Great Barrier Reef Marine Wildlife Guide

The outer Great Barrier Reef is home to so many fish and coral species – they come in all shapes, sizes and colours! Here’s a guide to some of the colourful and quirky creatures you might meet on your snorkel or dive trip.

Whales

Whales are known to migrate to the sheltered waters of the Great Barrier Reef from June each year, and can often be sighted at the reef between June and late October. During this time, you may see a humpback whale. The months of June and July are the peak season for visiting dwarf minke whales – curious and sociable creatures that may approach divers in what is truly a unique and rewarding experience!

Dolphins

Snubfin (Irrawaddy), indo-pacific humpback and bottlenose dolphins also inhabit the reef’s waters, usually in shallower spots as they feed on smaller fish.

Sea turtles

There are six species of marine turtle to be found at the Great Barrier Reef. The green turtle and hawksbill turtle are the most commonly seen. These captivating creatures are more likely to be seen in warmer months as they get ready to breed.

Reef Sharks

There are more than 160 types of shark in the Great Barrier Reef’s waters. The ones you’re mostly likely to see are the white-tipped reef shark and the grey reef shark. Growing up to about two metres long, these are passive sharks and make for an amazing sight in photos. You might also be able to spot a hammerhead shark (these can be as much as four metres long), epaulette shark, whale shark or tiger shark.

You can see reef sharks up close on our exclusive Sharks in the Dark experience on an overnight cruise.

Rays

From the blue spotted stingray to the fantail ray and manta ray, there are 35 types of these creatures at the reef, usually dwelling on the ocean floor. If you’re lucky, the curious manta ray might approach for a close up experience. These giants are more often seen during May and June.

Reef fish

There are more than 1,500 species of fish at the Great Barrier Reef, and they’re incredibly varied in size, shape and colour. This huge number falls into 13 main groups:

Angelfish: These are among the smaller species – 80 types can be seen at various depths in the reef’s waters.

Butterfly Fish: Don’t be fooled by the subtle differences in appearances between angelfish and butterfly fish – they’re both usually very colourful but you’ll know a butterfly fish if it’s longer and thinner in the body and nose.

Cardinal Fish: This is another of the smaller reef fish types – they’re more rarely seen as they’re nocturnal and often dwell in caves or corals in the daytime.

Clownfish (‘Nemos’): Most of us are familiar with these thanks to their fame in the movie Finding Nemo – they’re usually orange and white striped and found among anemones. These are one of the ‘Great Eight’ iconic creatures on the Great Barrier Reef.

Damselfish: From the bland-coloured reticulated damsel to the black and white striped humbug, damselfish are a common sight in most reef locations.

Gobies: You’ll usually see these small to medium sized fish lower down under the waves, and around the world there are more than 2,000 types.

Grouper: These are large, stout and docile creatures that are generally less colourful than other species. Because they’re larger and slow moving, it’s often possible to be photographed with these fish.

Parrotfish: This fish gets its name not only from its brightly coloured patterns, but also its beak-shaped mouth. Try and spot them if you’re snorkelling because they’re often found not far from the surface of the reef’s waters.

Surgeonfish: A school of these vivid fish is an incredible sight. Perhaps the most famous type is the blue tang surgeonfish, also made famous as Dory in Finding Nemo.

Triggerfish: Also brightly coloured, triggerfish can be identified by the distinctive patterns on their body and seemingly pouty expression!

Trout: Coral trout are one of the reef’s larger fish species – did you know the male coral trout can change colour when it’s courting a female?

Wrasse: There are all shapes, sizes and colours of this common class of fish. You might have heard about the friendly Maori Wrasse – this is one of the most popular types found at the reef. To spot them, look for a big fish with thick lips and a ‘hump’ forehead.

Corals

The Great Barrier Reef houses a vast array of corals in various formations. Over 450 types are hard corals, while others are soft and sway with the currents. Once a year, the corals reproduce by spawning in a mass event that’s amazing to behold. You can join us to see the coral spawning on a special nighttime trip.

The ‘Great Eight’

When you think of the Great Barrier Reef, what creatures come to mind? The Great Barrier Reef ‘Great Eight’ are the living icons of the reef, the ones everyone’s hoping to see on their diving or snorkelling day trip.

They are: clownfish (nemos), turtles, manta rays, Maori wrasse, sharks, giant clams, potato cod and whales.

Join us to discover the Great Barrier Reef and see how many you can tick off your list!