Cairns to Cairns   |   23 October 2023  – 6 November 2023

This trip diary was compiled by: Adj Assoc Prof Adam Smith, Professor Paul Hardisty, Dr Joey DiBattista, Dr Samantha Tol, Toni Massey, Joanne Stacey

Jump To: Day 1  | Day 2 | Day 3 |  Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7Day 8Day 9Day 10Day 11Day 12Day 13Day 14

Day 1: Cairns

   23 October 2023

We embarked at 1700 and the vessel departed Trinity Wharf at 1700 to begin our 14-day cruise and citizen science expedition of the Great Barrier Reef. We assembled on the Bridge Deck Lounge for a safety briefing and introduction to the crew of Coral Discoverer, as well as a briefing from Expedition Leader Ben on tomorrow’s activities. Adam Smith gave an introductory talk about the purpose of the expedition, aims and different citizen science tools guests can learn and use. He quoted Jacques Cousteau ‘The future is in the hands of those who explore’ and Sir David Attenborough ‘It is an especially loud message for Australians, who have the privilege and duty to look after this ‘ecosystem like no other’. Guest lecturers and staff will learn about and use up to nine citizen science tools and survey methods to identify species and reef health and contribute to scientific knowledge and marine park management. We enjoyed pre-dinner drinks and a tasty three-course meal which included a taste of seafood, golden snapper, chicken, and pavlova. Guests were seated on round tables of six which was an excellent configuration for getting to know each other and sharing stories of previous cruises, travel, and expectations of the trip. After dinner, we completed forms for snorkeling and SCUBA diving activities (if certified) and guests were issued with masks, snorkels, and fins.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 2: Mackay Cay

24 October 2023

The day commenced with ideal weather, presenting calm seas and crystal-clear waters as we navigated towards Mackay Cay. This location served as our initial opportunity for snorkeling along the reef and proved to be an excellent choice. Guests had the freedom to access the water from the shore, choosing their preferred depth and duration for exploration. Despite being an inshore reef, the water exhibited good visibility at approximately 10 meters with a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. Positive remarks flooded in regarding the remarkable coral cover, diverse marine life, and the abundance of fish species.

Later in the afternoon, the Coral Explorer ventured into slightly deeper waters at Mackay Reef for a vessel-based snorkeling session. Here, the water visibility extended between 10 to 15 meters, showcasing a rich tapestry of both hard and soft corals alongside numerous fish species. The expedition yielded hundreds of photographs, with guest lecturers and participants initiating uploads of their findings to iNaturalist for identification in the voyage log. By day’s end, we had contributed 31 observations spanning 29 species to the dataset.

Captain Simon graciously hosted the Captains Welcome Drinks as we set course northward toward Lizard Island. The evening meal presented delightful options such as Australian Lamb with a nut crust, paired with red and white wine. Post-dinner entertainment included a film screening of ‘David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef,’ leaving guests captivated. Additionally, guests had the opportunity to borrow underwater cameras and phone housings, capturing their inaugural underwater photographs featuring fish, clams, corals, sharks, and more.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 3: Lizard Island

 25 October 2023

Our day commenced with an early start at 5:30 am, catering to enthusiastic walkers keen on exploring Cook’s Look. This particular site holds historical significance as it marks the summit where Captain Cook ascended to survey the Great Barrier Reef, seeking a possible route for navigating the Endeavour out of the intricate maze it posed. The ascent to the summit presented a challenging mix of loose gravel paths, steps, and rocky scrambles over granite formations. Despite the difficulty, ample time allowed us to pause, catch our breath, marvel at the panoramic views, and observe the intriguing trees, shrubs, and orchids. This trek served as inspiration for gardeners, history enthusiasts, and those eager to maintain an exercise routine. At the peak, a stone cairn designates Captain Cook’s lookout point, along with a visitor’s book and a flag stored in a waterproof box. The book invites visitors to mark their presence, while the flag serves as a prop for memorable photos.

In the morning, we ventured to snorkel along the reef edge on the southern side of Watsons Bay. This area showcased low hard coral cover (5-10%) and up to 50% soft coral coverage in certain regions. Despite this, the reef boasted a plethora of colorful reef fish, notably herbivorous grazers, butterfly fish, coral trout, and a protected female Barramundi cod. Additionally, several guests were fortunate to spot a large octopus. Numerous photos were captured and added to the citizen science application, iNaturalist.

Later in the day, we revisited Watsons Beach and explored the ruins of the Watson Homestead, delving into the tragic narrative of Mary Watson, her son, her Chinese servant, and the consequences faced by the indigenous tribes. Our snorkeling adventure continued towards the Clam Garden, situated about 100 meters from the shores. En route to the gardens, many guests were surprised by the sight of multiple green turtles feeding on seagrass in shallow waters. The gardens presented a diverse landscape featuring soft coral, staghorn coral, and numerous giant clams (some reaching 1.2 meters in diameter and estimated to weigh around 150 kg). Additionally, small, vibrant burrowing clams were spotted.

Our primary citizen science activity involved CoralWatch, where guests utilized small cards to record coral health. Over 140 observations were logged, encompassing plate, boulder, branching, and soft corals. Professor Paul Hardisty delivered a presentation on the ‘State of the Reef,’ while Dr. Joey DiBattista highlighted ‘Emerging Technologies for Marine Monitoring,’ encompassing genetics and citizen science.

As the sun set, we relished canapés and drinks on the beach, fostering engaging conversations and laughter, concluding a day packed with exploration and learning. Dinner offered a delightful selection including beef tenderloin, reef fish, and cauliflower steak, accompanied by red and white wine, concluding with a scrumptious dessert of strawberry cheesecake.

By the end of day 3, a total of 132 observations spanning 89 species had been recorded by three observers and one identifier in the Citizen Science of the Great Barrier Reef Project.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 4: Lizard Island

26 October 2023

Our second day anchored off this arid, rocky island, notable as one of the initial island research stations within the Great Barrier Reef, commenced with morning snorkeling at North Point, followed by an afternoon session at MacGillivray Reef. During these excursions, our team of citizen scientists observed certain indications of coral distress – minor bleaching and some fluorescence. These findings are particularly concerning given the timing in October, as temperatures in the Great Barrier Reef typically rise throughout the summer due to heat accumulation in the ocean. Historically, coral bleaching events involving 8 or more degree heating weeks haven’t occurred until February or March. However, with the current shift of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) towards a warming phase in the Pacific, there’s reason for apprehension.

The part of MacGillivray Reef that we explored, close to the sand cay, exhibited conditions largely aligned with the AIMS October 2022 long-term monitoring report. We observed regions with notably low coral cover, featuring substantial turf algae. Conversely, some areas displayed high coral cover on the reef slope, including significant bommies dominated by tabulate Acropora table corals and Pocillopora, with minimal presence of more delicate but rapidly growing branching species like staghorn. This reef experienced its peak coral cover in 2013, dropping to a low of approximately 10% following the significant mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, which severely impacted reefs in this vicinity.

Both reefs we visited showcased a diverse array of fish species, with Adam’s midday lecture aiding many of us in refining our fish identification skills. Sharks, rays, sea cucumbers, giant sweetlips, and Maori wrasse were among the species observed. We’re anticipating information on whether our trajectory will lead us into the Coral Sea or if weather conditions will necessitate a southern route.

Throughout our exploration, several guests spotted sharks and turtles, while also observing early signs of coral stress or witnessing coral iridescence.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 5: Fitzroy Island

27 October 2023

Due to ongoing issues with the boat lift on the Coral Explorer, the Captain made the decision to reverse the original journey itinerary. Consequently, we sailed south overnight and reached Fitzroy Island early in the morning amidst scattered clouds and light winds.

The morning activities revolved around snorkeling and a visit to the turtle rescue center situated on the island. During this visit, Elizabeth encountered Charlotte, a turtle, and they shared reflections on eighty years of life on Earth. Charlotte is coping with a condition affecting her navigation abilities in open water, and the center’s staff remains hopeful for her eventual return to the ocean.

Toni’s midday lecture on marine archaeology piqued everyone’s interest for our upcoming snorkeling expedition to explore the wreck of the Foam later in the trip.

In the afternoon, those who embarked on the steep path leading to the lighthouse discovered a structure resembling a hybrid between an airport control tower and an insane asylum. Its white-tiled exterior evoked visions of a malevolent lighthouse keeper tormenting captive patients. The ascent to the summit was breathless, followed by a descent through granite pillars and windswept sheoak trees leading back to the beach. Conversely, those who chose to relax enjoyed a quieter afternoon with beer and chips at the bar.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 6: Beaver Reef and Yamacutta Reef

28 October 2023

One of the amazing things about a trip like this is the people. Everyone on board, one soon learns, has fascinating stories to tell about the things they’ve done, the places they’ve gone, the work and the challenges and the love and loss they’ve experienced. Mark and his daughter Dominique, for example, are not only a pair of fish in the water, they also love mountain-biking (fish with bicycles). Mark is a spinal surgeon, a fact doubly impressive because of his very difficult upbringing. Marie-Helene is from New Caledonia, and though a guest on this trip, she is a current employee of Coral Expeditions. After five years of service, the company provided her with this trip as a bonus. A self-described free spirit, she previously worked on the private yachts (yes, plural) of Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who previously owned the Chelsea Football Club. On this expedition, she is working very hard not to be a crew-member and enjoy herself. It’s hard, though, she says. She loves to be of service.

With the aft deck lift now out of commission, the expedition has reverted to using the ship’s three zodiacs for ship-to-shore and ship-to-site science. The morning brought rougher conditions than we have enjoyed over the past few days, with stronger southeasterlies that made landing on Beaver Reef’s small sand cay difficult. Despite this, many of the team snorkeled the reef and practiced getting into the Zodiacs from the water. That afternoon, Adam announced that the expedition had broken the 1000 observation mark in iNaturalist.

The snorkel and dive on Yamacutta Reef in the afternoon was also done from the Zodiacs, and by then most of the team had become much more comfortable with the new set-up. Scientists working on the GBR use these types of boats extensively, so the Coral Expeditions group was getting a real taste of what it’s like day-to-day doing marine science.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 7: Goolboodi (Orpheus) Island

29 October 2023

We visited the James Cook University Research Station and received a guided tour of the laboratory, aquarium, and accommodation. During our visit, we ventured out to the point and made several observations related to mangroves.

Guest lecturer Adam Smith delivered a comprehensive talk covering the history of Orpheus Island, encompassing discussions on traditional owners, exploration, squatters, leases, research endeavors, citizen science involvement, tourism, and management practices.

In the afternoon, we engaged in snorkeling activities at Yanks Jetty, previously a degaussing station utilized by American warships during World War II.

Throughout the day, we actively participated in various methods of citizen science, employing tools such as iNaturalist, CoralWatch, eDNA analysis, and Eye of the Reef.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 8: John Brewer Reef

30 October 2023

John Brewer Reef, known as the Coral Greenhouse, offers an immersive experience integrating marine science, coral cultivation, and artistry, standing as a prized gem within the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a source of immense pride for us to share a day on the reef with friends and family from our hometown of Townsville.

The opportunity to join the Coral Explorer cohort and crew for a snorkeling excursion at John Brewer Reef and to showcase the Museum of Underwater Art was beyond exhilarating. With the Explorer anchored above the Coral Greenhouse, we slipped into the water, gaining a stunning aerial view of the Greenhouse structure and its artful elements like ‘coral trees’ and young ‘gardeners.’

The marine life around the reef and art site teemed with vitality, hosting schools of circling, shimmering Giant Barracuda, graceful Longfin Batfish, and the tranquil presence of a Potato Rockcod nestled within the Greenhouse. The frenetic energy of the fish darting among the Greenhouse and nearby reef was remarkable.

Adam delivered a presentation detailing the Museum of Underwater Art’s background and its commitment to science communication, reef conservation, and local community involvement. During our time there, we collected our second eDNA sample from the Great Barrier Reef, with guests contributing by filtering and fixing the samples.

The afternoon snorkeling session was nothing short of amazing. We explored the reef’s blue holes, encountered the Ocean Sentinels, and concluded with a drift along the reef’s outer edge. The coral wall offered a shimmering view of the diverse reef ecology. Schools of fish, vibrant corals, and the occasional shark sighting made this snorkeling experience truly exhilarating.

If I were to sum up the day, ‘rapture’ would be the word. The robust health of the reef, the abundance and variety of fish, the vibrant corals, and the thought-provoking artistry culminated in a truly fantastic day.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 9: Foam Shipwreck

31 October 2023

The weather couldn’t have been more ideal for our visit to the historic shipwreck, Foam, which foundered over 130 years ago on Myrmidon Reef. Guest Lecturer Toni provided fascinating insights into the wreck as we set out at 8:30 am. With over 90% of the passengers never having experienced a historic shipwreck dive, the excitement was palpable. The ocean was calm, and the water, astonishingly crystal-clear (with 50m visibility!), offering perfect conditions for both snorkeling and diving. Toni conducted a snorkeling tour of the wreck, allowing guests to witness various shipwreck remnants including a ballast mound, winch, anchor chain, water tanks, and a few iron knees. Adding to the morning’s excitement, Adam Smith stumbled upon an anchor fluke – a previously unrecorded discovery! The anchor, nearly buried in sand, represents a significant find and will be reported to the Commonwealth to contribute to the Conservation Management Plan of Foam.

Never before has Foam attracted so many Citizen Scientists conducting such a diverse range of surveys, including Coral Watch, iNaturalist, Reef Census, and a photogrammetry (3D survey) of the site. Despite past destructive cyclones in the area, it was heartening to witness substantial healthy coral and a high abundance of fish life. Among the highlights of the site, aside from the wreck, were the impressive giant clams.

‘Foam ran aground on Myrmidon Reef in 1893 due to strong currents. It’s the only known wreck on the Great Barrier Reef of a Queensland labour vessel actively engaged in the labour trade at the time of wrecking and holds significant importance for South Sea Islanders, hence its placement within a Protected Zone.’

Post-lunch, Toni delivered an engaging presentation about the ‘secret life of the shipwreck Foam’ at the Bridge Deck Lounge. Later in the afternoon, Engineer Mark offered an insightful Engine Room Tour, followed by a Wine Tasting session by Josh, paired impeccably with canapés prepared by Chef Ruth and her team.

What a truly fantastic day it has been!

Great Barrier Reef

Day 10: Tregrosse Reef

1 November 2023

Today saw everyone embarking on a true adventure to an area in the Coral Sea that Coral Expeditions had never visited before – this was Tregrosse Reef. This large reef houses the Diamond Islets, and as there were no cays, we made use of the Zodiacs. We departed at 8:30 am with calm sea conditions and sunny weather – perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving with great visibility (40m vis) to boot. Scuba dive leader Cai was extremely impressed with the diving – especially with the giant Dogtooth tuna (apparently as big as a station wagon!) and the sharks and large fish that were spotted. The snorkeling was also outstanding with lots of healthy corals and an abundant fish life – perfect for the citizen science iNaturalist and coral watch that was undertaken on the site. The afternoon was complemented with Guest Lecturer Sam Tol who presented ‘How a lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 11: East Diamond Islet

2 November 2023

Today marked a pivotal continuation of our expedition, delving further into uncharted territories for Coral Expeditions – traversing the islands of the Coral Sea Marine Park. This marine reserve stands as Australia’s largest, sprawling across 989,836 square kilometers, hosting 34 extensive reefs, about 67 cays and islets, and encompassing approximately 15,000 square kilometers of shallow reefs. The islets and cays within this reserve serve as habitats for diverse sea bird populations, some of which breed throughout the year.

Our arrival at Tregrosse Reef in the morning initially aimed for snorkeling in the exposed reefs west of the Diamond Islets. However, inclement weather disrupted our plans, swiftly prompting us to redirect towards the Diamond Islets. We headed to West Diamond Islets, but the reef’s protection didn’t permit landing, leading us to proceed to East Diamond Islet, situated roughly 305 nautical miles (565 km) east of Cairns.

East Diamond Islet, a vegetated sand island, hosts an array of sea birds (masked boobies, brown boobies, red-footed boobies, lesser frigate birds, common noddies, and white-capped-black noddies) along with strawberry hermit crabs. It serves as a significant nesting ground for green sea turtles.

Upon our arrival at East Diamond Islet post-lunch, we were greeted by a myriad of sea birds and an expanse of tranquil, unspoiled, and remote vegetated land. Quickly, we deployed the Zodiacs to reach the shore, where we encountered numerous sea bird species up close. The area boasted many fledgling birds, fresh turtle tracks, and remarkably clear water. Several guests relished a relaxing swim and brief snorkeling session. We documented our visit in the visitor log, revealing only previous visits by Parks Australia in March 2023 and guest lecturer Samantha Tol’s trip in December 2022.

Regrettably, due to recent bleaching and storm impacts, the coral showed signs of distress, but the waters still teemed with captivating fish species. After immersing ourselves in this isolated island paradise, we returned aboard the Discoverer to freshen up and relish each other’s company. Late at night, numerous sea birds joined us, choosing the boat as a comfortable resting spot for the night.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 12: North Herald Cay

3 November 2023

In the early morning, we set course for the Herald Cays, commencing our adventure at the north cay. North Herald Cay shares similarities in appearance with East Diamond Islet, although it differs as it’s not an actual island but rather a sand cay. Sand cays, low-lying sand formations, emerge when sediment accumulates atop a reef. Over time, influenced by currents and visiting birds, vegetation takes root on the cay, transforming what was once merely a shallow reef into a vegetated island bordered by reefs. Like the Diamond Islets, the Herald Cays serve as a habitat for numerous sea birds, strawberry hermit crabs, and green sea turtle nesting sites.

As soon as possible, we dove into our private ocean pool at the back of the Discoverer, exploring a bommie located off the boat’s stern. Despite the water’s depth of 25 meters, the exceptional clarity allowed us to observe the sea floor. Some guests opted for a dive around the same bommie, leading to Marie’s discovery of a small patch of seagrass (Halophila decipiens). She collected a sample placed in the herbarium press. Following our initial snorkeling session and lunch, we headed to the island for our first visit. Toni signed the visitor log, which showed entries from two private vessels earlier in the year, but no other recent visits.

Many guests leisurely strolled around the island, captivated by the curious baby birds, capturing several moments with iNaturalist. Numerous guests engaged in snorkeling activities and participated in CoralWatch. Despite an abundance of small herbivorous fish, the coral cover remained notably sparse. After a serene swim in the shallows, absorbing the remote ambiance, we returned to the Discoverer, preparing for another day in this paradise.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 13: South-West Herald Cay, Coral Sea

4 November 2023

After a buffet-style breakfast, we disembarked from the Coral Discoverer at 8:30 AM for South-west Herald Cay. Guests enjoyed exploring the sandy cay, delving into insights about bird life, and witnessing Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) in action – whether they were coming ashore to lay eggs or engaging in activities within the surf, ensuring the continuation of the sea turtle generations. Crew Member and Dive Master Cai was amidst a multitude of boobies, observing three distinct species on the island (Brown Booby Sulaleucogaster, Masked Booby Sula dactylatra, and Red-footed Booby Sula sula).

Guest Lecturers Drs. Samantha Tol and Joseph DiBattista departed to collect water samples and set up an improvised underwater video camera to capture footage of the seafloor at specific (deeper) locations where Sam had previously recorded evidence of seagrass meadows during her research trips in the Coral Sea. Regrettably, no further evidence of seagrass meadows was found at these sites on this particular trip. A sincere thank you to everyone who assisted in processing and filtering the seawater samples for the environmental DNA (eDNA) component of the citizen science project. I anticipate sharing the biodiversity findings with everyone before Christmas, following the processing and sequencing of the samples at Wilderlab in New Zealand.

In the afternoon, several guests returned to the captivating cay, while a small group, including myself, ventured around the reef’s corner for a scuba dive along the outer reef wall. My dive partner Mari adeptly pointed out various megafauna that escaped my attention as I conducted a comprehensive reef survey and sought out the much smaller cryptofauna. During that dive, we encountered turtles, stingrays, coral banded shrimp, indications of coral polyps about to spawn, and even a 2-meter-long grey reef shark that decided to approach us during our safety stop at 5 meters depth. We offered it a warm embrace and best wishes from everyone on board.

At 5 PM, we held a Citizen Science Debrief, informing the group about the abundance of observations uploaded to iNaturalist by numerous guests, highlighting some of the more remarkable fauna spotted. Pre-dinner drinks were followed by a delightful BBQ arranged on the back deck, offering the Captain’s Table a prime view of the meal’s preparations. The Roo Loin was a definite hit, and our dining companions couldn’t stop expressing their fondness for exquisite French cheeses. We unanimously agreed that every household should possess a cheese fridge.

Great Barrier Reef

Day 14: South-West Herald Cay, Coral Sea

5 November 2023

Today, nearly all the guests had an enchanting experience. We departed from the Coral Discoverer at 07:30 and headed to South-west Herald Cay on the Coral Explorer, marking our final use of the tender and somewhat troublesome platform. Upon landing on the beach, everyone had another chance to circle the island on foot, immersing themselves among the vibrant, diverse assembly of birds that congregated on the sandy stretch. Masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) attentively tended to their fledglings, showcasing a monogamous breeding routine; witnessing the chicks in various stages of development was a rare privilege. Lesser frigatebirds gracefully soared high above our heads, with many trees and shrubs on the cay serving as sought-after nesting spots. Terns, noddies, and shearwaters (currently at sea feeding) completed the avian ensemble.

As an example of manifesting our avian counterparts, a few beachcombers were discussing the elusive tropicbirds when suddenly, one swiftly darted overhead, its slender white tail etching a line across the sky. For those less enthusiastic about birds, the shoreline offered an abundance of intriguing shells and live hermit crabs, while the shoreline was bustling with a healthy and determined Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) population ambling along the edges. Those who slipped into the water were treated to calm, crystal-clear conditions with visibility spanning 40-50 meters, exploring a protected reef teeming with coral, coralline algae, macroalgae, scattered coral rubble, and what seemed like a nursery habitat for juvenile reef fishes.

For the first time on this trip, I spotted and captured a photo of a Dwarf Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys falco). Sandra honed her underwater photography skills, and Andrew kindly pointed out what appeared to be a dozing Blackspotted Puffer (Arothron nigropunctatus). En route back to the Coral Discoverer, Crew Member Katy, also known as the ‘Bird Nerd,’ regaled us with her insights and information on the resident bird species, while flying fish danced over the water’s surface as if orchestrated. At 11:00, Expedition Leader Ben briefed the group about exciting upcoming trips with Coral Expeditions in the Bridge Deck Lounge, highlighting the benefits available to all future participants.

At 11:30, Guest Lecturer Dr. Joseph DiBattista disclosed a well-kept secret about the vessel, detailing how he had unwittingly attracted inclement weather during his field research and globetrotting escapades. Nonetheless, I can confidently say that ‘Rain Man’s’ jinx has been dispelled, as our voyage enjoyed outstanding weather overall.

Following a brief but satisfying lunch, Guest Lecturers were on hand to assist with the final push for iNaturalist uploads, coral watch data entry, and refining art pieces for display. By 15:00, the Guest Lecturer team shared a preliminary presentation outlining the activities and results, intending to present a polished version to all guests in a few weeks. Additionally, a panel discussion was held to gather feedback for planning future initiatives. At 17:00, Crew Member and Dive Master Cai treated us to a slideshow capturing the cherished memories from the past 14 days. At 17:30, Captain Simon joined us for his Farewell Drinks (thanks for the drinks, Elizabeth!), and by 18:30, we savored a sumptuous roast dinner, culminating in Bailey’s Tiramisu.

During dinner, Guest Lecturer Dr. Paul Hardisty and I brainstormed ideas for our novella ‘Murder on the Coral Sea,’ where everyone aboard becomes a suspect, harboring hidden secrets… In conclusion, what an incredible journey it has been – an engaged group of passengers and staff, collecting memories that will be cherished with family and friends, including my own.

We gathered guest surveys revealing that 75% participated in citizen science, with iNaturalist being the most popular method.

A summary of the iNaturalist citizen science observations is 3,158 observations of 555 speciesby 32 observers and 118 identifiers. The link to the project and all details is here and guests will continue to update observations until 30 November.