Maori Wrasse, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland © Andrew Watson
Meet the Great Barrier Reef’s Great Eight
Discover where to encounter the Great Barrier Reef’s Great Eight marine species.
By Amy Fraser
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most diverse ocean habitats in the world; comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs and stretching 2,300 kilometres (1,430 miles) across the east coast of Australia. While Africa boasts its Big Five, among the Great Barrier Reef’s extraordinary array of species are the Great Eight. Witnessing these magnificent marine animals in the wild brings feelings of absolute awe. Read on to discover more about the reef’s Great Eight, including where to find them.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to 1,625 fish species, with one of the more iconic being the clownfish. They’ve always been cute, but Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo has given these orange, white and black fish celebrity status among the reef’s residents. You’ll spot them snorkelling or diving anywhere on the reef, but some of the best places to encounter them include Magnetic Island, Lady Musgrave Island, Green Island, the Whitsunday Islands, the Frankland Islands and Heron Island.
2. Giant clams
Dive to the depths of the Great Barrier Reef to encounter ‘a giant legend’ – and when we say giant, we mean it. These jaw-dropping species are the largest mollusc on earth, sometimes weighing over 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and reaching four metres (13 feet) in length. You can lay your eyes on their psychedelic colours anywhere along the reef, but snorkelling the Clam Gardens off Lizard Island is one of the best ways to spot them.
3. Manta rays
Watching a stingray glide through the ocean is a magical sight, but extend their wingspan to nine metres (29.9 feet) and add a friendly and playful character, and you’ve got one of the reef’s most spectacular marine animals – the manta ray. Swimming with these majestic giants is an otherworldly experience. Feel their calm demeanour at the Southern Great Barrier Reef’s Lady Elliot Island, otherwise known as the home of the manta ray.
4. Maori wrasse
Another fish to put on your bucket list is the Maori wrasse. Unlike clownfish, these distinctive animals are larger than life – in size and personality. When you encounter a Maori, you’ll know about it. Their inquisitive nature resembles puppy-like behaviour, so don’t be surprised if this colourful giant-headed fish starts following you around like a long-lost friend. It may not be the company you expected, but it’ll no doubt be memorable. The Whitsunday’s Hardy Reef is well known for its large numbers of Maori wrasses. For the ultimate greeting, head to Moore Reef with Sunlover Reef Cruises to meet Wally, the largest Maori wrasse on the entire reef.
5. Potato cod
Named after its potato shaped markings, the potato cod is another large fish resident of the Great Barrier Reef. These gigantic fish can grow up to two metres (6.5 feet) long, weighing around 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Despite being on the larger side, potato cods are friendly fish and will be sure to provide a whole lot of added entertainment to your dive. Head to Cod Hole with either Spirit of Freedom or Mile Ball Dive Expeditions on the Ribbon Reefs for a good chance to meet one.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to over 50 species of shark, offering plenty of opportunities to safely encounter this fascinating animal across the reef. The most common are the whitetip reef sharks, which are non-aggressive and beautiful sharks to watch gliding through the water. If you’ve got a keen eye, you might even spot the quirky looking wobbegong, whose name comes from the Aboriginal phrase ‘shaggy beard’ (you’ll know why when you see one). Book a four-night liveaboard trip to Osprey Reef for the ultimate Great Barrier Reef shark adventure.
Six of the world's seven species of marine turtles live in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. One of the best ways to spot the turtles is by exploring the fringing reef surrounding Hamilton Island on a Deep Water Turtle Discovery tour. At the Mon Repos Turtle Centre, near Bundaberg, you can witness baby turtles take their first steps (between mid-January and early February).
One of the most incredible underwater encounters the Great Barrier Reef has to offer occurs every year from April to November. During this season, the humpback highway resumes up the east coast, with around 25,000 humpback whales migrating from Antarctica to the Great Barrier Reef’s Hervey Bay. It’s here, at this sheltered whale conservation area that baby whales are born in thousands. Book a day trip with Blue Dolphin Tours to see these breathtaking animals up-close.
Equally impressive are the reef’s dwarf minke whales, a smaller, but beautifully patterned whale that visits the Great Barrier Reef in impressive numbers during June and July each year. The reef is the only place in the world where you can swim with them, so book with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and get ready for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.