Interview with Marine biologist Johnny Gaskell

The marine biologist and master reef guide is completing a personal survey of the Great Barrier Reef.

Twenty-five years ago we went on a family trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I was 14 or 15 and we went out to Beaver Reef off Mission Beach. I remember getting in the water and there were so many fish and colored coral everywhere. I was just blown away. 

I remember it had a sand cay on it and I thought that was pretty cool. I’d done a little bit of snorkeling, but not in the Great Barrier Reef. It was different to what I was used to – I grew up on a farm near Bendigo.

I recently went back to Mission Beach on a personal mission to have a look at the quality of the coral reefs. One that I happened to pick, and I didn’t even realise at the time, was Beaver Reef. It wasn’t until I was already there that I realised it was the first place I’d ever been to in the Great Barrier Reef; you always remember when you see sand cays because they’re not at every reef. There was still amazing coral there and so many fish and a couple of turtles, too. I didn’t see turtles back when I was a kid. 

It was part of a year-long quest to explore the Great Barrier Reef from north to south. After Cyclone Debbie in 2017, I was having a look for coral cover around the Whitsundays. I was hearing a lot about how the reef is dead and bleaching has wiped out 30 to 50 per cent of it. I didn’t know who to believe because what I was seeing was different to what everyone was saying.

Hook Island on the Great Barrier Reef
Hook Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

I couldn’t find anyone who had done a really broad overview of the reef, so I thought, “All right, I’m going to try to jump in every 200km at random sites and just swim around and see what it actually looks like”. So, I did it in 2019 and again in 2020 and was really surprised that there was really healthy reef at all the locations. 

There was also damaged reef from cyclones and crown-of-thorns starfish, and you could see some evidence of the bleaching damage up north, but the message I took out of it was there was no site that I got into that I couldn’t find one section or some sections that were still spectacular.

Johnny Gaskell (at 14-15 years old).
Johnny Gaskell (at 14-15 years old).

As part of my mission I visited Stanley Reef off Ayr, south of Townsville, a reef I had been wanting to get out to. Local company Yongala Dive takes day trips out there when they’ve got requests. It’s amazing – there’s a really high diversity of fish. No fishing is allowed because it’s a Green Zone, which means it’s basically an untouched paradise under the water. The fish are inquisitive and don’t know whether to be scared or not. And the coral cover was really amazing, too. I remember I was almost laughing, I couldn’t believe that a place like this could still exist.

I want to get to Jaguar Reef next. There are a few reefs north of the Whitsundays, but a long way north, over 100km. I’m hoping to go later in the year when the weather is perfect. You need really good weather because it’s an outer reef. There are a couple of reefs out there that are named after big cats such as Tiger, Lynx – they’re all on the edge of the reef. That’s the next area I really want to go to.

I live in Airlie Beach. My partner, Kristie, also works in the industry. She loves freediving and exploring the reef. I studied marine biology and worked at Ningaloo in Western Australia, but moved to the Whitsundays as I really needed to go back to where I first jumped into the coral reef and actually have a proper look around.

Johnny Gaskell is living his dream. Credit: Brooke Miles
Johnny Gaskell is living his dream. Credit: Brooke Miles

I applied for a job on Daydream Island, thinking that would be ideal because you’re surrounded by reef. I got hooked. Now my main role is coordinating the coral restoration project. Our sites are Hook Island, Hayman Island – the northern Whitsundays Islands is where we do the restoration.

Coming from Bendigo, I never thought I’d be doing this. Nature was always my thing – I always spent a lot of time just exploring. I thought I would end up alone just living off the land in the forest.

This article originally appeared on Escape

About the author


Hi! I’m Ozzie!

Before joining Australia Exploring, I was a writer at Tripadvisor.

I'm looking for the best posts for you about travel adventures in Australia and around the world. This website has the purpose to inspire you to travel… travel more and better. I hope it can help you explore the world a little bit better.

I graduated from the University of Sydney. I live in California with my wife and two children.


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