Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef is on the to-do list for many travellers, and I was lucky enough to tick it off mine during a spur of the moment trip to Queensland in July this year!
Just a few days before I wanted to be swimming with the much anticipated underwater life, namely the sea turtles, I managed to secure a spot on a snorkelling tour with Down Under Cruise and Dive. I chose to experience the Great Barrier Reef from the sky as well as under the sea, so I booked the snorkelling and helicopter tour from Cairns, which cost AUD 250.
On the day of my cruise, as I made my way to the 7.30am check-in, I overheard two locals on their morning walk discuss how perfect the weather was for anyone headed out to the Great Barrier Reef. I was already beyond excited for the day ahead, but for the weather conditions to be spot-on I don’t think I could’ve felt any luckier. The sun was already out warming the winter air and the sky was clear, casting a vibrant blue hue across the Coral Sea.
Everyone on the tour was required to board by 8 am, and the boat was scheduled to leave the marina by 8.30am. Before we boarded, all passengers were required to take one of those silly tourist pictures that many major attractions around the world attempt to cash in on.
This time each of us was prompted to pose with a lifesaver in front of the boat as the photographer snapped away. When anyone resisted the paparazzi, the staff joked about needing it in case the boat sank or if one of us went missing. And even though they said they were joking, I’ve actually heard this is true.
I felt a bit strange posing by myself – I’d travelled alone before but this was my first tour that I’d been on solo. It was slightly intimidating entering the boat as one of the last few passengers to board. The whole scenario seemed similar to how American movies portray new students walking into the high school cafeteria and not knowing where to sit.
The seating was set up almost like booths in a diner, which were already quite full. I ended up finding a seat next to another solo Australian traveller and across from two Japanese girls who were holidaying in Cairns.
As soon as the boat got going, the crew gave us a briefing on what the day had in store for us. Once we were introduced to the crew and knew where everything was, it was time to find our way upstairs and get fitted for snorkels and flippers. After being fitted for snorkelling gear, the goggles, snorkel and flippers could be stored in your own personal pigeonhole, which is determined by the identification number you are given at check-in.
You also have the option of hiring a wetsuit for AUD 10, which keeps you warm and safe from nasty jellyfish during stinger season. I’d never worn a wetsuit before and since I wasn’t entirely sure how a wetsuit is supposed to fit or the technology behind them, I asked the question. One of the crew kindly explained the tighter the wetsuit the less water it lets in, which obviously helps to keep you warmer.
At the first reef, we were able to book a place on the group reef tour with a Marine Biologist for AUD 25. I decided to sign-up for a bit of education on the reef and its history.
Before jumping into the water to begin the tour, Marine Biologist Maya had us spitting in our goggles. And by spitting, I do mean saliva from our mouths. (I had been snorkelling a few times before in Indonesia and Thailand, but they don’t teach you this trick in Asia.) Maya explained that there are enzymes in human spit that prevent the goggles from fogging up once submerged under the water.
After rubbing my saliva over the goggles’ lens, giving them a quick dip in the sea, and without a second thought, I arranged the newly polished goggles on my face. I plunged under the water’s surface and had a very clear view of the coral.
Our small group of six followed Maya to different parts of the reef as she pointed out all kinds of sea creatures and explained the very visible reality of coral bleaching.
Around 11.30am, lunch was served buffet style with a spread of typical Aussie barbecue foods, with seafood, steaks, sausages and salads. While all us hungry snorkelers and divers feasted, the captain got us on our way to our second stop – Hastings Reef.
Once we arrived at Hastings, the boat unloaded and soon hundreds of colourful flippers were making a splash over the reef. I decided to stay onboard until I’d had my helicopter flight, which I had pre-booked. Each flight group were transported in a small boat across to the helicopter pad, which was located in the middle of the ocean, where the helicopter and pilot were waiting to welcome us.
As a solo traveller, I scored shotgun and had a panoramic view over the Coral Sea. The ten-minute flight offered an incredible perspective of just how big the reefs extend across the seafloor, and the different depths were defined by the light and dark areas and the contrast of blue and turquoise hues.
After seeing Hasting’s Reef from above, I couldn’t wait to jump in and explore what was waiting for me beneath the water’s surface. I propelled myself off the back of the boat and I felt like I had plunged into a human fishbowl. There were hundreds of fish in sight, some darting away from thrashing flippers, while others were casually gliding through the water in search of food.
I saw an incredible metre-long fish, which I believe was a Maori Wrasse, emerge from a void in the coral, with a school of fish, each about one-fourth of the size, trailing behind. At first, I was excited by the school of fish until I wondered what might come out behind them. Luckily, nothing bigger followed.
While my encounters were limited to the reef’s beautiful fishes, other snorkelers and divers reported back to the boat with stories about their chance meetings with turtles, and stingrays. Some divers even got glimpses of sharks during their underwater adventures. This sounded a little frightening at first, but many of the sharks that inhabit the area are reef sharks and seem to be considered harmless.
The same, however, cannot be said about the fish at the Great Barrier Reef. My most memorable moment was being chased by what was probably one of the smallest fish I saw all day. Perhaps, it’d had enough of snorkelers shoving their cameras in its face, because when I moved my GoPro closer to record it, it darted straight at my camera – and continued to chase after it as I pulled it away. Aside from that incident, the rest of my encounters were a lot friendlier.
The reef’s fish came in every colour from neutral greys and browns to exotic shades of pink and teal, and some of the coral was just as bright in deep blues, yellows and soft pinks.
I got so caught up in discovering vibrant corals, starfish and giant clams, as well as chasing fish with my GoPro, that I hadn’t realised most of the other snorkelers had departed from the water. I was one of the last to return to the boat, if not the last! I hadn’t heard any noise signals, but I’m certainly glad I looked up when I did.
As I write this now, I wonder if I hadn’t looked back at the boat whether the crew would have whipped out my tourist mugshot that they’d snapped earlier in the day to look for me. While at first I was slightly alarmed (swimming my sloppiest freestyle back to the boat before transforming into a flying fish as I desperately threw myself onboard), the crew complete a roll call to ensure all passengers are safely aboard before departing to ensure nobody is left behind.
After checking in for roll call, and a wrestling match with a very clingy wetsuit, it was time to return the snorkelling gear and say goodbye to the Great Barrier Reef. As the boat cruised back to the marina, we snacked on cheese and biscuits, were offered wine and listened to live entertainment before we arrived back at the docks by 5 pm.