Who better to provide an inside perspective on the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef than a lifer who was raised in its midst? Experience Oz caught up with with long-time Green Island resident, Great Barrier Reef Instagram star, underwater photographer, Experience Oz reef Insider, and all-round-reef junkie Jemma Craig to discuss her views on what makes this natural Australian icon an essential visit.
A Detailed Q&A with Experience Oz reef Insider Jemma Craig
(@islandjems on Instagram)
The Great Barrier Reef is a once-in-a-lifetime prospect for most people, however for Jemma Craig it’s long just been the backdrop for growing up. Having spent years on the reef both in and out of the water, Jemma knows its various ins and outs like many of us know our local streets. We asked her thoughts on her life on the reef, why the Great Barrier Reef holds such a special appeal, and more.
Here’s what she had to say.
Experience Oz: First off, can you tell us about your family’s connection to the reef?
Jemma Craig: I grew up on Green Island in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. My family own and operate the Crocodile and Marine life zoo situated on the Island. It was started by my grandfather (George Craig) in 1972 and is co-owned by my parents (Sue and Stephen Craig).
My grandfather is a retired crocodile hunter, croc expert and tribal artifact collector – after handling and capturing crocodiles for many years in the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea; he brought many large crocodiles that he had captured over the years to Green Island to set up the zoo. He is quite well known in the crocodile world. My father was 12 when they first came to Green Island, and my mother started working at the Green Island Resort when she was 18, which is where my parents met.
My brother Billy and I grew up there from the time we were born and completed all of our primary education through correspondence Distance Education on the Island, as it is very small and there are no other permanent residents or schools. Most of my classmates were kids who lived in the middle of the Australian outback on cattle stations with no access to schools… we were the only kids on Islands!
After graduating high school in Cairns, I returned to work for my family as a Zoo Keeper and Tour Guide at the Croc Park. Next week I start my dream job, working on a liveaboard dive boat that ventures all the way up the Great Barrier Reef and into the coral sea. I will get to see some of the reefs I have been dreaming about for a very long time. Growing up in such a unique situation has given me such a huge appreciation for animals and the reef, as well as family and the tourism industry. It is a very unique and challenging lifestyle that has allowed me to have some of the most incredible experiences and learn many different skills.
My passions lie within travelling, exploring and adventure, photography and film making (above and below the water), as well as tourism, blogging, marketing and writing.
My family connect in different ways… My Grandfather enjoys polishing his artifacts and talking to visitors about ancient tribes and deadly reptiles, my mum loves taking big swims around the island and then relaxing on the beach with a good book, my dad loves taking his boat out and rescuing animals and bird that have fallen out of their nests, my brother loves windsurfing, paddle boarding and photographing the sunsets… me? I love spending as much time as possible under the water – a whole day if I can get away with it.
I love figuring out the best ways to use my camera underwater, to find a hidden animal under the coral, to drift alongside turtles for hours and to lose myself in the flow of the ocean. Time moves different down there, and I just feel connected to everything around me. It’s the one place in the world where my body becomes weightless, my mind goes quiet and I am home.
Experience Oz: What was it like growing up on the reef? What were the best parts?
JC: For us it all felt very normal, I didn’t really realise it was something special until I started making friends on the mainland and talking to regular people. It was a childhood of wonder, I had the world at my fingertips and there was always something to explore or create.
It is a very small Island but it felt like a kingdom to us. I swam before I could walk, made friends with the fishes and the seagulls, built stick empires in the rainforest and created anything a kid would ever need out of sand. I was never very good in social situations, my brother and I were the only kids who lived on the island, so learning to interact with other people properly was not something we knew how to do early on. But we knew other things… we felt like we had found the secret frequency of the Earth, that only people who were willing to stay quiet and listen could understand.
Some of the best parts growing up would be when the whole family would get together for a special snorkeling trip off the boat or to some of the secret sand cays at sunset. On school days we would make time to go greet the boats in the morning and play a round of beach cricket before it got too hot. One of my favourite parts was being able to explore on my own, relying on my own instincts and knowledge of the reef.
Our parents gave us a lot of free reign to explore as we pleased, trusting that the information they had passed down to us on how to protect ourselves and the reef would stick. To be able to go swim with turtles, whenever I liked, was a pretty special phenomenon.
Experience Oz: What’s your particular favourite part of the reef? And why?
JC: I love the Outer Barrier Reef, it seems like so much more of an adventure out there. I’ve always been attracted to the giant side of the GBR… big turtles, big SHARKS, whales, mantas, cod… It is very hard to decide, I feel excited to visit any part of the Great Barrier Reef.
Through Instagram and talking about my passions, I have learnt about all these incredible places on the Great Barrier Reef that I long to visit, so it makes me inclined to say my favourite places on the GBR are the ones I haven’t visited yet! I long to go to Osprey Reef along the Ribbons north of Cooktown because most people can’t even begin to describe it to me which makes me more and more determined to see it for myself!
Closer to home, there’s this place we go sometimes, a secret place; south of the Island. Dad takes us in his boat and we all go exploring together. The coral blooms in this place, like nothing you’ve ever seen. The coral blooms and the fish celebrate; and I am at peace once again.
As perhaps the most popular day trip destination for those visiting Cairns, Green Island will be an item of consideration for many first-time visitors to the Great Barrier Reef simply for purposes of convenience. The island sits 27km off the coast of Cairns and can be reached in anywhere between 45 and 60 minutes.
Experience Oz: What’s your favourite reef animal? Why?
JC: Well, I’ve never seen one, but I love Whale Sharks. They are so big and beautiful. I really hope to see one soon. I also love turtles, manta rays and eagle rays… they are so cute!
Experience Oz: Your thoughts on the best animal or coral to photograph?
JC: NEMO!!!!! Okay, sorry for the outburst. Anemone Clown Fish (Nemo) are the best to photograph, by far. The are sooooo cute, the anemones are beautiful and colourful, and also something I’ve noticed through posting my images on social media is… EVERYONE LOVES NEMO!
Seriously none of my photos get nearly as much love as what “Nemo” does. Turtles are also a good subject to photograph, and they tend to be quite easy too as most of them are very chill and relaxed. I also have a serious passion for coral. There are many types so I don’t really have a favourite, but you just go for the colourful and abundant patches of coral to photograph and you can never go wrong.
Experience Oz: What was your most memorable encounter on the reef?
JC: I simply can’t pinpoint one. I don’t remember the exact moment or age I learned how to equalize or dive down 10 meters on the air in my lungs… but I do remember the first time I saw humpback whales meters away from our boat, the time I saw huge giant trevally, smashing bait fish around me during fish feeding, and the tiny yellow pilot fish who decided I was the perfect protection to keep him out of harms way, and followed me everywhere for the good part of 3 hours.
There was the time my dad walked up the beach with an octopus on his head, or the time mum brought me a baby bird who had fallen out of it’s nest. I remember the pod of dolphins on the front of the boat, I remember the turtles and the sharks and the baby eagle rays. The list goes on, I’ve seen things beyond most people’s wildest dreams… and one thing it has given me out of anything else, is a desire to see more.
Experience Oz: What questions are you most commonly asked about the reef?
JC: People ask about my life, they ask how I got here and when they find out, they ask what it was like to grow up here. People ask me about the best ways to see the reef and where to snorkel/dive in order to see turtles and Nemo.
I always answer them with passion and enthusiasm, because the reef is my passion… and I want to be able to share that with people. I want everyone to be able to experience it, as I have.
Experience Oz: If you weren’t in your current position or lived on the reef, where and what would you be doing?
JC: It’s very hard to say. I am extremely fortunate that growing up on an Island coincides with doing what I love – photography, travel, tourism, diving and the reef. But growing up with different circumstances might have sculpted me into having different passions/skills. I would do something creative. I’ve always been a creative person, through writing, art and photography.
I love travelling and adventure sports, so if I wasn’t here, perhaps I would be seeing more of the world/climbing some more mountains. If I was told to leave the reef and move to another place in Australia, I would probably pick Melbourne. I love the city and that part of the world. Although, if I was told to leave now, my heart would always yearn for that place underneath the waves. It’s not just a physical place, it’s a state of mind. Whenever my head leaves the surface, all of the problems of everyday life disappear and I simply feel in tune and connected, with everything around me.
I would probably seek another Island or adventure and continue to live the life I was born to live.
Experience Oz: What would you say to encourage someone to come to the reef?
JC: There is too much to say. You just NEED to see this place. To swim is to fly; it’s a different world, a kaleidoscope of colour and movement. An underwater wonderland.
Experience Oz: What’s your ultimate reef secret? A specific place or tip? Any closing reef comments?
JC: People travel from all over the world to spend one day on the reef… But here’s the secret, you can never completely see all of the Great Barrier Reef’s magic, not even in a lifetime. You could spend every day exploring this place and still be in absolute awe by the new things that present themselves to you. There is an abundance here, such a huge abundance that often it’s easy to misunderstand what that means. I always encourage people to see as much of the reef as they possibly can. They would never in a million lifetimes regret that decision.
I always encourage people to see as much of the reef as they possibly can. They would never in a million lifetimes regret that decision.
It’s not exactly about where, it’s about how you do it. The Reef is in charge and it will show you m
any things; if you have eyes to see it. The key is to be patient, to be calm, quiet and slow. When you learn to relax in the water, the wildlife no longer become threatened by you, and will come out to play. You also must learn to appreciate the little things – watch the colourful nudibranch dance in the current; see that colourful anemone down there? It’s hiding a clown fish.
If you’re able to take a closer look, suddenly life is all around you. It becomes even more impressive when you appreciate the little things too, because when the big things come along (and there will be plenty of them!), it makes it even more special.
[as for where to visit] Listen to your gut feelings. Do you dream of hanging out on a lazy beach, sipping a cocktail while swimming in the crystal clear waters? Check out an Island – There’s plenty of them! Growing up on an Island has given me a unique perspective of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a whole different ecosystem because it’s truly a place where the rainforest meets the reef. Visit Green Island if you dream to snorkel with turtles in the shallows, check out Fitzroy Island if you have a taste for adventure and exploring.
If scuba diving is more your thing, take one of the many charters to the Outer Barrier Reef and dive off the boat – it’s one of my favourite things to do. It all comes down to what you want to see and how you want to see it. Everyone is different, and I think that should be taken into consideration when choosing where to go.
Cairns is a fantastic hub for the Reef because you can see it in hundreds of different ways, and there is also a tonne of other incredible stuff to do here. Cairns has the ancient Daintree rainforest on one side, the GBR a stone throw away, Outback Queensland and the tablelands a short drive, and some of the nicest beaches in Queensland – all on our doorstep!