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Seadragons, Part 7: The Great Barrier Reef

By Leslee Matsushige, aquarium co-curator

My research trip to Australia has concluded and I’m back home at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, but I wanted to share some incredible photos from the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the world’s largest coral reef system, featuring more than 2,900 individual reefs across 1,600 miles. It can even be seen from space!

Bushy Feather Star

Bushy Feather Star (Comanthina schlegeli) sitting on top of coral. Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom.

Over three days, I experienced 11 amazing dives aboard the Spirit of Freedom. The weather and water temperature in Cairns is more tropical and warmer compared to southern Australia, so I was able to switch out my 7mm wetsuit for a thinner 3mm one.

I went diving on the Ribbon Reefs and at Cod Hole, on the northern end of the Reef. These dive sites are located within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a protected area that aims to limit the impact of human use from activities such as fishing and tourism. The Reef is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Suited up and ready to go!

Suited up and ready to go!

Entering the water

Entering the water with anticipation! Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom.

Many of the dives sites were pristine with so much diversity of fish and invertebrates. During my first dive, I ran into a black tip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus), a species we display at Birch Aquarium. It was not uncommon to spot grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchosor white tip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) on every dive.

I also saw sea snakes and green sea turtles and ran into schools of barracuda, big eye trevally, snappers, fusiliers, and fairy basslets. The coral growth was incredible; it was difficult to identify all of the species observed.

Olive Sea Snake (Aipysurus laevis)

Olive Sea Snake (Aipysurus laevis) in the Great Barrier Reef.

School of Yellowfin Goatfish

School of Yellowfin Goatfish (Mulloidichthys vanicolensis) with Bluelined Snapper (Lutjanus kasmira) and Longspot Snapper (Lutjanus fulviflamma). They all have similar color patterns and body shape. Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom.

School of Red Bass

School of Red Bass (Lutjanus bohar) and Elongate Surgeonfish (Acanthurus mata). Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom

Me diving above a beautiful coral garden

Me diving above a beautiful coral garden with Fairy Basslets (Pseudanthias disbar) and Reticulated Damsels (Dascyllus reticulatus). Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom

Large Staghorn Coral (Acropora sp.)

Large Staghorn Coral (Acropora sp.). Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom

Bushy Feather Star

Bushy Feather Star (Comanthina schlegeli) on Moon coral (Favia sp.). Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom

Of course it was also a delight to see and photograph various species of anemone fish hanging out in large anemones on the Reef.

Maroon Clownfish

Maroon Clownfish (Amphiprion melanopus) in a large anemone colony. Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom

Orangefin Anemonefish (Amphiprion chrysopterus)

Orangefin Anemonefish (Amphiprion chrysopterus)

One of the highlights of my trip was diving at Cod Hole, a dive site well known for the large potato cod (Epinephelus tukula), a fish that can reach more than 6 feet in length. They are very tame and attracted to divers. How cool to be diving alongside a potato cod almost as large as me!

Me with a Potato cod

Me with a Potato cod (Epinephelus tukula) at Cod Hole dive site. Photo courtesy of Spirit of Freedom

I think he likes me.

I think he likes me. Potato cod (Epinephelus tukula) posing next me at Cod Hole dive site.

These were the last dives of my trip-of-a-lifetime across Australia. I’ve learned so many things about seadragons and I can’t wait to apply this knowledge to our efforts to care for and breed these amazing animals.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me!

********

Update: December 2012

Part 8: Google+ Hangout

Part 7: The Great Barrier Reef

Part 6: Leafy seadragons

Part 5: Diving at Flinder’s and Visiting Melbourne Aquarium

Part 4: The Importance of this Trip

Part 3: Sydney Aquarium & Diving in Melbourne

Part 2: Diving in Sydney

Part 1: Traveling ‘Down Under’ to Study Seadragons

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