12 dives in 3 days exploring the largest coral reef system in the world. This is one of those special life experiences that exceeds the highest of expectations. The only other time I’ve ever had that feeling in my life is when I saw the Colosseum in Rome for the first time. The Great Barrier Reef is an underwater cathedral that has formed over the past 500,000 years and is so massive that it is visible from space. It attracts over 2 million people annually and is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Part of what makes the GBR so amazing is the 50 to 80 feet of visibility in the water. Due to the water’s clarity, we saw sharks, clown fish (Nemo!), sea turtles, moray eels, cuddle fish, parrot fish, giant clams, and thousands of others species. No, the sharks weren’t that scary. The biggest ones we saw were about 5 or 6 feet in length, but there was a huge barracuda (named “Bob”) that hung out under the boat who was a bit alarming. Some of the sea turtles we saw were 150 years old and they were absolutely massive, like the size of a Volkswagen beetle. Also, we encountered trigger fish that would chase you and nip at your fins if you swam over their ‘territory’. Their territory starts wherever their nest is located and forms an imaginary cone shape to the top of the water. You have to swim horizontally out of their territory to escape the trigger fish’s charges or they will follow you to the surface. Trigger fish aren’t that big, so more of an annoyance than a danger. To give you a visual of what we saw, we ‘hired a camera’ for one of the dives and took the pictures below:
The coral itself is beautiful to look at and could be 100 feet tall in some areas. Different depths contained different kinds of fish and coral, so you could swim up and down one of the bigger ‘stalks’ of coral and see a variety of wildlife. Gliding in between some of these ‘bommies‘ (Australia slang for reefs) was surreal as they towered above you and every direction you looked was filled with fish darting in and out of the coral. We also did 2 night dives. At first, I was pretty nervous about diving in the pitch black ocean, but they turned out to be some of my favorite dives. Diving in the dark gives the sensation of what I imagine it would feel like in outer space… weightless and free. We dove so many times in a row, I even went to sleep dreaming about being under water.
During our time in Australia it was jelly fish season, which is November to May and corresponds with high season for tourism. The Box jelly fish is considered one of the most deadly animals in the world and they inhabit Australia’s ocean waters. We were required to wear a ‘stinger suit’ or thin wet suit for extra protection. The worst part of the whole GBR trip was the 10 minutes it took to put on a cold, damp wet suit and the other scuba gear before every dive. Once we were in the water, it was spectacular!
My recommendation is to book a ‘live-aboard’ tour. This is where you stay on a boat 3 hours offshore and hop around to the outer reefs. We chose ProDive Cairns for our live-aboard and were extremely happy with our experience. They fed us well, were knowledgeable about every dive site, and provided all necessary equipment for a great value. Most importantly, the crew worked long hours diving with us, cleaning the boat, cooking, etc and were still pleasant to be around the whole time. The ProDive crew and the magnificence of the Great Barrier Reef made this a remarkable experience.
The city of Cairns itself (pronounced liked ‘Cans’ with an Australian accent) was just OK. If you’re pressed for time on a vacation, you probably wouldn’t choose Cairns unless you were going out on the GBR. The waterfront area called the Esplanade was really nice with a waterfront walk and had a number of good restaurants. Other than that, it didn’t seem like there was much else to see. We were there in December, so they had a Christmas tree up in the main square surrounded by palm trees and it was 85 degrees out. Kind of a weird feeling! My favorite restaurant was The Courtyard, which had outdoor seating with a splendid view of the water/boats. They had a decent beer selection, alcoholic milkshakes, solid food options (mostly American), and a great music playlist from the 90’s. The indoor decor of The Courtyard was particularly entertaining as it contained a number of different sized gnomes, candy jars, free popcorn machine, and a funny sign that read “Go Hard or Go Gnome”.
We also heard that there are some really cool rain forest excursions you can take out of Cairns, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time for those. I would highly suggest that if you are planning to visit the GBR that you get your Open Water certification for scuba diving BEFORE you travel. You could snorkel, but scuba diving is really the way to experience this underwater playground and it takes about 4 days of training to become certified. You don’t want to spend your vacation in training! Overall, the Great Barrier Reef is an absolute MUST SEE and I would highly recommend looking into ProDive Cairns for a live-aboard adventure!