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Dive sites of the Southern Great Barrier visited by David Attenborough

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When the legendary British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough first visited the Great Barrier Reef in 1957, it made such an impression on him that when asked some 60 years later at the age of 89 where he would like to shoot his final documentary, well, you can guess what he said.

If, like me, you grew up with Attenborough-narrated documentaries then following in the footsteps – or in this case, the bubbles – of this great man to dive the Great Barrier Reef is like a documentary come to life.

Sir David visited the Southern Great Barrier Reef, or more precisely the Capricorn and Bunker Group of Islands, on his first trip to Australia. And for this reason, I’m on a mission to check out Heron, Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave Islands.

Famed for their marine megafauna – creatures like manta rays, turtles, whales – and big-as-a-car coral bommies (short for the Aboriginal word bombora, which means outcrop or mountain of reef), these southern ladies are true coral cay islands. They sit right on the Southern Great Barrier Reef and boast some of the best dive sites in the world, most just a 5-10-minute boat trip from shore.

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island aerial

Located 85km north-east of Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island is the only Southern Great Barrier Reef island with an airstrip so arriving on the island by air is not just the most scenic way, it’s the only way.

The comfortable resort prides itself on its eco credentials and caters to a small number of guests who come together in the communal dining room each evening to swap stories of their day’s adventures. It’s a low-key convivial environment, and within less than 24 hours it feels like I’m with a group of friends.

Lady Elliot Island is a diver’s nirvana – especially if, like me, you’re prone to seasickness. Most dive sites are just 5-10 minutes offshore by boat and visibility regularly exceeds 20 metres. Dives are generally scheduled early in the morning (so you’re back in time for breakfast) and mid-afternoon, with the experienced dive staff picking the best site from more than dozen dive spots on the day.

Lady Elliot Island's famed Manta Rays

Our first trip was to the Lighthouse Bommies – at 14 metres, this is one of the best places to see giant manta rays swimming, feeding and turning graceful acrobatics above your head.  The Lighthouse Bommies are also known as ‘cleaning stations’ – a spa for mantas, where cleaner wrasse swarm over the mantas, giving them the equivalent of a full-body loofah.

The afternoon dive took us to the Blowhole, an L-shaped cave with an opening at 14 metres that then drops down and out over a ledge for a wall dive.   This dive site is one of Lady Elliot Island’s most colourful, with giant coral, clownfish peeking out from the safety of their sea anemone homes, angelfish, jacks, and if you’re lucky, a turtle or reef shark.

There are more than a dozen dive sites around the island including Maori Wrasse Bommie, Spiders Ledge, Coral Gardens and Anchor Bommie, all of which can be found on their dive page.

Note: Lady Elliot Island abides by PADI regulations so divers must leave a 12-hour window between diving and returning home on any of the daily flights to Brisbane, Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and the Gold Coast.

Heron Island

Heron Island from above

Famous as a turtle laying and hatching spot, Heron Island has some of the best dive sites in the world, and is one of the locations Sir David chose to return to, shooting his final documentary in 2014. Getting to Heron is via a comfortable two-hour boat trip, or a fast chopper ride, from Gladstone.

You don’t have to go far to reach Heron’s top dive spots – it’s a matter of donning your gear at the dive shop, walking a few minutes to the Heron Island Jetty followed by a 5-10-minute boat trip. Keen divers can easily do two back-to-back dives a day with trips running regularly at 9am and 11am.

Heron Island schools of fish

The signature dive site is the Heron Bommie – six large coral heads that start at just five metres and follow the reef slope down to a depth of 18 metres.

Dive time flies quickly here with a parade of incredible creatures to see: colourful fish, a forest of coral, reef sharks, wobbegongs, eels peeking out from coral holes, and if you’re lucky, manta rays.

Heron is perfect for divers of all levels – the water is balmy (I only wore a shorty wetsuit), visibility is up to 20 metres, and the best sites are just off shore.

Heron has a bucket list of dive sites such as Pams Point, Gorgonia Hole, Coral Cascades, Tenements, 3 Rocks, Coral Canyons and Coral Gardens and you can read about them here.

Non-divers will also be entertained – the snorkelling is excellent and there are naturalist-guided reef walks, a visit to the Heron Island Research Centre, bird watching and turtle spotting (when in season). The food at the resort is top notch, too.

Note: Heron Island has a 24-hour dive/fly rule so you’ll need to make sure your last dive is done within this window.

 Lady Musgrave Island

Low Level View of Island

Lady Musgrave Island has more than 14 world-class dive sites. The island is part of the Capricorn Cays National Park and accommodation on the island (which is small enough to walk around in just 40 minutes) is camping-only and must be booked through Queensland’s Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing.

If you’re not keen on sleeping over, day trips (which take around 90 minutes to get to the island) leave from Bundaberg with Lady Musgrave Experience and Town of 1770 with Lady Musgrave Cruises. Both operators offer scuba experiences.

Lady Musgrave has an enormous reef lagoon, which means the diving is amazing. Dives are chosen on the day according to conditions, but the signature dive is undoubtedly The Wall – an outer wall drift dive to 18 metres which allow divers to cruise along the reef wall in the company of a range of fish, turtles, reef sharks, wrasse, and of course, the giant manta rays which call the Southern Great Barrier Reef home.

Our second dive is in the lagoon and starts with a fish feed followed by an underwater tour of the lagoon’s coral bommies.

Swimming with turtles on Lady Elliot Island

It’s no wonder the Southern Great Barrier Reef remained with Sir David Attenborough for more than 60 years as one of the most amazing places he’d been in his long career.

Whether you’re an occasional diver like me, someone with hundreds of dives under their weight belt, or even if you’ve never dived before but are interested in having a go, David Attenborough’s bubbles are waiting in the waters.

Have been diving on the Southern Great Barrier Reef? What’s your favourite dive spot?