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Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Underwater at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World


View World Trip 2012 on noahv's travel map.

One of the earliest entries on our lifelong bucket lists has been to explore the Great Barrier Reef in northern Australia.  Crystal clear waters, beautiful coral formations, exotically colored fishes, maybe even a sea turtle or a shark - these have been images that we've carried in our heads from an early age.  So, when we finally got to North Queensland, we knew that we were going to make this dream happen.

Except, it wasn't that easy.

Our plan was to visit the reef during the week while we were in Port Douglas, which is about an hour north of Cairns.  We picked Port Douglas since it was closer to some of the more spectacular places on the reef (which is actually not one single reef, but a conglomeration of many smaller reef areas).  We had heard that taking a trip out of Port Douglas (or simply "Port", as the locals refer to it) would allow us less time on the boat and more time in the water.  And, since none of us are PADI-certified divers, we were looking for a snorkel-only company, of which there seemed to be more in Port Douglas than in Cairns.

We finally got referred to a company called Wavelength, which specializes in small-group (around 30 people) snorkel-only trips running out of Port Douglas.  After talking with them via email and the phone, and learning that they carry a marine biologist on board (and in the water with you) to give explanations on the marine life, and (since they are snorkel-only) you get into the water quicker than going on a larger boat that caters to both divers and snorkelers (since divers typically get suited up first, snorkelers have to wait). We made reservations to go on Friday, and started to get excited.

Then came the cyclone.

Cyclone Oswald hit the north QLD area on Monday, dumping over 39 inches of rain in the area, with winds up to 90 kilometers per hour. Although it's possible to go out to the reef in rainy conditions (after all, you're getting wet in the water anyway), any wind will cause the ocean swell to get too high, compromising visibility on the reef, not to mention safety. As the week progressed, and we sat in our hotel watching the rain torrent down, we kept an eye on the weather reports for later in the week. We were excited to see that the weather predictions were for the cyclone to pass over us and die out by Thursday, with good conditions forecasted for Friday.

Then came the email from Wavelength letting us know that since they had to cancel the Thursday trip due to weather, they were going to rebook those passengers for Friday, and there wasn't enough room for us. Very disappointing, but we weren't scheduled to leave Port Douglas until Sunday, so Saturday looked like the day to go. Until the winds came up again… Now we were stuck looking at either changing our departure date so we could work in a Sunday trip, or scrapping our plans entirely and finding a company out of Cairns. After much deliberation, we decided to stay an extra night and go to the reef with the Wavelength crew on Sunday.

And boy were we glad that we did.

Sunday dawned overcast with light rain, but by the time we left the dock, it was clearing up, and we were all putting on the sunscreen. It was about 1.5 hours from Port Douglas out to our first stop, and we spent our time watching the waves as we passed the Low Isles and looking out for dolphins (we didn't see any).
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As we got closer to the reef, we got a very thorough safety review, and got suited up in our lycra suits (good for both protection from any small jellyfish / "stingers" in the water, as well as the sun - also an ecological bonus since you don't have to put on sunscreen that might get into the water).

Alex and Leah rocking their suits - new additions to the Blue Man Group?
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Getting geared up and going in for our first dive.
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The plan for the day was 3 separate stops out of the 20 that Wavelength has the rights to visit (that's a lot of sites to choose from - other providers have far fewer). We started out on Bashful Bommie on Opal Reef, where we got adjusted to our suits and masks and snorkels.
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We even got to see a large sea turtle!
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We then headed over to Long Bommie (also on Opal Reef) for more snorkeling and fun in the water.
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After a great lunch on-board, we had a great dive at Turtle Bay on Tongue Reef (where we were the only ones in the water, since Wavelength has an exclusive at this site). We saw all types of sea life, including hundreds of different types of fishes, sea turtles, a moray eel, a spotted stingray, and even a black tipped reef shark!
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Throughout the course of the day, the two marine biologists that we had on-board with us were extremely helpful and informative, explaining everything from the types of marine life that we were seeing to the reef and rainforest ecologies. We learned that because the coral from the reef generates oxygen, this can cause weather above the reef to change (e.g. creating clouds to shield the reef from direct sun), which then transport moisture inland to the rainforest, which then will cause runoff from the mountains through the mangrove swamps, which will filter and release more nutrients into the water, completing the cycle by nourishing the reef. The time and method that Paul (our biologist / guide) spent describing this to us was very much appreciated.

Our guides also pointed out the impacts from the recent cyclone on the reef to us - much of the coral tips had been knocked off, and almost all of the larger coral formations (the ones that look like giant mushrooms) were all knocked over and flipped upside-down on the sea floor. However, our guides made sure that we knew that although this was significant change to the reef, it was not "damage", since the reef will continue to grow and evolve.
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We spent the trip back to Port Douglas relaxing on the bow of the boat, watching the waves go by and thinking about our adventures.
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By the end of the day, we all agreed that this was one of the best adventures that we had ever been on, and we can't wait to get back into the water!

Posted by noahv 19:40 Archived in Australia Tagged queensland snorkeling great_barrier_reef

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Comments

Glad you got to see the reef. Snorkeling is fun! The next round the world adventure you do I can recommend the reef off Belize. It is much nearer to shore (about 5 minutes boat ride from Amergris Caye) and the reef is hundreds of miles long, so plenty to see. Many kinds of fish, turtles, sharks and rays, oh my!

by Michael Smith

What a special day for you. The pictures are great and your narrative of the visit to the reef almost makes me feel I was there with you. Grandpa/Bob

by Robert Goodwin

Amazing and wonderful. It makes one realize how Mother Nature is really the one in control... And we have to be patient. It is TOTALLY worth it! Thanks for sharing your awesome experiences with us! LK

by Linda kjarstad

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