19 February 2021
As a child, Johnny Gaskell would spend his days studying the rivers around his home in Bendigo. After discovering the ocean, and a few years studying science and fisheries management, Gaskell began his career as a tour and dive guide. Not long after, he moved to the heart of the Great Barrier Reef in the Whitsundays.
Now, as Daydream Island’s Master Reef Guide and resident marine biologist, Gaskell looks after one of the world’s largest man-made living coral reef lagoons.
A job that, more often than not, requires him to wetsuit up and head out to the Great Barrier Reef with other enthusiastic divers.
Famous for the exploration of Queensland’s own Blue Holes, Gaskell is on a personal mission to travel the length of the Great Barrier Reef and survey its health. Given his pursuit, Gaskell has visited over 200 reef sites in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park over the last two years.
Out of those 200-plus sites Gaskell examined, ten stood out to him in particular. A collection of secret and hidden wonderlands throughout the Great Barrier Reef that are currently open for anyone to explore.
Sudbury Reef is tucked behind Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns in tropical North Queensland with a white-sand cay at its northern end. From steep drop-offs to shallow clam gardens, Sudbury Reef offers a variety of snorkel and dive spots.
Coral Expeditions’ Outer-known Adventures of the Great Barrier Reef cruise will take you to the remote and untouched northern parts of the reef, including Osprey, Ribbon and Sudbury Reefs. The seven-night cruise departs from Cairns.
If you’re a confident skipper and you have your own boat license, charter your own vessel with NQ Hire Boats from Cairns.
Little Baron Reef is one of over 1,000 separate coral reefs within the Swain Reefs National Park, located just 200 kilometres off the coast of Yeppoon. Loggerhead turtles, hard corals and even humpback whales can be found here.
Adori Charters offers diving, fishing and research expeditions to the Swains Reefs National Park, including Little Baron Reef.
East Kangaroo Reef sits inside a protected green zone offshore from the small seaside town of Bowen at the top of the Whitsundays region. The reef has a channel running through its middle, creating a spectacular drop-off.
Kiana Sail and Dive offer private charters to the reefs in the Whitsundays (including Kangaroo Reef) on board MS Kiana, a fully equipped scuba dive vessel.
This little gem is part of the Swains Reef National Park – a large collection of small reefs, most of which are unnamed. Unnamed reefs can be located with the help of the reference maps provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). The GBRMPA reference for this particular reef is 21-227. It is located roughly 280 kilometres offshore from Yeppoon.
“This particular reef had spectacular swim-throughs, caves and coral cover that was inhabited by a high diversity of fish species and a few species of friendly sharks,” says Gaskell.
“The underwater topography at this site was unbeatable with dramatic walls and gutters for deep swim-throughs.”
Adori Charters offers diving, fishing and research expeditions to the Swains Reefs National Park, including an unnamed reef.
Fitzroy Reef is the largest of the 22 reefs that form the Capricorn and Bunker groups in the southern Great Barrier Reef. This site is popular with divers and snorkelers because the reef forms a ring around a large, deep lagoon that offers protection and anchorage points.
Gaskell vividly remembers this lagoon: “It was an amazing light-blue colour with reefs scattered throughout. The highlight was the coral slopes near the channel entrance to the lagoon. The slopes were completely covered in tightly compacted, diverse hard corals with lots of fish life, particularly parrotfish. It reminded me of some of the spectacular sites right up the top of the Great Barrier Reef, near Raine Island.”
Departing from Great Keppel Island, off the coast of Yeppoon, Keppel Dive offers day and overnight tours to the surrounding reefs, including Fitzroy Reef.
Tiger Reef is a semi-exposed reef east of the coast of Bowen in the Whitsundays, right next to Kangaroo Reef.
“We were excited to visit Tiger Reef because firstly – it’s called Tiger Reef – and secondly, it’s close to the path Cyclone Debbie took in 2017, so we were very interested to see if the protected side still had coral cover,” Gaskell explains.
“We were relieved to find that it was in great condition and had barely any cyclone damage.”
Kiana Sail and Dive offer private charters to the reefs in the Whitsundays, including Tiger Reef.
Briggs Reef is a smaller reef sitting snugly between the larger Moore and Sudbury Reefs near Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns.
“I was blown away by the variety of coral on the reef walls and bommies. Compared to other sites, Briggs Reef has a very high hard coral cover and we saw a few turtles and small sharks,” says Gaskell.
“The site was a real surprise to me. Being so close to Cairns, it’s a great spot for novice or advanced divers,” he adds.
Many liveaboard dive operators visit the reefs near Briggs Reef, including Coral Expeditions, Divers Den and Reef Encounter. It is best to check with the individual operator as itineraries are tailored to weather conditions, currents and tides.
If you’re a confident skipper and have your own boat license, charter your own vessel with NQ Hire Boats from Cairns.
Not ready to reveal the location of this particular reef, Gaskell smirks. “It’s always good to keep a secret or two.”
“It’s a spectacular system of lagoons with very high coral and fish diversity. It’s very delicate but an incredible ecosystem not too far from one of the more popular dive sites in the Whitsundays,” he hints.
“One of the local dive operators is working on incorporating this location into his tours, so hopefully you’ll see me back here very soon,” says Johnny, who encourages people to follow him on Instagram for any updates.
On the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the Whitsundays, approximately 110 kilometres north of the Whitsunday Islands, sits Elisabeth Reef.
Gaskell describes it as one of the most incredible coral habitats he has ever seen. “The water here is crystal clear with thousands of fish zooming around the reef. This site has a considerably high coral cover, particularly on the reef edge. Up to 100 percent in some parts, which is outstanding and makes it one of my favourite dive sites.”
Kiana Sail and Dive offer private charters to the reefs in the Whitsundays (including Elisabeth Reef) on board MS Kiana, a fully equipped scuba dive vessel.
“My number one reef site from my latest expeditions would have to be Crystal Blue Hole, a small reef with a perfect lagoon anchorage right next to a 45-metre-deep Blue Hole.
“The site is 270 kilometres offshore from Yeppoon and part of the Swains National Park. For me, it doesn’t get any better. Inside the hole there was coral cover all around the edge, then a steep drop down into the blue. I couldn’t even see the bottom,” Gaskell explains.
Adori Charters offers diving, fishing and research expeditions to the Swains Reefs National Park, including Crystal Blue Hole.
For more information on the Great Barrier Reef, visit queensland.com.