The diversity of scuba diving in Australia is amazing. This beautiful continent offers something for every taste and sense of adventure. Be it the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast or Great White Shark diving in South Australia or Rowley Shoals and Ningaloo Reef in the West, or the remote Christmas and Cocos Keeling islands which are part of Australia too. There is a lot to be explored Down Under! Here a brief overview wher to best dive Australia.
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing on earth that can be seen from outer space! It is the biggest natural construction in the world, stretching out over a length of 2000 km (1250 miles) and it covers an area as large as Great Britain. The Great Barrier Reef is a long chain of many single reefs.
More than 2900 single reefs and 900 islands are home to 400 different kinds of soft and hard corals, more than 4000 different kinds of snails and mussels, thousands of sponges, worms, crustaceans and many other creatures. The diversity of these reefs is the basis for approximately 1500 different kinds of tropical fish. All these creatures together make the Great Barrier Reef one of the most interesting places in the world for a dive vacation.
Diving on the Great Barrier Reef - East Coast
The Australian Great Barrier Reef (GBR) on average is about 50 km (30 miles) away from the coast, too far for diving or snorkeling off the beach. You need to get on a solid boat first to get to the reef and in general, liveaboard diving is the best option to explore the scuba diving on Australia'sa Great Barrier Reef.
Best dive regions Great Barrier Reef and beyond - East Coast
This information is based on our personal experiences and recommendations covering more than 2000 km of reef. In the following you find descriptions of areas which are visited by various dive operators and are worth diving! Whether you are a beginner or experienced diver, the GBR has something to offer for everyone.
The only way to dive Australia’s best reefs on the East Coast, the Ribbon Reefs and the Coral Sea, is to board a liveaboard dive vessel. Both destinations are combined on most excursions which make for a perfect excursion. You will stay out at sea for 4 to 7 nights to dive these fantastic dive sites. Some liveaboards offer also shorter excursions to visit solely the Ribbon Reefs. You can get there already with a short 3 night trip.
The Ribbon Reefs are a chain of 10 reefs, which from the air look like ribbons. They start 65-100 kilometers (40-60 miles) north of Cairns and Port Douglas and stretch all the way to the Cod Hole near Lizard Island. They are accessed all year round by liveaboard vessels from Cairns. The Ribbon Reefs offer a great variety of diving with beautiful coral gardens and rich tropical fish life. At the northern tip of those reefs you find the Cod Hole with its giant Potato Cods, one of the most famous dive sites in Australia. Pixie Pinnacle, Steve’s Bommie and Lighthouse Bommie are other signature dive sites of the Ribbon Reefs.
NORTHERN CORAL SEA:
Beyond the continental shelf to the north-east of Cairns in the open Pacific Ocean (Coral Sea) are some isolated reef systems. These reefs lie beyond the Great Barrier Reef, they are located over 300 kilometres (180 miles) away from Cairns - beyond the reach of any day boats but accessible by liveaboard dive vessels. You find small coral atolls and pristine reefs which offer fascinating, remote diving. This is shark and big fish territory! The diving is well worth the long overnight trip of 12 to 18 hours to get there. Enjoy the crystal clear water, steep drop offs, and pelagic fish in the Coral Sea! This is the best place in Australia to see many sharks in one spot.
Large soft corals and gorgonians are also typical for this area. Mostly visited is Osprey Reef with North Horn and South Horn as the two spectacular big fish dives sites. Holmes and Bougainville Reefs are visited rarely on the Osprey Reef schedules.
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF CLOSER TO CAIRNS
This is the area of the GBR that is closest to the Queensland coast. The reefs are located around 35 - 65 km (20 to 40 miles) off the coast from Cairns or Port Douglas (90-120 minutes by boat). Because of easy access and closeness to tourist centres you find bigger numbers of divers here than anywhere else. The liveaboard vessels operating here have mostly learn-to-dive students and some certified divers on board. The visibility is not as good as at the reefs further away with very little pelagic life. Lots of colourful small and medium size tropical fish dominate the reefs, and if you are lucky, you may even see a whitetip reef shark. It is good diving, particularly for beginners and people on small budgets that haven’t experienced a lot of tropical diving yet. Those trips are also suitable for experienced divers with little time. Names of popular reefs visited from Cairns: Milne, Flynn, Norman, Saxon and Hastings Reefs.
Southern Great Barrier Reef:
This is the largest section of the Great Barrier Reef. It is further away from the mainland and good dive sites are fewer and more difficult to access. Heron Island (via Gladstone) and Lady Elliot Island (via Bundaberg) offer the best accessible dive sites in this area. The Whitsunday Islands are a very popular tourist destination. Diving is offered but compared to the diving further north we'd rather recommend the fantastic sailing cruises around the islands.
JUNE AND JULY - MINKE WHALES:
During our southern winter months dwarf minke whales and humpback whales migrate through the waters of the Ribbon Reefs. The minke whales are very keen to check out snorkelers and divers, so the chances for a close encounter are very good! Peak sightings of the minke whales are in June/ July each year. The dwarf minke whale belongs to the family of baleen whales and it is known as a curious creature. They grow to 7-10 metres (23-33 ft) and for some unknown reason they seem to like people! They are playful creatures, known for their acrobatic stunts. Often whales will stay with dive vessels for hours and guests can snorkel with them. To protect the whales from harassments, only a few dive operations are trained and hold a licence to let their guests snorkel with these whales. They offer special minke whale excursions during the season. The success rates of sightings during those trips are very high. A personal in water encounter with a minke whale is a life experience, you'll never forget.
NOVEMBER - CORAL SPAWNING:
Coral Spawning is often called "Sex on the reef" - That's what it is! Every year it is happening again. The majority of corals release their eggs and sperm at the same time. If you are lucky to hit the right night, you can really see it during night dives! The date is usually 4 nights after the first full moon in November or in December. It is an impressive event and night dives are spectacular. A lot of critters are active, as this is a feast! The Coral Spawning initiates a food chain, which brings about large amounts of zooplankton. When these little animals are in the water in big numbers, chances are very good that whale sharks, giant manta rays and Brydes whales will come close to the reefs to feed.
Great White Shark – South Australia
To see a Great White Shark in the wild is absolutely grand and rare, but to come face to face with one underwater is one of the most exciting experiences available to divers today! Come and "hunt with cameras" the world's best known and most feared shark - The Great White Shark. 40 km (25 miles) off the South Australian coast are the Neptune Islands, a favourite hunting ground of the white shark. The clear, blue, but cold water 14° to 19°C (57°-66° F) provides optimal conditions for the observation of this gracious predator.
The 3-5 night excursions depart Port Lincoln, South Australia, and cruise through the scenic islands of Spencer Gulf and out to the Neptune islands in the clear blue Southern Ocean. These islands are the breeding grounds for thousands of New Zealand Fur Seals and the rare Australian Sea Lion- a natural feeding ground for the Great White Shark. You will also see an abundance of bird life, dolphins and other unique fish and wildlife.
Peak shark numbers and reliability: May to October.
Reliable shark sightings combined with warmer water: December to February. March and April are the shark-off season.
Rowley Shoals – Western Australia
Rowley shoals is a chain of three spectacular pristine coral atolls - each covering 80 square kilometres and rising up to 400 meters (1312 ft) from the ocean floor on the very edge of the widest continental shelf in the world. Comparable to the Coral Sea on the East coast, the all year round warmer waters and the stronger prevailing currents make this a unique underwater environment.
Here you dive amongst the giant clams, shellfish, Giant Potato Cod and Maori Wrasse. Discover over 200 species of coral and over 650 species of fish. Visibility in excess of 60 metres (197 ft) is common. Rowley Shoals is about 100 miles away from the shore. Diving is seasonal and excursions are offered only between October and December each year. It is access by liveaboards only from Broome on the Kimberley Coast.
Christmas Island/ Cocos Keeling
Christmas Island is situated 2300 km north west of Perth and only 310 km south of Jakarta, Indonesia. The island is a tip of an extinct volcano which emerged from the ocean about 60 million years ago on the edge of the Java Trench. Due to the islands location the waters surrounding the island are home to a wide variety of aquatic life including an abundance of coral, tropical fish and Christmas Island plays host to spinner dolphins and whale sharks. The whale sharks generally visit the island between October and April and divers and snorkellers sometimes have an opportunity to interact with these wonders of the sea.
Christmas Island is a fantastic dive experience if you are after an unspoiled location. The Islands dive shop describes Christmas Island as "exclusive" not in the usual meaning of utter luxury. When they talk exclusive, they mean the low number of diver (a max. of 8-24 divers at any one time on the island), the personal attention and service by the dive crew, and the fantastic diving that Christmas Island has to offer.
With the high cliffs, Christmas Island is not a beach holiday destination. The islands jungles offer plenty of opportunity for exploration and walks. A combination with Cocos Keeling which is a beautiful coral sand beach location is a perfect match.
Cocos Keeling: Beautiful beaches and great reef diving are the features of this Australian enclave in the Indian Ocean. One of the unique attractions is Cat, the resident dugong in the lagoon that can be frequently seen on dives.
If you travel to Australia with the main focus to dive on the East Coast, you must visit the Ribbon Reefs and/or Coral Sea. This is in particular true for more experienced divers who would compare their experience to other great tropical destinations like remote Indonesia, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Southern Red Sea or Maldives.