Sharks and rays of the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is host to one of the most diverse groups of marine life in the world and is home to over 130 species of rays and sharks. Commonly feared and unjustly pursued, sharks are a lot less of a threat than what most people think. Often cautious of people, they have been given a bad reputation, and while there are dangerous species of sharks, most are non-aggressive, shy, and quick to flee.
While there have been incidents in the Whitsundays, the majority believe these could have been avoided, so it's important to arm yourself with knowledge about these creatures before entering the water. For more information on how to be SharkSmart, click here. Rays have also been widely misunderstood and grew to fame when "crocodile hunter" Steve Irwin suffered a fatal encounter with one. In fact, studies show that only about 30 people have suffered fatalities worldwide from stingrays.
Sharks and rays have long held the mystery and wonder of many people, and even the traditional landowners have strong connections to these species as shown in their traditional stories, paintings and art. There are Dreamtime stories that involve sharks and rays carving out the valleys and mountains of the world or the constellations in the skies. They have always been a huge part of Australian culture and continue to be today.
Sharks and rays are differentiated from other species of marine animal by their light skeletons made of cartilage and have remained largely unchanged in the last 400 million years. Most of them give birth to live young after their eggs hatch inside of their bodies, with only a few species laying eggs with their young inside of them. Interestingly, some shark species experience intrauterine cannibalism - which basically means the first internally hatched young eats the rest of the developing eggs living inside the mother before being born. Struggling to survive before they are even born, they never stop that fight for survival.
Sharks in the Whitsundays
There are several species of shark that you may encounter in the Whitsundays, most being non-aggressive and great to see while snorkelling. Most species of sharks that frequent the reefs are not a danger to divers, and are often more afraid of you than you are of them. Recent incidents in 2018 and 2019 had several factors involved, such as people swimming at dusk, and swimming in well-known fishing areas with murky bottoms while on a private bareboat. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Queensland Government and Queensland tourism bodies have all been working tirelessly on shark management programmes to place in the region, working with expert marine biologists who specialise in shark behaviour to continue to improve the safety for visitors as well as these incredible creatures.
That being said, education is key to staying safe on and in the water in the Great Barrier Reef, especially if you're going out on your own. If you're booking with a chartered tour, your onboard crew are trained in emergency situations, and you should always look for the WCBIA logo to ensure they are up to industry standards. For more information on sharks in the Whitsundays click here. Here are some species of sharks found in the Great Barrier Reef in the Whitsundays:
Whitetip Reef Shark
This is the most frequently sighted shark in the Whitsunday Islands and is non-aggressive towards humans. The whitetip reef shark has a slim build and defining white tips on several of their fins. They are agile swimmers and only grow up to 2m, which allows them to swim inside caves and ledges on the reef for protection. Although they are nocturnal and hunt at night, lucky snorkelers may spot them during the day. Their diet consists of small bony fish, octopus, crab and lobster and they can live up to 25 years. You should still remain calm and cautious with this species, however more than likely you will find they will swim away once they sense your presence in the water.
Blacktip Reef Shark
Distinguished by black markings on the tips of its fins, the blacktip reef shark is the second most frequently spotted shark in the Whitsundays. They are one of the only species of shark that will actually breach the water when hunting, aiming for small fish like sardines, herrings, gropers, rays and even smaller sharks. Females can reproduce asexually when there are no males around, creating their own genetic copies! Their behaviour is similar to the whitetip reef shark, however, you should still exercise caution with any animal you encounter in the wild in the ocean.
'Wobbegong' comes from the Aboriginal word for shaggy beard, named for their shaggy appearance. They are bottom dwellers that blend in very easily with their surroundings and can be very hard to spot. Bites from wobbegongs can be nasty and are almost always inflicted when an unsuspecting diver or snorkeller steps on them, so take extra care when stepping on the 'sands' of the reef, as their camouflage makes them difficult to spot!
Named for the striped pattern found on juveniles, tiger sharks can grow large as adults and are second to the Great White for human incidents. They have been known to eat anything and everything, with contents such as books, tires, jewellery, and clothing being found in their stomachs. Fortunately for snorkelers and divers, these guys usually like to stay in the deeper waters, so it is unlikely you will encounter them when you're snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the Whitsundays. If you find yourself in the water with a tiger shark, don't start swimming erratically, and try to keep your heart rate to a minimum while you safely exit the water.
Another Whitsundays local you'll see is the lemon shark, most commonly spotted in the shallows of Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Island. The inlet provides the perfect protection and is commonly known as a nursery for baby stingrays and baby lemon sharks. You can spot them from the lookout above, or by walking along the shoreline down on the north end of Whitehaven Beach. Lemon sharks are easily identified by their light yellow and brown colouring and can grow up to 3.4 metres in length. While not commonly known to be dangerous to humans, as with any preditorial animal you should be cautious and give them plenty of room, even the baby ones!
Rays in the Whitsundays
There are 35 species of rays in the Great Barrier Reef. They are broad, flat fishes that are closely related to sharks, with thick fleshy skin and skeletons made of cartilage. Many have dangerous barbs which they will use in self-defence and can cause major damage when removed, or leave toxins behind. Fatal stings are rare since the stingray's venom isn't usually deadly unless delivered to the chest or abdominal area. Fortunately, they are not an aggressive species and will stick to the ocean floor or retreat is disturbed. They are easily spotted when visiting the clear waters of Whitehaven Beach; keep an eye out for their tails as they usually have their whole bodies buried except for their eyes. The best practice is to shuffle your feet in the sand when walking through the shallows, and only observe them from the shoreline of Hill Inlet where they are normally found.
The manta ray is one of the most unique encounters you can have while visiting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Large, elegant and curious, manta rays often come into contact with humans as they come very close to snorkelers and divers as well as moored boats. They can grow as large at 7.6m across, and luckily, are of no threat to humans as at all as they only feed on plankton and have no barbs. These gentle giants often sit around the surface and are amazing to encounter.
Blue Spotted Stingray
Easily defined by bright blue and green spots on its dark green back, the blue spotted stingray can grow up to 47cm and feeds on foods like shrimp, crabs and worms. At the end of their tail, they have two toxic barbs that they use when they feel threatened or when hunting. This usually only happens to people when they step on the stingrays and then get stung in the feet or ankles.
You Can Observe Them Out of the Water Too!
Sharks and rays are fascinating and we still have so much to learn about them. If you want to enjoy these animals up close, but aren't sure if snorkelling or diving in the wild is in your comfort zone, you can still get the chance on several tours and attractions around the region.
Daydream Island's Living Reef
Daydream Island hosts the largest outdoor aquarium in the southern hemisphere, where you can see hundreds of different species from the Great Barrier Reef up close in their underwater observatory, or above ground. You can even take a private snorkelling tour in the tank and feed the stingrays (but don't worry, they are all de-barbed and act like aquatic puppy dogs)! You can visit Daydream for the day with a 2-course lunch included or book to stay overnight.
Reefworld Pontoon is another fantastic option for guests concerned with entering the ocean. They offer an underwater observatory and complimentary rides on their submarine that takes you around the outer Great Barrier Reef. If you're keen for a truly magical experience, why not book their Reefsleep, and stay overnight on the Great Barrier Reef for a once in a lifetime bucket list tick? The underwater viewing room comes alive at night, and the tour guides will give you an eco talk once the sun goes down so you can safely observe nocturnal activities without entering the water.
There are also several overnight charter boats that offer additional activities complimentary to passengers, including stand up paddleboards (great for spotting turtles!) and glass-bottom kayaks and boats to give you peace of mind while enjoying the reef from above the surface. For a full list of overnight charters that offer additional activities, click here.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy this natural wonder of the world and its inhabitants for every comfort level. To learn more about sharks in the Whitsundays and how to safely enjoy these animals in the wild, click here.
Are you ready to visit the Great Barrier Reef? Chat to our friendly local travel experts who can help you choose the perfect tour to get out there!