Australian Natural Adventures
Wildlife, Nature & Soft Adventure Tours
Custom Australia, New Zealand & Pacific tours and travel
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world, a series of reefs extending for about 1,250 miles along the coast of Queensland, nearly to Papua New Guinea. The Reef has five main features - coral inner-shelf reefs, isolated bombies, or pinnacles of coral reef, sandy or vegetated cays, outer barrier reefs and continental islands.
A typical cay is Michaelmas Cay, lying at one end of Michaelmas Reef about 22 miles off the coast just north of Cairns. Michaelmas Cay is an important seabird rookery, which becomes apparent as you approach the mass of birds swirling constantly above the cay. The cay, most of which is off limits, is a National Park within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. However, the birds are very tolerant of visitors and stand thickly along the beach, allowing approach within a few yards. Immediately offshore in waist-deep water, the first of the corals can be seen. For those not used to snorkelling, Michaelmas Cay is an easy introduction—just walk up to your waist, and bend over. Brilliantly colored fish, giant clams, beche de mer and coral outcrops can all be seen. Easy swimming in shallow water brings you heads of coral with their assortment of fishes, and hard and soft corals. Parrot fish glean algae from the coral, and small and medium predators search for food. Schools of fish twist and flash between the outcrops. An occasional sea turtle may be seen.
On some Reef tours you can glide around the coral in a semi-submersible submarine, dry and with your ordinary cameras, while a marine biologist describes the species seen and some of the processes at work. For those interested, many Great Barrier Reef tours offer guided snorkel tours led by a marine biologist, or allow you to try a non-certified introductory dive. Certified Scuba divers will find an array of tours, from single day to multi-day liveaboards, some of which extend into the Coral Sea. For more on diving the Great Barrier Reef, click here.
Most tour boats go to the outer edge of the reef, where the water is deep on the ocean side, but still shallow on the reef side, and safe for snorkeling. There are no cays here, but the larger boats have permanent man-made platforms, complete with shade, tables & seats, and underwater viewing areas where you can watch the fish without getting wet. Snorkelers will see a different variety of fish and corals in addition to the ones seen furhter in shore, although such spectacular species as giant clams arre less common. The best way to experience the Great Barrier Reef is to do two trips, one to an inner section such as Michaelmas Cay, and another to the outer edge. There are several dozen snorkel tour operators, so please call us at 1 877 VEGEMITE or email and we can determine which tour is right for you. Tusa Dive which operates dive and snorkel tours to the outer reef, and our boat of choice for divers (guest comment: “We enjoyed both dive trips, but I do have to say that the “Tusa” staff and boat procedures far outdid the other dive boat. I would recommend the Tusa to all of my friends --- very friendly, very professional and they did a great job of reviewing diving procedures.”). Passions of Paradise is a motor-sailing catamaran which visits Michaelmas Cay and reef, and is our primary choice for snorkelers, although divers are catered for as well, and those interested in birds and wildlife. You can see live streaming video taken from Passions here (but only from about 5pm to about 2am EST due to the time changes). Both boats are highly recommended. Wondering what the water is like on the reef today? Just click on Cairns and Reef wave and temperature to find out.
Although most visitors see the reef on a day trip from shore, several islands have accommodation, ranging from the super luxe of Lizard Island and Bedarra Islands to a variety of accommodation levels on Dunk Island and in the Whitsundays, including camping. Further south Heron Island Resort is on a true coral cay with surrounding reef, and on tiny Wilson Island you can "camp" in permanent tents while enjoying superb food at the nearby restaurant, all on a sandy floor. A truly rare experience. More bare-bones island camping is available in the Frankland Islands, just south of Cairns. Some continental islands, such as the Franklands and Lizard Island, have coral reefs, and so you can snorkle over the coral directly from the beach.
Regardless of your budget, once your are north of about Bundaberg in Queensland the Great Barrier Reef is an easily accessible, not-to-be-missed experience. Generally, the further north you go, the more variety of reef creatures to be seen, and the easier the access. One exception to this is Heron Island, at the southern end of the reef, which has a surprisingly rich variety of life, and being a true coral cay has excellent reef up to the shoreline - you can actually see the reef by walking. Being well off-shore Heron is not accessible for day trips, but it does have a very good resort, with a range of accommodation levels, making Heron Island one of the few places you can stay diretly on the Great Barrier Reef itself.