By GEOFF CUMMING*
I came across him under a ledge, all shocking pink with sky blue spots, motionless. In half a dozen dives in the Whitsunday Islands he was the biggest fish I had seen. But the coral cod, which I guessed to be nearly a metre long, wasn't impressed by this snorkeller - he just fixed one blank eye on me as I struggled to equalise in no more than 6m of water.
Fish on the Great Barrier Reef have little reason to move. All their needs can be met within a few square metres among the coral and on the sandy seabed. And they're quite used to human intruders.
Back on board our cruise boat the crew gently deflates my illusions that I've seen anything special. The dive boats which ply the Whitsundays know exactly where to find the big gropers, cods, trouts and wrasses which lord it over the reef. They even have names for them.
Elvis is at Bluepearl Bay. Fat Albert, the humpheaded Maori wrasse, is at Mantaray Bay. He weighs about 90kg but he has bigger brothers and sisters.
"People want to see the same things," says Amee Newman, the ship's chef, who manages to squeeze in a dive on most trips.
"You can go to the same rock and find the same fish under the same ledge - you can guarantee it."
At Hook Reef on the outer reef, there's a Queensland groper who is partial to bacon rind and squid.
Fish feeding from glass-bottomed boats is an alternative for tourists who want to see the endless array of fish and colourful coral without getting wet.
The Great Barrier Reef is in fact two coral reef systems stretching from central Queensland to New Guinea. The outer reef begins about 80km out to sea and stretches for 2000km. Inshore, hundreds of fringing reefs hug the coastal islands.
The Whitsundays, a group of more than 70 islands about 30km off the central Queensland coast, are a launching pad to see the reef and a destination in themselves, with superb sailing waters and bushclad volcanic islands. Only seven are built on and accommodation ranges from a wilderness lodge on Hook Island to the five-star luxury of Hayman Island.
Spread over 60km, the islands are fanned for half the year by tropical northerlies and the other half by mild southwesterlies.
They attract two types of visitors - those seeking to do little more than lounge around the pool, and those who want to explore the islands and see the reef.
For the latter, a thriving charter fleet operating from Shute Harbour and Airlee Beach on the mainland, and from Hamilton Island, offers a variety of sailing options, from one-day snorkelling trips with lunch provided to week-long cruises.
Mention you're from New Zealand and the bare-boat yacht-charter firms will probably throw you a chart and cast you adrift, such is the reputation of our sailors. But if you're wary about a brush with coral, they'll provide a skipper.
Many former Sydney-Hobart maxi racers are earning their keep here - Condor, Ragamuffin II, Apollo III and Boomerang are some famous names catering mainly for younger holidaymakers for whom a brisk sail to a secluded bay is the forerunner to hard partying.
Even hardier types can climb the mast on a square rigger or hoist the sails on a classic schooner, sleeping in hammocks in four-berth cabins.
But if what's below the waterline is your priority, a cruise boat is the most reliable way to see the reef. Options here vary from high-speed launches to small ships offering three-night or six-night cruises.
Our vessel, the Reef Odyssey, is one of the biggest around at 35m, with a cruising speed of 12 knots.
Operator Barefoot Cruises also runs the Windjammer, a replica trading schooner, the Coral Trekker, a 75ft square rigger, and Apollo III, a 55ft ocean racer. These offer more adventure for sailing enthusiasts.
The Reef Odyssey is twin-hulled and built with comfort in mind, accommodating 39 in carpeted cabins with double or queen-size beds and en suites.
It picks us up from Hamilton Island, the hub of island life with its marina, shops and accommodation that ranges from cabins and villas to apartments and hotels.
First stop on our three-night cruise is on Whitsunday Island at Whitehaven Beach, with its squeaky, white, "99.7 per cent silica" sand.
Here, dive instructor Wayne Oaks teaches novices enough about scuba diving to allow them to dive on the reef to a depth of 15m the following day.
There's time en route for Oaks, a marine biology graduate from Auckland, to explain the ecology of the coral reef, built up over thousands of years by tiny marine invertebrates, called polyps, which secrete limestone.
There are more than 300 species of coral, ranging from the common blue and brown staghorns to intricate pink and purple sea fans. And the reef supports more than 1400 varieties of fish.
It's my first visit in 18 years, and stories since about coral bleaching, pollution and crown-of-thorns starfish have left me wondering if it still merits its billing as one of the natural wonders of the world.
After our first dive, my fears begin to rise - we see few fish and most of the coral is dead white.
So Ross, our bronzed tender driver, summons us back on board and we motor a short distance across the channel.
Here is the reef I remember: stag corals, plate coral, brain coral, cup coral, bubble coral and mushroom coral, coloured red, orange and blue.
Harlequin tuskfish, brilliant striped wrasses, long-nosed butterfly fish, sergeant majors and parrotfish dart in and out of the coral. Bigger fish - groper, trout and cod - roam the seabed playing tag or digging their snouts into the soft sand in search of food.
Near the surface, schools of tiny damsels and demoiselles form a shimmering curtain of silvery purple and blue within arm's length. But reach out and they are gone.
Our boat features a similar variety of characters. The playful crew dart about cajoling shy bottom-dweller types from their books and cabins.
There is wariness about an oddly dressed predator in garish colours uttering strange mating calls. But the overtly erudite invader is accommodated with a "takes all sorts" tolerance. Feeding time is a frenzy, and barriers are lowered as guests pick at the smorgasbord of fresh seafood, salads and tropical fruit.
The guests are couples mainly, from England, Australia, the United States and Canada. They range from young and footloose to active retirees.
The steep, bushclad islands are reminiscent of the Coromandel coastline or the outer Hauraki Gulf but in the Whitsundays it's about 15 degrees warmer, the wind blows hot and you can wallow all day in the turquoise waters. Just like the gulf, however, seas get lumpy when a howling northerly kicks in.
We spend the first night stargazing and sipping cocktails at a sheltered anchorage in the passage between Whitsunday Island and Hook Island. In the morning, there's time for a snorkel off Hook Island before the three-hour trip to Black Reef.
Captain Paul Monaghan has traded life on lobster boats off the West Australian coast to navigate these deceptively safe waters - he disarmingly mentions that, even today, some reefs remain uncharted.
Our plan to spend the night in a lagoon on the outer reef is dashed by the weather forecast - so we make a run back to Hook Island. But the weather swings again and we spend the night bobbing about in seas stirred up by a northerly. We also miss our scheduled journey along "the river", a narrow coral chasm which runs for 16km between Hardy and Hook reefs.
In the Whitsundays, if one highlight is cancelled it is quickly replaced by another. At picturesque Nara Inlet we go bushwalking to see 8000-year-old evidence of occupation by the Aboriginal Ngaro people.
On Whitsunday Island, a short bushwalk leads to Eagles Nest, which has stunning views of Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. And snorkelling on the reefs which flank these islands can be as rewarding as on the barrier proper. It's all a matter of knowing the right spots.
By GEOFF CUMMING*