The Great Barrier Reef is the most magical marine environment on the planet. The world’s largest living structure, it is made up of more than 400 different kinds of hard and soft corals and is home to 1500 species of brilliantly colored tropical fish not to mention whales, dolphins and turtles. No wonder then that thousands of people travel across the globe to explore its watery paradise. That’s why there are so many reef trips on offer which, paradoxically, makes it no picnic to plan a day trip, given the baffling range of boats and adventures.
Here is an insider’s guide to what five different reef adventures from Cairns and Port Douglas are really like so you can make informed decisions about which trips are best for you based on your interests, age and skill levels.
Departs from: Port Douglas on a 24-metre motor catamaran
What’s included: snorkelling gear, stinger suits, flotation devices, buffet lunch
Extras: diving; wetsuits for hire
How long: full day, two-hour trip each way.
Where it goes: Agincourt Ribbon Reefs, on the Outer Reef at the edge of the Continental Shelf; brief stop at the Low Isles to look for turtles and stingray from the boat.
Best for: divers and adventurous snorkellers who are comfortable accessing deep water from the duckboard.
Highlights: Poseidon offers the best trip for both introductory and certified divers because of the spacious and well-equipped dive deck. There are up to three diving and snorkel trips chosen each day from 45 locations at 16 different reefs. Dive instruction is very thorough. Marine biologists give on-board reef interpretations and guided snorkel and dive tours. Between May and August, there is a possibility of swimming with dwarf minke whales (Poseidon has one of only three day-boat permits). From July to September, you may also see humpback whales. Excellent eco-tourism credentials including carbon neutrality and contribution to Great Barrier Reef research. There are a maximum of 80 people on board with great staff to guest ratio and loads of space to explore in the water.
Possible problems: The boat travels fast to get to the Outer Reef so it can get a little rough with water rushing over the back deck. It is wise to take seasick tablets. The boat can also feel a little crowded.
Departs from: Cairns on a large stable sailing/motor catamaran
What’s included: snorkelling gear, wetsuits, stinger suits, flotation devices, buffet lunch
How long: full day, two-hour trip each way
Where it goes: Michaelmas Cay
Best for: families and snorkellers
Highlights: Ocean Spirit goes to Michaelmas Cay is a bird sanctuary, which adds an extra dimension to the trip. Guests are restricted to one small section of beach to protect the birds. The boat moors offshore and a glass-bottom boat takes people to the cay to snorkel right off the beach, which makes it easy for families and people who are new to snorkelling or are not strong swimmers. Snorkelling orientation and assistance is also provided. A marine biologist gives an interpretive presentation with video and there is a once-daily fish feeding plus reef tours in a semi-submersible boat. The boat travels slower than many reef boats so you are unlikely to get seasick but free seasick tablets are available. There is plenty of space on the front deck for sunbathing, a large covered back deck plus a spacious indoor area. You can also try an introductory dive, with an orientation on the boat and the dive starting from the beach.
Possible problems: Can feel a little crowded in the water with a total of 150 people per trip.
Departs from: Cairns on a fast stable catamaran
What’s included: snorkelling gear, flotation devices, buffet lunch
Extras: diving, helmet diving, helicopter flights; wetsuits and stinger suits for hire
How long: full day, 1½ hour-trip each way
Where it goes: pontoon at Moore Reef
Best for: those who want a lot of different options to cater for a range of interests and ability levels
Highlights: Reef Magic’s tour to an all-weather pontoon caters mainly to a Western domestic market. A huge range of activities are on offer including an on-board marine biology presentation, snorkelling, semi-submersible tours, glass-bottom boat tours, fish feeding, an underwater observatory and a kids’ swimming enclosure. The area off the snorkel platform opens into a clear, shallow lagoon of only 4-5 metres, prefect for beginners. There are up to three introductory and certified scuba dives, helmet diving (a scuba-style experience where you walk on the ocean floor without getting your head wet), guided snorkel trips, massages at the pontoon and scenic helicopter flights.
Possible problems: Can feel a little crowded with a total of 200 people on board each trip.
Departs from: Cairns on the stable ‘Wave-Piercer’ motor catamaran
What’s included: snorkelling gear or glass-bottom boat
Extras: food, diving, helmet diving, crocodile habitat, and scenic helicopter flights; wetsuits and stinger suits for hire.
How long: full or half day, 45-minute trip each way
Where it goes: Green Island
Best for: people who are time poor, on a budget or who are prone to seasickness; beach lovers; and everyone who wants to sample a range of reef/island options
Highlights: Great Adventures goes to Twelve-hectare Green Island, which is a national park, offers a host of options for a taste of the Great Barrier Reef. It is the closest reef destination to Cairns and is the only coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef that is also home to a rainforest. There is something for everyone here including snorkelling or a glass-bottom boat tour (pay extra if you want to do both), swimming at the beach as well as the island swimming pool, a self-guided eco island walk, and use of day visitor facilities. For an extra charge you can also do a Sea Walker helmet dive, go diving and parasailing, take a scenic helicopter flight, and visit Marineland Melanesia Crocodile Habitat where you can hold a baby croc and see Australia’s largest captive crocodile. For an extra cost, you can combine this with a trip to Reef Adventures’ pontoon on the Outer Reef and/or stay at Green Island Resort to enjoy the peace and when the day-trippers leave.
Possible problems: Green Island can sometimes feel a little overrun with tourists with several large boats accessing the facilities.
Departs from: Port Douglas on a small speed boat
What’s included: snorkelling gear, stinger suits in summer and wetsuits in winter
How long: 2½ hours, 30-minute trip each way
Where it goes: Low Isles reef
Best for: thrill seekers and adventurous snorkellers looking for a short reef experience
Highlights: Reef Sprinter is an adventure trip for those who want a half-day adventure to the inner reef. From the minute you board the jet boat it is a thrill-seeking ride out to the Low Isles reef. Only 15 people are on the boat so the snorkelling site is not crowded. For those who don’t want to get wet there is also a glass-bottom boat tour. You often see turtles and stingrays at this site.
Possible problems: Reef Sprinter does not have landing rights at the Low Isles. If you would like to explore the island, take a full-day trip on the luxury sailing catamaran Sailaway.
Don’t forget: For all these trips, bring hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, towel, swimsuit, a change of dry clothes, cash or credit card, and seasick pills, if you are inclined to feel queasy on the ocean. Each of these outfitters also has underwater cameras for rent and professional photographers who take pictures of you with no obligation to buy.
I’d love to hear about any other terrific Great Barrier Reef trips that you’ve enjoyed as well.
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