Diving and Underwater Photography at the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef consists of thousands of individual reefs stretching for thousands of kilometers along the coast of Queensland. The color and diversity of the corals and marine life at the Great Barrier Reef are almost unmatched in the world, and the possibilities for underwater encounters and photographs are endless.
Diving the GBR
The Great Barrier Reef is, well, great, and there are numerous locations from which the reef can be visited. I dove the northern section of the reef, basing my operations from the beautiful town of Port Douglas, about an hour’s drive north from Cairns. The dive boats take approximately an hour every morning to get to the reef, depending on the specific reef. Most dive operators offer the opportunity to do 3 dives at 3 different dive sites in one day (highly recommended - a much more efficient use of the dive day than merely doing 2 dives). During the summer months, the boat ride might itself be an exciting part of the dive experience, as minke and humpback whales are often seen migrating along the coast. I was fortunate enough to see humpback whale breaches on 4 of the 5 days I dove the Great Barrier Reef.
Choosing the dive operator to dive the reef with is an important decision. For inexperienced amateur divers and tourists for whom the reef is just one part of their visit, the large boats that take hundreds of people at once to the same sites every day may be adequate. However, if you are passionate about diving (or especially underwater photography!), I highly recommend using a smaller dive operation for diving, for example the excellent ABC Scuba Diving. Although more expensive, a reasonably sized dive group will allow for a much more intimate underwater experience.
Where-ever you choose to dive the Great Barrier Reef, it is bound to be great (until we have completely destroyed the reef through pollution and climate change, that is). However, a liveaboard visiting multiple areas of the reef may be the best option, depending on one’s individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the most spectacular dive site in Queensland is, surprisingly, not at the Great Barrier Reef. The SS Yongala shipwreck, accessed from Alva Beach (1h from Townsville), is stunning in the diversity of marine life present, and you should make diving the Yongala a priority if visiting Queensland for its underwater beauty. Read more about my experiences from diving the SS Yongala wreck here.
There are hundreds of dive sites along the Great Barrier Reef, and many small operators (with a permit to do so) continuously explore new parts of the reef system in search of new dive sites. Naturally, the dive site determines the marine life present and possible to photograph; however, the Great Barrier Reef is best characterized by the vibrantly colored reefs and small to medium sized fish life. With some exceptions, the GBR is not the destination for large animal encounters underwater. Both wide angle (my preference) and macro photography are possible at almost all dive sites; just ask your dive guide which lens would best suit the forthcoming dive.
Close-focus wide angle (CFWA) underwater photography can be tremendously effective in yielding images that capture the sprite of the Great Barrier Reef. Although most dive sites at the GBR are shallow and have good visibility, a good lighting technique is critical for CFWA in order to reveal the colors and details of the subject whilst avoiding backscatter and maintaining a realistic look (unrealistic sci-fi style images have an appeal too, but they are not my style of preference). The photograph of an incredible pink fan coral (above) at the GBR showcases how colorful and detailed the intricate reef organisms truly are. Although the coral did appear brilliant when underwater, using a flash and adjusting the color balance of the raw image in post production undoubtedly exaggerates the vibrance of the structure. Nevertheless, I believe that the photograph conveys the essence of the Great Barrier Reef.
Using one strobe or an uneven power balance between two strobes can be effective for creating interesting contrast in the image: see the single-strobe lit image of reef fish above a hard coral at the top of the page. When looking for subjects to photograph, observe the behavior of animals, looking for individual or groups of fish that allow you to get close, and pass with subjects that do not tolerate you.
Small reef hiding in the coral can be devilishly difficult to photograph, as they tend to shoot back into hiding as you approach them with your loud bubbles. In order to incorporate them into my reef photographs, it was crucial to observe their behavior and reactions to myself and to use this information to my advantage. Some fish are just too shy to be photographed. Others become curious after a while, and slowly emerge from hiding to have a look at the intruder. It is most effective to frame the photograph first and then to wait for the fish to swim in.