Wheeler Reef, Townsville

Less than two metres away a cuttlefish hovered. From under a small coral bommie another emerged but hung back, behind the first. We began a crazy dance routine with the pair of cuttles … we moved forward … they moved back.

It didn’t take long to realise they needed a safety zone. Once we accepted their terms, and moved slowly, we could enjoy their company from two metres away.

The cuttles had distracted us from the natural beauty of the reef system. The corals were pristine and between them giant clams nestled, some up to half a metre across. Above them fish of every shape and colour hovered and darted about.

Our dive was at Wheeler Reef, part of the protected green zone of the Great Barrier Reef off Townsville in Central Queensland. Unlike many other parts of the reef, Wheeler didn’t allow fishing or collecting yet divers were still permitted to enjoy it. This was as good a reef as any we’d seen along the Great Barrier Reef and the cuttles were a bonus.

The cuttlefish changed colour constantly, and patterns flowed across their bodies. Over the sand they glowed white, reverting to dark brown near the bommie. At no stage did they move more than 20 metres away from the safety of their home territory.

A pair of giant trevally flashed past above us. In the 25-metre visibility we couldn’t be sure whether they were escaping from something bigger or chasing their own prey.

The cuttles promptly moved back into the gap in the bommie as our imaginations worked overtime, waiting for something big following the trevally. A few more trevally appeared, travelling at a far more leisurely pace. Something bigger followed, but far from being a predator, it was a one-metre batfish. It checked us out with big sad eyes then casually vanished into the blue.

In the distance the shadow of a large bommie gradually took on colour and shape as we approached it. On one side a massive brain coral stood above the staghorns. Dozens of little colourful fish danced with the sunlight and several red-throated emperor fish hovered, as if waiting for something to happen.

A massive sea anemone flowed gently with the surge and its resident crew of clownfish moved amongst the tentacles. As we approached, two clownfish dashed out towards us, then back into the shelter of the anemone. Their threating display was repeated, each time coming closer. Fingers, cameras and strobes were subject to attack from a fish that was happy to take on an adversary a thousand times larger than itself.

Laughing underwater isn’t audible but can be identified by the bursts of bubbles. We enjoyed our encounter then backed away, leaving the clownfish to defend their territory from the next group of bubble-blowing invaders.

The bommie met the sand at 20 metres. The seemingly barren patch between the corals was interspersed with trails. Hundreds of animals had crawled over the sand and then vanished beneath it to wait for night to re-emerge.

Our dive finished with a lengthy session back on the bommie top – watching thousands of little basslets and damsels milling over the corals. The intrusion of a larger fish every so often created a mass exodus back into the safety of the corals.

We climbed back aboard, dropped gear and readied it for the next dive. The boat didn’t move and we would descend into a different world once the sun went down.

The pre-night dive stance on the duckboard always gives a sense of foreboding. No point in standing there thinking about it and two splashes later we were in.

The corals reappeared lit by our torches. Most of the little fish had gone but thousands of tiny shrimp-like creatures raced around, bouncing off the torches and into us.

On the sand the creators of the trails revealed themselves. A volute, its body a different pattern to the white spotted porcelain of its shell, moved rapidly hunting for food. Other shells emerged and moved about, leaving more trails.

At the edge of the reef a large blue clam sat wide open, its mantle extending right out over the shell. Several smaller green, brown and yellow-mantled clams retracted their mantles as the torchlight lit them.

Two emerald eyes, belonging to a crocodilefish, glowed. It sat, camouflaged on the sand, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to come too close to its mouth.

Under a plate coral a green parrotfish moved away from our light to begin its nightly immersion in the safety of a cocoon. Nudibranchs and sleeping fishes rocked in the gentle surge.

At the edge of our lights, a giant spiny shape materialised into a crown of thorns starfish about a half-metre across. The spines on its back looked threatening to us, but not as threatening as the tube feet were to the corals.

Over the coral, a bright yellow nudibranch with black markings crawled. Nearby another of the same species moved parallel with it. If we had another hour or two to watch we may have seen them make contact.

The cuttlefish had disappeared, but a large octopus moved across the coral. It reached the edge of the torchlight, stopped and changed both colour and texture to match its background. The octopus wanted much more than the two-metre zone the cuttles had. As soon as we moved, it vanished under the coral.

Another large shell moved across the sand. This one was 10cm long with a siphon extending high above its shell. It is one of the most venomous molluscs known, a geographic cone shell, hunting for small fish. The cone shell was equipped with a series of harpoons laced with poison, adapted from its radula or teeth. Any sleeping fish was doomed once injected by the cone. The fast-working toxin would kill instantly and the cone would devour it whole.

In the 25 degrees celsius water we could have continued but we could imagine the smell of dinner wafting over the back deck. The boat’s lights glowed above us and there was always the next night and another reef.

Jenny and Tony dived the Wheeler and the Great Barrier Reef off Townsville courtesy of Pro-Dive Townsville and Tourism Queensland.

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