Australia’s legendary Great Barrier Reef is on the bucket list of most scuba divers and avid snorkelers. It certainly has been on mine. So, as I was nearing the end of my whirlwind 3-week tour of Australia, I had to pinch myself. Very soon I was going to be immersing myself in the Reef’s warm, crystal clear waters!
Cairns, located in tropical North Queensland, is considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. However, after flying into Cairns, we drove one-hour north along the scenic Captain Cook Highway to the charming town of Port Douglas. There we spent three glorious days in this small, more intimate resort town – which has a population of less than 5,000 including the tourists.
Port Douglas (or just “Port”) has a wide variety of accommodations and a compact downtown with good restaurants and cute shops, perfect for leisurely strolling. There is also a picturesque marina with boat trips and excursions for visitors. Unlike Cairns, Port has a beautiful palm-lined, white sand beach close to town – aptly named “Four Mile Beach” – which is great for lounging or long walks.
Note that I didn’t say for swimming. That is, swimming during the “marine stinger season” which generally runs between November and May (their summer/warmer season). Being there in early May, I learned that the Great Barrier Reef is home to some pretty nasty jellyfish, including the box jellyfish which can easily kill you with its toxic sting. However, Port Douglas has a small swim section on the beach encircled (see below) with a “stinger net” to keep out this fear-inducing bad guy!
Luckily, the risk of marine stingers is lower out on the reef, which is quite a ways off shore. Plus, reef boats carry lycra “stinger suits” (with full body coverage) for hire to passengers. These lycra suits might not be a fashion forward statement but they will help protect you from the stingers as well as the intense sun.
A Perfect Way to Enjoy the Great Barrier Reef – Quicksilver’s Outer Reef Pontoon
I highly recommend a full-day excursion out to the Great Barrier Reef to best experience this most deserving UNESCO World Heritage area. And that is exactly what my group of 11 did. Afterwards, we all agreed that this was one of the top highlights of our entire Australia trip! We went with Quicksilver, a highly respected and professionally-run operation serving both Port Douglas and Cairns.
We took Quicksilver’s fast 100-passenger boat (the Silversonic) from the Port Douglas marina on a 1.5 hour ride out to the Agincourt Reef, a series of ribbon reefs on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Quicksilver has a permanent, floating pontoon – a spacious “activity platform” – on the Reef with a variety of activities. We spent five delightful hours in gorgeous waters filled with shallow coral reefs, great for both snorkeling and diving. The water temperature was a lovely 82° F / 28°C.
They serve both certified scuba divers (like me) and “introductory” divers new to scuba who want to give the sport a try (with some quick training and close supervision). There is snorkeling (for newbies and experienced snorkelers alike) within a large roped area watched over by lifeguards, as well as the opportunity to go further afield on an Advanced Snorkeling trip with a marine biologist for an additional fee (which some of our group did). We all wore the lycra stinger suits (my photo below) that covered us head to almost toe!
Quicksilver has semi-submersible submarines which take you on a 25-minute ride around the reef with close up views of the shallow coral gardens & colorful fishes. Plus, there is an attached underwater viewing platform (by just going down some steps). These are great options for folks who might be less physically active, may not be comfortable snorkeling, or just don’t want to get their hair wet! They too can experience the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals and fishes.
Scuba Diving on the Reef
As a certified diver (who only gets to dive every few years), I was thrilled for the chance to explore the GBR’s tropical underwater world up close and personal. I enjoyed two great dives (each 50 minutes long to a maximum depth of 44 feet) under the guidance of my delightful dive master Tami (formerly from the UK). She led my small group around the coral reefs, pointing out interesting marine life and writing the names on her underwater white board.
The coral reefs definitely have some significant bleaching because of the increasingly warm water – worse this year because of El Nino. Tami told us this means the corals are “stressed” but not necessarily dead. However, there were still lots of amazing fishes and corals of every shape and color. In addition, we saw giant clams, white tipped reef sharks (harmless) resting peacefully on the sandy bottom, plus two different green turtles – one of which we swam behind for a little while until he/she ditched us.
I didn’t take any underwater photos (not my area of expertise) but I bought photos taken by the Quicksilver photographer, including some cute ones of me with “Chunk” – a friendly, huge blue & gold intricately patterned Napoleon fish (aka Maori wrasse). Chunk hangs out by the pontoon, making friends with all the divers and snorkelers. He loves the attention but especially the food he gets during the twice daily fish feeding times.
Chunk received his name, I was told, by getting a little too close to a boat propeller which lopped off part of his top side. Luckily, he lived to continue to delight all of us visitors. He’s truly beautiful and it was very special going “eye to eye” with him. Amazingly, his eyelids have the same blue/gold striping as his body. Nature is amazing!
Our Lucky Day – Thanks to the Reef’s Low Tides
We definitely got lucky on our excursion day because of a very low tide which happens for a few days only twice a year. It was going to make it impossible for the boat to return to the Port Douglas Marina at the usual 4:30pm time. Instead we’d have to wait until 6pm, meaning we would need to stay on the reef for another 1.5 hours (that is, 5 hours on the pontoon instead of 3.5). The Quicksilver staff asked us if that would be a problem and we all said “Are you kidding?” More time on the reef – Whoo-hoo!
Plus, Quicksilver’s larger 300-passenger boat which usually does the trip out to the reef was under repair. So we took the smaller Silversonic (100-psgr) boat which meant there were many less people on the pontoon our day. And, we had great weather and decent seas on the way out. Yes, the “reef angels” were definitely smiling on us!
Lastly, as part of the reef pontoon activity options, Quicksilver offers 10-minute helicopter rides (for a fee) for aerial views of the Great Barrier Reef. A small boat ferries riders from the pontoon to a nearby platform where the helicopter awaits. Some of our group took the heli-ride in the afternoon during the time of the lowest tide and they loved it. They said the reefs really popped and the views (and photos) were amazing! (see below – thanks Hailey)
More Scuba Diving Delights – Day #2
The following day was my last day in Port Douglas so I had to get my final Great Barrier Reef diving fix. I again signed up with the Quicksilver company for an all-day trip back out to the Agincourt Reef on one of their dedicated dive/snorkeling boats – the Poseidon. There were around 84 passengers (plus staff), which included 18 certified divers, a group of introductory divers, and the rest were snorkelers.
What attracted me to this Silversonic dive/snorkel trip was the ability to dive three different sites in one day. So, after each dive / snorkel session, the boat moved a short distance to a different spot on the reef and we jumped back in. There was a lunch break between the 2nd and 3rd dives. My adorable dive master Ethan was from New Zealand (photo below). Our group size varied each dive between 4-6 people and our maximum dive depth was 18.2 meters (60 feet). Stats for those of you who dive!
Note: Normally, Quicksilver uses the slightly larger Silversonic boat for these full-day 3 sites diving/snorkeling trips, but it was being used as the temporary fill-in boat for the Outer Reef cruise we took yesterday so we took the just-fine Poseidon boat.
With the low tides, we again had a later return so we gained a bonus 4th reef spot where we all got to snorkel. Thanks to Quicksilver, I enjoyed a total of 5 great dives over two days and was able to fulfill my “travel dream list” desire of scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef!
In Summary / Reference Links
If you’re planning a trip to Australia, I hope you will consider a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. As you’ve seen, whether you are a snorkeler, diver or “simple observer,” there are a variety of ways to enjoy the beauty of the Reef.
Port Douglas makes a great base from which to explore both the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding area which has a wide variety of other sights and interesting things to do. These include the tropical Daintree Rainforest (another World Heritage site), which unfortunately I did not have enough time to see but I heard very good things about.
Port Douglas Tourism Info
Quicksilver Cruises – Outer Reef Pontoon – http://www.quicksilver-cruises.com/reef-tour/
Silversonic’s Full Day Dive/Snorkel Boat Trip – http://www.silverseries.com.au/sonic.htm
Comments: Are you a snorkeler or diver? Have you been to the Great Barrier Reef? If so, where did you go? What snorkels or dives did you do?