I never intended on visiting Australia during my trip through Southeast Asia in December of 2014. I always figured i’d make my way to one of the large hub like Hong Kong or Singapore and fly home to Canada from there. However, as fate would have it, it turned out to be cheaper to head to Sydney for New Years then spend a week in Hawaii and fly home from there! Hey, i’m definitely not complaining about that setup!
I had also never intended on visiting the Great Barrier Reef either during my brief 6-day trip to Australia. As I traveled around beforehand I met a ton of people from Australia or people who had recently been there and they all told me I needed to try to make it to the reef to see it now since the reef was dying and would not be around or not be anything like it is now in 10 years. So when it came to planning out my Australia trip I made sure to fit in a trip to the reef!
There are many places along the coast from which to visit the reef including Cairns, Port Douglas, Airlie Beach and Townsville to name a few. I decided to go with Cairns partly because the budget airline flew in here and because they have a large number of reef tour operators. In Cairns you can find tours to fit all tastes. From the budget traveler to the luxury or from day trips to several day tours on the reef. Cairns certainly has an abundance of operators to choose from.
It was for this reason that I decided to forgo booking a tour online. In my experience it has almost always been cheaper to book tours in places that have a ton of operators once you arrive in said place and can negotiate the price in person. This (almost) turned out to be a very foolish move. I had forgot to account for the fact that I would be in Cairns on a Saturday and add to the fact that it was only a few days before New Years. Cairns was packed but more on that in a minute.
As I talked about here, I had thought the cheapest way of getting from Indonesia to Cairns would be to fly to Sydney from Bali and then take a Jetstar budget flight to Cairns and back. However after hours of research I found it cheapest to fly from Bali to Brisbane, spend a day in brisbane and then Brisbane up to Cairns. Then from Cairns to Sydney it was actually cheaper to fly all the way to the south of the continent to Melbourne, spend a day in Melbourne and then catch another flight to Sydney.
Arriving in Cairns, it was about midnight on a Friday night. I didn’t want to go find and pay for a hostel for a mere 6 hours since I would be heading to the harbor early in the morning to secure a spot on one of the day tours to the reef. I slept at the airport and then got a transfer to the harbor in the morning. To my dismay, every tour operator I approached was booked for the day. it looked like I would be spending the day stuck in town and not actually be able to visit the great underwater ecosystem that lay just offshore. When I was looking for tours, some of the operators informed me that I should go with one that visits the outer reef rather than just the inner reef to experience the reef at its fullest. At this point I would settle for anything though.
It seemed luck was on my side again today as it often is while traveling! At the last minute, one of the tour operators that I really wanted to go with (Down Under Tours) told me they were full but since I was just one person they would fit me in and allow me to join them! I was ecstatic! I was finally going to visit the reef today and the outer reef at that!
About 8:00AM I headed to the peer to the 29m catamaran boat we would be taking for the day and by 8:30 we were off! We spent about the first 45 minutes to an hour driving to the first spot on the reef where we would be diving and snorkeling around. After some announcements and safety instructions we got the day started with some flippers, goggles and a snorkel to spend some time snorkeling around the reef. I rented an underwater camera on-board from the company to make sure I could get some awesome pics of the reef while swimming around!
The Great Barrier Reef is a Unesco World Heritage site, a natural wonder and is marveled around the world for the vast size and scale of the underwater ecosystem it supports and I can definitely see why now! It was nothing like anything I have ever seen before. It was amazing, beautiful and so, so unreal to actually be here, swimming around the reef with coral and lots of exotic fish a mere couple feet below you living out their lives in this vast expanse of reef.
I was told there are only reef sharks in the waters here but they will not harm us. Others like the Great White do not live in or swim around the confines of the reef where we were since they cannot survive here in the warmer, shallow waters. I was really hoping to see some reef sharks but alas, they were too elusive.
We spent a couple hours at this first dive site as some people spent the time snorkeling and others doing regular dives or introductory dives. I spent the time at this first dive site just snorkeling and enjoying the amazing beauty that was around. My dive was scheduled for later.
After about an hour they called us out of the water and we moved on to the second dive site where we spent the next couple hours. Here is where I did my dive! I have never dived before so it was a new, exciting experience and definitely amazing to do ones first dive at the Great Barrier Reef! There was a schedule for when each of our dives would take place. There were only a couple of instructors for the introductory divers so we went down in groups of four. It would be about 40 minutes until my dive so I got back in the water with my snorkel gear until they called me out.
I went back to the boat when called, and they loaded me up with the needed gear. It was pretty simple, just sit there and do what they told me. I lowered myself in the water from the back of the boat and we were ready to go! Since this was an introductory dive I was only allowed to go to about 6m in depth.
As we started descending I made sure to regulate my breathing and pressure by continuously blowing out the pressure that would build up in my ears. Diving (even just to this depth) was such a different experience than just being above the reef in snorkel gear! At 6m we were among the reef, swimming with the fish and able to reach out and touch some of the coral and organisms that appeared to be rock but are actually alive as they moved and reacted to our touch! It was an incredible experience to say the least and one which I’ll never forget. Words can’t do it justice though so i’ll let some of the pictures below do the talking.
After the dive, we had a delicious buffet lunch on board the boat which was included in the tour price. They served some great food including chicken, beef, salads and desert. Lunches that are included in tour packages aren’t usually that great but this was a VERY good meal they had prepared and after all the swimming and diving, it was much needed!
After lunch we moved to the third dive sight where there was an optional excursion in an underwater submarine or an optional excursion in a helicopter flying over the reef. The submarine trip only went to a depth not much greater than the dive earlier and was meant more for people who weren’t able to do the dive. The helicopter ride was quite expensive at about $150 for a 5-10 minute flight over the reef but hey, this is probably a once in a lifetime experience so I decided to go for it! Besides, I spent the past 3 nights sleeping in airports to save money so I could spent it on amazing experiences like this anyways! Not all tours from Cairns offer the optional helicopter ride so I was lucky once again that the tour I managed to get on had it too.
After the helicopter and submarine rides we spent about an hour riding back to Cairns arriving around 4:30pm where we received our introductory dive certificate and were on our way. The day cost $300-$400 between the cost of the tour and the helicopter ride but it was totally worth it! My recommendation now to anyone going to Australia is try to make it to see the reef before it is gone or is less than what it is now. After this intro dive, I now want to get me full diving license and am looking in to a trip to Honduras which is one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified with some amazing dive sites in the Caribbean and the Belize Barrier Reef!