Reef encounter

She’s a beauty — no wonder the Great Barrier Reef tops so many travellers’ bucket lists. But is the view from below as ‘great’ as it used to be? Andrew Eames takes the plunge

Bob was sitting on the upper deck of a pontoon moored to Agincourt Reef. A solitary figure, absorbed in his newspaper, he was every inch the authentic Aussie, complete with hat, shorts, and an unflinching certainty to his world view.

Our eyes met, so I remarked that it wasn’t the most peaceful place to read, on a deck awash with families in flippers launching themselves into the water in a flailing mass of arms and legs. ‘I guess not,’ he grinned.

Bob, it turned out, had recently retired after a lifetime in the unrelenting glare of Australia’s Red Centre, and he thought the green tropical north was brilliant, the Great Barrier Reef its Crown Jewels. ‘All that wonderful stuff going on down there.’ He surveyed the water proprietorially. ‘You been in?’

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Oriental sweetlips swim in the sun-pierced ocean

I had. I said I’d seen a clownfish family. That had been good. The Nemos had been doing their whole flustery house-proud thing, darting around the fronds of their anemone. And there’d been loads of giant clams, shellfish the size of fridge-freezers with velvety mantles that looked like debauched hotel double beds. ‘Plus there’s a huge grouper that hangs under the pontoon, called Susie. As big as a barn door.’

But I didn’t want to admit that I’d hoped for more. That the fish density had been thin, and the corals themselves disappointingly… well, beige. I suspected that wasn’t what Bob would have wanted to hear.

I love anything to do with the sea, so the Great Barrier Reef — one of the seven wonders of the natural world — had long been on my bucket list. This is, after all, the world’s largest living organism, visible from space, comprising 2,900 reefs, 900 islands, 300 coral cays and 1,625 species of fish, many of them in magnificently weird shapes and extraordinary colours. I’m lucky enough to have done a bit of diving — and a lot of snorkelling — in some incredible places, but to my mind the sheer scale of the GBR had always kept it a league apart. But the more I heard about its magical, myriad life forms, threatened by years of heatwaves and tropical storms, it became something I simply had to see — before I really did kick that bucket.

‘bright yellow goatfish, rising in unison like fluorescent midges out of heather’

So I’d come with a mix of hope — and fear. And to get a handle on the huge breadth of the thing I’d set myself something of a personal target: I wanted to see the Great Eight, which is the Barrier Reef’s equivalent of an African safari’s Big Five. These eight iconic, spectacular creatures have recently been selected by the Marine Park Authority as representative of the sheer diversity to be found on the Reef. They’re a mix of generic and specific, with turtles, sharks, whales and rays on the list, along with clownfish, Maori wrasse, giant clams and potato cod. I only had a few days, but was resolved to tick them off — after all, it might be my only chance.

Spending a day out on that double-decker pontoon at Agincourt was my first, and inexpensive, eyeful of the undersea. Quicksilver’s giant catamaran — seats for 400 — had gobbled up the 65km commute from the rainforest-wrapped mainland, and by the time we returned to Port Douglas in late afternoon I’d been on a discovery snorkel with a marine biologist and a ride in a semi-submersible, but I’d only got clownfish and giant clams ticked off my list. So I needed to go deeper. Literally.

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Sunset over the heritage listed Port Douglas wharf 

Next day, brandishing my PADI scuba certificate, I headed out again. I’m not an experienced diver, but fortunately there is nothing testing about the warm, aquarium-like waters of the Reef, particularly as I was buddied up with a Scottish oil-rig diver used to the ‘scuzzy’ (his word) North Sea. Jim’s eyes were like saucers as we descended among bizarrely long trumpetfish, which were taking it in turns to do headstands above the boulder coral. Below them was a shoal of finger-sized bright yellow goatfish, rising in unison out of a coral cauliflower, like fluorescent midges out of heather.

Despite this increased access, though, after two dives and one snorkel I’d only chalked up one further sighting: the Maori wrasse, a labrador-sized fish that evolution had face-painted in purple and green. A hump-headed pair had mooched nonchalantly around the coral stack, pretending to look very cerebral — the Forrest Gumps of the Barrier Reef.

With three down and five to go I needed to up my game. I was sad to leave Port Douglas, which has a laid-back, bohemian vibe, its streets lined with sweet-smelling frangipani and lavender-flowered jacaranda. It is almost exclusively a purpose-built holiday resort, with its reef-and-rainforest double act, and its main drag split between the outfitters who organise trips during the day, and the terraced restaurants and bars who fuel the trippers into the balmy night.

Cairns, 68km south, turned out to be altogether more substantial. It had history — 150 years of it, starting with a gold rush that brought dozens of different nationalities to what was then an isolated shanty town. Today there are backpackers from Europe wandering along its seafront esplanade and day-trippers off the cruise ships nibbling on crocodile satay in its boardwalk restaurants.

From here I headed offshore again, this time on a propeller aircraft that skimmed out over batik-effect spangles of turquoise and gold, streaked with rust and rimmed with silver surf. My destination was an island with history longer than Cairns, because back in 1770 Captain James Cook had landed here during a voyage that nearly ended in disaster when his boat went aground.

Lizard Island has since become a great deal more hospitable, occupied as it is on one flank by a marine research station, and on its most sheltered side by a luxurious barefoot retreat for honeymooners and CEOs. The resort’s 40 suites and villas are carefully landscaped into lawns shaded by seagrape trees and pandanus palms behind a couple of the island’s 24 white-sand beaches, where they are presided over by a sumptuous restaurant open to evening breezes soughing through the casuarina trees. Most importantly, for my purposes, it had dive boats and snorkel boats, access to special sites and stacks of local knowledge, and was prepared to assemble these assets to suit a guest’s whims. Especially a guest with a shopping list of fish to see.

‘lizard island has on its most sheltered side a luxurious barefoot retreat for honeymooners and CEOs’

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Soft, colourful corals around Lizard Island

First, the turtles. Easy: no boat required, they said, and that afternoon, biologist Ben took me over to the research station (which has been responsible for parts of Blue Planet) and pointed to the shallows. I felt like a cameraman as I slid into the water ahead of a green sea turtle grazing on the seagrass. As it sauntered past, I noted a couple of remoras, or suckerfish, on either side, so that from the rear it looked as if it was packing pistols.

Next morning, I clambered aboard one of the resort’s dive boats to head to the outer reef, with high hopes of seeing my remaining four: whales, rays, sharks and potato cod. An hour later we were at a site called the Cod Hole, having seen a minke whale unsheathe itself from the water in the distance en route. Not a particularly breathtaking sight — minkes are not large — but it was undeniably a whale, doing what whales do.

As for the potato cod, I was pleased to find them pretty much queuing up. The Lizard Island dive team has permission to feed certain fish, and we descended into the transparent waters to find a bruiser of a fish with Winston Churchill lips and big black splodges along its flanks, ready and waiting. This, apparently, was Brian, and we’d been warned not to pet him, even though he bumped into us like a friendly dog.

We’d also been warned about sharks, and it wasn’t long before the divemaster drew our attention to a sleek shape, circling half out of sight. It was a grey reef shark, being proper sharky — but more scared of us than we were of it, the divemaster said afterwards. Shortly after, a whitetip reef shark appeared, immobile on the sandy bottom. Big, but only threatening at night. 

After just 24 hours on Lizard Island I’d notched up four more of my Great Eight, although it had taken all the resources (and expense) of a far-flung, five-star resort to get them. And while my quest was nearly complete, I still felt a bit disappointed — for all the coral and fish I saw, the world’s largest reef should have so much more. 

Fortunately, there was a bonus moment yet to come on my last evening on Lizard Island, on a last-minute solo snorkel at Anchor Bay, an easy walk from my veranda. The sun disappears in a hurry here, as if it has something important to do in another hemisphere, and I hadn’t allowed myself a lot of time. But suddenly there were colours, and fish, among candelabras of flame-hued fire coral and fields of staghorn coral with fresh-growing tips of blue. I spotted an orange-spine unicornfish, a cloud of yellow-tailed fusiliers, and a titan triggerfish, seemingly unaware of the yellow lipstick smeared all over its face. And, yes. Finally a ray — a fleeting glimpse, a small one the size of a dinner plate, but the moment I caught sight of the last item on my list, I also glimpsed another form, circling. It’s one thing sharing the water with a shark when you’re with an experienced divemaster, but quite another when you’re alone and the light is noticeably dimming. I didn’t linger.

On my last morning I was up early to meet the sunrise on the top of Cook’s Look, the island’s highest point, where the captain himself had climbed in search of a way out of the reef. Today it is also the only place you can get a mobile-phone signal, so I took a selfie on the top and WhatsApped it to my family, and then watched the rising sun throw my shadow across the turquoise sea.

Almost instantly my phone buzzed back at me from the other side of the world. ‘How is the Great Barrier Reef?’ my daughter wanted to know. It was a big question, and one that needed a pithy answer — especially if I wanted to get back down in time for breakfast — so I tapped out four words that I thought summed it up: ‘Endangered, but still beautiful.’

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Credit: Andrew Eames /The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing