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Great Barrier Reef encounter

by Denise Bray

Reproduced from in focus 20. Feb. 1987

The Great Barrier Reef is a long way to go for a dive. Situated along the north-east coast of Australia, is is in the region of thirteen thousand miles from England. The Reef itself is said to be the eighth wonder of the world and is the largest living structure, covering an area of twelve hundred miles, beginning way up north at Cape York and reaching as far south as Brisbane. The Reef reaches out nearly to Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific Ocean. It consists of countless lovely reefs and cays with beautiful, peaceful lagoons where fifty miles out at spa you can live in tranquility aboard a luxurious motor boat, diving when and where you please. The Reef is virtually untouched since Captain James Cook sailed the Endeavour along the then unknown east coast of Australia. Almost totally lacking commercialism, the reef can be difficult to reach for the average visiting diver, but with a bit of determination and a lot of good fortune your dreams can be realised, giving you the diving holiday of a life-time in the true paradise of the South Pacific Ocean and Coral Sea.

Our journey to paradise started on February 10th, 1982, when the British Caledonian DC1O took off from Gatwick airport en route to Hong Kong. Nineteen hours later, after a stop in Dubai, it touched down at Kai Tak airport, Three days and a lot of jet-lag later, we set off to Sydney with Cathay Pacific Airways, via Melbourne, which took another nine flying hours. For the following six weeks we toured around Australia staying firstly in Adelaide (where the diving in the Gulf of St. Vincent was very similar to England), then Brisbane and finally further north of Queensland on the Whitsunday coast. The airport of Proserpine was one of the smallest I have ever seen! This is where our Barrier Reef Encounter began.


We were collected from the airport by a friend of a friend who is a partner of a diving establishment called Fathom Divers. Fathom had arranged our accomodation and also drawn up a flexible dive programme for our twelve-day stay in the Whitsunday Islands. We were taken to Canonvale, a small resort area about three miles from the coast, to 6, camping site where we were booked into a six berth caravan. After a quick change into a pair of shorts (too hot and humid for anything else) we were taken to the coast for a look round Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour, which is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef. On the sheltered side of the outer reef, near the coast, the sea is studded with islands, mostly uninhabited but with a number developed for tourists, The Vhitsunday's include seventy-four of these tropical islands and it is from Shute Harbour on the mainland that. pleasure boats and dive boats leave each day for cruises in the Vhitsunday Passage, offering you life of leisure - swimming, sunbathing and diving.

We did some of our diving around the Whitsunday's, all of the islands being fringed with reef's and coral bommies, so there is no problem in finding a dive site. Our first dive was off one of the nearest islands called South Molle. Here we found five coral bommies in about 25 feet of water. Afterwards we took the cylinders for refill and waited at the resort of South Molle, taking in the beautiful sunshine, The next dive was a half-hour sea cruise away to Hayman Island, one of the largest in the group. By the time we reached it the tide was turning and part of the reef war. exposed, again giving no problems in finding it. In Australia, coral growths can be seen and admired but some species can be deadly, so it was lucky for us that we had wet suits with us (although you don't need them for warmth). The anemonies were extremely lovely, amazing purples, whites, blues and greens wafting their tentacles, almost luring us nearer. Cameras clicked constantly and on reflection it was difficult to tell which was better - above or below the surface. We returned that evening to Shute Harbour on the mainland and finished a wonderful day in the local pub at Airlie Beach. That night happened to be highlight of the week - the toad races! Unfortunately our toad camp lost in its heat.

In the days that followed we carried out further dives in the Whitsunday's at various different sites including Hook and Daydream Islands and confirmed the myth that this is truly paradise. However, better was yet to come and later that week we found ourselves booking a trip with Air Whitsunday on their amphibious aircraft to the outer Barrier Reef, where we stayed for three days in the company of our English friend from Adelaide, Richard Hutchins, and a diver from New Zealand. This proved to be an experience I can recommmend to anyone who ever has the chance to fly on a sea plane. We boarded the Lake Buchaneer, a small craft which takes three passengers and the pilot and very little luggage, at the Vhitsunday airstrip. As we bounced along the grassy runway I hoped and prayed that we'd reach the final take-off speed without aborting due to the weight of our diving/camera Sear. We made it O.K. and flaw into the sky over Shute Harbour. We had thrty minutes to enjoy the panoramic view of the Whitsunday Passage and outer Barrier Reef from about two thousand feet. I lost count of how many shots I took with my camera as I viewed with amazement the eighth wonder of the world.


We passed the dreamy Whitsunday Islands and outward to Hardy Lagoon where we were to meet the beautiful vessel Reef Encounter our home for three nights. It was low tide as we looked down on a magnificent sea with its aquamarine lagoons and deep sapphire depths beyond the reef. Encrusted with living coral, the reefs looked like giant stepping stones sticking out of the water, appearing to get larger as we descended. In a few seconds there was a bump, we had landed on the water like a speed boat making a record attempt. We came to a halt in Hardy Lagoon and the pilot got out an oar and paddled the plane towards the waiting tender. A few minutes later another sea-plane landed followed by another until five in the fleet were on the water, carrying mostly reef-walkers.

Once aboard the Reef Encounter, we were allocated our cabins, which were just as plush as the rest of the boat. She is a 75' schooner with a sleeping capacity of 15, including 3 or 4 crew. The four of us were lucky in being the only guests on board for the three days, so it was entirely up to us how much diving we did. Beef Encounter is permanently moored out on the reef, except during a refit or if cyclones threaten, and is serviced by a similar schooner called Torres Herald, which makes weekly trips to the reef.

Soon we were itching to get wet and persuaded Geoff, the skipper, to arrange a dive for us. Kitting up was easy and we were soon on our way. We went out into the channel between Hook and Hardy's Lagoon and had a magnificent dive, although the visibility was not as good as the Red Sea. We put it down to the fact that the rainy season was just starting and we'd had a few N. E. winds. Nothing, however, could detract from the beauty of the reef with its plant and coral life, Among more than 300 species of coral, linger great shoals of fish bejewelling the magnificence of their own setting. Angels, clowns, groupers, sharks and many more watch as divers pass - a photographer's dream! The dives that followed took us to other sites including the Pinnacle, the outer Reef wall of both Hook and Hardy Lagoons , which were sheer drop-offs to the bottom of the Coral Sea, and several dives and snorkels within the lagoon, We also went reef walking, an experience in itself, where we were able to walk along the reef at low tide gazing at the beautiful purples, mauves, greens and blues of the coral life, fifty miles out to sea with no land in sight!


The worse part of our Reef Encounter was leaving it behind as we clambered aboard the amphibian once again for our return flight through the Whitsunday Passage, still as beautiful and tranquil as on our outward flight. Tomorrow was the start of our long Journey back to England. After a quick shower and change (so far we'd only worn swim suits throughout our stay in the Whitsundays), we were ready to celebrate our last night in true diver-style in one of Airlie Beach's few restaurants. We each had a superb steak, baked potato and salad plus several litres of wine, which didn't cost a fortune. All too soon it was time to catch the flight back to Sydney. We said our goodbyes and boarded the Ansett jet for our three hour flight to Adelaide. As the wheels lifted off the runway, we wondered If we'd ever return again to the tropical wonderland of north Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef.

Editor's Note

Since Denise wrote this article four years ago, she and her husband Bob have become the proud parents of two, Gemma now nearly two years old her baby brother Ian, who arrived just three days before Christmas. Our congratulations to you both.

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