Mike's Australia by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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The Great Barrier Reef is clearly visible from space. It stretches for over 1500 km (1000 miles), along the tropical coast of Queensland, from Rockhampton in the south to the tip of Cape York Peninsular in the far north. It is not continuous, as the name suggests, but is made up of hundreds of individual reefs. Some are tens of kilometres across. Others are much smaller.
The reefs are living. They are built by coral animals that secrete hard shells about their soft bodies. The small creatures crowd together to form colonies and it is these that we think of when we talk about "coral". Break a piece of dead coral and you will see the small tubes where the coral animals once lived.
The corals come in a variety of shapes and colours and are home to a huge variety of iridescent fish, giant clams, conga eels, starfish, turtles, giant manta rays and other creatures ... a veritable wonderland.
You can visit the Reef as a scuba diver, snorkeler or someone who is happy to sit in a glass-bottom boat. The most southerly point is Great Keppel Island near Rockhampton. As you go northward, you will find boats taking people out from McKay, Airlie Beach, Townsville, Mission Beach, Cairns, Port Douglas and other places.
Where is the best point to see the Reef?
As a divemaster, I was often asked that question. People expected me to say Cairns or some other top tourist spot. The answer is not that simple since it depends on what you want to see.
If you are vaguely interested in the Reef and don't want to spend a lot of time or money then I would recommend a trip to one of the inshore reefs or inshore islands such as Great Keppel or Green Island (off Cairns). You won't see the Reef at its most spectacular and the water will not be as clear as further out to sea. Nevertheless, you will experience some nice coral. I rank Keppel and Green Island as good value for money.
Water clarity is important. The sea is muddy inshore and crystal clear further out. This is glaringly apparent if you fly along the coast and take a look downwards. The transition from murky to acceptable varies with the weather. In my experience, you are fairly safe if you go at least 20 nautical miles (40km) offshore.
Suppose you are a snorkeler and want to get into nice clear water. In your place, I would ask two things of the tourist boats competing for my money. Firstly, I would want to know how far out to sea they were going to take me. Some of the reefs off Cairns and Airlie Beach are too close inshore for clear water, by my reckoning. Secondly, I would want to know about safety provisions. There have been horrific tales of poor swimmers left to their own devices. A good operator will provide buoyancy jackets and/or put out lines to prevent swimmers from being swept away by the currents.
One way to see the reef is by helicopter. This way you get a superb overview. A number of companies offer site-seeing trips, from Cairns and other places.
As a diver, my most memorable experiences have been on reefs at the far outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef at the continental drop-off. To reach them you need to go on an extended tour of several days. Looking at a map of Australia, it is easy to underestimate distance. The outer edge of the Reef is about 150 km (90 miles) offshore in many places. An extended tour, calling at reefs on the way, would cover at least three times that distance.
I've made repeat trips to memorable places only to be disappointed. The Reef is a living thing. It's like a garden. Some parts are spectacular one year and dull the next. By the same token, parts that have been degraded, by storms, starfish infestations or some other cause, can come good again.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for the protection of the Reef, which has World Heritage status. The Authority's headquarters are in Townsville where it operates an impressive visitors centre featuring a large aquarium and other displays.