Cooktown and Lizard Island
Cooktown is growing big time since the road was sealed, both in tourism and permanent population which is currently 3000 people. Regardless, it does seem that there is no dedicated commercial dive operations – mainly fishing charters that will take divers for a price. There is a dive club listed, contact them for help if you are in the area for a while.
Cooktown is only about 45 minutes boat ride away from often pristine and uncrowded diving sites in The Great Barrier Reef. Here you will find a vast array of coral gardens and colourful fish and other spectacular marine life.
On the outer reef you can also explore the amazing coral formations, caves, canyons and huge walls as the Continental Shelf drops away.
The Far Northern Reefs
The 500 nautical mile long isolated reefs in the area to the north of Lizard Island to the tip of Cape York peninsular are sometimes referred to as the Far Northern Reefs. Until the major warming event in 2015/16 it was one of the last totally pristine areas of the Great Barrier Reef and was seldom visited. It is yet to be seen how long-lasting the effects of the warming event will be, and it depends on the reef having time to recover before another damaging event, something that seems increasingly less likely as the planet warms.
The damage is still confined to certain areas, and the Far Northern reefs are still famous for walls, pinnacles, and coral heads, absolutely jammed with a bewildering and colourful array of reef fish and invertebrates. The region can only be visited by extended trip liveaboards, which tend to cater more for experienced dive groups. Water temperatures vary from 29 degrees Celsius in Summer to 23 degrees Celsius in Winter.
The islands of the Lizard Island Group are clustered 27km off the coast and about 100km from Cooktown. Lizard Island is a continental island with a dry, rocky and mountainous terrain offering bushwalking, beaches, snorkelling and diving. The only resort in the area is a very exclusive, expensive and accessible by light plane. Lizard Island is also a National Park and is frequently visited by cruising yachts and cruise ships. The Lizard Island research station shares the island with the resort and was opened in 1975. It is located near the south west corner of the Island. Lizard Island is surrounded by typical mid-shelf fringing reefs. The reef slopes have dense growth of branching and plating corals as well as many other species including Montipora, Porites (brain coral), Lobophyllia, and fleshy alcyonarian soft corals. The entire soft-bottom between Turtle and LizardIsland group contains a high cover of seagrass and has a few dugongs feeding there from time to time. Visibility is usually good and diverse reefs are accessible from the beach or by boat.
The snorkelling near the resort between Osprey Island and the Anchor Bay (also known as Resort Bay) beach is excellent with numerous clumps of patch reef covering up to 70% of the bottom around the north headland (Chinaman’s Ridge) and around Osprey Island. A large Grouper family resides on the Anchor Bay side of Osprey Island.
For something different this bay offers a muck dive on sediments rich in small marine life. Here you may find the bizzarre stony coral, Heteropsammia cochlea, that settle on shells inhabited by hermit crabs but eventually grow over the shell, evict the crab and then allow a worm to live in the shell instead. The worm pulls the coral around the bay floor. You may also find octopus, ghost pipefish. There is also good corals and clams in the shallows. This area enjoys 10 metres visibility, poor for the northern GBR.
The Cod Hole
The hand-feeding of a family aggregation of Potato Cod has allowed divers to get close to these huge fish. It’s not unusual to see a dozen large fish there at a time. They can get quite pushy and hand-fed Potato Cod have been known to make off with dive gloves. They are not considered dangerous but you need to be wary of any large wild animal.
The reef above the site also have plenty of fish and good coral growth although the area is current affected on an incoming tide. Expect to see Anemonefish, small white tip reef Sharks, lionfish, seahorses and lots of pelagic school fish. This site can be organised as a drift dive.
This is a drift dive where the gap between two reefs funnels in water and lots of pelagic fish including sharks, rays, sweetlips and mackerel. The wall is covered in filter feeding animals and turtles will also be encountered. Divers usually visit the reef wall of Cormorant Reef.
The Snake Pit
10 to 30 metres
This site lies on an isolated reef between Lizard Island and Ribbon Reef number 10. Like all reefs in the region, it offers clear water and excellent marine life. It is also home to a large population of olive sea snakes. These snakes are not generally aggressive and are encountered on many dives in tropical Queensland, so you need to get used to dealing with them, not easy if you have been brought up on savage snake stories. In fact, sea snakes tend to be curious and that’s about it. They aren’t aggressive and thousands of encounters occur every year without anyone getting hurt. They will come over and wrap around your air hoses, check out any snake reflections in a mask or camera, and then lose interest. If you are worried, just keep still until they move on. While poisonous they have inward pointing fangs, and can’t open their mouth very wide. Sea snakes can’t really penetrate even thin diving suits. Attacks on humans are virtually unknown and they only use their venom on fish. The rare occasions when people are bitten it is usually on the fingers when attempts are made to feed them, or catch them.
This site also offers plenty of colourful invertebrates such as clams, sea stars, nudibranchs, and sea cucumbers. Pelagic school fish also patrol the area including trevally, barracuda, sharks and rays. A little exposed, this reef is only accessible in calmer conditions.
Lighthouse Bommie – Ribbon Reef #10
Lighthouse Bommie is an isolated pinnacle and attracts schools of pelagic fish and houses some interesting invertebrates such as gorgonia fans, sea whips and nudibranchs. Next to the column is a slight mound which rises to around 16 m. In June and July it is sometimes visited by Dwarf Minke Whales heading south to their feeding grounds.
Challenger Bay – Ribbon Reef #10
Challenger Bay is often used as a night dive location. The site has a sandy bottom scattered with small bommies. The site is similar to Pixie Gardens but with smaller and more numerous boulders. Large schools of Batfish and Sweetlips are often seen, along with other pelagic fish. At night there are octopus, moray eels and giant trevally.
The Monolith is a wall dive close to Challenger Bay with a field of fist coral to be seen along the reef and a vast array of marine life.
This small isolated bommie offers plenty of schooling fish and macro invertebrates like nudibranchs, hydroids, mantis shrimp and flame file shell. This pinnacle can get strong currents.
This starts as a sandy area full of garden eels among irregular coral outcrops. Look out for Leafy Scorpionfish and Pipefish. Further north this develops into a gentle reef slope then an impressive wall occasionally patrolled by sharks.
This rarely dived wall is only visited when the prevailing South-east winds shift to the North-west, usually in October/November. The reef wall offers shelter and is covered with colourful soft corals as well as a variety of invertebrates including nudibranchs.
This large coral mound offers plenty of marine life on the walls to entertain any diver.
Two bommies rise up from the sandy seabed. A deeper coral ridge running down one side is home to a cleaning station at various times. There are plenty of sea snakes that are this site’s local residents. There are rays, turtles, sharks as well as plenty of smaller critters for the photographer.
Steve’s Bommie – Ribbon Reef #3
This bommie offers a huge amount of schooling fish and pristine corals. There are also plenty of smaller fish including leafy scorpionfish This popular dive site an astounding diversity of life. It has been said that if something can be found on the GBR, it will be seen here.
Flare Point offers an easy site at with plenty of fish and critters.
Joanie’s Joy is a wall dive with a number of scattered bommies. Cuttlefish, nudibranchs, trumpet fish, sweetlips, white tip reef sharks and turtles are likely to be seen.
Temple of Doom - Ribbon Reef #3
This is a large bommie with a flat area on top at around 5 m.
Tracy’s Wonderland - Ribbon Reef #3
Like Pixie Gardens and Challenger Bay, this is a sandy bay on the edge of the reef flat. Its good for smaller critters and will suit the macro photographer especially.