Kirra Reef on the Gold Coast was reputed in the 80s. It was a beautiful reef to dive with schools of fish and spot nudibranchs, as well as wobbegongs and even manta rays for the luckiest people. But it took us almost a decade living in Brisbane before we heard about it. Why?
Sand pumping activities in the area to fight land erosion got Kirra Reef entirely covered by sand. But rumour has it: “Kirra Reef is back better than ever!”. Or at least that’s what we can read in the article about “Where to dive and snorkel” on the blog of Destination Gold Coast, a marketing organisation for the city. But there’s no date on the post. And when digging up for more information about Kirra Reef, you can find comments that it may get covered by sand again and soon.
So, how is Kirra Reef now? Videos from 2014 showed an interesting reef to explore. Not the best dive on the Gold Coast, that’s for sure, but we’re not picky about shore dives as we don’t have many to choose from near Brisbane. But is Kirra Reef really a shore dive? And can you snorkel there? And when is it a good time to go? How to find it? We went there and checked.
Here’s an overview of our experience snorkelling and diving Kirra Reef in September 2018, with tips to find it.
Kirra Reef isn’t an easy shore dive or snorkelling site
Kirra Reef can be reached from the beach, but it isn’t close to the shore.
We read: “it’s just a few hundred metres off the shore so divers can walk down on the sand, put on their tanks and swim out.” Although that’s not wrong, it’s not that easy. It’s about 400 meters from the shore to Kirra Reef. And you have to pass the waves that make Kirra Beach a famous spot for surfing.
Plus, Kirra Reef isn’t easy to find. There’s no buoy or marker out there. So you may have to swim more than necessary before getting there. I am not a fast swimmer but I’m fit and used to navigating in the water, and it took us about 20 minutes to reach Kirra Reef the second time we went there.
I don’t want to start with these comments to discourage you to reach Kirra Reef from the shore. It’s feasible, but not for everybody. And surely not for those who aren’t at ease swimming in waves and far from the coast. If you’re chilling at Kirra Beach and suddenly looking for something to do, it may not be the best idea to opt for snorkelling without further consideration. Swimming to Kirra Reef takes a lot more effort than many other shore dives you may be used to, like the nearby Gold Coast Seaway or the Tweed River.
If you’re thinking of doing it at low tide to reduce the distance, we had this idea too. Although the swim was shorter than at high tide, we had to walk for about 200 metres as it was too shallow to swim.
If you don’t want to make effort, there are a few dive shops on the Gold Coast that can take you to the local reefs. My favourite one nearby is Cook Island.
Wear a wetsuit to check out Kirra Reef
I cannot tell if it’s seasonal, but we saw a few jellyfish when snorkelling and scuba diving Kirra Reef in September. They aren’t on any dangerous list I’ve seen, but I was glad not to find out if they were painful. Indeed, they look like jellyfish from the Mediterranean Sea that would ruin our day at the beach if someone got stung.
I didn’t even worry about the jellyfish as I was protected in my full body wetsuit*.
Responsible travel tip: Did you know that your sunscreen could harm the fragile ecosystem of the coral reef? It’s essential to be mindful of what you’re applying to your skin when snorkelling or swimming near the reef. The best way to protect your skin from the sun is to cover up with long sleeves and pants. If you must use sunscreen, choose a mineral-based one to avoid harmful substances (see the full list here). Mineral ingredients are less harmful to the environment and provide excellent protection. Apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before entering the water to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Scuba Diving Kirra Reef
Reaching the reef was an effort, but diving Kirra Reef was not complicated. The most challenging part was to make sure to stay close to each other as the visibility wasn’t great (5 metres maybe). Plus, it’s easy to disappear behind one of the many rocks!
We dived at high tide and reached a maximum depth of 7.5 metres. On average, we were around 5-6 metres deep.
I recommend taking a dive torch* to explore Kirra Reef. The colours on the rocks are fantastic once you light them. Plus, it makes it easier to find your buddy if necessary, especially when the visibility is low.
What can you see when scuba diving Kirra Reef?
Kirra Reef is a succession of rocks covered by algae, anemones, and sponges.
You’ll find a dozen wobbegong sharks sleeping on each rock and a few hiding in the algae. These sharks won’t mind you being there and won’t even move if you don’t disturb them.
There are many holes and cracks to check out. The reef isn’t big and is shallow, so you have plenty of time to look into every one of them. That’s how we spotted many banded coral cleaner shrimps, as well as an octopus and a crab.
Anemones are sprinkled a bit everywhere on the site and are often home for anemonefish, including clownfish. Many tropical fish and a few stingrays also wander around the rocks.
Sometimes, we would end up being surrounded by a big school of fish.
Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!
When is the best time to dive Kirra Reef?
I won’t pretend to know enough about the area to define the best time to dive Kirra Reef. It’s always better to ask a local about the conditions, and you can find surf lifesavers on the next beach, just after the surf club.
But I know the sea will be rougher if the wind comes from the north, so avoid these days. We visited once on a windy day coming from the south, and it was fine. But you may want to allow enough air to swim back to the beach underwater, so you avoid having the wind in your face.
The whales visit the region in the colder months. It’s incredible to see them jumping a few hundred metres away. And some may even have been closer: I had never heard them that loud underwater.
Although the water is warm, summer is usually not the best time for snorkelling and diving in Queensland because of the storms.
At any site, we prefer to dive at slack time to avoid current from the tide. High tide is usually the best for visibility. We haven’t dived Kirra Reef enough to know if this applies to this site. The visibility at high tide and low tide was very similar, but it was on different days with different winds.
We’d avoid going there at sunset as it’s kind of a rule in the area. It’s a time when some sharks with a bad reputation might start hunting and not seeing very well with the changing luminosity.
Finally, because the reef is shallow, a sunny day will give more colour to the rocks.
Snorkelling at Kirra Reef
You need to skin dive to enjoy snorkelling at Kirra Reef.
We couldn’t see anything interesting on the reef from the surface. Kirra Reef isn’t deep (4 to 7.5 metres), but the visibility was not good both times we visited. There were a lot of particles at the surface that cleared up a bit once a couple of metres underwater.
If you cannot skin dive, you can only spot some big schools of fish. But I don’t think it’s worth the long swim just for that.
I also loved how we could hear the whales singing as they travel along the bay in winter. That’s something you can only experience underwater.
What can you see when snorkelling at Kirra Reef?
From the surface, we mostly saw a dark shape contrasting with the light colour of the sand. Kirra Reef was only revealed when we were a couple of meters deep.
When we snorkelled Kirra Reef, we saw a few anemone fish, including a clownfish, pufferfish, one moray eel and one wobbegong shark. Plus a few colourful fish and a huge school of small baitfish. Here are some photos taken while free diving:
Where is Kirra Reef?
Kirra Reef is approximately 400 meters away from Kirra Beach, near Coolangatta. It’s on the Gold Coast, one of the most popular destinations in Australia. It takes 1h15 minutes to drive there from Brisbane when there is no traffic.
The reef is in front of the yellow surf life-saving tower, on the right of Churchill Street beach access. We entered the water from the rocks and swam out following the line created by the rocks and the yellow tower. If you notice cormorants or seagulls diving in this direction, it could be a hint. They weren’t far from the reef the first time we went there. The current and swell may push you to the north, so adapt your course. You’ll see only sand all the way until you notice a darker spot below you. When we were on top of Kirra Reef, Snappers Rock headland was almost 90 degrees east. It took us about 20 minutes to swim out to Kirra Reef and find it, without rushing as we didn’t want to start the dive tired. It’s a good idea to swim as a group in a horizontal line a few metres away from each other, rather than to follow your buddies in a line.
It took us about 20 minutes to swim out to Kirra Reef and find it, without rushing as we didn’t want to start the dive tired. It’s a good idea to swim as a group in a horizontal line a few metres away from each other, rather than to follow your buddies in a line. That way, you will increase your chances of finding the reef as it isn’t large.
Have you been to Kirra Reef for snorkelling or scuba diving? Please share your experience in the comments below!
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