Australia is synonymous with the Great Barrier Reef to me, I remember as a child watching TV documentaries showing incredible images of the reef and being amazed by this alien world underwater. I learned to dive when I volunteered in a conservation program in Indonesia in 2010 so I was primed to go diving in Australia I just needed to find a way for Elliot to join in.
On our way up the east coast we stopped in Byron Bay where there was a really cool vibe (and lots of veggie food!). We had always planned to do a surf lesson here but it was only when we got to Byron we realised that you could also snorkel or dive nearby at Julian Rocks. We decided to go snorkelling instead because Julian Rocks had been voted the best place to snorkel in all of Australia outside the Great Barrier Reef, it was also affordable and there were still spaces available with Byron Bay Dive Centre.
We arrived at the beach with the rest of our small snorkelling group ready to go in our borrowed wetsuits and helped with pushing the boat out against the waves before jumping in and making the short but bumpy transfer to the site.
As soon as we were in the water we could see lots of colourful fish, some in shoals some on their own, all different sizes and colour variations! This has to be my favourite thing about tropical diving- the sheer diversity of colours and markings. It is so beautiful and quite unexpected when you are dunking yourself into a strange environment underwater.
Leopard sharks were also everywhere beneath us- these sharks are harmless to humans and were a total pleasure to watch gliding along beside one another under our feet.
We were over the moon when we all as a group started to see something a little way off in the water which looked pretty big and distinctive. I can only describe it as a flapping motion although although that doesn’t sound graceful enough to describe this gentle ocean giant.
It was amazing to watch this huge animal cruise with ease through the water.
We carried on snorkelling around the rocks- at one point I couldn’t keep up with how many leopard sharks there were below us! Its so fascinating to see how disinterested a lot of the marine life is with people bobbing about above them.
As our hour on the water was coming to an end we started snorkeling back towards the boat when we came across a Green Turtle coming up for breath- they are just so awesome to watch.
Everyone happily stayed far enough back to let this turtle breathe properly and dive in its own time.
We really enjoyed our time snorkeling at Byron Bay and it left us wanting to see more marine life and looking forward for what was to come. Finishing our Australia trip in Cairns meant that we were tantalizingly close to the Great Barrier Reef- in fact we booked a boat before we even made it there!
We spent a lot of time searching our dive boat options on the internet and decided to go with the dive boat Calypso out of Port Douglas and a cheaper boat Reef Experience from Cairns in our final few days. Both boats had options for “Try Dives” which meant Elliot would learn some basic diving skills and be accompanied by an instructor but it allowed us to dive and explore the reef together. We did four dives overall, three with Calypso at separate sites in the Agincourt Ribbon Reef system and one with Reef Experience at Saxon Reef. It was incredible.
Just after this video as we came off the rope and started to dive and maintain our own buoyancy we got a short glimpse of a Blacktip Reef Shark. I’m not great at ID’ing marine species but these are pretty straightforward- we just wish we could have gotten a longer look at it.
Being 10 metres underwater among thousands of fish doesn’t sound peaceful but exploring the reef is actually incredibly relaxing.
Anyone familiar with Finding Nemo would recognise the beautiful Clownfish which were quickly pointed out to us by the dive masters. These fish are certainly charismatic, often seen darting around and protecting their territory from others.
In between dives both boats provided lunch and Calypso gave us plenty of time to snorkel on the reefs shallowest areas that you couldn’t explore while diving.
The actual corals that the reef comprises of are incredibly beautiful and just as awesome to look at as the fish and turtles. Sadly, Reef’s are being destroyed by coral bleaching where the zooxanthellae in the coral dies as a result of climate change, pollution and ocean acidification. The bleached coral is clear to see on the reef as the bright colours are lost and we saw quite a bit of it during our dives.
On our second dive out of Cairns we weren’t too impressed with the experience that was offered- the boat was pretty overcrowded and we were essentially dragged through the water by the dive master as no time was taken to understand our diving ability. However, on this short dive we were lucky enough to see a Cuttlefish- for me that made the whole thing worthwhile.
Because of the diving experience in the morning we opted to spend the afternoon snorkeling the Saxon reef rather than dive again. At one point Elliot started waving frantically underwater I initially thought he was struggling only to find him following another Green Sea Turtle! This one was a bit bigger.
The snorkelling on Saxon Reef was pretty epic- there just seemed to be a high diversity of marine life in this area. Maybe we just got lucky that day?
When heading back toward the boat we spotted a Whitetip Reef Shark in the distance which promptly swam away from us. The way this shark completely avoided us reminded me of how reluctant to interact with people most sharks are and they have far more to fear from people than we do from them.
If you ever get the chance to do some diving or snorkeling in Australia- DO IT!
If you do then here are some tips hopefully you’ll find helpful;
1.) If you are set on diving rather than snorkelling, then consider getting your PADI open water qualification before going. Although you can do the ‘Try Dive’ options like we did for Elliot they are more expensive and you are in bigger groups which restricts where you can go once down there and how long you dive for. There are PADI centres all over the UK and Elliot has recently became Open Water qualified in the Firth of the Forth with Divebunker. It cost a bit and takes some time to get qualified but it would make your diving experience abroad that little bit more amazing as you are less dependant on dive masters and capable of diving deeper with better technique.
2.) Don’t skimp on your dive boat! The Calypso boat was quite a bit more expensive than Reef Experience but it was far more enjoyable. The crew were much more professional (which is hugely important) and the boat was much nicer in terms of cleanliness, comfort and equipment quality. Also there was nowhere near the same number of people on Calypso meaning more time with the dive masters and longer dives. If you only have one opportunity to dive here- spend that bit extra and make it a trip to remember for a lifetime.
3.) Consider other options. If you are qualified, you can chose to go on a liveaboard trip where you stay on a boat out on the reef for multiple nights and do 2 to 3 dives a day at different locations which is something we would seriously consider if we can go back. If you are not qualified there are some week long courses where you can become Open Water qualified which you should consider. We would also love to dive around the Julian Rocks as the place was very different to the reef but had just as much life around it.
4.) When diving with a camera or GoPro- take a red filter. In tropical water you lose the red spectrum of light very quickly and all your photos become covered in a blue haze. The filter helps to restore the red colour and makes for better photos and videos. You can see the difference above, the green turtle in the Great Barrier Reef is with a red filter and most of the other photos and videos aren’t. Alternatively and a bit more professionally you can also buy set ups for digital camera and GoPro that come with their own strobe lights. These are a lot more expensive but give you a better image. If you want to learn a bit more about underwater photography check out www.uwphotographyguide.com they have a series of articles teaching you the basics and constantly review places to dive and equipment, well worth a look if you want to take photos to remember.
Hopefully we can do more underwater posts in the future- Scotland has a new snorkeling trail we are hoping to explore in the near future!
Kirsten & Elliot.