Best diving in the world: 11 must-dive sites
With 2900kms of reef stretching across 5208kms of coastline, the hardest part of planning a scuba diving holiday is picking where to go in Australia.
Depending on the season you can dive with whales, sharks, turtles, manta rays, and just about every fish species under the sun. Yeah, we know, life is hard.
Some tough choices were made to narrow this list down to 11, but we believe these sites offer the best diving in the world – all within Queensland’s borders.
SS Yongala, Townsville (Ayr)
Hailed as one of the best dives in the world year after year, this is without a doubt a dive you shouldn’t miss. The SS Yongala, a 110m steamer, capsized during a storm in 1911 and remained undiscovered for nearly half a century. These days it’s one of the largest, intact shipwrecks in the world, lying in 28 metres of water and home to a bucket list of must-see marine creatures.
On the right day, you can see manta and eagle rays, bull sharks, turtles, barracudas and a number of large pelagics. Even whale sharks have been reported to pass by during certain times of the year.
Osprey Reef, Coral Sea
This is as remote as it gets. Lying 110kms northeast of the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef, Osprey Reef rewards the daring with 40m+ visibility, jaw-dropping shark action and if the season’s right, the chance to see schooling hammerhead sharks, dogtooth tuna and other pelagic species.
Get front-row seats to the biggest shark feed on the reef at North Horn amphitheatre and watch the big boys go head to head in an epic battle for free lunch.
Cod Hole, Lizard Island
Life’s all about perspective, and looking down the food chute of a 150-kilo potato cod is something you don’t experience every day. The highlight on this site is a fish feed of giant proportions as schools of big potato cod and smaller opportunistic feeders fight for the local sashimi menu served up by your divemaster.
The fish here are used to being fed, making it a perfect spot for budding photographers to get close and personal for that postcard moment.
Steve’s Bommie, Ribbon Reefs
The pinnacle of the Great Barrier Reef’s best diving experiences can be found on the northern Ribbon Reefs, far outside the reach of the hustle n’ bustle day-excursions.
Starting at 33 metres and almost breaching the surface at 3 metres, Steve’s Bommie is a dream for macro photography and big fish spotting. Critter-lovers will find five different species of anemone-fish, pipefish, flatworms and nudibranchs and a healthy variety of hard and soft corals.
On the bigger end, barracudas, reef sharks and schools of big-eye trevally are frequently seen, and if you come between June and July, you might be lucky enough to share the water with a pod of minke whales. Remember the BBC documentary? Yep, just like that.
How to get there: Liveaboards leave Cairns marina every week for 4-7 day expeditions to the Coral Sea.
In the same way that a present isn’t complete without a ribbon, the Great Barrier Reef is perfectly packaged with ribbon reefs that run along its perimeter.
Enter Agincourt Reef, a scuba diving and snorkelling nirvana, with at least 16 different dive-strings to its reef-bow. Expect high visibility, colourful corals and a visual smorgasbord of fish all year round.
Be sure to spend time discovering The Channels, The Gardens and the Nursery Bommie to see marine life worth writing home about.
How to get there: Agincourt Reef is in the Outer Barrier Reef, accessible with Quicksilver Cruises day trip. You can choose to dive, snorkel or stay dry on their floating pontoon in the middle of the reef.
Heron Island, Gladstone
This is one of very few places on the Great Barrier Reef where you can walk off the beach and find yourself surrounded by blacktip reef sharks, turtles and the whole cast from Finding Nemo. For measure, Jacques Costeau dubbed the island’s flagship site Heron Bommie one of the ten best dives on the planet.
With more than 16 sites within 15 minutes of Heron Island, it’s a place to kick back and enjoy diving on island time. Convenience aside, the diving is excellent with manta rays, reef sharks and plenty of pelagic species making regular visits to the island’s pristine reefs.
How to get there: Ferries leave (two-hour trip) from Gladstone several times per day, or if you’re time-strapped and don’t mind splurging, a helicopter can take you across in just 30 minutes.
Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg
Another hotspot for born castaways, Lady Elliot Island is a perfect gateway to the dive sites of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. The island’s biggest claim to fame is its resident manta ray population and 30-metre visibility year-round.
When you’re fed up with mantas, take your pick among 1200 of the fish species that call these reefs home.
Bring a wide-angle lens, plenty of sunscreen and a few good books and you have the recipe for the perfect dive holiday.
HMAS Brisbane, Sunshine Coast
This 133-metre decommissioned missile destroyer was sunk on the Sunshine Coast in July 2005 to create an artificial reef for divers and snorkelers.
The hull has been cut up in numerous places to make sure you will never find yourself without an exit, making the HMAS Brisbane one of the most accessible wreck dives in the world.
Local residents include large bull and eagle rays, turtles, schools of yellow-tailed kingfish and large Queensland groupers. Look out for the octopus living in one of the pyrotechnic tubes on the ship’s deck as well. The wreck stands upright in 27 metres of water, with the deck starting at 15-18 metres.
Wolf Rock, Rainbow Beach
If you’re looking for big fish you’ve dropped in at the right place. Made up of four volcanic pinnacles rising up from 36 metres in the protected Great Sandy Marine Park, Wolf Rock is a dive to write home about.
These waters host one of the few known mating grounds for critically endangered grey nurse sharks – and eagle rays, mantas and whales make regular appearances. Giant trevally, mackerel, schools of barracuda and other pelagic species are also frequently spotted.
Flinders Reef, Brisbane
There’s more to diving Queensland’s east coast than the Great Barrier Reef. Located five kilometres north-west of Moreton Island outside Brisbane, Flinders Reef has been a badly-kept secret among local divers for years.
With more species of fish and coral than any single reef on the Great Barrier Reef, this site should be on any serious diver’s itinerary.
Local inhabitants include the usual cast of tropical fish, turtles, wobbegongs and leopard sharks. Mantas and whales are known to make seasonal stops at the reef and whaler sharks can sometimes be seen on the eastern side.
How to get there: Flinders Reef is accessed by boat from Brisbane. Contact your local dive shop for options.
North Stradbroke Island, Brisbane
Another local diving classic, North Stradbroke Island is one of the few places in Queensland where you can find consistently good surf and diving in the same spot.
The flagship sites of Shag Rock and Flat Rock are well known for their large population of leopard sharks and grey nurse sharks, and Manta Bommie offers exhilarating manta ray encounters between November and February.
Decompress in the world-class surf at Point Lookout or take a 4WD to explore the island’s uncrowded beaches.
How to get there: A ferry runs between Cleveland (Brisbane) and North Stradbroke Island every 30 minutes. Most dive sites are within an easy 10-minute boat ride from the beach.
What are your favourite scuba diving sites?
*This post was originally published in 2013 and updated in April 2019.