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See the Great Barrier Reef's great eight

It’s easy to meet Queensland’s “Great Eight”. Just take your pick from whales, manta rays, giant clams, potato cod, sharks, Maori wrasse, turtles and lovable clownfish – and head to their favourite hang-outs. 

By Katrina Lobley
Published: 16 October, 2017

From tiny clownfish to huge humpback whales, the Great Barrier Reef is home to an incredible array of mesmerising marine life. See how many of the “Great Eight” you can tick off the list during a visit to the jewel-green islands, coral reefs and sand cays off Queensland’s coast.  

Spot humpback whales

Humpback whale, Hervey Bay, Queensland

Australia’s east coast (where you’ll find places such as Sydney, Byron Bay and the Gold Coast) is known as the “Humpback Highway”: it’s the route whales take when migrating north and south each year. In Tropical North Queensland, see these gentle giants of the deep cruise past the coastline from July to September on a whale watching cruise or, for an unforgettable experience, swim with dwarf minke whales. These unique, elusive creatures gather at Ribbon Reefs (south of Lizard Island), where you can jump into the water and meet them. This is the only known place on Earth where they reliably congregate each year.

Meet a manta

Manta rays, Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is home to many types of rays but there’s none more magnificent than a manta ray, with wings spanning up to seven metres (23 feet). The best place to swim or dive with a graceful manta ray is at Lady Elliot Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef near Bundaberg. The global Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) organisation rates this spot among the top five manta dive destinations in the world.

Admire a giant clam

Giant clam, Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Giant clams, which can grow up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) in length and weigh up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds), have an encrusted exterior but a beautiful mantle (the fleshy part protruding from the shell). Like a fingerprint, no two clams have the same mantle colour and pattern. In the wild, the world’s largest living bivalve mollusc enjoys an average lifespan of a century – outliving most humans. Giant clams are found along the length of the Great Barrier Reef and are easily accessible at places such as Green Island, near Cairns.

Gawk at a potato cod

Potato cod, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

This awe-inspiring grey-brown cod species can grow to a massive two metres (6 feet 7 inches) in length and weigh up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The extremely friendly fish are also known to follow divers around like puppies and might copy you if you take a peek into an underwater cave. The Great Barrier Reef’s Ribbon Reefs – also known as The Ribbons – are a string of 10 coral reefs stretching over 200 kilometres (125 miles) to the north of Cairns. Cod Hole is a world-famous dive spot at The Ribbons and the name gives it away – this is an excellent spot to see giant potato cod. 

Say hark, it's a shark

Leopard shark, Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

More than 50 shark species are found along the Queensland coast. With such a diverse shark population, it’s possible to have a variety of shark experiences ranging from spotting plankton-guzzling whale sharks – the world’s largest fish – to diving and snorkelling alongside whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, which aren’t dangerous to humans. If you prefer to put glass between you and a shark, head to Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium – home to a famous leopard shark. Leonie made headlines when she hatched three eggs in 2016, despite being separated from the male breeding shark for three years. It was the first recorded instance of a shark switching from sexual to asexual reproduction.

Make friends with Maori wrasse

Maori wrasse, Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

With thick, fleshy lips and a prominent forehead bump, there’s no mistaking a Maori wrasse. While it’s not the reef’s most beautiful fish, it has a curious personality and often approaches divers and snorkellers. This charismatic fish can clock in at more than two metres long (6 feet 7 inches) and weigh more than a human. See Maori wrasse in the Whitsunday Islands at Reefworld, a pontoon permanently moored at Hardy Reef, which offers guided diving and snorkelling trips. Several local operators also offer face-to-fin experiences with Wally the Maori wrasse – famous for his playful nature.

See nesting turtles

Green sea turtle, Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Six of the world’s seven marine turtle species cruise the Great Barrier Reef’s waters, with green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles the most commonly sighted. The Whitsunday Islands attract turtles because of seagrass meadows – a favourite food – while on mainland Australia, you can see loggerhead turtles nesting and hatching at Mon Repos near Bundaberg.

Find Nemo

Clownfish, Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Clownfish have a symbiotic relationship with sea anemones, which means these adorable orange, white and black striped fish – made famous by the animated film Finding Nemo – can be found along the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef. Head out on a reef expedition from towns such as Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Airlie Beach, Hamilton Island, Rockhampton, Mackay or Bundaberg and keep an eye out!

Believe it or not, in Australia you can also swim with colourful cuttlefish.