The gods were surely with us when we set out from Port Douglas early one morning to experience the Great Barrier Reef. It had been windy with the sea whipped into a choppy foam all week but this day was absolutely sparkling. With hardly a cloud in the sky, calm seas and barely a whisper of wind, even our tour guides were excited to be heading out in such rare conditions.
If you tour with one of the major operators out of Cairns, your boat heads out in a flotilla with dozens of other boats to a massive complex that looks like a cross between an oil rig and an airport, planted up on stilts above Agincourt Reef. It’s all very state-of-the-art as far as reef-peeping goes but, not to belabor a point this is the same reef where an American couple was left behind a number of years ago when an operator failed to count heads at the end of the day. So much for state-of-the-art and all the more reason to choose a small group tour.
There were eighteen of us for the day with Wavelength Tours. They specialize in groups of no more than thirty, limited to snorkelers – no scuba – and they have it down to a science. We were not only counted several times before leaving the dock but we all had our photos taken, ostensibly as part of our souvenir package but I suspect this is also a risk management strategy to ensure a photo record of each of us in case the need arises. It was all very reassuring. And we were one of only a handful of boats heading out to the reef.
We passed the Low Isles on the way out. It’s an inviting looking little place with a picturesque lighthouse. I thought about including it on my list of possible considerations for a retirement spot but it’s apparently infested with crocodiles.
I thought the boat looked a bit small and I was glad to have tucked ‘Kwells’ in my pack, a precaution against sea sickness as I understood we would be heading some forty miles offshore. I needn’t have worried. With such a small group the boat was positively spacious, the sea was like glass so the ride was smooth as silk, and I spent most of the outbound journey joyfully dangling off the bow with my feet hanging over just far enough to be cooled by the spray.
This is what the sea looked like as we approached our first stop at Tongue Reef. The wake kicked up by the boat was so wide and perfect that I wondered why we wouldn’t throw in a wake board? “Because there are sharks in there!” Right. Bad idea.
The boat had three crew – Captain Andy (I think) and two tour guides, both marine biologists. They sure seem to have an intimate knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the reefs we visited and they were in the water with us on all stops, pointing out bits of interest. It should be noted that they also put on a very fine lunch and afternoon tea.
Here we are getting lessons on the finer points of snorkel-fitting. These are the stinger suits that I talked about in a previous post – a precaution against stings by box jellyfish, an event to be avoided at all costs. It’s not actually stinger season in Port Douglas quite yet. The season apparently starts ‘sometime around January’. But the very vagueness around their expected arrival date calls for a certain amount of caution.
Tongue Reef was our first stop, two massive underwater towers of coral with a deep chasm between them forming a thruway frequented by turtles and rays. The water was too warm and too calm for either of those but, given the spectacular view that awaited us as we ducked our masks under the water for the first time it was no great loss. Traveling as lightly as possible I did not equip myself with an underwater camera but there are no shortage of great underwater shots online. Suffice it to say that the corals are more colorful than I expected and it was really thrilling to swim into large schools of bright blue and green fish. I lurked around the edges of the huge coral pillars. The steep drop over the edge made my stomach turn over but it was also where some of the bigger fish hung out.
St. Crispin’s Reef was our first view of the crashing line of surf that marked the outer reef.
Our stinger suits were built for practicality and not looks. You’ll notice there’s no shot of me here looking svelte in my own one-piece number.
There was a buzz after our stop at St. Crispins. Courtesy of the really spectacular conditions we would make our last stop of the day at an area of Opal Reef not always accessible – SNO or South North Opal. This site is listed by National Geographic as one of the top commercial snorkel sites in the world. With no commercial platforms or infrastructure this far north on the reef the only way to access it is to snag a buoy about the size of a bowling ball anchored permanently to the coral. This is one of our guides fishing for it.
Here at SNO the lacy wafers of plate coral form a basin called the Fish Bowl filled with anemone corals, branch corals and schools of fish in every color of the rainbow. Actually, color is the least accurate descriptor for a fish, we learn from our guide as so many species can change or mimic colors of other species. A fish is best identified by it’s shape, it’s mouth and the location of its eyes.
This last stop was as close as we would come to the edge of the outer reef and it was exciting to be so close to the pounding surf. The water was so warm we could stay in it for quite awhile before getting chilled but this close to the outer reef we felt the pull of the waves and periodically a wave of cold water washing in from the Pacific.
A hearty farewell from Captain Andy (I think) and the crew. It was a fabulous day and I’m pretty chuffed to be able to say I got intimate with the Great Barrier Reef.
I did not fully appreciate the extent of the reef and just what a treasure it is until a few days later, flying over it on my way from Cairns to Sydney. I watched the reef pass below us, strung along the coast for miles and miles, patches of sparkling blue in irregular shapes like uncut jewels.