N I G E L    M A R S H    P H O T O G R A P H Y

U  N  D  E  R  W  A  T  E  R      I  M  A  G  E  S     A  N  D     A  R  T  I  C  L  E  S


By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose


The great majority of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef visit this natural wonder on a day trip boat. While Cairns is generally considered the main gateway to ‘the reef’ you can also visit the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef on a day trip from the Town of 1770 to the wonderful Lady Musgrave Island.


The Town of 1770 received its unusual name as a result of Captain Cook making a stop here in 1770. Located six hours drive north of Brisbane, the town is a popular holiday destination, not because there are luxury resorts and lots to do here, quite the opposite. Its appeal is that it isn’t spoilt, with lovely beaches and surrounding bushland it’s just a great place to relax and unwind. However there is one activity that most visitors to the town undertake, a visit to Lady Musgrave Island with Lady Musgrave Cruises.


Lady Musgrave Cruises operate a 22m long catamaran surveyed for 140 passengers. The day trip to Lady Musgrave departs at 8.30am and returns at 5pm, and with a two hour journey time each way allowing around four hours on the reef. The day we went out the trip was a little rough, due to a 2m southerly swell that almost cancelled the trip, meaning a lot of seasick passengers. Fortunately once we arrived in the calm protected waters of Lady Musgrave lagoon everyone returned to a normal colour and were ready for their day of adventure.


Most of our fellow passengers were here to snorkel, visit the island, reef walk or fish, but we and six other passengers were here to dive, so quickly geared up on the 20m long covered pontoon that Lady Musgrave Cruises have anchored in the lagoon.


We have dived Lady Musgrave Island a number of times, but always from a liveaboard vessel, so knew the island was surrounded by spectacular dive sites. Off the southern and eastern side of the island is an extensive reef wall that is undercut by caves and ledges. This wall is a great place to see schools of pelagic fish, reef sharks, stingrays, eagle rays, turtles and also olive sea snakes. The more sheltered northern and western sides of the island are where coral gardens and bommies can be found. There is also no shortage of marine life here and this area is the best place to see manta rays, which are found here year round, but are most common over the cooler months.


Our visit to Lady Musgrave was at the start of winter, so our prospects of seeing a manta ray were good and improved even more when our dive guide Dagmar decided to dive Manta Ray Bommie. With the dive gear loaded onto the tender it was a quick five minute trip to the dive site. Once in the water we descended to find the visibility 15m and the water temperature a pleasant 22°C.


Reaching the bottom at 18m we were surrounded by small coral heads that were covered in pretty corals and home to a diverse range of reef fish. We followed the sloping sandy bottom to 22m to find two white tip reef sharks patrolling a group of bommies. The shy sharks didn’t hang around for long so we drifted off with the gentle current from bommie to bommie.


Most areas around Lady Musgrave Island are protected from fishing, so you get to see some decent sized fish here, including coral trout, red emperors, snappers, sweetlips, gropers and a variety of pelagic fish. We saw many of these species as we explored and searched for manta rays.


Arriving at a towering bommie, over 6m high, we knew we had arrived at Manta Ray Bommie as hovering at the top was a large manta ray. This majestic creature was getting cleaned by a squadron of cleaner wrasse and slowly circled above our heads. We watched this graceful creature for several minutes until its clean was finished and it glided off into the blue. We then had fun exploring this giant bommie, which is riddled with caves filled with cardinalfish and decorated with soft corals and gorgonians.


For the rest of the dive we drifted over bommies and coral gardens, encountering green turtles, barracuda, several more reef sharks and even a large Maori wrasse. But the dive ended on a high with two more manta rays observed cruising around the top of another large bommie.


Back on the pontoon it was time for lunch, a great spread of cold meats and salads. All around us the pontoon was a hive of activity; people were jumping in the water to snorkel, others were boarding the glass bottom boat for a tour and a handful of people were donning scuba gear for the very first time for a scuba experience in the lagoon. We were about to join them as our second dive was in the lagoon, with the tender now being used by a group of fishers.


The dive in the lagoon was not nearly as exciting as our morning dive, but there was still plenty to see. The visibility in the lagoon was only 12m, and with a maximum depth of only 6m we could have stayed here all afternoon watching the colourful reef fish. We were quite surprised by the beauty of the coral here, the calm waters allowing delicate hard corals to flourish, including large patches of staghorn coral. While most of the fish were small, the ones under the pontoon certainly weren’t, including schools of sweetlips, goatfish, snapper, rabbitfish, damsels and a few gropers.


We had wonderful day at Lady Musgrave Island and found it the perfect dive destination for anyone with limited time that wants to explore one of the best parts of the Great Barrier Reef.


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