The Australians call it the Eighth Wonder of the World, but that may actually be an understatement. The Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism on the planet that’s visible from outer space. Stretching for more than 1,200 miles at between 10 and 50 miles off the coast of Queensland, it’s not in fact one coral reef but an association of 2,900 smaller reefs, with some 300 stepping-stone islands sprinkled among them.
The largest marine preserve in the world, it’s home to a stupefying profusion of sea creatures, including 500 species of brilliantly colored hard and soft coral, 1,500 varieties of fish, and 4,000 kinds of mollusks.
You can sail it, snorkel it, and fly over it, but only by diving the depths of this extraordinary realm can you really grasp its diversity. Luckily, there’s no shortage of agencies promising you the ultimate reef experience. Quicksilver is a high-tech, wave-piercing, turbo- powered catamaran that makes the ninety-minute trip to an anchored glass-bottomed platform, where you can swim, snorkel, or scuba dive; or travel in a semi-submersible vessel and listen to your guide’s running commentary explaining the underwater extravaganza outside your window.
Those wanting a more prolonged experience can opt to spend four days aboard the luxurious mini-cruise ships Coral Princess or Coral Princess II. The 115-foot ships offer snorkeling, guided coral-viewing excursions in small glass-bottom boats, reef fishing, and evening presentations by trained marine biologists. If you’ve always dreamed of learning how to scuba dive, the ships’ qualified PADI instructors will have you logging your first underwater hours.
Most people think the Great Barrier Reef is the last word in deep-sea diving, but beyond it the waters of the lesser- known, less-dived Coral Sea may be even more wonderful. Highlights of this pristine wilderness of crystal-clear waters and uninhabited coral atolls include huge perpendicular drop- offs and 200- to 300-foot visibility. Imagine giant clams up to 7 feet across, 300-pound groupers, and innumerable turtles and sharks, along with an outstanding variety of hard corals and reef fish of all descriptions.
Some live-aboard trips include a visit to the wreck of the Yongala, a 363-foot wonder said to be home to the greatest concentration and diversity of marine life in the world – a mind-boggling underwater experience.