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Finding Nemo is one of the most popular and charming Disney movies. Who wouldn’t love the magically colourful underwater world where Nemo and his friends get a lift to school on an Eagle Ray? But is this imagery causing some visitors to be disappointed by the real thing?

picture of coral and clownfishPeople travel from all over the world to go diving and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. There’s no doubt it is one of the best places in the world to do these activities since it is still relatively healthy with good coral cover and plenty of marine life.

However one of the comments sometimes heard by visitors is that it’s not as colourful as they were expecting.

This is understandable if they came expecting Nemo or what they see in magazines and TV documentaries. Instead of an amazing array of colourful corals and fish, in real life, everything on the Great Barrier Reef can seem quite murky.

There are a few explanations for this:

[headline size=”small” align=”left”]sunlight penetration[/headline]

Probably the most important factor is that sunlight doesn’t penetrate through water very effectively so the deeper you go underwater the greener everything looks.

The hardest colours to see underwater are reds, oranges and yellows so all the fish and corals in this colour spectrum will look green.

By contrast you will see that bright blue fish and purple corals really stand out.

When camera crews film the Great Barrier Reef they use very high tech camera equipment and strobe lighting. Only by lighting up the coral can you really see its true colour.


Beautiful clownfish shot used in tourism imagery

Tourism photo

Just to show you the difference, this is a professional shot (courtesy of Tourism & Events Queensland).

See what difference lighting makes compared to a photo we took below.


spine cheek anenome fish

Spine cheek anenome fish – no lighting, no photoshop

The real thing

We took this photo on a recent trip to Paradise Reef near Cairns.

It is an accurate representation of what we actually saw when we were snorkelling on that day with overcast and windy weather.


So the lesson here is if you really want to see the true colours of the reef, take an underwater torch with you.

[headline size=”small” align=”left”]weather[/headline]

We are blessed with many beautiful sunny days in North Queensland but if you happen to travel to the reef on a cloudy day, the reef will not look as bright.

Visibility is also affected by wind, especially when there’s been a cyclone, because it stirs up particles in the water that takes a few days to settle.

[headline size=”small” align=”left”]soft vs. hard corals[/headline]

soft corals, low isles

Soft corals off the Low Isles (photoshopped)

If you choose to go snorkelling off an island rather than out in the ocean on the outer reef, the variety of corals you will see will be less colourful.

The soft corals more often found around the islands are not as colourful as the hard coral further out to sea.



[headline size=”small” align=”left”]location location[/headline]

picture of steve's bommieThe other thing to bear in mind is that the Great Barrier Reef is thousands of kilometres long and when film crews come to film the reef they scout the best locations.

The most pristine parts of the reef that are often seen in documentaries are well away from where all the crowds of snorkellers and divers go.

Tourism clearly has an impact on the reef. You don’t need to see very many amateur snorkellers bashing the coral with their fins by accident to realise this.

The Great Barrier Reef is precious and it needs to be protected and so for that reason, it’s probably for the best that most of us are kept well away from the best parts.

[headline size=”small” align=”left”]travel nq fast facts:[/headline]

  • Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef is amazing whatever the weather. You will see lots of fish, possibly turtles and rays, and lots of coral but adjust your expectations of how it will look if the weather isn’t great.
  • If you are prone to seasickness, take a Kwell tablet before you go just in case (available at pharmacies). It will make your day much more pleasant if it’s windy.
  • Most dive operators will provide a torch for night dives but not for daytime dives.
  • The most pristine parts of the reef are off Cape York. To go to these areas you will need to go on a 3-4 live-aboard dive trip from Cairns, which are usually reserved for certified divers. (Update: the coral bleaching events in 2016-2017 mostly affected the northern half of the reef. Ask the operator for information on reef conditions – bleaching tends to occur in pools so some patches are bleached and others are not)
  • All snorkel tour operators on the Great Barrier Reef provide equipment.

Some of these photos are thanks to Tourism & Events Queensland