A string of jewels

Cameron Wilson dives at key sites in a thriving world of giant clams, soft and hard coral, fish and sharks.

The Great Barrier Reef exists in a kind of public relations purgatory, as almost every conference on global warming, every estimate of rising sea levels and every warning about coral bleaching includes the pronouncement: "The Great Barrier Reef could be extinct within our lifetime!"

The planet's largest living organism has become a 2000-kilometre underwater canary-in-the-coalmine, predictions of its demise shorthand for environmental Armageddon.

In spite of this, I embark on my first visit to the reef in eight years optimistic that the fish, corals and other marine life had not heard the news and were swimming, feeding and procreating much as always.

Most of the millions of people who visit the reef annually go between June and August, but the reef is actually at its best just before the summer monsoon when calmer seas bring exceptional underwater visibility. Similarly, because Cairns is well known as a gateway city to the reef, it's often assumed to be the place to stay.

But unless you fancy backpacker bars, Port Douglas, an hour up the road, might be a better option. Accommodation ranges from modest to lavish and several top-notch reef trips leave from here.

One of these is Poseidon and I book a day's diving to check the state of things on Agincourt Reef. There are 38 other passengers on the trip and 10 of us pair off to dive at a site known as Stonehenge, after a cluster of coral plinths that poke out of the waves. Some of the coral bomboras, or "bommies", we drift over are largely barren, while others bristle with soft and hard corals and sea fans in an array of greens, blues, reds and yellows. This mix of the bare and the colourful was much the same when I last dived at Agincourt Reef almost a decade ago.

Tropical reefs can often be disappointingly bereft of giant clams, but at Stonehenge they're everywhere - some more than 1.5 metres across, with fleshy lips in royal shades of purple and green or else creamy browns flecked with yellow. Myriad tiny fish in electric blue, green and yellow dart among gardens of staghorn coral and I spot a colony of anemones with about 20 inhabitant clownfish, the first time I've seen these endearing little "Nemos" in such numbers.

Lunch is standard fare for the better reef tours: prawns, cold meats and salads followed by tea and coffee with muffins and brownies. Satisfied with both the diving and the food, I settle in for the journey back to Port Douglas, chatting with my fellow divers about their reef experiences.

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While everyone has seen corals blooming with health and others less so, the biggest surprise for most has been the time taken to reach the outer reef.

Most tour boats will travel for three hours for the round trip in order to spend four hours moored by the coral. This can make a live-aboard trip an appealing option as you get more time snorkelling or diving relative to time spent in transit. But it does mean committing to a set number of days at sea - a pain if the weather turns or you're not much enjoying the boat.

A flexible alternative is Reef Encounter, which can accommodate guests for one or several days, as its sister vessel Reef Express ferries passengers to and from Cairns daily. My two-day Top Deck package with Reef Encounter includes a dive guide and valet - a peppy English girl named Lucy.

The moment I step on board it's apparent the Reef Encounter pulls off that trick some boats do of being roomier inside than they appear from the outside. My cabin has a comfortable double bed and a compact bathroom cubicle (there's also a plate of fresh fruit and glass of champagne). Lucy outlines the boat's amenities and dining schedule and then switches roles from valet to dive guide, ensuring I have a properly fitted wetsuit and scuba rig.

After lunch, Lucy and I suit up and step off the dive platform, sinking alongside the mooring line to Hastings Reef. Reef Encounter shuttles between Hastings and Saxon reefs, so multiday divers and snorkellers get variety.

As at Agincourt Reef, giant clams are in abundance and while some bommies look past their best, others teem with life.

We encounter dozens of parrot fish and a pair of humphead or Maori wrasse, each more than a metre long. Lucy spots a loggerhead turtle on the surface and we watch it dive past us to the bottom to fossick for food. Occasionally a white-tip reef shark glides by and when I find one resting on the sand, I'm able to settle almost alongside it.

For my final water session off Reef Encounter, I abandon the scuba gear and spend an hour snorkelling about the reef shallows. Anemones and clownfish, more giant clams, a turtle and a cruising black-tip reef shark are among the sightings, along with forests of staghorn coral that glow green, orange and blue.

On the run back to Cairns aboard Reef Express, I sit topside with the skipper, who gives me the fisherman's view on the relative merits of coral trout, barramundi and Spanish mackerel as well as the grim outlook for ocean fish stocks.

In the end we agree we don't know what impact global warming will have on the reef, but probably no one does.

It's to be hoped that in years to come we will be able to say that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar (jetstar.com) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) fly daily to Cairns from Melbourne and Sydney. Shuttle buses operate to Port Douglas, or hire a car. Phone (07) 4053 1016; see cairnsairportrentacar.com.

Underwater there

Poseidon day trips leave from the Port Douglas Marina for the outer edge's Agincourt Reef. Transfers from Cairns are available. Snorkelling costs from $200 an adult, $135 a child (4-14 years); an introductory dive costs from $260 a person; two certified dives from $240. Phone 1800 085 674; see poseidon-cruises.com.au.

A three-day Reef Encounter "Top Deck" package costs from $1070 a person, twin share, including meals, dive-snorkel guide and scuba gear. Phone (07) 4051 5777; see reefencounter.com.au.

Staying there

Macrossan House in Port Douglas has one-bedroom self-contained apartments from $99 a night (low season), minimum three-night stay. Phone (07) 4099 4366; see macrossanhouse-port-douglas.com.au.

Peppers Beach Club has a poolside bar and restaurant. Rooms cost from $210 a night (low season), minimum two-night stay. Phone 1300 737 444; see peppers.com.au.

Eating there

Mango Jam Cafe on Macrossan Street, Port Douglas, has good-value pizzas as well as seafood, pasta, burgers, steaks and salads. Phone (07) 4099 4611.

The Living Room on Wharf Street serves "mod Oz" cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. Phone (07) 4099 4011.

More information

Irukandji jellyfish are present along the north Queensland coast from December to April. The offshore reef is safe; wear full-length stinger suits for beach swimming or swim in hotel pools. See pddt.com.au.

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