International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
This is just a tiny section of the mighty Great Barrier Reef, which covers 135,000 square miles – an area significantly larger than Britain – along the Queensland coast, supporting thousands of species of fish, sea turtles, sharks and whales, with corals in 400 varieties.
On view today are the staghorn coral – its hard, pointed antlers growing thick and knobbly – and the maze-patterned blobs of brain coral, as well as the purple, fan-shaped ‘elephant’s ears’. Then, from the softly grasping, greenish-mauve fingers of a sea anemone, the orange-and-whitestriped clownfish made famous by Pixar Port Douglas Best for snorkelling and diving and Disney’s Finding Nemo emerges, and a silent ballet of excited slow-motion pointing begins among the snorkellers. ‘They always want to see Nemo,’ laughs John Scotese, a Chicago-born marine biologist aboard the Wavedancer catamaran floating in the waters nearby.
The boat is anchored at the Low Isles, where a small coral cay juts out above the water with a jauntily red-topped lighthouse and a shelly beach where weary snorkellers flop between sessions. It is uninhabited today, but in 1928 this small island played host to a group of British scientists as they embarked on a historic quest to complete the world’s first survey of a coral reef. According to John, no-one had really understood coral reefs before this time.
‘They discovered how these ecosystems function and gave us a lot of important knowledge that we still use today. And the reef is not an easy thing to survey,’ John says, with an arm gesture that indicates the complex network of reefs stretching from here to the edge of the continental shelf. ‘It’s an incredibly diverse world. Every day I go down there, I tend to find a new plant or animal I haven’t seen before. And if I don’t, I feel genuinely surprised.’
It’s time to leave. As a dinghy rounds up the last of the group, a green sea turtle pops up a few feet from the catamaran’s rail. It floats for a moment, its large black eyes seeming to observe proceedings with interest, then disappears just as suddenly, back to its world beneath the waves.
Quicksilver's Wavedancer visits the Low Isles daily (£100). Check water clarity forecasts, as visibility here can be poor.
Travel out to a pontoon in the Outer Reef (£140) or visit reef locations on a smaller craft (£130).
Where to eat
A local favourite is the Salsa Bar & Grill, where high-end tropical dishes are the order of the day (dinner mains from £20).
Where to stay
The Peninsula Boutique Hotel is set just a little way back from the beach, with sea views beyond the trees. Rooms are neat and stylish, with gargantuan tiled spa baths designed for a post-snorkelling soak – or you can choose to relax by the lovely shaded courtyard pool (rooms from £200).
Mount Mulligan: Best for outback
‘Block the lead! The lead!’ The call goes up from behind a dusty scrum of jostling bovine bodies, and a black-and-white short-haired collie streaks across the ground to head off the progress of a stray. It’s muster day at the Mount Mulligan station (the local name for a ranch) and half a dozen mounted stockhands are driving a motley herd of cattle down into the pastures. Helping them are three matching dogs, running a full-speed circular relay of canine discipline, their feet barely touching the ground.