North of the Ribbon reefs and Osprey Reef there is very little human visitation. The number of liveaboard expeditions drop off dramatically. A few yachts venture into the area, and there isn’t much in the way of human habitation from the Lockhart River in the south, where many cruises start from, to Thursday Island at the end of the reef in the Torres Strait. After the well-dived reefs of Cairns, this area offers some real adventure for the explorer.
Until recently, it was truly pristine with some of the richest coral and fish life in Australia. In the summer of 2015/16 there was a large heat wave that caused widespread coral bleaching in the far north. We are still waiting to see how that translates into actual coral mortality but logically it is likely to be extensive, especially in the shallows perhaps up to 50% coral loss. This follows another major warming event in 1998. Unless there is global action on climate change, we can expect the northern reefs to begin to die off in coming decades.
Wreck of HMS Pandora (1791)
The British Admiralty was incensed by the infamous mutiny on board H.M.S. Bounty off Tahiti in 1789. That mutiny saw Captain Bligh set adrift in a boat, and the mutineers went to ground in Tahiti and on Pitcairn Island. The 24 gun frigate HMS Pandora was sent to the Pacific to arrest the mutineers and bring them back for trial. In 1791, HMS Pandora and its crew searched fruitlessly for the Bounty, but found 14 men on Tahiti. These men were locked away in a special lock-up, quickly dubbed Pandora’s Box. In Greek mythology Pandora’s box was a jar containing all the evils of the world. The vessel was returning to Britain via the Torres Strait, when it was wrecked near Osprey Reef. Her wreckage claimed the lives of thirty-one men of her crew and four of the prisoners. The rest of the crew, 89 men and ten prisoners, survived and made it back to England. The ten surviving prisoners were tried and three of them were executed.
The wreck was discovered by Ben Cropp in 1977. It is located approximately 5 km north-west of Moulter Cay. The Queensland Museum excavated her in the 1980s and 1990s and many artefacts are now on display in the Townsville museum. The wreck is protected and most of it is buried under the sand. The most recognisable and visible features of the wreck include several large iron objects on the sea floor-e.g. an anchor and the vessel’s galley. A permit is needed to dive it or even get within 500 metres of it, and it is perhaps worthwhile to visit if the opportunity arises, just to connect with this interesting story. The wreck is current-affected and exposed to the swell in Pandora Entrance.
This is a very long 1000 metre long drift dive passing through four distinct areas of terrain. From inside the reef, a 30 metre steep sloping cliff changes into a stunning sand-based coral garden. Reaching the outer edge there is a very deep overhanging cliff, home to dozens of sharks. Once around the ocean side, take your time exploring the visually stunning coral slope before being picked up by inflatable. This is for experienced divers and experienced charter operators only.
This special island is a vegetated is a 32 hectares coral cay on the outer edges of the Great Barrier Reef. It is a turtle and seabird hot spot. But it needs help.
It lies 620 km north-north-west of Cairns. The cay is composed of a central core of phosphate rock surrounded by sand and extensive fringing reefs. It lies just close to the continental shelf, next to a shipping channel known as the Raine Island Entrance and Pandora entrance. The entrance allows shipping to enter the Great Barrier Reef.
The waters around the island were treacherous for early European navigators. More than thirty shipwrecks can be found off the coast of the island including HMS Pandora. Raine Island is marked by a stone beacon built in 1844. During the 1890s the island was mined for guano.
In August 2007, Raine Island, along with the neighbouring Moulter and MacLennan Cays, was proclaimed the Raine Island National Park (Scientific), is totally closed to public access. The declaration was made possible by the Wuthathi people and interested Torres Strait Islanders entering into a special Indigenous Land Use Agreement with the State.
Raine has the world’s largest remaining population of green turtles (Chelonia mydas). Up to 18,000 females nesting on the small coral sand cay in one season. The nesting site has been active on the island for more than 1,000 years.
Every year from late October to February egg laden females arrive from many parts of northern Australia, eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. (as much as 2700km) They crawl up the beach at night lay approximately 100 eggs each. They are generally expected do this 4-6 times in a nesting season and then not return again for the next two to six years.
It is also considered as the most significant tropical seabird breeding site in the Great Barrier Reef. 84 bird species have been observed on the island.
Recent monitoring and research at the island indicates that successful incubation rates of green turtle nests is well below what might be expected. Their breeding rate on the island is a very low 20 per cent, well under the sustainable rate of 85%. Tidal inundation is one of the issues. As sea levels rise, nests are being flooded and banks eroded away, until they become a trap for breeding turtles. Researchers have been reshaping parts of the beach to protect breeding grounds.
The waters adjacent to Raine Island and Moulter and Maclennan Cays are a Restricted Access and Special Management Area extending from high water out to 500m from each island. You cannot enter the area unless you have a Marine Parks permit from the GBRMPA and QPWS usuallylimited to persons undertaking management activities or scientific research or monitoring. Raine Island has been a nesting site for green turtles and are part of the world’s largest remaining stocks. They belong to the northern Great Barrier Reef genetic stock that nest throughout the northern Great Barrier Reef (north of Princess Charlotte Bay) and eastern Torres Strait. In any event the turtles attract tiger sharks. Go there if the opportunity arises.
Manta Wall, Great Detached Reef
Situated north of Cooktown, Great Detached Reef is a large complex of several reefs. It has a reef circumference of 46 kilometres. The sides are steep cave-studded walls, dropping in places to 400 metres.
There are huge schools of pelagics, barracuda, trevally, sharks and mantas, along with schools of basslets, fusiliers and sometimes blue-lined snapper.
Camel Back, Great Detached Reef
This is an area offering two coral pinnacles covered in fish. There is also a nearby wall that offers drift diving. This deep wall is pulsing with fish life and colourful marine invertebrates. The wall is patrolled by small sharks, schools of bumphead parrotfish, potato cod, manta rays small caves, moray eels, turtles, lobster, shrimp and nudibranchs.
Shark City, Great Detached Reef
This is one of the shark feeding sites popular with some dive boats. Shark City is a bait feeding area for grey reef, white tip and silvertip reef sharks.
Turtle Farm, Great Detached Reef
This offer walls and drift diving with large schools of fish, sharks and a stunning array of corals. There are bolder corals, plate corals, soft corals, gorgonians fans, sea whips and branching staghorn corals. This is rugged, remote and pristine diving.
Mad Surgeons Reef, Great Detached Reef,
More drift diving through schools of big pelagic fish, including surgeonfish, humphead wrasse and whitetip reef sharks.
Southern Small Detached Reef
The reef wall drops in to very deep water up to 100 metres deep. The walls are packed with colourful invertebrates. The wall is patrolled by pelagic fish, manta rays, turtles, eagle rays and reef sharks.
This reef offers pinnacles inside the lagoon and current swept deep wall dives outside.
Cathedral Wall, Wishbone Reef
Wishbone reef has a variety of good diving including a split in the reef wall that lights up at midday each day.
Mobula Wall, Wishbone Reef
This site is noted for schools of mobula rays, a smaller variety of manta rays.
Wood Reef – Woodie Point
A coral encrusted point is flanked by deep walls (over 200m deep) with very large sea fans and excellent invertebrate life. Silver Tip Sharks circle around. Inshore on the other side of the point, there are shallow coral gardens home to lots of little damsel, angel and butterfly fish.
Wood Reef – Big Woody
Big Woody has a massive swim through filled with sea fans and soft corals.
A diverse reef with many excellent dive sites. In the depths you’ll find large gorgonian fans and soft corals, while higher there are many species of anemones and schools of brightly reef fish including basslets and butterflyfish.
Rainbow Wall, Mantis Reef
The Rainbow Wall is a colourful and deep wall dive teeming with fish.
Black Rock, Mantis Reef
This site offers huge red & yellow soft corals.
Martin’s Mecca, Mantis Reef
In this area of deep and steep walls, this site offers spectacular coral pinnacles in moderate depths, teeming with fish.
North Wall, Mantis Reef
This is a deep reef dive, current-affected and visited by manta rays.
Southern Small Detached Reef
Turtles reef sharks mantas, pelagics, coral trees and sea fans along very deep walls,
The reef offer coral gardens on the inner side as well as deeper wall dives with lots of colourful fish and invertebrates. The area is very current affected. These upwelling currents attract schooling pelagics. The lagoon is enclosed and can only be accessed by small boat at high tide.
Mr Walkers Caves – Tijou Reef
This is on some large cave features inside the lagoon. The caves can go back into the reef 20m. There was a sandy bottom below the undercut at 30m and it sloped off into the depths of the lagoon. The topography of the undercut and the coral structures is inspiring.
Tijou reef – Shark City
This site on the northern end of the reef is particularly noted for several species of reef sharks that aggregate there. The other fish life is also great.
Inside Wall, Tijou Reef
Used for day and night dives. In the shallows, coral islets provide soft and hard corals rich in diversity with limited bleaching. There are silvertip reef sharks and schools of damsels, parrotfish, unicorn fish, leatherjackets and triggerfish as well as wrasse.
This site also offers colourful wall diving. It is run as a drift dive, through clouds of pelagic fish. Expect to see baitfish, parrotfish, trevally, barracuda, batfish, grouper and Maori wrasse. The walls are also packed with invertebrates like soft corals and large gorgonia sea fans.