The Great Eight

The Great Eight are the Great Barrier Reef’s living icons. The creatures that top everyone’s Great Barrier Reef (the ‘Reef’) wish lists and reflect the diversity of life on the Reef. They range from mammals to fish, reptiles to molluscs and the very best way to see these magical creatures is in their own natural marine environment – so hop a boat, immerse yourself in the waters of the Reef and start ticking them off your list.

Whales

During Australia’s winter and spring, from June to November, up to 10,000 whales migrate north from Antarctica’s colder waters to the warm shallows of the Great Barrier Reef (the ‘Reef’) to breed and give birth. Though many species make this migration, humpback whales and dwarf minke whales are the ones you’re most likely to see on the Reef.

Fun fact:

A new-born humpback whale calf weighs about 1 tonne and drinks 500 litres of its mother’s milk every day –  adding 4kg of weight every hour! It needs to grow as quickly as possible before it starts the long journey back to Antarctica.

Best places to see: 
  • Hervey Bay, Fraser Coast. Between July-November, around 7,000 humpback whales and their new calves stopover to rest and play in the calm, safe waters of Hervey Bay – known as the 'whale watching capital of Australia'. Take a whale watching tour during this period for guaranteed sightings. Or, head out for the experience of a lifetime to swim with the whales. Hervey Bay also holds a fun-filled annual whale festival in August to celebrate the whales' arrival and raise awareness for whale welfare. 
  • Tropical North Queensland. During June-July, dwarf minke whales hang out at the Ribbon Reefs in TNQ. This is the only place in the world where you can snorkel and swim with these gentle giants. 
  • Lady Elliot Island, Bundaberg Region. Take a scenic flight over to spot these marvelous mammals at play. Or hear them underwater when snorkelling and diving.
  • Whitsunday coast and islands. Keep an eye out for whales as regular sightings happen.
When to see:

June-November in Hervey Bay; June-July in Tropical North Queensland.

Manta Rays

Manta rays are among the largest fish in the ocean, growing to 7m from wing tip to wing tip. Despite their large size, manta rays feed upon some of the smallest creatures in the ocean: microscopic plankton. Unlike other rays, manta rays have no stinging barb and are completely harmless to humans.

Fun fact:

Manta rays have the largest brain to body size ratio of any living fish and are very aware of what’s around them. They have been known to seek help from divers if they have become entangled in disused fishing gear.

Best places to see:

The best place to see a manta ray is on a reef or cay close to the edge of the continental shelf, and one of the most accessible of these is Lady Elliot Island.

When to see:

Though you could encounter a manta any time of year, the best months to see them are May, June and July. 

Clownfish

Clownfish – or more correctly anemonefish – share a unique symbiotic relationship with sea anemones. They are immune to the sting in the anemone’s tentacles, which provides them with a safe haven from predators. In return for this safe haven, the clownfish help the anemone by attracting other fish and shrimp, which get stung and eaten by the anemone.

There are many different species of clownfish on the Great Barrier Reef (the ‘Reef’). They each have different markings and a preference for different types of sea anemone.

Fun fact:

The female clownfish is always at the top of a clownfish colony hierarchy. When she dies, the most dominant male changes sex to replace her. This means of course, that Nemo’s dad, Marlin, should really have been his mum.

Best places to see:

Clownfish are found anywhere sea anemones are found – which is pretty much the full length of the Great Barrier Reef. 

When to see: 

Year-round. 

Turtles

Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in the waters around the Great Barrier Reef with the green turtle being the most common. A turtle sighting is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, as somehow, we identify with this unique species.

Fun fact:

Yet turtles are in fact cold-blooded reptiles, they breathe air, live in water and lay their eggs on sandy beaches – usually the same beach that they hatched on decades before. Turtles lay their eggs from November onwards, and from January onwards, you can see the turtle hatchlings scampering down the beach to the ocean. Only one in a thousand make it, but those that do can live up to a hundred years old.

Best places to see:

The best places to see turtles is at Lady Elliot Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef and on the mainland at Mon Repos, north of Bundaberg. Some must-do turtle-y awesome experiences on the Great Barrier Reef include:

  • Swimming and snorkelling with turtles at Lady Elliot Island.
  • Viewing turtles in their ocean environment from a glass-bottom boat off Bundaberg.
  • Attending a night nesting or hatching event at Mon Repos. 
When to see: 

Mon Repos

  • November-January: Mother turtles come ashore to nest. 
  • January-late March: Tiny hatchlings take their first steps towards the shore.

Lady Elliot Island

  • November-February: Green and loggerhead turtles return to nest. 
  • February-April: Hatchling season.
  • All year round: Swim with the sea turtles. 

Potato Cod

The Potato Cod is a native Australian fish and belongs to the Grouper family. Groupers are among the largest of all bony fish and boast equally big mouths. The Potato Cod’s cousin, the Queensland Grouper, or giant grouper, is the largest bony fish found on the Great Barrier Reef, (the ‘Reef’) known to grow to more than 2m long and weigh up to 400kg. The Potato Cod usually weighs in at less than 100kg.

Fun fact:

Potato Cod get their name from the distinctive brown markings shaped like potatoes that cover their bodies.

Best places to see:

Though you could be lucky enough to see a Potato Cod diving anywhere on the Reef, the best place to see Potato Cod is at a dive site, called not surprisingly, ‘Cod Hole’ in the Coral Sea near Ribbon Reef #10. Many liveaboard dive boats include Cod Hole on their regular itineraries.

When to see:

Year-round. 

Giant Clams

The giant clam is the world’s largest species of mollusc. Found up and down the Great Barrier Reef (the ‘Reef’), these animals comprise two hard shells which protect soft tissue inside used to filter nutrients from seawater. Living to more than 100 years old, an adult clam can weight around 200kg and extend over one metre in length.

Fun fact:

Giant clams reproduce by releasing both sperm and eggs synchronously with other clams nearby. The largest giant clams, Tridacna gigas, can release more than 500 million eggs in one go.

Best places to see:

Giant clams are found along the whole length of the Reef, and as the algae that provides extra nutrition to the clams requires sunlight, most can be seen on shallow reefs. Keep a look out for their bright blue-brown mantle when snorkelling, but beware, they close their shells very quickly if they feel something nearby – so approach carefully if you want to see them in their full glory.

When to see:

Year-round. 

Maori Wrasse

The Maori Wrasse – also known as the Humphead Wrasse is the largest living member of the wrasse family. Easily identified by its large size, thick lips, and the hump that appears on the forehead of larger adults. A Maori Wrasse might look bluish-green from a distance, but get up close and you’ll see vibrant shades of green and purplish-blue scribbling on its head.

Once considered ‘good eating’, Maori Wrasse have been a protected species in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park since 2003.

Fun fact:

Though Maori Wrasse prefer to live singly, large males are very personable fish and frequently approach divers and snorkellers simply to see what’s happening.

Best places to see:

On many of the outer reefs, you’ll find a resident Maori Wrasse that turns up to meet the tour boat and hangs around snorkellers and divers – even photobombing the shots taken by the professional photographer. In fact, the Maori Wrasse is probably the first of all the Great Eight you’ll meet.

Read about Wally the giant Maori Wrasse, one of the famous fish of the Great Barrier Reef. 

When to see: 

Year-round. 

Sharks

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is home to a great variety of sharks, ranging from small, bottom-dwelling sharks, like wobbegongs, to larger types, like tiger, hammerhead and even the biggest shark of all – the whale shark. Around the reefs themselves, the most commonly seen sharks are, not surprisingly, the reef sharks – the blacktip, whitetip and grey reef sharks.

Fun fact:

Though sharks are fish, and most fish lay eggs, reef sharks give birth to fully formed, live swimming young. And, like most babies, they‘re cute-as.

Best places to see:

Sometimes you’ll see blacktip sharks in the shallows when snorkelling, or even reef walking, though most sharks are only seen by divers. Blacktips are quite wary and will usually give you a wide berth. Whitetips on the other hand often rest on the sand, in hollows, under ledges and occasionally in the open. They’re best admired from a distance, remember your ‘shark diving etiquette’, don’t surprise them, or get too close, and most of all, don’t touch them.

When to see: 

Year-round.

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