Diving In The Bubbles Of Sir David On The Southern Great Barrier Reef

If, like me, you grew up with David Attenborough-narrated documentaries that teleported you from the lounge room to the far flung corners of our planet, then following in Sir David's footsteps – or in this case, his bubbles – by diving the Great Barrier Reef is like a documentary come to life. 

The legendary naturalist first visited the Great Barrier Reef in 1957.  The world's largest reef system made such an impression on him that, when asked some 60 years later where he would like to shoot his final documentary, it was a no brainer. 

Like Attenborough's first time on the reef, my trip to visit Queensland's southern ladies - Heron, Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave islands – takes in the Southern Great Barrier Reef region that Sir David first visited and fell in love with all those years ago.  The region is famed for marine megafauna like manta rays, turtles, and humpback whales (depending on the season) as well as big-as-a-car coral bommies and some of the best SCUBA diving sites in the world – and all just minutes from shore.

It's a four hour drive from Brisbane to Hervey Bay and a 35 minute flight to our first reef destination, Lady Elliot Island. This is the only Southern Great Barrier Reef coral cay with an airstrip, so arriving by air is not just the only way, but ultra-scenic to boot.

Lady Elliot's resort prides itself on its eco credentials and caters to a relatively small number of guests who converge in the communal dining room at the end of each day to swap stories of their day's adventures.  In less than 24 hours, it feels like you are on holiday with an old group of friends. 

The island is a diver's nirvana. Most of the dive sites are just 5-10 minutes offshore by boat, visibility regularly exceeds 30 metres and the experienced dive staff will pick the best spots on the day... as Attenborough did with his documentary crew.  Dives are generally scheduled early in the morning (so you can be back for a hearty breakfast) and again, mid-afternoon. 

Our first trip was to the Lighthouse Bommies – at 14 metres, one of the best places to see the giant manta rays swimming, feeding and turning graceful acrobatics overhead.  The Lighthouse Bommies are also known as 'cleaning stations' – a veritable spa for mantas, where cleaner wrasse give the reefs the equivalent of a full-body loofah.

The afternoon dive took us to the Blowhole, an L-shaped cave with an opening at 14 metres that dramatically drops out over a ledge for a wall dive.   This site is one of Lady Elliot Island's most colourful, with giant coral, clownfish peeking out from the safety of their anemone homes and, if you're lucky, a turtle or reef shark swimming by.  I didn't have time to dive other sites – but there are more than a dozen with names like Maori Wrasse Bommie, Spiders Ledge, Coral Gardens and Anchor Bommie beckoning, in addition to several shipwrecks including the wreck of The Severance, a two-masted sailing boat, which sunk off the island back in 1998.  Expect huge schools of pelagics and moray eels if you choose the latter.

(Note: Lady Elliot Island abides by PADI regulations so divers must leave a 12-hour window between diving and flying).

From Lady Elliot, we make our way to the coastal town of Gladstone and head across to Heron Island, the jewel in the crown of the Capricorn and Bunker Group of coral cay islands. Heron is a famous for its turtle laying and hatching spots and for its bird colonies and has some of the best dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef

Just two hours by boat from the mainland, Heron is also one of the locations Sir David visited in his early career, and returned to when shooting his latest reef documentary.  This is a dive destination for all levels – the water is balmy - I only wore a shorty wetsuit - and visibility is often beyond 20 metres.

Like Lady Elliot before her, you really don't have to go far to reach Heron's top dive spots – it's a matter of donning your gear at the dive shop, strolling to the jetty and taking a 5-10 minute boat trip and 'hey presto!' you're there. 

If you're keen, you can easily do two back-to-back dives with trips running regularly at 9am and 11am to places like the Heron Bommie - six large coral heads that start at just five metres and follow the reef slope down to a depth of 18 metres.  Dive time flies quickly by as there's lots to see – colourful fish, a forest of coral, reef sharks, wobbegongs, eels peeking out from coral holes, and mantas. 

In this island paradise, you can keep living in your dive kit for days (eat, sleep, dive and repeat) with bucket list sites like Pams Point, Gorgonia Hole, Coral Cascades, Tenements, 3 Rocks, Coral Canyons and Coral Gardens all easily accessible.

Best of all, if you're travelling with non-divers, there are plenty of other things to do such as naturalist-guided reef walks, a visit to the Heron Island Research Centre, birdwatching and turtle spotting (when in season). As a bonus, the resort's, Shearwater Restaurant has an excellent a-la-carte menu and a dessert bar to die for.

(Note: Heron Island has a 24 hour dive/fly rule so you'll need to make sure your last dive is done within this window)

Rounding out the trifecta beautifully is Lady Musgrave Island – the third, but by no means, least of the Southern Great Barrier Reef's great dive islands. Boasting more than 14 world-class dive sites, this island is part of the Capricorn Cays National Park. Guests can choose to stay over – it's camping only and sites must be booked through Queensland's Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing – or take a one of the daily trips from Bundaberg with Lady Musgrave Experience or the Town of 1770 with Lady Musgrave Cruises

Lady Musgrave has an enormous reef lagoon serving up exceptional dives, which are chosen on the day according to conditions. The signature dive is undoubtedly The Wall – an outer wall drift dive to 18 metres which allows divers to cruise along the reef wall in the company of fish, turtles, reef sharks, wrasse, and of course the giant manta rays which call the Southern Great Barrier Reef home. 

The second dive is done in the Lady Musgrave Island lagoon and starts with a fish feed followed by an underwater tour of the lagoon's colourful coral bommies.

It's no wonder the Southern Great Barrier Reef remained with Sir David Attenborough for more than 60 years as one of the most striking natural environments he'd seen.  It is also proof that whether you're an occasional diver, an expert with hundreds of dives under your weight belt, or if you've never dived before, this is one place you can well and truly follow in David Attenborough's reef shoes.


Name: Kerri Anderson
Word Count: 1188

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