Lady Elliot Island lagoon snorkelling

How to see the Great 8 in just 5 days

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Swearing into a snorkel isn’t something people do very often. Like me, you’ve probably never done it before for many logical reasons.

But when a two-metre whitetip reef shark and I did our best re-enactment of the comedy classic where two people round a corner (or coral bommie in this case) and nearly smack into one another, I indeed had my first snorkel-swear.

After I quickly squashed the fear that comes with being centimetres away from an animal pop-culture has spent decades trying to make us dread I had a moment of jubilation – this was only day one of my search for Queensland’s Great 8 of marine life and I had already seen four of the famed creatures.

Found along the Great Barrier Reef, this underwater A-Team includes whales (the captain), turtles (the loveable 2IC), manta rays (the relaxed one), clown fish (fiercely loyal sidekick), sharks (the James Bond of the group), potato cod (goofy oddball), maori wrasse (the strategic thinker) and the giant clam (the bodyguard) – not a bad movie cast!

Exploring approximately 344,000 km2 of reef searching for the Great 8 isn’t an easy feat, but with this five-day itinerary, you’ll be ticking them off your checklist quicker than I backed away from said whitetip reef shark.

Day 1

AM: It’s going to be a whaley good start

Breaching Humpback Whale Hervey Bay | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Some of the Great 8 can be tricky to find, but there’s no disputing you’ve seen the crew’s biggest member, the whale, when 30 tonnes of mammal breaches just metres away from your boat.

And when you’re searching for humpback whales, look no further than Hervey Bay.

A 50-minute flight or three-and-a-half-hour drive from Brisbane, Hervey Bay’s calm protected waters encourage whales to spend a little extra time in the region, especially on their return home from the north to rear their calves – it’s the whale capital of Australia for a very good reason.

There are a wide-range of tours that leave The Bay but Tasman Venture’s Remote Fraser Island Tour combines whale watching with some of Fraser’s lesser-known spots (more on these in a minute) and if the conditions are right, you can hop in the water and swim with these gentle giants.

Yep, you read that right, you can swim with humpback whales. In fact, you’re more ‘bait’ than anything else as you hang onto a line off the boat and if interested (you’re good bait, right? of course they’re interested), the whales swim over to check you out.

PM: Sunsets and chill

Fraser Island sunset | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Day one is undoubtedly all about the whales but it would be wrong to be a stone’s throw from the world’s largest sand island and not check it out.

One of your stops on Tasman’s Venture’s tour is the hidden and idyllic Awinya Creek – the type of place that’s so peaceful you couldn’t get mad even if you broke your paddle while kayaking (which is something I can speak of from experience).

In fact, being a little slower than usual only heightens the experience of gliding over the rarely-traversed waters into the perfectly serene quietness. Be sure to slow down (without breaking anything) and soak it all in.

Just when you think you’ve said, “ah, the serenity” more than enough times for the day a magical tinnie (that’s beer in Aussie speak) will appear in your hand before you ascend a sand dune to watch the sunset. If you’re lucky you might get one final goodbye wave from the whales as you watch from your sandy perch.

Tasman Venture will have you well fed during the day, though Coast Restaurant is the perfect place to sample the region’s finest fare while sharing whale tales over dinner once you’re back in Hervey Bay.

Day 2

Lady Elliot Island | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Trying to find a single location where you can spot all the Great 8 of marine life is hard – enter Lady Elliot Island (LEI), a coral cay off the coast of Bundaberg that the entire cast calls home.

The short plane ride from Hervey Bay is more parts scenic than it is A-B travel. This is not the plane trip to have a snooze on – keep your eyes peeled and you’re nearly guaranteed to see more whales (season dependent).

AM: What do we want? Turtles! When do we want them? Now!

Green sea turtle at Lady Elliot Island | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Before you go bolting into the nearest body of water with the same vigour as a six-year-old who’s four cups deep into a cordial bender, pause.

A little bit of planning goes a long way, so take the time to:

  • Check out the activities board near the restaurant for what’s on today and tomorrow. The reef walk in the lagoon at low tide is worth doing.
  • While you’re there make sure you remember what time Island Whispers departs. This is where you can book the snorkel safari (a must do) for the next day.
  • Head to the dive shop and book your Scuba dive or introductory lesson.

Now that’s done, you can restart your bolt to the ocean – the Great 8 are waiting for you!

PM: The east coast/west coast rivalry continues

Lady Elliot Island sunset | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

It may have nothing on the beef that sparked ’90s rap, but for every person that says the eastern lagoon is the best snorkel site at LEI, there will be another saying the deeper western side is where the marine life party’s at.

The simple answer is you’ll have plenty of time to explore both.

The eastern lagoon is tidal (check the dive shop for times) but if it is open be sure to check it out first, especially if you haven’t snorkelled for a while and would like to warm up to the task. Great 8 tip: the far-left corner of the lagoon is home to a potato cod.

I may be a little biased (probably more than a little) but the western side is snorkelling nirvana.

Picture coral ledges that drop into underwater valleys home to schools of fish, hawksbill and green turtles moving with not a care in the world and the weird but wonderful wobbegong trying their hardest to remain hidden.

This side is also where sunset drinks are held and nothing screams ‘I’m living on an island’ more than walking straight from a long ocean snorkel to enjoy a beer while watching the sun fade over the coral sea. Bliss.

Day 3

The plan for day three is pretty simple: Wake up. Snorkel. Breakfast. Snorkel. Lunch. Snorkel. Snorkel again. Dinner.

AM: Manta magic

Manta Rays - Lady Elliot Island | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

If you haven’t seen a manta ray just yet, trust me, it’s going to be the only thing on your mind, and for good reason.

With a wingspan of around three metres, swimming with a manta is akin to sharing the water with a small car, albeit with the grace of a ballerina.

Manta bommie, marked by two buoys a short swim off the western side of the island is the mantas version of a Japanese bath house – a place to hang out, get clean and socialise. Here you’ll see their ballerina-esque movements at their best as they casually glide through the water before heading to the surface for some food (don’t worry, it’s not you, their teeth-less mouths are for plankton).

PM: Sebastian was right, it’s better under the sea

Everyone’s favourite singing crab knew what he was talking about when he said, “right here on the ocean floor, such wonderful things surround you, what more is you lookin’ for?”

Strapping on tanks and going for a Scuba dive at LEI is the quickest way to spark an addiction (if you don’t have one already) to diving. It’s simply that mind-blowingly good you’ll wish you were a crab and could stay down forever.

From peering under ledges looking for giant Queensland gropers to sitting under manta rays as they glide above or getting close to the inquisitive maori wrasse; diving at Lady Elliot is many peoples’ happy place.

7PM: Back to land, earthlings

Lady Elliot Island lighthouse | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

There’s a good chance you’ve spent nearly your entire day in the water so now is probably the time to get reacquainted with boring old land.

Luckily Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort knows how to put on a spread that is perfect to enjoy while sharing stories from your day of exploring.

If you hear bingo being announced, get involved! The squares are marine life or landmarks you’ve potentially seen during your stay and the winner scores a free drink from the bar.

On your way back to your room don’t forget to look up – the stars are something special when you’re on a coral cay in the middle of the ocean.

Day 4

AM: It’s time to head north

The search for the Great 8 is as much about seeing the many diverse environments that make up the Great Barrier Reef as it is spotting the incredible creatures.

Even if by now you’ve spotted the entire Great 8 (which is highly likely) it’s important to remember that the Great Barrier Reef is a living organism roughly the same size as Italy. When you’re in Naples you’re going to eat pizza because that’s their thing, but when you travel further North to Milan you’d be crazy to not indulge in a buttery bowl of risotto.

The reef is much the same. The experiences in the south can differ to the north (although they all have ‘incredible’ in common) which is why you should jump in your car or on a plane and high-tail it to Cairns.

PM: The more you learn about marine life, the more you’ll love

Clown Anemonefish at Agincourt Reef (Port Douglas) | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Depending on your flights or driving schedule there’s a high chance you’ll arrive in the early afternoon in Cairns, giving you several hours to check out some of the city’s highlights and learn a little more about the reef.

Have you ever entered a restaurant where everything coming out of the kitchen looks amazing, the menu is perfect and before you know it, you have full-blown sensory overload? You want all the things but don’t know where to start?

The Great Barrier Reef can have the same effect. A mosaic of colourful fish and marine life, 600 species of corals and crazy little things that look like they’re out of Avatar (fun fact: the Christmas tree worms you’ll see on the reef inspired the trees in Avatar) are only just a fraction of what you’ll see.

That’s why, like before you sit down at the excellent restaurant, it pays to do some research before you begin.

Did you know if Finding Nemo was factually correct Nemo, Marlin and Coral would have been in a strange love triangle? Or that coral all around the world spawn at the exact same time – even the coral in Reef HQ in Townsville and the new Cairns Aquarium spawn in sync with corals in the ocean?

The average punter wouldn’t, which is why Reef Teach in Cairns is worth adding to your itinerary. Hosted by marine biologist Gareth Phillips, you’ll learn about the species you’re most likely to swim with, the important role they play in the eco-system and other facts that will make you sound like the modern-day Attenborough to your friends.

Day 5

7AM: Break-first, reef second

Breakfast at the Little Larder, Port Douglas | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

The Little Larder, Port Douglas

The reef awaits but if you’re going to snorkel for hours, you better have the right fuel in your body first!

If departing from Cairns, Caffiend or Bang & Grind have the feeds you need and if you’re leaving from Port Douglas look no further than The Little Larder.

Banging coffee, great vegetarian options and no judgement if you order ice cream with your waffles – what more could you want?

9AM: When size does and doesn’t matter

Maori Wrasse - Agincourt Reef (Port Douglas) | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Maori wrasse, potato cod and giant clams are the big creatures that will be high on your list coming into day five. You may have seen them already, but people aren’t lying when they say, “trust me, they’re bigger in the north.”

But the smaller guys shouldn’t be far from the top of your mind either. The Patron and General Manager of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Peter Gash, lists seeing a baby clownfish as his most memorable encounter with the Great 8.

This coming from a man who’s swam with more turtles and manta rays than most – so why did the little guy top his list?

If you’re on Silversonic, Quicksilver’s go-to tour for people who want to spend as much time under the water as possible you’ll visit three dive sites on Agincourt Reef, which change daily depending on conditions but all have similar marine life.

At our first dive site, the Point, we saw what I thought was a GIANT giant clam – cool, right? My dive buddy shook her head and did a baby cradling movement, which mind you, I had no idea at the time what she was doing, but just nodded politely.

That was until we rounded a bommie to see four proper GIANT giant clams. I’m talking big-enough-to-fit-a-human-body-into big.

Giant Clam at Agincourt Reef (Port Douglas) | Marine life bucket list: See the Great 8 in 5 days

Then we met the local maori wrasse who had a glint in his eye that said, “if I were a person I’d hold a great conversation about politics and which single-malt whiskey is the best”. There’s something about them that screams sophistication and intelligence.

They really do make them bigger in the north.

When you board the boat in the morning and you hear the crew say, “we’re going to Nursey bommie” find the nearest staff member and lock it in as one of your dive sites for the day (if you’re an introductory diver you get to dive at two of the three sites), you will not regret it!

At its deepest edge, the roughly-four-metres-in-circumference coral formation drops to 24 metres, resembling an ancient Roman concrete pillar, yet swarming with marine life.

Barracudas hover around the deepest parts, spaghetti worms stick out from all angles and drummer, several types of surgeonfish, unicornfish and pairs of foxface rabbitfish dart in and out of the corals at a pace reminiscent of Christmas Eve shoppers.

And then there’s the anemone’s – those brilliantly coloured stinging polyps that only one fish has figured out how to live with.

That’s when I saw him. No longer than 2cm long sticking close to his very protective mother. I felt all the emotions. A happy warmth filled me as I stayed fixated on the baby clownfish. In that moment I understood why this was Peter’s favourite Great 8 moment – this little guy captured me in ways I can barely describe. Size really doesn’t matter when it comes to the Great 8.

PM: Tell the marine life tale far and wide

You, my friend, have done it. You came, you saw and you conquered the Great 8. Queue the Instagram spam.

In the words of Peter Gash, “It’s a test to find them all, you have to work really hard but the sense of achievement of seeing them is extremely rewarding – you’ve just joined an exclusive club”.

And exclusive is the perfect way to put it. The Great 8 is unique because you can’t see such a wide variety of marine life anywhere else on the planet besides in Queensland waters.

If you missed out by one or two, don’t fret, it’s an excuse to come back and search one of these locations. Where will you go next in search of the Great 8?

Have you seen Queensland’s Great 8? Share your story in the comments below.