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Snorkelling with Turtles

The Great 8 - the Great Barrier Reef’s marine must-sees

Posted 05 January 2016
The Great Barrier Reef, with its impressive title of the world’s largest ecosystem, spans approximately 350,000 km² and is home to hordes of marine animals.

But did you know... just as Africa has the ‘Big 5’ (lions, rhinos, leopards, elephants and buffalo), the reef has its very own ‘Great 8’?

That’s eight very good reasons to go exploring on the Great Barrier Reef. Not only will you see an amazing array of coral and fish (over 1600 species of them), but you may even catch a glimpse of one – or more – of the eight superstars of the reef. The ones everyone wants to see.

So let's take a look at the reef’s ‘Great 8’ and uncover the hotspots of some of these underwater celebrities.


Humpback whale

Up first are the largest of the lot, and what a wonder it would be to see one of these gentle giants up close. From June to September, thousands of whales migrate up the east coast of Australia from the Antarctic to have their young. The reef provides a safe sanctuary for mothers to rear their calves until they are strong enough to make the journey back down south. Humpback whales, dwarf minke whales, along with over 30 other species of whales can easily be spotted just off the coast. However, to get a closer view of these magnificent creatures, hop a whale watching tour or, if you’re lucky, find them on the reef during a snorkel or dive trip.

Manta rays

Manta ray

Probably one of the most spectacular of the ’Great 8’, and one of the most elusive, is the manta ray. Go searching around Lady Elliot Island or the Whitsunday Islands in the winter months (June to September) and you may catch a glimpse of this graceful creature as it glides past you. There are many types of rays on the reef, from the common stingray to the manta ray. As the largest of its species, the oceanic manta can reach a wing span of seven metres, while the reef manta (the one you’re more likely to see) can grow a wing span of 3-3.5 metres. Unfortunately, these impressive fish are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.


Clown fish

Now we move on from some of the biggest members of the ‘Great 8’, to the smallest – clownfish. At just 10-18 centimetres, these colourful fish can be pretty hard to spot. Clownfish make their home in the tentacles of sea anemone – a smart move seeing as they are immune to the anemone’s sting, while their predators are not. If you’re snorkelling or diving, your guide or instructor will usually be able to help you when it comes to Finding Nemo.


White tipped reef shark

While there are numerous species of shark dwelling on the reef, it’s the white-tip and black-tip reef sharks that you’re most likely to see. As the name suggests, simply look at their fin to distinguish the two. Totally harmless, and even quite timid, these sharks grow to around 1.6 metres in length but will be a lot more scared of you than you are of them.

Giant clams

Giant clam

Giant clams are the world’s largest molluscs and can grow up to 1.2 metres long and weigh over 200 kilograms. Living to the grand age of 100 years old, giant clams are the granddaddies of the reef. Sadly, these ancient creatures are endangered and have a bad reputation of being man-eating monsters waiting for unsuspecting swimmers to pass by before swallowing them whole. To this day, there has never been a case of death by giant clam reported so rest assured, giant clams are perfectly safe.

Potato cod

Potato cod

Mr potato cod is the big-mouthed, big daddy of the deep. Found off the Tropical North Queensland coast, the aptly named potato cod have distinctive brown markings shaped like potatoes all over their bodies. They’re also one of the largest bony fish on the reef, known to reach lengths of 2.5 metres. Unlike reef sharks, these fellas are not afraid of divers, and have in fact been known to follow divers around like pets. So if it’s a fishy selfie you’re after, Mr potato cod is your man.

Maori wrasse

Maori wrasse

Similar to the potato cod, the Maori wrasse is another friendly fish. Again, with their big lips and humped head, Maori wrasses are easy to spot in a crowd. Plus, their inquisitive and sociable nature means they are regulars at many of the reef’s top dive spots and are not adverse to a little stroke. Another great photo opportunity!



Turtles are one of the reef’s best-loved inhabitants. Six out of seven of the world’s marine turtle species live on the reef, including green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles. This means that turtles are regularly sighted during snorkel and dive trips. Many of the Great Barrier Reef’s islands, including the protected Raine Island, are also nesting grounds for turtles to lay their eggs. Then, from December to March, you can see the little baby turtles scurrying into the sea after hatching – another must-see sight of the Great Barrier Reef.

As one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and beautiful destinations on the planet. With its incredible amount of marine life – including the ‘Great 8’ – the reef is regarded as one of the world’s top dive sites and is perfect for snorkelling adventures.

But don’t worry. If you’d prefer to stay dry, there’s plenty of other ways to experience the reef and see some of its underwater residents. Speedboat or catamaran cruises are available from nearby Cairns and Port Douglas year round, with most cruises offering the option of a glass-bottom boat trip. It’s also possible to take scenic helicopter flights over the reef.

Whatever way you choose to visit the reef, just remember to keep a sharp eye out for the Great Barrier Reef’s famous ‘Great 8’. Nothing quite compares to seeing these magnificent marine animals in their natural habitat.