You might want to stay in the water for another minute,” our skipper called out from the nearby boat as our small group surfaced from a dive on Lady Musgrave Island’s magnificent outer reef. “There’s a pod of whales coming straight for you,” he grinned, and swiftly maneuvered the boat out of the path of the incoming cetaceans.
Peering down through my snorkel goggles, the turquoise water was so clear that I could make out the mantra ray cleaning station some 20m below us, where we’d observed one of these majestic kites of the sea dancing in the current as small fish nibbled at its vast white underbelly. Then everything went black as five barnacle-encrusted humpback whales swam directly beneath us, the gentle giants gliding just meters from the tips of our fins.
Part of the Capricorn and Bunker Group, a cluster of coral cays and reefs on the southern fringe of the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Musgrave Island is one of the reef’s best-kept secrets. While tourists have been visiting the Northern Great Barrier Reef since the 1890s, intrepid travelers didn’t start arriving the southern section until the 1930s, when the turtle cannery on Heron Island was converted into a holiday resort. Yet the Southern Great Barrier Reef (which spans some 300km from the Capricorn Coast down to the Bundaberg region) still receives far fewer visitors than the likes of Cairns and the Whitsunday’s, accounting for less than 9% of the reef’s 2.4 million annual visitors pre-Covid-19.
It’s a shame, for in my own experience of snorkeling and diving along the length of the Great Barrier Reef since my first visit to the Whitsunday’s as a six-year-old in the 1980s, I’ve discovered that its southern fringe is no less spectacular than other sections. Less prone to extreme weather events such as cyclones and prolonged heat waves, it can be argued this corner of the reef is also in better shape. United by a commitment to sustainability, its key tourism operators hope to keep it that way.