All photography by Tony and Avril Ayling

Meet Tony and Avril Ayling


Short biography of Tony and Avril

Tony Ayling grew up in New Zealand close to the sea and decided to become a marine biologist at the age of ten. He leaned how to dive after he turned 14 and soon found that very little was known about the lives of most marine animals and fishes. Discoveries of new nudibranchs and fishes further fuelled his passion for marine biology. He studied for a science degree at the University of Auckland, eventually progressing to a doctoral degree looking at the dynamics of encrusting communities: the colourful animals and plants that live attached to the rocky sea floor. Most of his work was conducted while living at the Universities’ Leigh Marine Laboratory, nestled on the east coast north of Auckland. Here he met a new doctoral student who had come over from Australia to study marine sponges. 

Avril Watson had grown up in Melbourne and was passionate about being a herpetologist but also liked diving and was intrigued by the colourful marine sponges. After completing an undergraduate degree she got a scholarship to study sponge ecology and biology at the Leigh Marine Lab in New Zealand. After a few years of diving and studying together at the lab with a group of other enthusiastic students and teachers, Tony and Avril were married. Their honeymoon was spent at the lab continuing their diving and studies! While Avril completed her doctorate, Tony was doing post-doctoral research looking at possible changes in fish numbers and encrusting animals after the creation of New Zealand’s first Marine Reserve on the Leigh coast near the lab.

Study trips to Australian marine labs on the Great Barrier Reef ignited a desire to study the incredibly diverse coral reef system and in 1979 Tony and Avril moved to Cairns in Far North Queensland to work with the Marine Research Foundation. The Great Barrier Reef had just been declared a marine park and a visit to the newly formed Marine Park Authority led to the offer of consulting work helping to create a zoning plan for the park by counting fish and corals along the length of the reef. This was the start of the Sea Research consulting partnership and over the next six years Tony and Avril visited more than 200 reefs up and down the length of the Great Barrier Reef and from coastal fringing reefs out to the crystal-clear waters of the Coral Sea reefs. It was an amazing experience that provided a wealth of knowledge on the incredible diversity of the Great Barrier Reef system.

For many years Tony and Avril lived on the banks of the Daintree River to the north of Cairns in a small open-plan house that they built themselves. With cassowaries and crocodiles as neighbours, they built a dock on the river bank and a variety of boats to help them get around on the river and out on the reef. When they were not out on the reef working they got on with various building projects and Avril developed her interest in art into a thriving little side business printing distinctive, nature-inspired sarongs and wall hangings for the emerging tourist market. 

The arrival of identical twin daughters in 1987 somewhat restricted Avril’s involvement in field work but Tony continued the business with help from a few part-time diving field assistants. Over the next 20 years the business continued, including some work on overseas coral reefs and a ten-year project looking at the effect of line fishing on the abundance of reef fishes such as coral trout and redthroat emperors. As their daughters became more independent Avril resumed full-time work in the field and once the girls had left for Brisbane to pursue their own university studies, she and Tony continued their adventurous life and work together.

Once their daughters left home Tony and Avril decided to move somewhere drier. Although the Daintree rainforest was an amazing place to live when the weather was fine and provided plenty of drama during the wet season, they were getting tired of months of overcast, dreary weather, especially when it happened during the so-called dry season. They had well and truly leaned the truth of the saying, ‘you can’t have rainforest without rain’. A dramatic 6.2 metres of rain in 2006 settled the matter and they packed up and moved their home and office down to Hydeaway Bay on the northern Whitsunday coast.

Here they continue their idyllic and interesting life of work and diving even though they are well past the age when retirement should be calling. They continue to find that there is always something new and interesting to discover and photograph on Australia’s coral coast. They also enjoy exploring Australia’s amazing outback when there is a lull in their diving work. Both Tony and Avril are grateful they have had the opportunity to see so much of the Great Barrier Reef through all its changes, moods and variety.