Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef was something that I never thought I’d dream of being able to do. But once I moved to Australia, I knew I had to make that dream a reality.
Living in Sydney, the trip to Cairns was just a short plane ride away – making this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity something I could easily check off my bucket list. When my brothers came to visit after I had been living in Australia for a few months, I planned a short weekend trip with my brother Rob to Cairns to finally experience the Great Barrier Reef.
How To Get There
Located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the closest airports to the Great Barrier Reef are Cairns and Townsville - both of which have regular flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
We flew from Sydney to Cairns, and it was a relatively inexpensive and quick flight (~3 hours).
When To Go
I traveled to the Great Barrier Reef in March. As one of the wetter & hotter months, it wasn’t ideal timing, but my brother Rob was visiting me in Australia at the time and we weren’t going to pass up that experience while he was down under.
The best times of the year to visit the Great Barrier Reef are typically from May to October, during the dry season. June, July, and August are considered peak season since the weather is generally sunny and the water visibility is the best. But it is a year round destination, and we had a great time visiting in March.
How Many Days To Visit
We visited for only three days – arriving March 19 and departing March 21. We put all of our eggs in one basket since we really only had one full day for the snorkeling trip - the other two days were travel days so we couldn’t plan for being out on the water.
If the weather was not on our side, we didn’t have any buffer in our schedule to move the snorkeling trip to a different day. It rains often in that part of the country, so this was a bit of a risk we took. Luckily, the weather cooperated with us as we had sun the whole day with no rain, although it was about 90 degrees F and muggy.
Ideally you’d want to spend at least 2 days exploring the Great Barrier Reef to give yourself a buffer in case the weather is not on your side. And the more days in the Great Barrier Reef, the better!
What To Do
There are many exciting things to do in the Great Barrier Reef. Given that it all takes place under water, the best thing to do is to get yourself in that water and explore the reefs. Snorkeling and scuba diving are very popular choices.
If you want to stay dry, consider a glass bottom boat, sailing, visiting the many islands among the reef, and viewing the reef by air via a helicopter ride. Whale watching and Indigenous culture tours are also offered.
Snorkeling or Scuba Diving?
We booked an excursion with a snorkeling & diving tour company. It was a full-day trip on a boat that took us out to three different locations. The tour was a combination of snorkelers and scuba divers. Since Rob was not scuba-certified, we opted for the snorkeling ticket (which was less expensive than scuba diving, anyway). Looking back, I would actually recommend snorkeling over scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef for a few reasons:
Time in water – at each stop, snorkelers were immediately released into the water to go off and explore as they pleased (within the designated boundaries as pointed out by the captain). On the other hand, scuba divers needed to gear up, perform checks with their guides, and go over protocols before starting their dives. Scuba groups also end their tour as soon as the first person begins to run low on oxygen. In the end, the snorkelers had nearly twice the amount of time in the water.
Colors – one of the main highlights of the Great Barrier Reef is the amount of color from the coral. Those colors are heightened by sunlight…as you descend further, those bright colors tend to wash out more as everything takes on a deep blue hue. In other words, the brightest colors are found right at the surface, not 30 feet down.
Cost – if you've always dreamed of scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef as a bucket list trip, the price difference isn't enough to sway you one way or another; however, it’s worth mentioning that it is less expensive to snorkel compared to scuba.
We were very fortunate that it was a clear, sunny, and calm day. The captain of our ship even commented that it was perhaps the smoothest the ocean had been in several months, and it was the lone sunny day sandwiched between several days of rain. Sometimes all the cards fall into place!
The tour also provided a lunch on-board, which was essentially a buffet-style spread of cheese, crackers, seafood, salads and meats. We came prepared with anti-seasickness medicine but didn’t need to use it. We were blessed with glass-smooth waters, though, so I’d recommend having it on hand as seasickness is common on tours like that.
While snorkeling we saw plenty of tropical fish, anemone, coral, a jellyfish, and giant clams. One of the locations had an underwater “cliff drop”, and way down below us we saw a reef shark.
From the boat, we saw a pod of dolphins and a couple of sea turtles at one of the snorkeling locations. Thankfully, we did not come across any crocodiles while in Cairns.
The Rest of My Experience
Since it was such a short trip, we really only had one other day to explore the area. After our flight landed and we checked into our hotel, we grabbed a car rental and took ourselves on a self-guided tour of some sights.
We drove along Bruce Highway/A1 with stops at The Babinda Boulders and Josephine Falls. After confirming with some locals that there were no crocs in the water, we took a dip to cool off.
We continued on to Palmerston Highway/State Route 25 to see Ellinjaa Falls and Millaa Millaa Waterfall. We stopped at for a quick snack at The Rumours Diner in Millaa Millaa, an old-timey…convenience store? Restaurant? Gift shop? Somehow it was a combination of all of those and was definitely a memorable stop. We continued our improvised loop to the Curtain Fig Tree just outside Yungaburra.
We arrived at the Yungaburra Platypus Viewing Platform just before sunset – the recommended time to catch glimpses of the platypuses. We waited and watched as it grew dark, but while we did see some splashes in the water we couldn’t really claim to have truly seen a platypus that evening.
The drive home along Gillies Range Road/State Route 52 was a bit precarious at night as the road has several extremely windy stretches with narrow lanes and tight curves.
At the end of the day we were thrilled to have seen as much as we did, considering it was an impromptu self-guided tour. If we had more time (or money!) set aside for this short trip, we would have considered the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or Kuranda Scenic Railway.
Exploring the Great Barrier Reef is a once in a lifetime experience that every traveler should include on their bucket list.
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