Exploring the Great Barrier Reef - Part 2
Lizard Island, Luxury Access to the Outer Reef
Located 150 miles north of Cairns off of the Queensland coast lies Lizard Island, home to the northernmost island resort on the Great Barrier Reef and the world-leading Australia Museum Coral Research Station. An exclusive luxury resort, Lizard Island Resort has access to over 1000 hectares of National Park and 24 private beaches. With both inner and outer reef experiences, Lizard Island and the surrounding area showcases the true beauty of the northern Great Barrier Reef.
Accessible only by plane, flying from Cairns to Lizard Island is a treat unto itself. The flight offers spectacular views of the reef and Queensland coast. Allowing you to truly appreciate the size and grandeur of the reef. As these are small planes with limited space, guests are limited to 55 lbs (25 kg) of baggage, so as an underwater photographer it is important to pack accordingly. At request, you may be able to bring more luggage, however it may have to come on a separate cargo plane. Lizard Island Resort The resort itself is a true escape with 40 luxury suites and villas. Most amenities and activities are included with your stay such as complimentary gourmet dining, unlimited drinks, motorized dinghy use, snorkel gear, beach drop offs and much more. From a private picnic lunch at one of twenty-four private beaches to a guided hike up to Cooks Look to take in spectacular panoramic ocean views, this island paradise caters not only to divers and nature lovers but to those seeking a secluded romantic getaway.
Inner and Outer Reef Diving
The outer reefs are between a 60 to 90-minute boat ride from Lizard Island. This northern section of the Great Barrier Reef is prone to frequent high-winds, so the crossing can be slow when it gets bumpy. However, Serrenidae, a 54ft (16m) custom fit diving vessel makes the trip to and from the outer reefs as comfortable as possible. A smaller, transfer boat will pick everyone up at the beach and drive out to Serrenidae, moored nearby in the shallow bay. All of the dive gear is set up by the crew prior to the guests’ arrival. There is plenty of storage space on the boat and a rinse tank can easily be set up at request. While we were there, there were not many photographers onboard so there was plenty of areas to choose from to keep your camera gear. During the trip, make sure to join the captain upstairs in the cockpit. Only a limited number of guests are allowed up at a time, but the view is great for dolphin and whale watching.
On arrival, there is a thorough dive briefing from the dive guides on what to expect before splitting off into groups. Of all the dive sites accessible from Lizard Island, the Cod Hole is the star attraction. Named for the resident population of huge - but friendly - Potato Cod (a species of a grouper), the Cod Hole is a truly unique experience. Located on Ribbon Reef #10, the Cod Hole is a shallow, sheltered coral plateau sitting in a channel on the northern tip of the reef. The Ribbon Reefs are a chain of ten unique reefs, running #1 through #10, South to North. These extraordinary environments sit on the “outer reef” – the easternmost parts of the Great Barrier Reef that directly faces open ocean – a series of spectacular coral walls, descending down thousands of feet. These long, narrow reef systems are separated by deep channels and the Cod Hole sits on a sheltered coral flat, just inside the channel from the drop off. In the past, this dive site was a vibrant coral garden but due to sustained pressure from cyclones and coral bleaching, it has been heavily damaged. The site remains a diverse ecosystem, but to see the extraordinary corals the Great Barrier Reef is famous for, you have to dive the outer walls.
The moment we entered the water, it is apparent where the site gets its name from. The resident Potato Cod, some reaching 5 feet, are extremely friendly. The portion of the dive was spent admiring these gentle giants at around 30 feet. It is common practice to feed the groupers, so they tended to follow us around, expecting a treat. The groupers are not the only attraction, sharks are common too. We had to the pleasure of seeing white-tip and grey reef sharks. While the reef sharks are frequent sights, on rare occasions bull sharks, tiger sharks, great hammerheads and even manta rays have been spotted here.
While the outer reef may be the highlight of the trip, the outer reef isn’t the only diving on offer around Lizard Island, there are many ‘inner reef’ sites too. The inner reef are the areas of the Great Barrier Reef situated in-between mainland Australia and the outer reef. These ecosystems are very different from the outer reef, lacking access to open ocean. Intricate systems of shallow reef flats, coral outcrops, sandy fields and wide-open lagoons are common environments. Cobia Hole, a coral pinnacle sitting in 60ft (18m) of water, is only 5 minutes from the resort. This spot is famed for the sightings of Cobia that used to be quite common. It has been many years since Cobia can be found hanging but this site is still worthwhile due to abundance of schooling fish, stingrays and macro critters, so both macro and wide angle are options here.
The dive begins on a descent line as surface currents can be unpredictable around Cobia Hole. We were surrounded by schools of trevally as we headed down. At around 60ft (18m) starts a sandy bottom, littered with small coral outcrops. Various species of anemone fish, octopus, scorpion fish, nudibranchs, shrimp, eels and lionfish can be found amongst the reef so make sure you search in cracks and crevices. The dive was spent circling the around the outcropping searching for critters, coming up shallower on each loop. Cobia Hole is an excellent night dive with many weird and wonderful creatures to see. Sleeping turtles, tawny nurse sharks, cuttlefish, giant hermit crabs, Spanish dancers and even blue-ring octopus can be spotted here.
Due to remoteness of the ribbon reefs are only accessible to Lizard island guests and liveaboard boats. If a resort-based holiday is not your style, we recommend checking out the numerous liveaboards departing from Cairns that run multi-day outer reef and even further afield reef destinations. The world-renown Osprey Reef, a submerged atoll 217 miles (350km) from Cairns, is the absolute jewel of the Coral Sea Marine Park. Out past the continental self, Osprey Reef offers plummeting drop-offs covered in large soft corals and a chance to dive with a variety sharks and pelagics.