Experience the dazzling underwater world of a tropical reef system!
The Cairns Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places in the world to see a tropical reef.
Every day more than a dozen boats leave Cairns taking hundreds of eager tourists to various locations on the inner or outer reef to snorkel, dive or view the reef from a glass-bottomed boat or submersible.
Photo courtesy of Reef Experience
Floating above the reef, an amazing world reveals itself. Coral gardens containing coral formations in all manner of shapes and sizes lie below you. Tiny fish of impossible colours – electric blue, dazzling yellow, and bright red – dart into the crevices of the coral as you pass overhead. And then a friendly green turtle comes swimming by. It’s an underwater wonderland that makes the world above seem drab and non-descript by comparison.
The water below you deepens and now you’re floating over a miniature coral canyon, six or seven feet deep. You pause to take in this new diorama.
A pair of brilliant yellow Butterfly Fish, their elongated noses jutting out from their bodies, are pecking at a head of coral a few feet below you.
A few feet further on a brilliant blue Damsel Fish chases away another, stripey sort of fish, and then returns to the bit of coral that is his territory.On the sandy bottom a yellowish gobie sits quite still, eyeing me quizzically. You give your fins a lazy kick and glide on to see what the next spectacle is. It’s an endlessly fascinating world, like swimming in an enormous marine aquarium.
This is the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living organism in the world and home to an estimated 1500 species of fish and 400 species of coral.
Choosing the right reef tour
Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most memorable things you’re ever likely to do, and Cairns is probably the best place to do it. But choosing between the many Great Barrier Reef tours is not easy. There are quite a few variables to consider. Firstly, the boats don’t all go to the same places. Some go to the Outer Reef while others go to the Inner Reef.
Photo courtesy of Peter Nangle
‘Outer Reef’ can mean better, more pristine coral and more fish (but not necessarily) but it also means you’re going to be spending more time traveling (90 minutes each way) and less time snorkeling and enjoying the reef.
Then again, some boats carry up to 500 passengers while others take a maximum of 80 – which suits you better, a big group or a small group?
Some operators include a guided snorkelling tour in their price, others don’t. Some include a trip over the reef in a glass-bottomed boat, others don’t.
Some Great Barrier Reef Tours offer you ‘helmet diving’, others don’t.
Some boats tie up at a pontoon (a pontoon is a floating deck with awnings that is permanently moored to the reef). The pontoon becomes your base for the day and makes the experience more relaxing and comfortable.
Boom-netting (hanging off the back of the boat on a specially designed net in the boat’s wash on the way back to Cairns) is great fun but not all boats offer this.
Photo courtesy of Matt Kieffer
Here are some of the factors you need to take into account when choosing your reef tour:
- Pontoon or no pontoon
- High tide / Low tide
- Reef location (inner or outer reef)
- Sea sickness (amount of time to destination)
- Big boats vs. small boats