We select three reef sites to share with you and Opal Reef is our main destination. Being the first operator to start visiting this reef in 1986, and the first to put in moorings to protect the reef from anchor damage, we have exclusive permission to access fantastic sites.
Opal Reef is a large, mostly shallow, crescent shaped reef near the edge of the continental shelf. The shape provides a lot of protection from the prevailing wind. This, combined with the clear water, means the reef has really excellent snorkelling. There are a variety of reef types and we try to combine a selection each day to demonstrate the diversity of habitats. Some of our favourite sites along Opal Reef include:
Ray Ban is a very pretty site half way up Middle Opal. The prolific shallow water coral cover and fish give colours that sum up the magic of the Great Barrier Reef. This particular site has a famous inhabitant, Nemo the clown anemonefish, as well as spinecheek and Great Barrier Reef anenomefish all within a few metres of each other.
This site boasts seemingly endless staghorn coral forests, brilliantly coloured giant clams and clouds of colourful damselfish that weave their way in and out of the corals in an almost choreographed dance. Keep your eyes open for stingrays lying on the sandy patches and lizardfish with their brilliant camouflage that sit atop the corals waiting for the next unaware fish to swim past.
Quite close to Rayban this site is a very protected shallow water site. It also has beautiful staghorn coral gardens and a very good example of shallow water reef fish species plus the occasional white tip reef shark and foraging green turtle. It really comes into its own on windy days when some more exposed sites are too challenging.
Mojo is very close to the gap bewteen Middle Opal and North Opal and benefits from the huge water flow though the gap. The reef edge is a very attractive sand fringed ledge. There are also gullies full of blue staghorn coral and blue chromis and offlying bommies with roaming schools of red bass and paddletail snappers. The site has frequent visits from turtles and reef sharks with colourful wrasses and butterflyfish grazing on the reef top.
South North Opal (SNO)
South North Opal has the best possible coral cover with truly beautiful gardens of plate coral. Amazingly the site was in very poor condition some 25 years ago following crown of thorns starfish damage and shows how the reef recovers as long as water quality is good. The current that helps the coral growth and gives very clear water also means the site can sometimes get choppy in windy weather so it’s not suitable to visit every day.
Sandbox is a really lovely and diverse site being on the edge of a channel with sandy patches leading up into shallows. There is great diversity leading from deeper boulder corals to huge gardens of staghorn coral and giant clams. The fish life is equally diverse across the site from more pelagic species at the deep side to large schools of reef fish in the shallows. In calmer weather it’s also possible to swim to deeper bommies with schooling red bass, trevally and barracuda.
Seagull is a totally different type of site on the open ocean side of Middle Opal. Exposed to wave action most of the time we visit it in the wet season in calmer weather. It gives a good example of the coral type and buttress structure of the outside of the reef and has a wild and remote feel.
Bashful Bommie, on South Opal, is a meeting of two very different underwater environments: on the one side, the reef edge stretches to the south with perfect shelter for some of the smaller coral dwelling fish, while the other side is a deeper ocean channel leading to the big blue and creating the perfect environment for larger pelagics. Species found here include a large resident Maori wrasse, large schools of red bass and marauding Spanish mackerel hunting the schooling baitfish. Coral here is more representative of a higher energy site and varies from shallow gardens of hardy corals and giant clams to deeper waters that are home to large boulder corals covered in myriads of Christmas tree worms in all different colours.
Beautiful Mooring is further north from Bashful Bommie and, having more shelter, has more delicate staghorn corals in the shallows. It’s also home to several anemonefish species. You will find these colourful fish darting in and out of the swaying tentacles of anemones that range from white to orange to fluorescent green. The shallow reef flats play host to dozens of butterflyfish species, wrasses, parrotfish and the ever eye-catching blue chromis.
The sandy patches throughout the reef are strewn with different sea cucumber species and sand perches, sitting on their pectoral fins casting their eyes upwards observing the world above. Take time to also explore the deeper edges of the reef and be rewarded with titan triggerfish and sweetlip sightings as well as stingrays.
East South Opal, The Gap, North West Opal and others
Having a smaller group size enables us to do drift snorkels in calmer weather. When tides, weather conditions and passenger snorkelling ability allows, we try to include a drift snorkel in the day. Normally between June and August it’s often too windy but at other times of the year drift snorkels are a great way to see a larger area of reef or access areas that are normally too exposed to be able to snorkel except on calm days.
Long bommie is a satellite reef situated on the sheltered western side of Opal reef in about 25m of water. It’s very unlikely you’ll visit this site for a while as unfortunately the beautiful plate coral gardens were very badly damaged by Cyclone Ita and will take some time to recover. In the meantime we are monitoring the coral recovery as part of our Eye on the Reef program.
So, where exactly is Opal Reef?
Opal Reef is situated about 30 miles off the coast of Australia, right in the Coral Sea. The journey to Opal can take about an hour and a half with part of the trip being quite protected via the maze of Tongue Reef. Our sites are scattered around the whole of the reef system.
Opal Reef is a low impact tourism zone, which means that some of the larger boats are not allowed to visit this amazing site due to their potential impact. Make sure your tour operator has proper low impact tourism procedures.