Great Barrier Reef, Australia – April 2015
Did you know the reef is made up of about 2,900 individual reef formations and about 900 islands?
Did you know the entire reef covers an area of over 344,044 square kilometers? That’s the size of Germany or about half the size of the province of Saskatchewan, Canada?
Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef is 2,300 km long? That’s the same distance as driving from Vancouver, BC to Winnipeg, Manitoba or from Vancouver, BC to San Diego, California.
Did you know that you can see the Great Barrier Reef from outer space?
Did you know that although the Great Barrier Reef does nothing but simply exist, it contributes in excess of $6 Billion to the economy of Australia, purely from tourism?
Did you know the Great Barrier Reef attracts over 1,000,000 visitors annually who come to experience the reef for themselves?
Is there any doubt as to why the Great Barrier Reef was on our bucket list and why it was on our list from the very beginning. But, just how do we take all its wonder in? We couldn’t come this far and only get a glimpse of its beauty.
We decided to embrace all its wonder with as many tours as our budget and time allowed.
We took three different tours, and we’ll share our experiences with you.
TOUR OUT OF CAIRNS ON THE OSPREY V
We heard that Cairns was the place to go to get a snorkeling tour, so that’s just what we did. While in Cairns we discovered more tour operators, than 7-11’s in Asia (and that’s a lot). We stopped in at many before picking one that we liked and that offered some great tours. Purely by coincidence, the tour agent was Canadian, originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba. After an hour we walked out of Travel Bugs Adventure, with our wallets a little lighter. We booked not one, but two snorkeling tours. We were excited!!
The day of the first tour we drove Bernice, our camper van, to the Cairns pier where we were to meet our group. I don’t know what we were exactly thinking, but I do know we weren’t thinking there’d be dozens of tour boats of all sizes and that hundreds of tourists would be frantically running up and down the pier looking for their tour boats. I will admit, it was a little chaotic and anxiety provoking looking for our boat and the person from whom we were renting an underwater camera. But in the end, as has been our fortune for most of our trip, all was well. We found the woman with our camera and our tour boat, the Osprey V. We registered, got fitted for our snorkeling equipment and before we knew it we were off. While we cruised to the first snorkeling location in our tour boat, we received a little snorkeling training and then Noah was off to another part of the boat with some others to an intro for 1st time scuba divers….yes, he was going to learn to scuba dive!!
Initial chaos and anxiety aside, it was all so perfectly timed, by the time we finished our information and training sessions we were sitting in the middle Pacific Ocean above the Norman Reef. Now as you are reading this you are probably imagining us sitting on a big beautiful boat in the middle of the Pacific, the sun shining, and the calm beautiful blue waves gently lapping the side of the boat. Well, let me tell you how it really was. Yes, we were on a big boat with dozens of other people. Yes, we were in the ocean on the outer Great Barrier Reef. Yes, periodically the sun did shine. Yes, the ocean was a beautiful aqua color, but it was not calm like you see in the brochures, photos and videos. It was quite windy and the water was choppy and murky. Oh, but as a bonus, we got to wear beautiful blue stinger suits as it was jelly fish season.
Nonetheless, we had smiles on our faces. We were excited, and a little curious as to how snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef would measure up to our previous experience of snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands.
It would be an understatement to say I was a little apprehensive getting into the choppy water. The ocean wasn’t calm like I had anticipated. But I knew the beauty was waiting for me under the waves so I put on my mask and jumped in. I found it difficult to get my bearings once in the water. Once all the tourists jumped into the water they didn’t venture far from the boat, which made it very difficult to see much. Len and the kids were snorkeling together, so I decided to stay with one of the guides. So glad I did. He knew all the best spots and took the time to point out the marine life to us. Unfortunately Len had the underwater camera so I couldn’t get pictures of the butterfly fish, cardinal fish, damselfish, and parrotfish; or even the beautiful color coral, sponges, and blue clams. I definitely would recommend snorkeling with a guide, even if you are a good snorkeler.
After about two hours at the Norman Reef we were back in the boat to enjoy a great lunch and cruise over to our second snorkeling location, the North Hastings Reef. We discovered that we had to snorkel much further from the boat in order to see anything. In close to the boat, you got kicked by other tourist’s fins or got bumped by oblivious tourists who did not heed the earlier demonstrations of rules and etiquette.
At the North Hastings Reef the wind picked up even more, making it more difficult to snorkel within the designated area. I didn’t snorkel as much in the afternoon as I was waiting for Noah’s scuba diving group to have their lesson and I didn’t want to miss it. So I waited on the upper deck with camera in hand, while Len was in the water with the underwater camera, waiting to capture Noah’s 1st dive. I will tell you, I was a mother watching with many emotions. I was so excited and proud of Noah for wanting to try diving, but I was also very nervous and worried. I had seen a number of other people return into the boat, because they could not master the initial dive techniques. I didn’t want Noah to return just as disappointed. I will say, I was very happy to see him pass the initial training and then very relieved when finally I saw his head pop out of the water at the end of the lesson.
Because of the rough and murky water and not knowing when Noah’s lesson would begin, neither Len nor I managed to get really good photos of Noah’s dive. So here what we have even better than that, are some of Noah’s thoughts on his diving experience…..
I sat on a bench, holding the many, heavy, pieces of gear, and all I could feel, was excitement. I was about to jump into the ocean, and see what lies on the ocean floor. After putting on the oxygen tank (which was much heavier than I anticipated), we had a short orientation and jumped into the sea. Once in the water, we linked arms and made our way down. As we moved around, we saw many colorful fish and coral. As I sunk deeper and deeper, I thought about how many kids are able to do something this magnificent. Right before we hit the bottom, we were told to kick up, and we immediately leveled out. As we glided just above the ocean floor, we saw things we couldn’t have seen from snorkeling. So much of this reminded me of what I was able to see while in the Galapagos Islands. I took it all in, from the tiny fish darting around us, to the coral swaying in the current. Soon, I got the signal, and we headed back up. As I climbed back onto the boat, and wiped the salt water out of my goggles, I sat down exhausted from a day spent on the water. The Great Barrier Reef is absolutely beautiful, and I really enjoyed the opportunity I got to see all the wonders it presented. I was absolutely speechless, after seeing fish, coral, and the many, many sea-cucumbers, all I could think, was; “wow”. I would definitely do it again, it was an experience I will never forget.
The tour company, Down Under Cruise & Dive, The Adventure Company, did not want the experience to end with an uneventful ride from North Hastings Reef back to the Cairns pier, so they kept the fun and momentum going with on board entertainment. One of the staff nicknamed “Elvis”, played guitar and sang, he was also quite the comedian. True to his nickname he sang some Elvis Presley songs to the crowd’s delight. Crowd participation made it even more enjoyable. The rough ride back to Cairns (we were “airborne” off the waves numerous times, cheers from some and anxiety from others) but the ride was made seemingly shorter and more enjoyable by Elvis. Before we knew it we were disembarking back in Cairns. Even then, it was not over as Noah got to pick up his Honorary Certificate for his first time Scuba Dive.
Overall, our day out on the Osprey V didn’t disappoint. Yes, the weather was not the greatest, but we had a great time exploring the reef.
Airlie Beach – Sailboat Tour with Explore Whitsunday
We were up early because we decided to walk the 20 minutes to the marina to meet our tour group. A beautiful public trail and wooden boardwalk lead us from our campground down to Abell Point Marina from where we were to depart. Our walk was a wonderful way to begin the day, the trail and boardwalk are oceanfront and led us winding along the shoreline and past beautiful resort homes, yards and green space.
We were very excited about this tour, as we would be snorkeling and also having our first ever sailboat experience. As sailing is ocean condition dependent, we had to wait a little longer than we expected for our captain to finalize the day travel plans; there were unexpected winds and tides. As it turned out, our original destination, Whitehaven Beach (which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), was not accessible. The alternative location was said to be just as nice with even better snorkeling conditions than the original location. We had the option to get a refund or to rebook for the next day. Well… we didn’t have the option to rebook for the next day, as we were leaving the next morning to continue to Brisbane. We also didn’t come this far only to ask for a refund and leave without the experiencing more of the Great Barrier Reef, so we took the alternative tour. Was a great decision, besides it gives us a justification to return again one day, to see that beach.
Once everyone decided to stay or rebook, our young deckhand rounded up the passengers who decided to take the tour. Off we went down to the docks where dozens of sailboats were bobbing. Across the docks, up a ladder, across one sailboat and then we jumped across another, before we were on our sailboat. Our passenger group was small, they take no more than 14 guests.
We found ourselves standing on a 68 foot sailboat called the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross is a celebrity. In her previous life, she raced in the Aluminum 12 Meter America’s Cup Race in 1977 and 1980 and placed well. Prince Phillip also sailed her once as Guest Captain for a few hours. Today for our journey, it was a small operation, we had a young man as Captain and two young women as deckhands (one just so happened to be from Canada). We began our day with an orientation from the Captain and staff, about sailing safety, details of the sailboat and our planned destinations. Down below deck was nice, but up top on deck was the place to be.
Before long we were sailing out across the blue water, with the wind blowing through our hair and the sun warming our faces. Having never been on a sailboat we didn’t realize that the sailboat leans over sideways at such an extreme angle that you have to hang on tight or fall into the ocean, as “Man Overboard!!!!!” Despite having been briefed on sailing safety and what to do if…, it was still a little unnerving at times. Gotta stay just outside that comfort zone…, right?
We sailed for what felt like hours before we stopped and jumped into the water. Our first stop was Blue Pearl Bay, located on the North-West side of Hayman Island. The Bay is known for its coral and variety of fish life making it a popular tourist stop. The day we were there was an indication of just how popular it is. There were many sailboats sprinkled in the Bay and dinghies closer to shore, keeping a close eye on all the snorkelers. Looking back I’m not sure if we were confined to a small cove or if there were just too many people. Either way, there wasn’t much room to snorkel without bumping into people. We did see a lot of smaller colorful fish and a beautiful coral. The most annoying thing was that there were a few families that decided to stand on the coral to keep an eye on their children, oh yeah, and to take selfies, “Yes, this is me, stupid tourist standing on an incredibly fragile marine creature, killing it for my selfish selfie”. Without a doubt this bothered us. We explored the reef for an hour before we were called back to the Southern Cross and off to our next snorkeling spot.
We had lunch, enjoyed lazing on the boat and before we knew it we were at Langford Spit, our second snorkeling spot. It is a beautiful spot with a sand spit extending from Langford Island, which is surrounded by reef on all sides. This made for a great time. We snorkeled without bumping into others and then enjoyed soaking up the sun laying on the beach. Aurora enjoyed searching for washed up coral on the beach.
We could have stayed forever at this quiet, beautiful spot, but we were called back to start our voyage home. We sailed back enjoying the sights and appreciating our first ever sailing experience. Len got to play deckhand by helping with the sailing mast. I think he now has more appreciation for the hard work of the two young deckhands.
We returned from our tour with smiles on our faces. So glad we had this sailboat/snorkeling experience as our previous tour differed drastically.
Tour of Fraser Island
Throughout our time in Australia we had heard so much about Fraser Island, a UNESCO heritage site. Almost everyone we spoke to said it is such an amazing place, and we should make a point of seeing it. Some people we spoke to said they rented jeeps and toured on their own, others booked with a tour group. All said they loved it.
When we drove into Hervey Bay we stopped at the information center and decided on the spur of the moment, to forget about the budget and see if there were any open tours of Fraser Island for the next day. After a few minutes, they informed us that there was a tour that had room for us. We booked it!!
The next morning a Fraser Explorer Tours bus picked us up from our campground and drove us to the ferry departure area. We ferried about 45 minutes to Fraser Island as we slowly approached to the Island. Finally the mass exodus of vehicles and people occurred. Everyone was so excited to be on the Island. We excitedly climbed into the most amazing 4WD bus and began our tour along the sand tracks and trails (Fraser Island is a sand island). Our first stop was to Central Station, a former forestry camp in the middle of the island. We walked along a wood plank boardwalk as our very informative guide led us sharing stories of this once bustling logging camp, the history of the locals and the ecology of the Island.
From here we were off to walk through a subtropical rainforest of Wanggoolba Creek. The creek was so clear it looked like glass. The photos we took, can’t do justice to how amazing it was for real.
Lake McKenzie was one of our favorite stops. It is a fresh water lake, and is surrounded by sandy beach. We changed into our bathing suits and walked down the sand dunes to a beautiful sandy white beach. We loved swimming in the crystal blue waters and trying to catch small tropical fish with our hands. We had so much fun and wished we could have stayed longer.
Eli Creek was just too much fun. We got to be kids again. We hiked inshore, upstream jumped in and got to float down this fast moving freshwater stream, back down to the beach and Coral Sea. The water was chilly, but that didn’t stop the kids from going back to float down the creek a second time.
Seventy-Five Mile Beach is home to Fraser Island’s own highway. Yes, we were cruising down a beach highway that even has signage for speed and a runway for Air Fraser. Interesting too, because the highway is only passible, when it is low tide, exposing the flat, sandy beach. The rain clouds overhead cast a dreary haze and possibly discouraged the dingos from coming out, as we didn’t see any. We were told, normally we would have seen some. Despite that the drive was unbelievable, cruising down a sand beach highway in a specially designed 4WD bus that was built to handle Frazer Island’s terrain. This was definitely our “Once in a lifetime bus tour”, with spectacular island and ocean scenery.
Under the covers of our beach blankets we ran up to get a closer look at the Pinnacles Coloured Sands, which was a one of a kind sight for us, to see such multicolored sand structures. Again, the photos do not reflect the beauty of it in person.
Our tour of Fraser Island was worth every cent. We had so much fun, learned a lot and met some wonderful people. The only down side to the tour was the buffet lunch, which was mediocre and the brutal sandflies. We did not come armed with bug spray and while waiting for the ferry at the end of the day the tide was out and the sandflies were hungry. Aurora and I were almost eaten alive and had bite scars for days following. I guess, it was a little experience for us of the authentic “Australian Wild”.
Our tour ended around 4:30 and by the time we returned to our campsite it was close to 6 o’clock. Just enough time for a quick swim in the ocean, at the foot of our campsite, supper and then to bed.
We may not have found Nemo, but we did find Dory. We were so fortunate to experience Australia and the Great Barrier Reef in so many ways…. snorkeling, diving, tour speed boat, sailboat, 4WD bus, hiking and beach time. All provided a unique way to see and explore Australia’s beauty. I know you are asking yourself…what was your favorite? If our family had to pick a favorite tour we would’ve said Fraser Island. We have so many wonderful memories of this tour in part because it provided our family with something for everyone. A little exploring, a little learning and a little playing in the water. A perfect balance.