In search of the Great Eight

Where to find Queensland’s Great Eight

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Setting off to explore something as vast and significant as the Great Barrier Reef might seem daunting. Stretching more than 2,300 kilometres in length and taking in almost 350,000 square kilometres of pristine marine environment, it pays to have some way of structuring your trip. Enter The Great Eight.

The Great Eight is Queensland’s underwater answer to an African safari’s Big Five. It’s not only a checklist of the reef’s most stunning marine creatures but a great way to ensure you see all manner of other wonderful fish, coral and sea life along the way. Not to mention visiting some of Queensland’s friendliest towns and cities in your quest to encounter them.

1. Clownfish

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Thanks to the 2003 animated Disney film Finding Nemo, many visitors want to see a clownfish – just one of the 1,625 fish species that call the Great Barrier Reef home. That mission isn’t difficult. Because these adorable, small, orange, white and black fish have a symbiotic relationship with widespread sea anemones, they can be found along the length of the reef.

Where to see them: Wherever sea anemones are in abundance, you will see clownfish. Head to Green Island, a 45-minute catamaran ride from Cairns.

2. Giant Clams

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These extraordinary molluscs, which can grow to 1.5 metres in length and weigh up to 200 kilograms, feature a pretty ordinary exterior but a stunning mantle – the fleshy part protruding from the shell. It’s said that, like a human fingerprint, no two clams have the same mantle pattern or colours.

Where to see them: Giant clam gardens can be found along the length of the reef. One of the best is at Ribbon Reefs near Lizard Island, home to a dive site called the Clam Gardens. The giant clams of Flynn Reef, off Cairns, should be on your list, too.

3. Manta Rays

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The Great Barrier Reef is home to a variety of rays but there’s no more magnificent species to meet in the wild than a manta ray. These graceful creatures have wings spanning up to seven metres – and to have one sweep within centimetres of you before gracefully somersaulting and looping away is an unforgettable experience.

Where to see them: Lady Elliot Island, in the Southern Great Barrier Reef near Bundaberg, is known as the home of the manta ray. Mantas can also be seen near Lady Musgrave Island, which is reached from The Town of 1770.

4. Maori Wrasse

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There’s no mistaking a Maori wrasse – this distinctive fish has thick fleshy lips and such a prominent bump on its forehead that it’s sometimes known as a humphead wrasse. However, what it lacks in looks it makes up for with bucket-loads of personality. The Maori wrasse is an inquisitive fish that often approaches divers and snorkellers – don’t be surprised if you find one following you around like a faithful friend.

Where to see them: You’ll find them in abundance at Reefworld, a pontoon permanently moored at Hardy Reef in the outer reef beyond the Whitsunday Islands. Bait Reef, the closest of the Whitsundays’ outer reef locations, is home to a large Maori wrasse named Wally; Elvis is the resident at Hayman Island’s Blue Pearl Bay.

5. Potato Cod

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Potato cod The Ribbon Reefs are a string of 10 coral reefs stretching over 160 kilometres off Port Douglas. Cod Hole is a famous dive spot at The Ribbons and the name pretty much gives it away – this is a prime location to see groups of giant potato cod. This magnificent grey-brown cod species can grow to two metres in length and weigh in at 100 kilograms. They’re not only impressive in size but also extremely friendly, and will follow divers around like puppies.

Where to see them: Cod Hole, Ribbon Reefs, near Lizard Island.

6. Sharks

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There are more than 400 shark species in the world, and about 50 of them can be found along the Queensland coast. With such a diverse population, it’s possible to enjoy a variety of shark experiences, from spotting plankton-guzzling whale sharks to diving and snorkelling alongside white-tip and black-tip reef sharks, which are typically harmless to humans.

Where to see them: White-tip and black-tip reef sharks are commonly seen at Bait Reef, an outer reef beyond the Whitsunday Islands. Dive with sharks at Osprey Reef, northeast of Port Douglas. From Rainbow Beach, a three-hour-drive north of Brisbane, head to the Wolf Rock dive site, famous for grey nurse sharks. Leopard sharks also frequent these waters during warmer months.

7. Turtles

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The Great Barrier Reef is turtle central, with six of the world’s seven marine turtle species cruising through its tropical waters. Green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly sighted species here.

Where to see them: On Lady Elliot Island, the closest reef island to Brisbane, turtles are a big deal. Between November and February, green and loggerhead turtles return there to nest. On the mainland, Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, is the largest loggerhead turtle rookery in the Southern Hemisphere. Or see turtles in their ocean environment from a glass-bottom boat operating out of Bundaberg.

8. Whales

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Australia’s eastern seaboard is affectionately known as the Humpback Highway because it’s the route whales take when shuttling between their feeding and breeding grounds. From September to November, mothers use the calm, protected waters around the township of Hervey Bay to teach their newborn calves survival skills before continuing their migration. In Tropical North Queensland during winter, dwarf minke whales hang out at the Ribbon Reefs – thus creating the world’s only regular aggregation of these beautiful creatures.

Where to see them: Hervey Bay and the Gold Coast have multiple operators offering whale-watching cruises. Swim with dwarf minke whales in Tropical North Queensland or with humpback whales on the Sunshine Coast. Point Lookout at North Stradbroke Island and the headlands at Point Arkwright near Coolum on the Sunshine Coast are excellent spots for land-based watching.

Have you seen one or more of the Great Eight? Tell us about your experience!