Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How to Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is something that only existed in my head and on television until just recently, when I got the chance to find out that it's actually real. How much longer it will exist for is another story, but for now, it exists in full glory, off the Australian coast of Queensland. And I swam on it, biotches.

Leading up to our trip to Cairns, I didn't really have trouble choosing an airline or hostel. I put all of my stress and anxiety into choosing THE BEST boat company for our day trip to the reef. If you've ever been to Cairns and cared about where your almost $200 is going, you'll know that the choices of carriers are vast, and that the decision is not an easy one. Do you go with the big, fast boat that takes over 100 people per day but goes to three reef spots? Or do you go for a smaller, slower boat with a few less people that only brings you to two? Do you base your decision off of included lunch menus or the promise of free wine on the way home? Do you want to do introductory dives, and how much do you want to spend on them? Which reef sites are the best, and which ones is your boat bringing you to? What exactly is the "outer reef"? Seriously, I mined TripAdvisor for answers for a long time, but nothing helped me more than simply asking our hostel for their advice.
Now, we didn't choose to stay in the biggest, most notoriously party oriented hostel in Cairns, because that's not really our scene. That hostel, and once you do some research you'll know which one I mean, will most definitely be making some sweet money by referring their guests to one or two boat companies, and they may not have chosen those companies based on their track records. Lets just say that the clientele at this hostel may not be the most discerning bunch. That's why I recommend staying at a smaller place -- one with more personality and a smaller amount of guests. They will be more likely to sit down with you and discuss your boat options, and to advise you based on personal experience.

Our hostel, Traveller's Oasis, certainly had a referral deal themselves, but I'm more inclined to believe that they chose to work with companies that they can wholeheartedly endorse. They recommended a few boats based on low, medium or high budget, boat type, and based on whether we wanted to mostly snorkel or dive. We chose Passions of Paradise, a catamaran that brings guests to two sites in a day for about $160. That includes snorkeling equipment minus a wetsuit, lunch, tea, coffee and some cheese and crackers, and it's Australian owned.

It's important to book a day trip to the reef ahead of time, so we booked a few weeks before going to Cairns. We got a small discount by booking through the hostel, and didn't have to think twice when we got to Cairns about planning anything. Because we booked through them, our hostel also provided beach towels for us to use on the trip and a ride to the marina in the morning. We chose to rent an underwater camera through the hostel, as well, because it worked out cheaper than renting it from the boat. To rent the camera for the day from Traveller's Oasis it was about $40 if you provided your own SD card, or $45 if you didn't. You get to keep the SD card after. But not the camera. Be careful and always keep it in that crazy suitcase it comes in while not in use, because if it gets damaged you'll be out, like, $700.
Boats leave the marina at 8:00 am, but before boarding, you have to brave the chaos at the dock's office to check in and get your boarding pass. The earlier you arrive to do this, the better, because you'll definitely want to stake out a good outdoor spot on the boat before it fills up. There's also some muffins and coffee that go quick as people board. We almost missed them.

The ride out to Passions' first site, Paradise Reef, takes about two hours. Charlie and I were warned by various people that the trip can be treacherous and that we should definitely take motion sickness pills. We did, but really didn't end up needing to. The ride was a bit rocky, but I didn't see anyone throw up. And we went on a windy day. Our ride out did afford us a distant view of playful humpback whales, though. I must have, like, the best vision ever, because I somehow spotted whales breaching and breathing through their blowholes way off the bow of the boat. It wasn't a close encounter, but it was still amazing. Magical, even. Just being able to believe that such majestic creatures exist, because I saw them with my own eyes. Without the help of a television screen.
On a day with some chop, like ours, Paradise Reef really doesn't look like much as you pull up to it on the boat. It's in deep water, and I've never snorkeled so far out in the ocean before. When you dock at the site, it kind of hits you that you're literally in the middle of the sea. Amongst the deep reefs we saw big schools of fish with lots of color, sea anemones with resident clownfish, starfish, and one HUGE fish that if you ever go you'll know what I'm talking about. He hangs out pretty deep, but he's enormous, and a long term resident there. 

I'm a pretty strong swimmer, and I found snorkeling at Paradise Reef on a windy day exhausting. We opted not to wear wetsuits, so not only was the water pretty chilly, the winter winds were also responsible for choppy conditions. You get used to the conditions, but like I said before, you really are in the middle of the ocean here. 
Lunch aboard the boat was awesome (very important). Some classy salads were served up buffet style, like beet and goat cheese, orzo, quinoa, blah, blah, blah. There were plenty of peel your own prawns and then hot dishes of some nice ravioli and some other meat. There's beer and wine available for an extra charge of like $8, which rounds off the meal quite well.

Our second stop of the day was at Michaelmas Cay, a natural island of sand that has formed in the middle of the reef from the sandy waste that parrot fish create when they eat dead coral (I think). The mound of sand is now protected as a bird sanctuary under national park status, because there are a ton of sea birds there. And their shit. It stinks, but you really can't step foot on much of the island due to laws protecting the birds. Keep your face underwater and you'll avoid the stench.
We swam off the boat when it anchored at Michaelmas and immediately spotted a sea turtle. Just chillin' on the sandy bottom.  Such a beautiful and peaceful creature. It was hard to swim away, but when you approach the island, that's when the sprawling, shallow beds of coral start. There were more soft corals here than at Paradise, and the expanse of it all was unbelievable. It just looked like coral for days. There were striking colors, too. Colors you never thought existed in nature. And huge, fluorescent giant clams. 
The weather started to get threatening towards the end of the afternoon, and visibility conditions in the water started to deteriorate quickly. We spent the trip home on the bow of the boat with the Queensland winds in our hair and gray clouds overhead. You could see misty downpours over the water and mountains in the distance, but we stayed dry as the catamaran's crew raised the sail to fly with the wind on the way home. 

Definitely do some serious sunblocking during your day at sea. We applied 30+ before entering the water, and I still got basically the worst sunburn I've ever had in my life on my back. The sun over Australia is no joke, especially when magnified by water while you snorkel belly-down for hours. You may think you're some macho tanning machine, like I did, but I'll tell you, no one is too cool for sunblock here. Definitely buy 50 or higher SPF.
On our next and last day in Cairns, we spent hours lazing about by the lagoon pool on the Esplanade near the town's muddy shore. I couldn't take my shirt off because of my severe burn, but you'll be more careful than I was. The lagoon draws all types from town from kids and families to backpackers, and with live music and plentiful facilities, it's a nice way to spend the day. 
We finished our afternoon off with a shared seafood platter at the bar of the Salt House restaurant on the water towards the marina. They don't make a great mojito, but their seafood platter is quite nice. Oysters, seared tuna, prawns, crab, Moreton Bay bug, octopus and salmon are all crammed on there with some decent dips to accompany. We ordered the fish goujons too. Salt House can be quite pricey but if you're discerning, you can get a good lunch there.

Cairns itself is definitely a pretty weird place. The scene on the streets at night is an eclectic mix of drunk backpackers, drunk Aboriginal people, cops and security guards. I kind of channeled a Florida feel. But there's no denying that the beachy town and its natural surrounds are gorgeous. Plan your trip well, and Cairns can be the perfect jumping off spot for those wishing to confirm their belief of the splendors of the Great Barrier Reef.

Salt House Restaurant and Bar: Marina Point, 6/2 Pierpoint Road, Cairns, QLD, Australia 07 40417733

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