Australia at Its Finest: Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef
It wasn’t until the plane was descending into Cairns that I realized how excited I really was to be traveling there. Endless lush rainforests, tropical birds at every turn, cyan water with world of biodiversity beneath. This was the idyllic image of Australia I had had prior to arriving in the country two years ago. While Sydney offers these features occasionally, the Australia I had actually always dreamed of was Tropical North Queensland.
I’ve mentioned before that Sydney can feel a bit claustrophobic compared to my previous life in Spain, where I could easily head off to a foreign country whenever I wanted. Although Australia has some extraordinarily beautiful spots, the places you can easily travel to from Sydney for a weekend are lovely but far from exotic, so traveling to Cairns was just what the doctor ordered. It felt like I was truly getting away from my regular life for the four-day weekend.
Arriving midday, we spent our first day there dining, walking along the Cairns Esplanade, a boardwalk paralleling the coastline, checking out the Lagoon, a large public pool right on the water, and taking in some live music in a sunny park. Cairns is a small, easily walkable place, so staying in a hotel along the Esplanade made for easy wanders around town.
Day two was where the magic really began, though. If there’s one thing you must see when visiting Cairns, it’s the Great Barrier Reef. Spanning 133,000 square miles, this coral reef system is the world’s largest structure made by living organisms and can be seen from space. There are more distinct living species per cubic meter of the Great Barrier Reef than any other environment in the world. So, yeah, it’s a pretty cool place. It’s no wonder Lonely Planet recently ranked it #2 on their list of the top travel sights in the world.
There are quite a few companies that offer Great Barrier Reef tours from Cairns (and more leaving from other destinations like Port Douglas), and after doing significant research on our options, we chose to travel with Passions of Paradise. Adult tours are $159, and, while you can find tours from Cairns as inexpensive as $99, taking into account group size, speed, destination, and reviews, Passions of Paradise struck us as a great balance between price and quality.
Passions of Paradise takes their tours to two destinations: Michaelmas Cay, which is tiny sand island and bird sanctuary surrounded by sparklingly clear water, and Paradise Reef, a mooring exclusive to this tour. Unfortunately, the weather was pretty wild that day, so the wind prevented us from visiting Paradise Reef, and we instead spent longer at Michaelmas Cay. I would have loved to see the private reef, but Michaelmas Cay was still a stunning place for snorkeling, and we had plenty of time to enjoy the wildlife there.
Due to my boyfriend’s popped lung from dancing too hard a few years back (true story), he’s unable to scuba dive, so we both chose to snorkel. Learning to dive in THE Great Barrier Reef would have been an amazing experience, but this allowed us more time to simply enjoy the scenery, and the shallow waters meant we could see quite a bit from the surface.
A glass-bottomed boat carried us from the Passions of Paradise boat to the cay, which, as a bird sanctuary, is home to over 23 species of birds who had clearly made the island their own. From here, we donned our snorkel gear and headed out into the water, taking in the colorful coral, fish, and menagerie of other creatures that call this section of the Great Barrier Reef their home. The highlight of the day, though, was when we spotted a sea turtle floating just a few meters away and swam alongside him for a while.
The tour also included morning tea, a fantastic buffet lunch, and afternoon snacks, which were great for a bit of rest between snorkels when we weren’t sunbathing on the outside deck. We dozed off on the return trip and returned in time to catch the NRL (Australian rugby league) grand final, which, despite my apprehension when it comes to Australian sports, actually had me yelling for North Queensland’s team, the Cowboys. They managed to come back at the last second to tie the game and then win in overtime, so being in their home territory was a thrill.
The next day would take us to the rainforest, with the trip was off to a great start, ticking off a massive item on my bucket list, the Great Barrier Reef. I will say that seeing the reef from above would be ideal (if I had all the money in the world to pay for a helicopter tour!), as it would provide the chance to observe what really makes the reef impressive, its magnitude. However, snorkeling or diving in the reef is definitely a must, and ours was a delightful day of taking in the Queensland sun and getting up close and personal with some of Australia’s most intriguing wildlife.