorages and moorings. The North Horn site is the best known for one reason – sharks. Sharks have always been here and a resident population of whitetip reef sharks is currently under study, whereby each one is identified and recorded individually, through the assistance of Undersea Explorer. This site has been used as a shark feeding site for more than 15 years, so the silvertip and grey reef sharks, potato cod, morays and many smaller species are familiar with humans as an irregular food source.

Moorings allow the boat to hang in the safest spot so you dive into water that drops to almost 1000m, with 40m visibility on most days. The reef edge is an easy 20m swim. Divers gather together at 16 to 20m and when all is set, food is brought down and the action begins. The bolder whitetips come in first, followed by potato cod. Gradually grey reef sharks build up the courage to start feeding and they are closely followed by silvertips.

It is important to follow the divemaster’s instructions as they know the usual behaviour of these species. Schooling scalloped hammerheads and great hammerheads, possibly seen here seasonally when the waters cool, always bring a feeling of quiet awe.

At this site, you will always see great pelagic action including three-spot dart, dogtooth tuna, rainbow runners and mackerel, with stunning planktonic animals floating by. Snorkelling over the whole wall and nearby reeftop, with its gullies, stinging coral and great fish life, is also a buzz.

Diving nearby sites at night will let you see flashlightfish, pelagic octopus, pleurobranchs, crabs, shrimps and sleeping fish.

As part of its many diving/research expeditions, the Undersea Explorer sometimes trap a nautilus, take its details and then release it, allowing you to observe and swim with it.

 

Tip: If you have the time, experience and air, there are some large soft coral trees deep down on the western wall.

Photo tip: A 45kg dogtooth tuna was once eaten in under 90 seconds, so if you want a photograph, you’ll have to be quick!

 

5. Heron Island Bommie

 

Location: Between harbour mouth and western end of reef – buoyed

Depth range: 3-25m (10-82ft)

Access: Boat from Heron Island

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Novice

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Macro

Highlight: Staghorn coral banks and large boulder coral heads

 

Heron Island is a richly vegetated coral cay and important nesting site for green turtles, black noddy terns and wedgetailed shearwaters with a resort, research station and Marine Parks ranger base. It is serviced by helicopters (30 minutes) and high speed catamaran (2 ½ hours), from Gladstone.

There are more than 10 regularly dived sites with canyons, gullies, bommies, walls, drifts and sandy floors. The Bommie is one of the most famous dive sites in the world, as this area has been seen in almost every film, documentary or story ever made on the Great Barrier Reef, and was one of the first commercially dived sites.

It is a very reliable site with good access. Schools of hussars and sweetlip, whitetip reef sharks, moray eels and parrotfish swim against a superb backdrop of staghorn coral banks and four large (and many smaller) boulder coral heads. This is also the local cleaning station. Overhangs and several tunnels provide ideal sites for turret coral, with their brilliant yellow polyps, especially at night.

Manta and eagle rays are occasionally visitors but are hesitant to come close. Often the first divers to the site will see resting turtles at the base of the coral heads, along with wobbegong sharks.

After a giant stride entry from the boat, the mooring line takes you down to an old admiralty anchor and to the largest head at 6m. You can easily spend your whole dive here or go exploring down the sand slope and around the smaller heads.

 

Tip: Keep a good eye out into the blue to see manta rays or turtles. Also, the current can be uncomfortable on big tide runs so be careful.

Photo tip: The Bommie is a great place to photograph a cleaner wrasse inside a trout’s mouth.

 

6. Lady Elliot Island

 

Location: Outer eastern side of Lady Elliot Island

Depth range: 15-25m (49-82ft)

Access: Boat from Lady Elliot Island

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Advanced

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Macro

Highlight: Blow Hole

 

The Lady Elliot resort provides the best resort-based diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The visibility is better – although access is more difficult – than many other sites. The near-circular reef has great snorkelling over the reef top and edge, and excellent dives at Lighthouse Bommies, Anchor Bommie, Coral Gardens and Encounters.

What makes Lady Elliot’s dive site so popular is the Blow Hole, a boat entry from the mooring buoy. You drop onto a reef terrace at 15m, where a hole suddenly appears in the reef. It is only about 6m across and drops vertically into the gloom below. Formed probably by freshwater erosion during the last ice age, or wave action as the sea level rose, this great L-shaped geological feature provides a superb dive. The hole turns at a right angle at the bottom and travels for 20m before opening out into another hole about 6m wide and 3m high. This opening in the wall is an exciting dive in itself, as it rises from 25m to 15m, running off both directions away from the blow hole.

After exiting the hole at 25m, the bottom of the wall to the right offers great caves, nooks and crannies occupied by anemones, hard and soft corals, magnificent gorgonians and many fish.

Manta rays are regular here, along with a resident loggerhead turtle and visiting green turtles. Leopard sharks, moray eels and schools of pelagics make this a very enjoyable area. Other regular sightings include lionfish, wobbegong sharks and schooling blubberlips, white wrasse and banded coral shrimp provide cleaner services to the fish here.

During the summer the hole can completely fill with bait fish, attracting predators that come crashing through the masses. Feather stars, black, turret and soft corals all add colour in the tunnels. Bring a light to enhance your discoveries.

Sea state and tide conditions often restrict boat diving, but most dives can be accessed from the beach and across the reef flat.

 

Tip: Keep a regular look out into the blue as passing manta, eagle and bull rays sometimes accompany the reef sharks and turtles that are regulars here. Silver tip sharks also sometimes appear.

Photo tip: Once you’re in the Hole look up for superb silhouette shots and photo opportunities as you hit the bottom of the turn. This is definitely a wide-angle lens dive.

 

7. Flinders Reef

 

Location: Eastern wall of reef

Depth range: 1-40m+ (10-130ft+)

Access: Boat from Townsville

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Intermediate

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Micro

Highlight: Caves, caverns and swim-throughs along the Wall

 

Flinders Reef is an atoll about 37km-long and 28km-wide. It has a cay and weather tower and represents Coral Sea diving at its best. China Wall is one of the best dives on Flinders, Dart, Abington and Shark reefs, although each has its own unique features. On most of these reefs, the walls drop away to over 305m (1000ft).

Good fish diversity occurs in the shallows with emperor angelfish, clown triggerfish and schools of goatfish feeding on the sand. Bump-headed parrotfish are regularly seen with pelagic surgeons, dogtooth tuna, trevally and barracuda. The prowlers include silvertip, grey whaler and whitetip reef sharks. On a good day also expect to see lionfish and Pavo razorfish, which hover vertically by the staghorn coral.

The main coral types found here are staghorns and tabulates in addition to golf ball and brain type corals. Stinging corals are also common, with their light brownish-to-white colonies growing in bizarre shapes. Hard corals can also be seen here; however they are small, slow-growing and found in more protected grooves or on the reeftop. Softs and gorgonians are also present.

Caves, caverns and swim-throughs are all along these walls, just waiting to be explored. Many critters can be found in the wall’s crevices and overhangs, especially lace corals, sponges, small clams, nudibranchs, morays, anemones and feather stars. You may be lucky enough to see billfish here as well.

Night diving brings out more crabs, shrimps and enormous basket stars.

Sometimes manta rays and hammerhead sharks appear, along with schooling hammerheads deep in the colder water during winter.

 

Tip: Be careful of your depth at China Wall as it drops away to over 305m and into the abyss.

 

8. Hardy Reef

 

Location: Northwest corner inside channel

Depth range: 0-20+ (0-66ft+)

Access: Fantasea pontoon from Whitsunday Islands

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Novice or intermediate

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Micro and macro

Highlight: Suspended lagoon, edges and overhangs

 

Hardy Reef is a spectacular 13km-long reef with a suspended lagoon and three ‘waterfalls’ that drain it. There is an 80m-deep channel, with a few hundred metres between Hardy and its nearby reefs. Other sites provide enormous overhangs, rich fronts and tops, fascinating lagoons and edges of all sorts.

A flat decked tender (boat) from Reefworld, the Fantasea pontoon drops you up-current to the north or south, depending on the tide, at a buoy with a descent line. You drift with the tide back to the pontoon until you hit the mooring and diver ascent line. All dives are escorted and a lifeguard sits high on the end of the pontoon keeping a lookout for snorkelers and divers.

The small bommies at this site provide great surfaces for anemones and their resident clownfish. The scenery consists of both soft and hard corals, massive boulder coral heads up to 5m across, and black coral trees. These are interspersed with encrusting and staghorn corals, gorgonian fans and a host of colourful soft corals. Observant divers can find queen murex, baler and spider shells, plus pincushion seastars, flatworms and an incredible variety of nudibranchs.

Tame fish-life abounds along the wall. Mackerel and trevally compete for your attention, along with the more colourful reef fish such as butterflyfish, angelfish and clow triggerfish. Turtles are also seen on most dives.

 

Tip: This is a drift dive so preserve your energy by going along with the current instead of using your fins.

Photo tip: This is a great macro site and, on clear days, wide-angle opportunities are fantastic.

 

9. Milln Reef – Three Sisters

 

Location: NW Milln Reef – moorings

Depth range: 1-33m (3-108ft)

Access: Boat from Cairns

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Intermediate

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Micro and macro

Highlight: Gold/yellow gorgonians

 

The Three Sisters are a series of three large bommies lined up at the back of the reef, with the sites of Whale Bommie, the Desert, Petaj Mooring and Swimming Pools nearby. The deepest sister rises from about 33m off sand on the northwestern side, coming to within 1m of the surface. Closer to the reef on the easterly bearing, the other two sisters are shallower, with the innermost bommie in about 14m off a sand-and-rubble bottom.

The deepest bommie has steep sides and may have schools of fusiliers, various snappers and chub. As you head down the walls, you’ll see barracuda hanging silently in the blue. At the bottom, coral trout and cod move in and out of overhangs and crevices. A superb stand of black coral on the bommies’ deepest side is home to commensal gobies.

In good visibility, you may be able to see the second sister, about 40m to the east. As you head in its direction, you will likely see several whitetip reef sharks resting on the sand. They will lazily swim away if you approach, only to return to the same place a few minutes later.

A green turtle has made the Three Sisters its favourite haunt, and is often seen lying motionless near the surface around the second sister, where it feeds on sponges and algae. The depth at the second sister is about 19m, making it ideal for exploring around the base, where you are likely to see more sharks, blue-spotted rays and other sand dwellers.

The third sister is the highlight of this dive site. The walls between sister two and three are straight-sided and only about 3m apart, and are often crammed with schools of fusiliers and snapper, while brilliant gold or yellow gorgonians jut out from the walls like impenetrable curtains.

 

Tip: If there is little current, ideally start your first dive on the deepest bommie (Sister 1).

Photo tip: The gold/yellow gorgonians found between the walls of sister two and three make for a spectacular photographic opportunity for a wide-angle lens.

 

10. Holmes Reef – Amazing

 

Location: Holmes Reef

Depth range: 5-40m+ (16-130ft+)

Access: Moored boat only from Cairns

Snorkelling: Yes

Expertise rating: Intermediate

Best time to visit: June to November

Feature: Micro

Highlight: Swim-throughs

 

From the sheer walls and pinnacles, swim-throughs and sandy floors to the abundant life throughout the whole area, this site is truly amazing in its appearance from the surface and as you dive it.

If the whitetip reef sharks haven’t overly distracted you as you descend, you may see thousands of tiny umbrella handles’ sticking out of the sand, seemingly dancing and disappearing as you approach. Take your time and approach slowly; you’ll seldom get closer than about 4m before they vanish into their burrows.

Down the slope at 35m are two large coral outcrops called the Matterhorn, resembling mountains protruding from snow. These have glorious sea fans, soft corals, fairy basslets and cruising grey reef sharks.

Back up the slope, the reef starts at 25m and rises quickly to 10m. This wall is where awesome swim-throughs can be found. On a sunny day they have a laser show of sunbeams streaking through the holes above, so you don’t need a torch for daytime entries. Watch for several resident potato cod and spotted sweetlip schools. Banded coral shrimp also give themselves away with their long white antennae poking out of crevices.

As you finish your dive with a safety stop at the top of the mooring pinnacle, entertainment is often provided by clownfish, passing bluespot trevally and occasionally giant trevally.

Nigh diving here is easy due to the shallows and complex of gullies and swim-throughs. If you face your torch towards yourself (so the beam is hidden) you’ll see a spectacular display of flashlight fish.

 

Tip: Be careful of your depth at the Matterhorn as it drops away to 60m and into the abyss.

 

Tell us what you think. Which Great Barrier Reef diving site is your favourite?

We love to hear from you so please leave your comments below.

 

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