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Fall in love with the underwater wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef and learn about 8 iconic species that call it home.
You know you’re onto something special when Sir David Attenborough says it’s “the most magical thing you ever saw in your life”, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation exhausts superlatives when defining the Great Barrier Reef’s outstanding universal value, topping all four natural criteria to make claim to the World Heritage List.
This is the gateway to one of the most meaningful expeditions one can experience in a lifetime: a quest to encounter the Great 8.
The Great 8 are the charismatic marine species that dwell on the Great Barrier Reef. To encounter them in their native habitat is to leave an indelible impression of awe and sense of wonder.
Coral Expeditions is proud to employ two Master Reef Guides who are experts in providing the most up-to-date information about the Reef, sharing compelling stories of its extraordinary habitats, and explaining to visitors what they can do to make a difference in the future.
Read on to experience a newfound appreciation and curiosity for these characters that call the Great Barrier Reef their home as Master Reef Guide, Marysia Pawlikowska shares her insights and personal anecdotes from a lifetime at sea.
Australia’s eastern seaboard is affectionately known as the Humpback Highway. Humpback whales migrate through the region from July to November each year, making the long journey to warmer waters in which to give birth to their calves.
“They are the friendliest whales on the planet. They seek out people and are very inquisitive and sociable. Swimming with them is one of the greatest wildlife experiences you could imagine” Marysia says.
Hearing a whale song is Marysia’s favourite memory of whales and a privilege that few experience. “A whale song is the most sophisticated communication system in the animal kingdom. These sounds are ethereal vocalisations of varying frequencies. We understand their song to be primarily a mating behaviour, and females respond to the ‘latest hits’ sung by males”.
“My favourite experience was as Trip Director onboard the Coral Discoverer. I was sleeping in a crew cabin under the water line and a whale sung me to sleep. I could feel the vibrations and I still get goose bumps thinking back to the experience”
Dwarf minke whale sightings are rarer. The only predictable aggregation of the species in the world takes place near the outer Ribbon Reefs for a very short season between June to July each year. They are highly manoeuvrable and can jump from the water like a dolphin. They have been seen repeatedly circling a vessel that was cruising at 8.5 knots, and have been reported keeping pace with a vessel travelling at approximately 20 knots.
Marine turtles are often called the ancient mariners of the sea. They have been swimming in the sea for more than 150 million years, first appearing during the age of the dinosaurs. The Great Barrier Reef shelters six of the world’s seven species.
Turtles haven’t changed much in those thousands of years. They come ashore on the beach where they were hatched to lay their eggs. On the same beach, the next generation of hatchlings starts their own fight for survival as they scramble to the water’s edge and float off into the unknown. “The first thing I think of when I spot a turtle is how lucky they are to be alive,” Marysia tells us. “Only one in a thousand turtles make it to ‘turtle-hood’ as hatchlings make their ‘against-all-odds’ dash to the ocean”.
“It’s a special experience being in the water with turtles as they are very gentle, gracious creatures. You can spot sea turtles all year round from nearly any of the Barrier Reef Islands, however we see the highest activity in the warmer months when the females start migrating to lay their eggs between November to March.”
Much of the information known about marine turtles in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area comes from research conducted over the past 30 years by the Queensland Turtle Conservation project of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, and from the local knowledge of Indigenous people and fishers.
Popular mating and nesting sites can be found on Lady Elliot Island, Lady Musgrave Island, Heron Island, Green and Fitzroy Islands close to Cairns, and Bundaberg’s Mon Repos Beach.
“Sharks are the most misunderstood and heavily criticised species of the Reef marine kingdom” according to Marysia, who views them as the misjudged ‘underdog’ of the underwater community.
133 species of shark are found along the Great Barrier Reef and range from small species such as the epaulette shark to large, migratory species. On an expedition to the outer reef, you might spot a slender white-tipped reef shark slinking along the sandy ocean floor, or a grey nurse shark, fierce-looking with a gob-full of gnarly, twisted teeth, but harmless.
Spotting a reef shark will most likely challenge you, as even though they are harmless, it is still an exhilarating experience to spot one. “The grey reef and white tip sharks are just some of the sharks you can see at Osprey Reef. You can also spot silvertips, the occasional tiger shark and sometimes the rare dusky shark too. They’re here all year round as their habitat is found in clear, deep water where two currents meet” continues Marysia.
“By doing baited feeds, the sharks’ behaviour is predictable, so guests can sit and watch them come up to the platform. It’s not scary. Sharks are not dumb animals; they know the difference between food and divers” she notes. “I’ve patted a shark on the top of his head and he loved it!”
Guests have the opportunity to view tawny nurse sharks, as Expedition staff occasionally feed them pilchards from the hydraulic platform at the stern. Osprey Reef is best seen on a 7-night Outerknown Adventures of the Great Barrier Reef in 2021.
This distinctive fish has thick fleshy lips and a prominent bump on its forehead. Growing to a huge two metres in length, the Maori Wrasse are easily distinguished by their unique and striking geometric patterns that appear more colourful closer to the surface of the water.
“What’s fascinating about Maori wrasse is that they are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means that they have the ability to transition from female to male” Marysia told us. “All Maori Wrasse are born with both male and female sex organs and are referred to at this point as ‘initial phase males’ and ‘initial phase females’. In an ironic twist of fate, those fish born male will never be the dominant male. Those born female that transition into male will become ‘super-males’ and be the dominant male of the harem.”
They are visible all year round and generally spawn in October, with aggregations of 200 – 300 not uncommon. Some are super friendly and are famous for having their photo taken with divers!
Wrasse are also important to the health of the reef as they feed on the crown-of-thorns starfish, which are widely known to be a threat to the reef.
Often described as a gentle giant of the sea, the manta ray commonly inhabits a tropical and subtropical habitat zone, extending between southern NSW and the tip of Cape York, which wraps around the equator. The two species of manta, alfredi and birostris are pelagic. Alfredi stays close to home, preferring familiar coastal waters, but birostris migrates across open oceans.
With wing spans up to seven metres and the largest brain to body size ratio of any living fish, manta rays are renowned as being interactive with divers and snorkelers and for performing a fascinating mating ritual somewhat akin to an underwater conga line, when males follow and mirror a female’s every move, sometimes for days.
These enormous gentle Manta Rays can be seen from Lady Elliot Island, Heron Island and Lady Musgrave Island throughout the year.
“For me there is no more graceful sight on earth than that of a manta ray gliding through the ocean” shares Marysia. “Kneeling on the sand beneath a manta, looking up at its 3.5m wingspan, is an unforgettable memory.”
Extremely cute and popularised by the Pixar animation, spotting your own Nemo is one of the great pleasures of the reef. They are very small, and are best seen in the elegant anemones that bloom along the reef.
“Clownfish can be seen all across the Great Barrier Reef” Marysia says. “They’re around all year long because once they find an anemone to live in, they feed around their habitat and don’t move from there. If you get too close or move quickly, they will hide in the anemone and wait until you leave before popping their heads out, so move slowly in order to spot one. Never touch an anemone – although they are harmless to clownfish, they will give humans a nasty sting.”
Growing to two meters in length and weighing up to 110 kilograms, these giants of the fish world are more akin to underwater puppies thanks to their curious nature. Find them at the Ribbon Reefs, a string of 10 coral reefs stretching over 160 kilometres off Port Douglas. Cod Hole is a famous dive spot on the outer reef and the name pretty much gives it away – this is a prime location to see groups of giant potato cod.
“These groupers come up quite close and want to play. They will actually bump you! They are grey in appearance with darkish spots the shape of potatoes”, says Marysia.
Giant Clams can be found across the Great Barrier Reef with some of the best and biggest clams found in the Clam Gardens off Lizard Island in North Queensland. “The crumpled lips of the clams seem as though they smile back at you and come in the varied colours of the spectrum, and even in leopard and tiger print patterns” says Pawlikowska. “Like a human fingerprint, they say that no two clams have the same mantle pattern or colours.”
These extraordinary molluscs, which can grow to 1.5 metres in length and weigh up to 200 kilograms, feature a somewhat ordinary exterior but a stunning mantle – the flesh nestled in the interior of the shell.
Finding the Great 8 is a once in a lifetime opportunity, made uniquely accessible because you can’t see such a wide variety of special animals in many other places on the planet.
But it is more than simply ticking marine animals off a list. “Spying humpback whales during their migration to snorkelling with 200kg giant clams and everything in between is an incredible privilege that everyone should cherish” concludes Marysia. “When people seek to join the exclusive Great 8 club (those who have seen all 8 in the wild), they can’t help but bring a lot of energy and acquired knowledge towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef and our waterways. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift visitors can take home with them”.
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