Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

When you picture Australia one of the fist things that comes to mind is the Great Barrier Reef.  And Finding Nemo.  I knew I had to find a way to see the famous reef while I was in Australia or I would regret it the rest of my trip. 

Is it a cliché to put the Great Barrier Reef above all the other reefs surrounding the continent? Probably.  But how can you visit the land down under and not visit a UNESCO World Heritage reef?

Cairns (pronounced “cans”) was the first place I visited in Australia and is considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.  To make my life a little bit easier when first arriving and taking some of the headache out of deciding what company I should use for my reef visit, I decided to book a Contiki Tour that took me from Cairns down to the Whitsunday Islands and included tours of the two places I was desperate to visit (review of Contiki and a recap of my time at the Whitsundays coming soon!).  

Cairns: gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

You can only get to the Great Barrier Reef using a tour company that are all certified to take tourists to the delicate ecosystem for the day.  I went with Reef Magic Cruises and loved it!  Very knowledgable, very safe, and great lunch (included in the price!).  They're also one of the few local companies still running trips to the Great Barrier Reef, and I always try to support local business when I can!

Because we were only spending a day out on the reef the morning started bright and early at 7:30 am!  It was a good thing I wasn't too jet lagged or it would have been a rough wake up call.  Lathered in sunscreen, sunnies and hats on our heads we boarded the boat for the 90 minute ride out to the reef!  

Soaking up the sun on the way to and from the reef

The boat docked at a floating platform which was our base for the day.  Anchored right next to a section of the reef the platform had seating as well as all the equipment we needed, and gave us enough room to spread out to pull on our stinger suits, flippers and chow down at lunch time. You can take glass bottom boat and semi-submerged boat tours for free and even a helicopter ride over the reef, thought for a steep fee.  Stinger suits (lightweight lycra wetsuits) were highly recommended in the water because summer brings warmer water and jellies!  They're super flattering and a lot of fun to peel on and off when you're soaking wet, but in the end I'm glad we had them.

Stinger suits on point

I was so excited to get in the water and start snorkeling!  The only time I'd been snorkeling before was in murky water without a guide and we didn't send up seeing much.  Boy was this experience the polar opposite!

Form the minute I put my face in the water and started looking around I was struck with the beauty and wonders living just below the surface!  There was a roped off section of the reef to keep us from wandering off too far and we were free to roam the entire area!  There's a local Maori Wrasse (a type of fish) named Wally who hangs around the base and makes friends with the snorkelers and scuba divers.  Wally is probably the biggest fish I've ever seen and definitely the most friendly.  Staff was able to lead him by the nose to swimmers to get a good photo.

Meet Wally!

I decided not to scuba dive because I figured I could see just as much by snorkeling (and save a bunch of money!), but I did pay a small amount for an extra hour-long extended snorkel trip.  We loaded onto a small boat that took us out beyond the roped off area to bigger and better reefs.  The guide with us was a marine biologist with an extensive knowledge of the fish and corals and I learned so much!  He even dove down to collect a slipper coral and sea cucumber for us to touch and see up close.

 While swimming we saw another Maori Wrasse, reef sharks, green sea turtles, and so many fish!  Unfortunately I went a little crazy with my GoPro and it died part way through and I didn't get any video of the turtles that came really close to us, but I did get a lot of footage!  The entire time I was snorkeling I couldn't stop watching everything around me.  With fish darting in and out of the coral and rocks there's always something new to see and I could have stayed in one spot for an hour and been perfectly entertained.  But instead of going on and on about what I saw and how amazing it was, I'll just show you: 

I cannot recommend taking a trip to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef more.  The reef is slowly dying with rising sea temperatures and it's in danger of disappearing.  It wasn't as vibrant and colorful because of the warm water bringing alga blooms that covered the corals, but even with a slight green tinge to everything, the life that exists just under the surface is just incredible.  A lot of times I didn't think I saw any fish but they were camouflaged so well I didn't know they were there til they moved!

The portion of the reef was saw was a convergence of two currents (not sure if it's the EAC... dude) which means all kinds of food sources and nutrients are dumped in one place where life can flourish.  Everywhere I looked there were fish, different corals, and constant movement in this incredible ecosystem.  There were no Nemos in the portion of the reef we visited, but I did see some clownfish at another reef in the Whitsunday Islands (post coming soon!)!

Those who went scuba diving said it was one of the most incredible things they've ever done to see the reef from below the water and swim with the reef sharks.  Words cannot describe nor can video truly capture the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, so move seeing it to the top of your bucket list and get to Australia!

Have you visited a coral reef?  Or been snorkeling?  What was your most memorable moment or something you look forward to when you next get the chance to go?