Everything you need to know before you go, this is the GBR by the numbers. Where to go, when to go, lengths, depths, how the reef is cared for, what permits are needed and whether or not vinegar works on stingers. Armed with this guide, you’ll be ready to tackle the Marine Park, region by region. By Fiona Harper
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the largest tropical reef ecosystem in the world, coming under World Heritage protection in 1981. Everyone knows it’s big – and that, along with the Great Wall of China, it’s one of the few landmarks distinguishable from outer space. But exactly how big is it? At 350,000km2 it’s larger than the whole of New Zealand, and roughly the same size as Japan. Ten percent of the world’s fish species are found there, as are more than a third of the planet’s soft corals.
It’s an intriguing melting pot with some remarkable inhabitants. Quietly living on the seabed is a cunning sea cucumber with the ability to turn into a liquid when handled, then to pull itself together again when it’s left alone. Dive-bombing booby birds have adapted to their fish-catching lifestyle by growing built-in shock absorbers in their heads. Many species, such as Maori Wrasse and Potato Cod, are protected. Others, like the ancient mariner of the sea, the turtle, having inhabited the oceans for 150 million years, now find themselves endangered. Bashful dugongs are also at risk, with Marine Park protective zones incorporating the estuarine seagrass beds of Hinchinbrook and Shoalwater Bay that they inhabit.
Well known as a tourist destination, the Marine Park is actually a vital economic hub sustaining coastal communities via boating, fishing, aquaculture, research and shipping, as well as all-important tourism. The Great Barrier Marine Park Authority (www.gbrmpa.gov.au) manages all activities in the Marine Park, with a strict charter of Responsible Reef Practices incorporating permits, designed to protect its long-term heritage. Most of the regulations are common sense for anybody visiting a fragile, sensitive environment, with some activities attracting a small fee for users. Follow the creed of “tread lightly and leave nothing but footprints” and you’ll help to protect the delicate reef.
The Marine Park is divided into zones, with particular activities restricted to each. For example, a General Use Zone has few restrictions (within reason) and merely requires commercial operators to hold the relevant permit to undertake certain fishing practices. Others, like Preservation Zones, are designed to protect fragile areas like bird-nesting sites, and access is restricted to all but scientific researchers. Green Zones are the most common in heavy tourism areas, permitting boating, diving and research but no fishing. Zoning is integral to securing the future of the reef, and is perhaps one of the reasons why that remote, small-group dive tour you want to do is sold out months in advance.
Scientific research is an important aspect of Marine Park management, with permanent research stations set up on Heron and Lizard Islands. Coral bleaching, thought to occur as water temperatures rise, is a hotly monitored topic, as are outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish, which consume coral tissue faster than coral can grow. Water quality, essential for the health of Marine Park inhabitants, is affected by land pollution and river catchment runoff, making it essential that human activity is closely managed.
Many islands are designated National Parks, with areas set aside for restricted commercial development and campsites. Resorts are located on some islands, all of which, with the exception of Hamilton Island, consist of low-rise buildings that meld with their environment. Hardy campers have access to stunning far-flung campsites, far enough from light pollution to lose yourself beneath the twinkling Milky Way. Most campsites are only accessible by private boat or foot. Camping permits cost around $5pp per night, booked through Qld Parks and Wildlife. Some sites are equipped with a pit toilet, water supply and picnic table, while others require that campers take in, and out, absolutely everything.
Though there are notable dangers like crocodiles, sharks, snakes, spiders and jellyfish, it’s likely that if you take the right precautions you won’t encounter anything more harmful than a March Fly. It’s comforting to know that while more than 1600 people die on Australian roads each year, only one dies from a shark attack. A little common sense will help you prevent becoming that annual statistic. Box Jellyfish and the tiny Irukandji Jellyfish are a particular unseen hazard requiring immediate treatment, with a sting moving quickly from excruciatingly painful to potentially fatal within hours (beware also of colourful nudibranches, or sea slugs, that eat venomous jellyfish and store their stinging cells – while pretty, they’re extremely nasty to the touch as well). Domestic vinegar is effective in deactivating venom-filled tentacles, which is why you’ll see vinegar bottles permanently stationed on lifeguard-patrolled beaches. Distinctly unglamorous lycra stinger suits ensure that wearers foolishly feel like a Teletubby, however they are effective as barriers during the peak stinger season from December to March.
While some of the wildlife should necessarily be treated with caution, most species are harmless, shy even, and will disappear as soon as spotted. If you’re lucky enough to get up close and personal to a whale, dugong, dolphin or turtle, it’s an experience you won’t easily forget. If you’re visiting between May and September, look out for Humpback Whales migrating north from the Southern Ocean to breed in the warmer waters. The return journey south is used as a training run for newborn calves learning hunting and survival skills. Dwarf Minke Whales are also regular visitors.
Six of the world’s seven turtle species inhabit the Marine Park, and are frequently sighted, or indeed heard, if you know what to keep an ear out for. Once you learn to recognise their distinct intake of breath as they surface, you’ll be rewarded with a rare close-up of these bashful creatures. Nesting season, which can vary anytime between October through to April depending on species and habitat, provides a particularly moving experience for the fortunate few who witness turtles nesting or hatching on a remote beach.
Best time to visit
Because of its vast length, the Marine Park has diverse weather systems, making it confusing to work out the best time to visit. Put simply, however, the weather can be categorised into two main seasons: the wet and the dry, with actual temperatures varying little between the two. Look at the humidity and rainfall levels, though, and the difference is immediately obvious.
The cooler, dry season is generally between April and October with low humidity, cooling trade winds and high temps between mid-teens to mid-20s. It’s consistently warm during the day and cooler in the evening. Most people consider this the best time to visit, particularly southerners intent on escaping a bone chilling winter.
From December to March the climate is more dramatic, as the wet season brings sultry humidity, storms and plenty of rain, preceded by the “build-up” around November. Officially, this is the worst time to visit, though it’s certainly interesting. It’s not the time for a romantic tropical honeymoon, however, if you’re not used to the steamy tropics. Even the locals go a little crazy during the build-up as the sky teases with dark, ferocious clouds, thunder and outrageous lightning theatrics, with little more than frustrating light showers falling. Around January the skies open with a vengeance as the mood alternates between sultry and just plain wet. It’s also around this time that the cyclone season kicks in, adding danger to the drama.
The wet season, though, has its advantages, the obvious one being a lack of crowds. But the real attraction for those flexible enough to tackle the challenge is simply that the tropics during the wet is an awesome place to find yourself. Where else can you stand beneath a torrential downpour and still feel warm? Or lounge beneath the buzzing-with-life rainforest canopy as a gushing cascade of pure mountain water fresh enough to drink gently pummels your weary shoulders? Out in the Marine Park, the lack of wind improves water clarity, with the sea surface the kind of calm, glassed-out ocean presented in glossy tourism brochures.
The downside, of course, is that some tourism operators take their annual holidays, so not all services are operating. And there’s the matter of that constant trickle of sweat running down your spine, even as you sit in the shade enjoying a beer. There’s also a few seasonal nasties about, like the aforementioned jellyfish, so it’s best to swim in a stinger-protected enclosure. However, if this all sounds too tough, then the dry season is definitely the best time for you to visit.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a strong connection with the Marine Park, with more than 70 Traditional Owner groups. Some, particularly in the far north, maintain traditional hunting and gathering methods. According to one Palm Island Traditional Owner, “My sea country gives me peace and serenity that I can’t find elsewhere. It is who I am: how I am related to country.” Significant Aboriginal art sites, such as the one at Stanley Island, provide a fascinating insight into life on the reef through Indigenous eyes, long before Captain James Cook and his peers arrived on the scene. Many popular destinations within the Marine Park bear the names that Cook bestowed on them. Particularly significant are the outer reefs in the north, where he struggled to find safe passage through the maze of dangerous reef in the Endeavour.
So let’s follow Cook, shall we, as we navigate our way northwards through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park . . .
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