Exploring the Great Barrier Reef - Part 1
Heron Island, The Reef at your Doorstep
Stretching along Australia’s Queensland coast for over 1400 miles (2300 km), the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. For perspective, that is roughly the same distance as Vancouver, Canada to Tijuana, Mexico. With over 3000 coral reefs and 600 continental islands to choose from, there are endless places to explore.
At the southern extent of the reef, sitting amongst a cluster of islands referred to as the Capricorn-Bunker Group, lies the world-famous Heron Island. While the island itself is home to many natural treasures, the surrounding reef is renowned as a world class diving location. As a small coral cay, the island is surrounded by extensive reef flats that are exposed to air at low tide. Beyond the reef flat, coral walls and giant coral outcroppings extend down to the gently sloping sandy bottom.
Stepping foot on Heron Island, it wasn’t hard to guess where it gets its name from. The cacophony of birds was quite apparent from anywhere on the island. Don’t leave top-side lenses at home! For anyone wishing take part in bird photography, Heron Island is the place. Numerous species are year-round residents including eastern reef egrets, buff-banded rails, sacred kingfishers, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, and Capricorn silvereyes. Notable seasonal visitors include black noddy terns and wedge-tailed shearwaters. In the summer months, Heron Island is home to over 200,000 nesting seabirds; but that is not all.
From November to March, nesting Green and Loggerhead turtles can be seen coming up the beaches at night during high tide. Turtle hatchlings start emerging in January and continue until May. As winter approaches Humpback whales migrating through the region to their breeding grounds and can be seen from shore and heard underwater during dives.
International flights arriving into Brisbane or Sydney with connections to Gladstone via Qantas or Virgin Australia are readily available. The airport was small and easy to navigate. The city of Gladstone is an industrial port city 340 miles (550 km) north of Brisbane and serves as the getaway to Heron Island. From Gladstone the island can be reached by both boat and seaplane. For anyone prone to seasickness, it is highly recommended to opt for the seaplane as the 2-hour ferry ride can get a bit rough if the swell is up. The ferry terminal is conveniently located at Gladstone Marina. A free airport shuttle is available. Otherwise, short taxi rides provide easy access to the marina from anywhere in Gladstone.
Heron Island Resort
Heron Island Resort offers a range of accommodation options from simple rooms amongst the Pisonia forest to secluded ocean view suites. The Shearwater restaurant provides convenient island dining. While a complimentary breakfast is available at the restaurant, buffet and a la carte options were available for lunch and dinner. There was even a limited menu available at Bailey’s bar for those who wish to dine there instead of the restaurant. The Heron Island shop also had some snacks for purchase along with basic toiletries and keepsakes to take home.
The Marine Centre, located near the Turtle rooms, offers a full set of rental equipment. There were designated areas for each diver to hang up their gear to dry located around the back of the shop near the rinse tanks. There were two rinse tanks, one for regulators and masks and another for everything else. For anyone with a camera rig, I recommend using the regulator tank as that one stays a lot cleaner throughout the day. The tanks were emptied every day, but by the end of the day there can be a lot of sand at the bottom of the “everything else” tank. There are also showers across from the tanks to rinse after a day of diving.
The Reef at Your Doorstep
The great thing about being on such a small island, is that you are either already on the beach or can be within 3 minutes. In the morning before diving or just around sunset, snorkelling from the beach served as another great chance for photo opportunities. Surrounding the island, the shallow reef flats were a great place to practice split-shots. Stingrays, shovelnose rays, spotted eagle rays, black-tip reef sharks, lemon sharks and turtles can frequently be seen from shore. Many times, it’s wasn’t a matter of finding a subject, but rather which one to photograph first.
Diving Heron and Wistari Reef
All diving takes place within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a world heritage site since 1981. The southern extent of the reef has subtropical climate, with average yearly air temperatures ranging from 70°F (21°C) in the winter to 86°F (30°C) in the summer. The water temperature ranges from 66°F (19°C) to 84°F (29°C). Exposure suits typically range from 3mm in the summer to 5 or 7mm in the winter. While 70°F might sound warm to some, when the air is the same temperature as the water and there is a sea breeze, it can be quite chilly. In winter, if you get cold easily like I do, it may even be worth bringing a light windbreaker or jacket onboard to keep the chill away.
Dive sites are located 5 to 15 minutes from the dock. The resort maintains 8 divers to one Divemaster, with boat capacities of up to 20 divers. Guests were expected to set up their own gear but the crew on board were there to assist in getting everyone set-up. I quite liked this policy because it immediately showed the Divemasters which divers likely needed the most attention. As a photographer, things can get a bit tight on the boat. There was space under the seat, so this is where I stored my rig. There was no rinse tank onboard. I used a wet towel to cover the camera housing between dives, but bringing a bag that can double as a rinse tank wouldn’t be a bad idea either. With three boat dives a day and optional night dive, there were lots of underwater photo opportunities to take advantage of.
Heron Bommie is Heron island’s premier dive site. In fact, Jacques Cousteau named Heron Bommie one of his top 10 favorite dive sites in the world. The site is dominated by a number of large coral outcrops aka “bommies” which serves as a cleaning station for a variety of marine life. Depending on the current, the dive either started or ended at the main Bommie where there is a buoy. Next to the buoy there is a towering coral head reaching just a few feet below the surface down to sloping sandy bottom at about 30 ft (9 m). The deepest point of the dive is around 60 ft (18 m). While I did a number of dives at the bommie, the most memorable dive was when a large female reef manta came into the cleaning station and hovered over the bommie for a several minutes before heading off into the blue. During a typical dive, numerous reef fishes such as fusiliers, batfish, lionfish, sweetlips and coral trout can be seen hanging out around the bommies. Octopus, stingrays and turtles are also frequent finds. For macro lovers, blennies, gobies and nudibranchs are plentiful.
My favorite dive site was North Bommie. This dive site is along the north wall of the island. Again, the site is dominated by a large coral outcropping that serves as another cleaning station. This one sits a bit deeper at about 66 ft (20 m) and is covered with glass and cardinal fish. There was also a large tasselled wobbegong and a leaf scorpionfish that both had taken up temporary residence on the bommie while I was there. Other popular sighting included: turtles, stingrays, mantas and white-tip reef sharks. Occasional visitors such as humphead wrasse, grey reef sharks and even leopard sharks can be seen at this dive site. The macro life was also abundant. The bommie was home to numerous pipefishes, cleaning shrimp, nudibranchs and flatworms.
Across the channel from the southern wall of Heron reef is Wistari reef. The best dive on this reef can be reached within 5 minutes by boat. Wistari wall is a gently sloping wall down to about 66 ft (20 m). It is best done as a drift dive, but when the ride is right, it can be a great macro dive as well. Large turtles, reef sharks, eels, lionfish, coral trout and barramundi cod are just some of the wide variety of reef life that can see seen here.
While diving the southern extent of the reef, it was easy to see why the Great Barrier Reef is named one of the best diving locations in the world. Of course, after experiencing it, I wanted to see more!
Heron Island and Beyond
Heron Island is just one of many islands and reefs available to explore in the region. For a change of pace, visit Wolf Rock Dive Centre and experience a locally renowned shark dive. Located at Rainbow Beach, Queensland, three hours north of Brisbane, between Hervey Bay and the Sunshine Coast. The dive site is called Wolf Rock. This dive site offers a chance to get up close and personal with the star attraction: dozens of endangered grey nurse sharks.
If time allows, here is a short list of other must-see islands and reefs in the Capricorn-Bunker Group check out while visiting the area:
Wilson Island: a secluded, adult only safari-style tent hideaway with access to untouched reef
Lady Elliot Island: known as the “home of the manta ray” with over 700 identified manta rays seen
Lady Musgrave Island: day trips available from Bundaberg, the Town of 1770 and Gladstone