I have wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef my entire life. It has literally been on every bucket list that I can ever remember making. This isn’t an overseas post, so it isn’t a “chapter” exactly…I go to a lot of amazing places, not all of which are for large portions of time, but all of which are equally important overall. If I think that a location is worth its own story, I will post it. The “chapters” will be reserved for lengthy trips/periods of my life.
It was my partner’s birthday in early October, and he surprised me with a weekend away at Cairns (I know — his birthday, and I am the one that gets the amazing surprises…I am lucky). He kept it this amazing secret and told both of our families, but not me, so he did well to keep it a secret for as long as he did. We got in the car for the drive to the surprise, and when I realised that we were on the entry road into the airport, he told me then. Best. Surprise. Ever. I literally just kept grinning at him like an idiot, I was so excited. I had said not even a month before we went that it was a dream to see the reef before it deteriorated entirely due to global warming etc, so to think that we were going literally blew my mind. I just kept saying, “no way, no way”.
I actually love flying. But flying over the reef was an entirely different feeling. I think that I actually jumped up and down in my seat. Having the window seat meant that I got to see the reef pockets from the sky before seeing them from the ocean, which was a pretty amazing thing. And then we landed, and when we got off the plane, it was instantly hot — this is brilliant when Brisbane was still a little chilly. The Cairns airport is surrounded by lush mountains, which I love — it reminds me of that scene in Jurassic 3 where they land the plane and it’s all mountains and palm trees. The uber and cab drivers — that I experienced (which wasn’t much, we went for the weekend, not an extended period of time) — were very friendly. One thing that I found interesting is that the cabs had a seat cover that ran over the entire back seat — very handy in a beach town where sand will literally never come out of your vehicle.
We stayed at the Double Tree hotel in Cairns beach — if that name seems familiar and you’ve read some of my other stories, then it’s because when I was in Queenstown in 2015, I stayed in the Double Tree by Hilton there, too. Anyway, my partner’s sister and her partner live in Cairns now, so after exploring for a few hours and checking in to our hotel, we met up with them for some drinks and snacks at Salt — amazing place with a great atmosphere.
There is one thing to note about Cairns for those that associate the GBR with crystal blue beaches and pristine white sands…yes, it is like that out on the reef. Cairns itself is more of a mangrove beach — it’s mud on the main stretch and you can see the tiny beginnings of mangroves growing at low tide. I have been told that you drive 20 minutes or so out of the main esplanade, you do get some amazing beaches and I have seen photos of them and people I know have gone to them. Now, this mud/sand mixture that the esplanade frames is not by any means unpleasant — Cairns is beautiful and insanely relaxing! But if you are expecting perfect white sands and crystal waters and palms along the beaches, you are probably thinking of the Whitsundays — also in Queensland, also beautiful.
To get the white sands/crystal turquoise waters feel, you go out on the reef itself. I can not stress this enough — the GBR is everything that you could ever want it to be. We went out with Passions on Paradise, a luxury catamaran company that takes you to two seperate places on the reef. The team were incredible — I will go back to them again and again, and I recommend them to anyone wanting to go. It’s a little more expensive than other companies, but you get an incredible lunch of prawns, salads, pastas, meats, etc, there is bar service, you get coffee and muffins, cheese and crackers on the way back, and the crew is accommodating and kind.
I would advise to take the preventative sea sickness pills — $3 each and entirely worth it, even if you generally don’t think that you get sea sick. A young girl didn’t take them and then she was sick the entire day and couldn’t even get off the boat to snorkel. Another amazing thing about Passions on Paradise is that they offer you the chance to try scuba diving for free, and kit you up to do the introductory course. If you like it, then you pay for the upgrade and you can do that instead of snorkelling, if you haven’t already signed up for the full scuba experience.
I can’t even describe the water. I always thought that nothing could compare to the colour of the lake at Tekapo, NZ, but this was so much better. When you slip into the water, you are shocked into focus by the cold water but you very nearly instantly climitize to it and then it is perfection. And then it gets better. When you put your head under and you see the reef, it blows your mind.
I had only snorkelled a reef once before, at Tangalooma with my partner earlier this year. But this was different. Tangalooma’s reef is evolved from a shipwreck — still amazing. Some of the animals that you might see are sea turtles (duuuuuuude), reef sharks, sting rays, dolphins, whale sharks (let me be clear: the guide for PRP said that he had only ever seen one in his ten years on board, but still, the chance is there, no matter how slim), star fish, giant clams, sea horses, and countless species of fish.
People might say that the reef isn’t what it once was — look, I will be really honest with you. There were people on the tour that kept saying, “oh, it isn’t as colourful as in Finding Nemo”…Finding Nemo is a Disney animation, so the colours are designed to pop out more than is natural. Yes, the reef used to be more colourful. But, as the guide on our tour said, its actually the fish that are colourful more than the corals — most of the corals on the reef are tones of green and white. I did see some bright blue corals deeper down. One thing to keep in mind — and it is SO important — is that if you graze the coral by accident, or you flipper touches it, it will die.
The further down in the depths, the more colour there was to the coral. Don’t get me wrong…the reef was beyond what I expected or imagined. It really was so much more. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. A dizzying array of colour literally surrounds you as the fish swim with you — some of them are afraid, but I dove down multiple times and swam among them, and if you swim around and around you eventually see the “drop off”, where the reef drops off into the deep.
It really does feel like you’ve been dropped into a scene from Finding Nemo or an episode of David Attenborough’s docuseries on the reef. This is the spot where the reef sharks generally swim. We didn’t see any unfortunately, but next time! We also didn’t see any sea turtles, although other people on the tour said that they had seen some. It is Spring right now, and we went in mating season, so sea turtles are very common on the reef.
In both spots on the reef that the catamaran took us were insane. I wish I had taken a GoPro, but I was honestly so immersed in the experience that I probably would have forgotten to anyway! But there is always next time! I wish that I could do it justice in writing. I really do. But you should just go and see it for yourself. The Great Barrier Reef is renowned for a very good reason…and I promise that there is nothing like it. It is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and it more than earns its place.