Previously, I wrote all about Hamilton Island, an island in the Whitsunday Islands chain that is now a vacation destination. While my family and I visited here, we were able to cross a very monumental item off our bucket list – to dive the Great Barrier Reef. Since my entire family is PADI scuba certified, visiting the reef was something we all wanted to experience and we were all very anxious to see the infamous underwater sight.
With over 2,900 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef. Because it’s built up from billions of tiny coral polyps, it’s considered to be the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms! (Wikipedia.org) It was even made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, highlighting the diversity of sea life found in the coral. Even though most of the reef is protected in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, it is still being impacted by rising sea temperatures, climate change, and pollution. Nevertheless, people still visit it everyday to see its natural wonder and the creatures that call the reef home.
On Hamilton Island, we booked our Great Barrier Reef excursion through Explore. Their building/dive shop is located on Front Street, the main street on Hamilton Island. The excursion we booked included a full day of snorkeling or diving the Great Barrier Reef, morning and afternoon tea, and a buffet lunch. All gear, including wetsuits, was provided. The cost for an adult to dive was $340 AUD for the 2 tank dive trip and snorkeling costs adults $240 AUD. Click here for more information and pricing.
While at the dive shop, it was explained to me that Australia has much stricter guidelines and rules about those who can dive. Explore will only take divers who last scuba dove within the past year. Certified divers with no dives within the past year have to take one of two refresher courses offered at Explore. The refresher courses range from $60-$90 AUD. For scuba guests that are over 55, they need to bring in a physician’s note, stating that they are healthy to dive. Unfortunately, far too many people have been turned away from diving the reef, so be sure to take that refresher course!
Explore has a few different catamarans in their fleet. These boats provide a very comfortable ride for guests and are roomy since Explore keeps touring groups small. On board, there are bathrooms, fresh water showers, air conditioning, and plenty of seating. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are also sold on board.
We left the dock around 9:00 in the morning for a two hour cruise to the reef. We were specifically headed to Bait Reef, a circular reef and one of the closest reefs to Hamilton Island. Even though we toured in June (Australia’s winter), the weather was warm, sunny, and perfect.
For the divers, we gathered to have a pre-dive chat about where we would be diving, how deep, and what sea life we might see. We were then sized for all of our gear, including weight belts, wet suits, and BCDs.
What amazed us, as well as the crew, was how calm the water was. According the crew, we experienced some very unique and exceptionally calm water near the reef. Considering that we were out in the Coral Sea, part of the Pacific Ocean, it was remarkable that the water looked like glass! We were also fortunate to see a few whale flukes from humpback whales off in the distance. Hamilton Island and the surrounding waters see these migrating whales from June through September, when they travel from the Antarctic to the Whitsunday Islands to mate, socialize, and give birth.
As someone who isn’t a fan of deep water, I was relieved when I saw that the area around the reef was relatively shallow. The blue-green waters were crystal clear and calm. The reefs were visible from the surface, coloring the ocean waters. There were a few other boats in the area, but none of them were as large as ours. It seemed like Explore was the only commercial operation to have access to Bait Reef. It was nice not to be surrounded by many other boats and hoards of people in the water. It’s refreshing to see limitations on the number of people who can visit, thus keeping the reef more protected.
We divers got suited up and climbed into a zodiac type inflatable boat that carried us to the descent location. Snorkelers climbed down the stairs off the back of the boat, followed their guide, and swam off in the direction opposite of the divers. The temperature of the water was in the mid to high 70’s and being a perennially cold person, I wore two wet suits which helped me enjoy my time in the water more.
As we went under, I remember being surprised that my first impression of the reef wasn’t as I had expected. The colors weren’t as vibrant as I imagined. However, I had heard earlier that the area near Hamilton Island had been impacted by a powerful cyclone the previous year and that had affected the coral underwater, robbing the coral of some color.
We first swam at Gary’s Lagoon, swimming around some rock formations, viewing the different types of coral in the area, and bottoming out at around 60 feet. We even swam through some cracks and tunnels while searching for sea life. The visibility was somewhat hazy at times; this was partly due to the strong underwater current but it was also due to fellow divers kicking up sand in the water. Most of the coral was lacking in bright colors, but there were some with more vibrant hues dotting the reef.
We also dove Banjouras Lagoon later in the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a huge amount in sea life during our dives. Throughout the two dives, we saw some sea cucumbers, grouper, sea sponges, some box fish, surgeon fish, Humphead Maori Wrasse fish, Bicoloured Dottybacks, damselfish, clownfish, parrotfish, Needlenose Garfish, angelfish, and someone in our group was lucky (not me!) and saw a reef shark.
I honestly hoped that when I went under the water, that I would be exposed to all of the colors of the rainbow. I expected vibrant hues of red and yellow, blue and purple fish, bright sponges and colorful coral. But as I learned, the cyclones that have hit the area, have affected the coral, leaving them damaged. Not only that, the Great Barrier Reef is stressed because of the overall increase of the water temperature. When the temperature of the water increases, this stresses the coral, which affects its color.
It turns out that in the area of Bait Reef, where I dove, 74% of the corals there have been slightly impacted by bleaching. (“partially bleached,” green area in image) Areas to the north of Hamilton Island have been hit harder and are experiencing even harsher bleaching events. The following image shows the area most affected by coral bleaching.
Nevertheless, we still saw some beautiful sights, like clown fish in an anemone and a giant blue clam, both pictured below.
The most fish that we saw at once were the fish that swam up to and under our boat. The crew of our vessel threw out some fish food and some very large fish swam up. I think these fish were used to being fed! The photos below are of the fish that came to feed.
When our dives were complete and snorkelers and divers were back on the boat, we started our return trip back to Hamilton Island. During this time, we had realized that the tide had gone out and impacted the reef. Some of Bait Reef was exposed! It was surprising to see how much of the coral was ABOVE the sea line and exposed to the air. You can see the coral poking out in the photos below.
Overall, we had a great time in the water. We were also impressed with Explore and our crew on board. As it goes with diving, you don’t always get ideal visibility or see a lot of sea life. It was just unsettling to me that there weren’t a lot of vibrant colors at Bait Reef. However, as climate change continues, the seas get warmer, and pollution increases, this may become our new norm. Here’s hoping it doesn’t.