By Nigel Marsh.
I was simply amazed – the coral gardens all around me were some of the best I had seen in over thirty years of diving the Great Barrier Reef.
You might think I was diving a very remote section of this natural wonder of the world, but no, I was diving the Agincourt Reefs off Port Douglas, one of the most popular day trips on the entire Great Barrier Reef.
Over the last thirty years I have been fortunate to explore almost every section of the Great Barrier Reef, but for some reason I had overlooked the diving out of Port Douglas. On a recent trip to Cairns I finally decided it was time to check out Port Douglas, a lovely holiday town one hour north. With three days to spare, I had time up my sleeve to check out a site I’d never dived before.
Being so popular you would also think that the dive sites would be packed with people, but the great majority are snorkellers and the number of certified divers is generally no more than a dozen, and often much less.
Departing at 8.30am, we barely had time for the dive briefing and setting up our gear before we arrived at the Agincourt Reefs at 10am. Even if you haven’t heard of the Agincourt before, you probably know the famous Ribbon Reefs, which are a continuation of the same fringing reefs. The Agincourt Reefs sit on the edge of the same continental shelf and are over 20km long. While gearing up for the first dive the crew informed me that they have over 40 dive sites to choose from on this large reef system.
Our first dive, at a spot called Castle Rock, was just magic. Jumping in to find the visibility over 30m was a great start to a wonderful dive. This site consists of a large coral bommie that rises from 26m to almost break the surface. While the bommie was fun to explore, the best part of the dive was found in the shallows where the beautiful hard coral gardens left me breathless. The hard corals here were just exquisite, some of the best I had seen on the entire Great Barrier Reef, and also very healthy and unbroken – amazing when you consider the number of snorkellers and divers that visit this site.
In the shallows were schools of snapper, fusiliers and goatfish, but I also encountered sweetlips, giant clams, countless reef fish and a white-tip reef shark. But the main feature of this site was Colin, the resident Malabar groper, over one metre long and happy to pose for photographs.
Our dive at Wreck Bay was brilliant for seeing coral gardens and a multitude of reef fish with schools of drummer. Later that day, we dived the Point. This was a wall dive dropping to 30m plus with beautiful soft corals in deeper water and lovely hard corals in the shallows. We were greeted by a large flowery groper, and encountered grey reef sharks, white-tip reef sharks and several Maori wrasse.
Nursery Bommie was also spectacular. This tower of coral is similar to bommies I have dived on the Ribbon Reefs. Rising from 25m, Nursery Bommie is home to schools of snapper, barracuda, trevally and drummer. But we also saw coral trout, red bass, surgeonfish and a beautiful leaf scorpionfish.
I was ready to explore more new sites on the Agincourt Reefs. Barracuda Bommie, which proved to be even better than Nursery Bommie, rising from 26m and decorated with gorgonians, sea whips, sponges and black coral trees. A massive school of snapper swarmed around its base, and we also encountered barracuda, turtles, trevally, fusiliers, coral trout, sweetlips, drummer and many other species. The sand around the bommie was also home to garden eels, shrimp gobies and blue spotted stingrays. What a great dive!
For something a little different, a drift dive along a wall that finished in Turtle Bay hit the spot. This wall dropped into 40m plus and was covered in some lovely hard corals, soft corals, gorgonians and sea whips. Drifting along we encountered turtles, Spanish mackerel, grey reef sharks, bumphead parrotfish and schools of snapper.
My final dive at the Agincourt Reefs was at a site called Phil’s Reef. Another drift dive over pretty coral gardens; we spotted turtles, sweetlips, stingrays, coral trout, gropers, snapper and parrotfish.
In total we did nine dives on the Agincourt Reefs and I must say I was impressed by not only the wonderful corals, but also the wealth of marine life I saw on every dive. The sites I explored were as good as many I had dived on the Ribbon Reefs, which is generally considered one of the best locations on the Great Barrier Reef. I know next time I am in Cairns I will be looking forward to a side trip up to Port Douglas to explore more of the wonderful Agincourt Reefs.
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