The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Australia. Two million people a year visit this incredible place and as it’s the world’s largest reef system, it’s easy to see why. The amount of marine life you can see on the reef is awe inspiring and this is why we visited it in three different locations on three separate trips.
In this post we’ll talk about our three experiences, our recommendations and our overall experience. The GBR is a destination for everyone but where you snorkel/dive really depends on your swimming ability and what you’re really hoping to see. So let’s dive in (pun intended)…
Ok – it’s worth mentioning first and foremost that the GBR isn’t as colourful as every single brochure ever. Set your expectations at a realistic level. Of course, you’re going to see some incredible sights and marine life just don’t expect Nemo in every single reef structure and turtles swimming alongside you.
Some coral is colourful, it’s amazing when you do see colourful coral in full swing! Again, for every colourful reef system you see, you will see dead coral as well. In 2011 a really aggressive cyclone passed through and damaged a lot of the reef. The best thing is that it’s beginning to regrow and that’s hope for future generations!
Another huge factor is that the sea can be choppy! Trust us, we had one crazy day of battling against the currents and waves that were taking us out in the water. It’s really worth being a bit flexible and keeping an eye on the weather. Most tour companies will have a forecast board outside the shop for you to check, some won’t operate if there’s a wind warning. Take heed and make sure you put safety first. It’s also worth mentioning if it’s raining or it’s been windy sediment will mean a cloudier view of the coral. As said, try and be flexible and watch the weather. We experienced high winds one day, heavy rain on another and sunshine on the last. Each will affect visibility.
Just remember, the videos you see on promos and TV documentaries have very good expensive cameras with filters on them, from a snorkel it will look different.
Before your trip
So you’re now going along for the ride, knowing you can enjoy whatever comes your way! A few tips before you hit the reef…
No one wants to be stung by a jellyfish. There have been over 100 species of jelly recorded in the Barrier Reef including the ones you don’t want to come up against, the blue bottle and the box jellyfish. These can give a really painful and (especially in the case of the Irukandji box jellyfish) fatal stings.
It’s really important to adhere to the ‘stinger seasons’ and wear a Lycra stinger suit if advised. The stinger season is between November and May – most tours will either offer suits for free or for a small price. If you’re going snorkelling without a tour (i.e. in a fringing reef, off an island) then check with a scuba shack/hire company if you’re not sure. These aren’t expensive and worth not getting stung!
If you want more info on jellies – you can read it here.
Queensland is the skin cancer capital of Australia. You’re also much more likely to burn in water than out of it. If you’re going outside of stinger season and you don’t need to wear a wetsuit then you have to be careful about sun damage.
Unfortunately, sunscreen isn’t great for the reef. According to National Geographic,
When you swim with sunscreen on, chemicals like oxybenzone can seep into the water, where they’re absorbed by corals. These substances can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching.
Elaina Zachos, National Geographic
Not great right? If you want to do your bit, mineral-based sunscreen that uses titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safer than the oxybenzone-containing creams. Sun shirts specifically for swimming are also really popular, a good way to keep the rays out and the marine life happy!
All tour companies will offer equipment for trip out to the reef, this will either be included in your tour price or for a small additional fee. The basics you’ll need are a snorkel mask, a snorkel tube, fins (optional but very handy!) and a wetsuit/stinger suit (if in stinger season).
These can also be hired from scuba shacks/snorkel hire places on islands. If you have your own mask, don’t forget that using baby shampoo and rinsing in fresh water can help with your mask fogging up. If you’re out in the water, you can also use your own spit (gross I know but it will help you see the reef better!). Try not to breathe out of your nose as it will let water in or fog up your mask.
If your mask is letting water in, it’s most likely that it doesn’t fit properly. Here are a couple of tips when fitting your snorkel mask…
- We were told that a lot of people panic and tighten their mask too tight, this will just let water in so don’t do it
- Pop your mask on, and without using the straps breathe in through your nose. If you mask sticks to your face it will fit properly
- Make sure all hair is out of your face – if you have hair under your mask it will let water in
- When putting on the straps, make sure they sit at the top of your head (where you would put a high ponytail) not at the back of your head. Keep the straps clear of your ears too
- Guys – if you’re not clean-shaven unfortunately beards and stubble can also cause water leakage. Use Vaseline to help create a seal
We use our own Cressi Mask and Snorkel and have always preferred to use them. The snorkel is especially good as it has a device that blocks water coming back down the snorkel when the top dips below the surface (good for those non-confident swimmers).
It’s also important your wetsuit and flippers are the correct sizes for your time snorkelling. You need to be comfortable and relaxed, if you have questions it’s best to ask your tour operator or where you’re renting the gear from.
If you want to capture your memories and show off all the amazing marine life you swam with, your phone camera won’t cut it. There are waterproof cases for phones, but why risk it? It’s worth investing in a specialist underwater camera.
We personally use, and recommend, the GoPro HERO7 Black. From having the HERO4 previously, the main reasons to upgrade are the waterproof-ness and the steady shot. Our footage without it on the HERO4 it was all over the place, now with the new steady shot feature, it’s not too bad at all. It’s worth noting that without filter, your footage might look murky and not too colourful but is still better than none at all!
There are heaps of other underwater cameras on the market that we saw other people using. There will be a camera for most budgets so check them out, read some reviews and see what’s best for you.
Most tour companies will rent out underwater cameras if you don’t think you’ll use the camera again afterwards, this might be a good option.
Where we snorkelled
Whitsunday Islands – Hook Island Reef
The Great Barrier Reef starts at the tip of Cape York (north) and stretches all the way down to Bundaberg. 770km north of Bundaberg is Airlie Beach, from here you can catch tours out to the Whitsunday Islands and the world famous Whitehaven beach. We have a full review of our trip sailing around the Whitsundays.
The reef itself was fairly sheltered as we were in between islands however, this didn’t mean the current wasn’t strong. We all had noodles and some had additional life vests – the coral was quite close to the surface so there was no need to dive down. It was quite relaxing to just bob along with the current (you have a crew member watching at all times) and see what the coral had to offer. It was minimal swimming and we managed to see quite a lot.
The only downside to this particular method was that there was no guidance/freedom to explore more. We just saw what we saw and that was it. That said, the main aim of that trip was to see Whitehaven beach and have a sail, so the snorkel was an added bonus. We managed to see clams, various species of coral and a handful of different fish. This was our third favourite place to see the Barrier Reef, but we highly recommend going to see Whitehaven beach. Take the snorkel as a nice extra!
Cairns – Green Island
Our day trip to Green Island was completely different, except for the boat. Choosing another sailing boat we took the two/three-hour journey out to Green Island and stopped for our snorkel 1km from the island.
The wind was really strong on the day so we were fighting against some pretty big waves. First our guided tour took us around the main reef spots and pointed out the likes of giant clams, sea cucumbers and even two clown fish (finally we got to see one!). Then we were allowed to snorkel round for half an hour as we pleased, as the currents were strong not everyone chose to stay in the water.
While the reef out to sea from Green Island is obviously teeming with life as well, it’s pretty sporadic. There are clumps of coral surrounded by seafloor. In our experience, we found long stretching reef when we snorkelled fringing reefs (off islands), not those out to sea. Again it depends what you want to see. The reef was also deep, if you wanted to get up close and personal you had to duck dive down (or scuba). This may be easy in a pool but when you’re swimming against current this makes it incredibly hard! Having a GoPro with an extendable stick helps!
Before we headed off to Green Island itself, the crew fed a school of black Giant Trevally while we were in the water. These are one of the largest, fastest predators in the world’s oceans (eek!) while they’re not dangerous to humans they can mistake the odd finger for a fish so definitely don’t touch!
On Green Island itself, there are walking tracks, sheltered reef to snorkel and the largest crocodile kept in captivity. We spent an hour or so enjoying the beach, had one last snorkel then headed back to the mainland.
Good to note – if the water is rough on these sailing boats take ginger/motion sickness tablets before your journey! You could end up feeding the fishes…
Cairns – Fitzroy Island
Saving the best until last, we had the best day on Fitzroy Island. The whole day was amazing. We caught the Fitzroy Flyer and the crew were all really helpful, it’s also the first boat to arrive on the island if you catch their earliest departure.
This is great if you want to book onto the sea turtle rehabilitation tour. They get booked up really quick with limited spaces so if you’re on the early boat go straight to the general store and book your place! All the money you spend ($11.50 for adults, $7.00 Child 4-13 years, infants free of charge) goes straight back into the centre and helping rehabilitate turtles. The tour is 45 minutes and consists of lots of important information on how to spot injured sea turtles. The main way to know if a sea turtle is injured is if it’s floating at the top of the water and not diving down, this means it’s ingested too much waste (i.e. plastic) which traps pockets of air. This means the turtle can’t dive to the seabed for food and so after a certain amount of time (depending on their size) they starve to death.
If you see a turtle floating and it hasn’t dived down below the surface for more than 15 minutes please call 1300-animal to report it to the RSPCA, they will then go pick it up.
Snorkelling the reef at Fitzroy Island was so relaxing and because we did it ourselves we had the whole day to explore the island and snorkel as much as we wanted. We saw more colourful fish off the fringing reef and swam with two good sized sea turtles. We also spotted a reef shark, obviously, the shark and the larger of the two turtles had to appear the one time we left the GoPro on the beach!
Fitzroy Island even looks like paradise so the fact you can just hop in the water and see as much marine life 10 meters from the shore was a massive thumbs up for us. As it is so close to the beach, you have to be careful – it’s shallow so don’t at any time stand on the coral, this can have a long-lasting damaging effect. If you know you’re going to need to take breaks only do short bursts, it’s easy to jump in and out.
We’d love to hear your experiences of the Great Barrier Reef, drop us a comment!