Every trip to the East Coast of Australia must include the Great Barrier Reef. It’s one of those bucket list activities that you just can’t miss – and there are so many ways to do it. Whether it’s with a glass bottom boat, a snorkelling day trip, diving trip or even a multi-day live-aboard trip, there’s something for everyone and every budget.
For our Barrier Reef experience, we opted for a full day snorkelling trip. We chose carefully, not wanting to end up on a boat that caters mostly to people who are diving, and we decided on an old pearl lugger called the Falla.
Not the newest or flashiest boat in the harbour, this vessel has a colourful past. As the captain, Doug, explained to us, this really is his labour of love. It started life as a pearl lugger in 1956, back when mother of pearl was lucrative business.
When the industry took a turn for the worst, the Falla fell into the hands of a tour company in Queensland – which Doug used to work for. In 2002, the boat sank in bad weather and Doug raised the money to buy the wreck and restore it himself. Since 2004, he’s been taking tourists out to sea with his loyal crew, all the while showing and explaining the wonders of the ocean with an obvious and impressive love for the reef.
It’s a beautiful and unique boat and, as Doug rightly pointed out when we were out at sea, all those people squashed into their faceless modern speedboats ended up taking pictures of the Falla as we sailed past!
Our first stop was the Coral Gardens at Flynn Reef, a place that Doug told us was a great for snorkelling with plenty of coral in relatively shallow waters.
Some people who had paid a little extra to have a go at scuba diving (including Dale) got go first, but soon everyone was jumping in excitedly for their first glimpse of the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is huge and it’s world famous for the sheer variety of aquatic flora and fauna, so before I stuck my face in the water I wasn’t sure what to expect.
What I saw made me feel like I was swimming around in the biggest and most beautiful fishtank I have ever seen.
Swimming along slowly, it was hard to decide where to look there was so much to see. Turrets of coral rose up all around out of the white sand – and the fish stood out against it brilliantly.
One thing I hadn’t expected was the noise. Being underwater, I didn’t really think my ears would be all that effective, but they were filled with the cacophony of the coral and the life all around it. There were thousands of tiny popping noises as the fish nibbled at the coral – like hundreds of bowls of rice crispies crackling away in milk.
Coral itself is a fascinating and fragile thing. Doug explained to us over our lunch break that it’s actually made of several different elements. Hard coral is made from a white skeletal structure of calcium carbonate, cultures of tiny animals and cells of the plant-like zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae provide food for the tiny coral animals and give the coral its colour. The tiny animals secrete material that creates the overall coral skeleton structure, which the zooxanthellae use as a home. These tiny cells work together to survive, but if something upsets the balance (eg the coral is damaged) the zooxanthellae easily die, bleaching the coral white and starving the animals – killing the coral.
Our next stop was Upolu Cay – a sand island surrounded by nothing but sky and sea.
As the divers disappeared into the depths, us lowly snorkelers let the current take us along the shallows of the reef and once again I was amazed by the variety of life underneath me.
There was no need to swim here, you could simply float along with the current, watching the fish, crabs and shrimp go about their daily business from your vantage point.
Sure enough, after a while of floating I spotted a sea turtle nibbling at the coral below me.
Quite a few other people spotted it too and we all got to swim along with the turtle as it moved about the coral easily.
Now, I should point out that we were very lucky with our visit. We had managed to coincide our trip with the start of the rainy season (our timing was everything in Australia). This generally means runoff from the land, which affects the clarity of the water – thankfully, the rains were late this year and hadn’t yet started so the water was beautifully clear.
As we made our way back to the harbour, we agreed that our trip had been perfect. We hadn’t been crammed on an uncomfortable speed boat and made to feel rushed. We had the opportunity to see some amazing coral and fish with plenty of time – Dale even got to spend more than an hour underwater on his dives! It really was ter-reef-ic! (sorry)