HomeSouth Pacific VacationsAustralia ToursAustralia Guide

Australia’s Great 8: Where to Spot Iconic Great Barrier Reef Animals

Ratings of Zicasso's Service
Woman snorkeling along side a maori wrasse in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Maori Wrasse in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of Tourism Port Douglas and Daintree

Travelers are aware of the famous Big Five on safari in Africa, but when exploring Australia’s colorful Great Barrier Reef creatures, keep an eye out for the Great Eight.

They are known for inhabiting the wide expanse of the Great Barrier Marine Park and whether scuba diving, snorkeling, or riding in a glass-bottom boat, you can get up close and personal with the remarkable visions that demonstrate the marvels of the marine world.

Home to some of the most iconic sea life in Australia, you can experience the splendor and hidden charms as you visit popular places for spotting animals in the Great Barrier Reef.

  1. 1. Clownfish
  2. 2. Sharks
  3. 3. Manta Rays
  4. 4. Maori Wrasse
  5. 5. Potato Cod
  6. 6. Giant Clam
  7. 7. Turtles
  8. 8. Whales
  9. Discover the 8 Iconic Great Barrier Reef Animals

1. Clownfish

Clownfish in anemone at Mackay Reef, Great Barrier Reef, QLD Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Clownfish at Mackay Reef in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of Tourism Port Douglas and Daintree

The clownfish is one of the most popular in the Great Barrier Reef. Its bright orange and white colors stand out against the purple tips of sea anemones rustling in the ocean current.

Ever since Finding Nemo landed in theaters, clownfish have become one of the biggest celebrities of the coral system. They prefer to settle in sheltered reefs and shallow lagoons, protected by the swaying tentacles of sea anemones.

Exploring Lady Musgrave and more of the best secret islands of the Great Barrier Reef, you will often spot clownfish circling their coral homes and escaping lurking marine predators.

Best Places to Find Clownfish: Magnetic Island • Lady Musgrave Island • Green Island • Whitsunday Islands

2. Sharks

Grey reef shark swimming along the reef at Heron island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Grey reef shark at Heron island, Australia

The world’s oceans host 370 species of shark and the Great Barrier Reef supports a smaller variety of uncommon species, such as tiger and hammerhead sharks, as well as more common species like the blacktip shark, grey reef whaler, and white tip reef shark.

The majority of sharks that call reef systems home are not harmful to people and are an important part of the ecosystem. No matter the type of shark, they remain an exciting and cherished vision of marine life at work for scuba divers and snorkelers.

Not only are the Whitsunday Islands home to a range of famous Australian sharks, but they boast some of the best beaches in Australia that provide excellent sightings when cruising from the safe and sheltered shores out to sea.

Best Places to Find Sharks: Whitsunday Islands • Osprey Reef • Prudhoe Island • Heron Island

3. Manta Rays

Manta ray at Lady Elliot island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Manta ray at Lady Elliot island, Australia

The largest of the ray family, manta rays resemble gigantic birds, using their enormous wingspan to propel them. Mantas glide gracefully and despite rumors or misrepresentations, they are harmless and better known for their acrobatic stunts in and out of the water.

Unlike their cousins, stingrays, manta rays do not have barbs. They generally travel alone across long distances in search of plankton and fish larvae, demonstrating their grace as they fly through the water.

On Great Barrier Reef tours that bring you to North Stradbroke, Lady Elliot, and more popular Australian islands, you can swim with the marvelous mantas and watch them fly through the water.

Best Places to Find Manta Rays: North Stradbroke Island • Manta Bommie Dive Site • Lady Elliot Island

4. Maori Wrasse

Man snorkeling along side a maori wrasse in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Maori Wrasse in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of Tourism Australia

The giant, endearing, big-boned Maori wrasse loves to play with scuba divers and snorkelers like a puppy greeting its owner. They tend to follow newcomers around like faithful friends on the Great Barrier Reef.

The large fish can grow over six feet long and weigh nearly 400 pounds. Juveniles prefer the sandy, shallow ranges around the interior reef, while full-grown Maori wrasse linger around pontoons on the outskirts of the reef where the seafloor slopes.

This Great Barrier Reef species is a magical sighting for all ages on Australia tours for families that make room for snorkeling in the marine sanctuary’s islands.

Best Places to Find Maori Wrasse: Lady Musgrave Island • Port Douglas • Hardy Reef • Blue Pearl Bay

5. Potato Cod

Potato cod at Cod Hole on Ribbon Reef #10 in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Potato cod at Cod Hole in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The potato cod has a curious personality, studying scuba divers and snorkelers with a skeptical, attentive eye. They aren’t afraid to get close and start an intimate dialogue, with their wide mouths constantly opening and closing.

Their giant gills flap in the water as they move. They can reach up to eight and a half feet long and weigh up to 240 pounds to create an intriguing and even intimidating introduction as they edge closer to you during a scuba dive or snorkel session.

Osprey Reef is a stunning coral formation where you can view potato cod and lavish cruise liners gliding to the marine garden are an excellent option on luxury Australia tours that veer off the beaten path.

Best Places to Find Potato Cod: Cod Hole • Osprey Reef

6. Giant Clam

Giant colorful clam in The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Giant clam in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Giant clams are the only marine animals on the list of Great Eight that do not move, instead fastening themselves to the reef for their entire existence. The exterior resembles a boulder or rock protruding from the colorful coral system.

When the clam opens its jaws it exposes a captivating interior, often considered its soul. Kaleidoscopic colors are visible when the clam’s jaws open, all surrounded by its nearly four-foot-tall frame.

From Lizard Island to Flynn Reef, couples flock to the Great Barrier Reef on Australian honeymoons to see the giant clams in all their peculiar glory, before returning to gorgeous bungalows on one of Australia’s most picturesque islands.

Best Places to Find Giant Clam: Lizard Island • Flynn Reef

7. Turtles

Newly hatched turtles at night in the sand, making their way to the sea

Baby turtles in Mon Repos, Australia. Photo courtesy of Tourism Australia

Six of the world’s seven seafaring turtles make their homes along the Great Barrier Reef. Instinct drives the turtles to the shores each year, where they mate in the shallows along Queensland’s eastern beaches.

The six species found from north to south along the coral network are loggerhead turtles, green turtles, hawksbill turtles, leatherback turtles, Olive Ridley turtles, and flatback turtles. While the species are different, their nesting timeline along the eastern seaboard is similar.

Visiting Australia for the turtle nesting season is an incredible experience for couples tours of Australia, with trips circling around cinematic islands, including Fitzroy, Heron, and Lady Elliot.

Best Places to Find Sea Turtles: Mon Repos • Lady Elliot Island • Heron Island • Fitzroy Island

8. Whales

Whale jumping at the Gold Coast in Australia

Whale breaching in the Gold Coast, Australia

The largest attraction of the Great Barrier Reef in terms of size, whales explore the marine playground, with a variety migrating through the warm waters of the Coral Sea when venturing to and from the Southern Ocean.

The most commonly spotted whale species include minke and humpback. The dwarf minke and humpback whales are common in the warmer waters of north Queensland in the winter months. Seasoned whale watchers share stories of humpback whales leaping from the water or reaching their fins out from under the surface of the sea.

Most travelers hoping to spot whales in Australia head for the Gold Coast from the capital of New South Wales on Sydney vacations, hoping to get closer than ever to the colossal marine creatures.

Best Places to Find Whales: Hervey Bay • Gold Coast • Cairns • Sunshine Coast • Point Lookout

Discover the 8 Iconic Great Barrier Reef Animals

Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is an adventure that allows you to explore marine life in a new and exciting way. With colorful coral and vibrant life spanning an exceptional breadth of Australia’s eastern seaboard, a trip to the reef can give you soft sands, sightings of exceptional wildlife, and underwater adventures unlike anywhere else in the world.

Find inspiration for your next trip with our Australia tours and vacations and discover more information in our Australia travel guide before you embark on your trip.

Life-Enriching Travel Designed Just for You

  1. 1

    Trips curated by the world’s top destination experts

  2. 2

    Concierge-level service leading up to and during your trip

  3. 3

    Unique, exclusive experiences and insider access

Get Top Travel Specialists to Help Plan Your Trip