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Adventure Cruising: Exploring The Great Barrier Reef

Joanna Hall

You’re on the high seas, around 30 kilometres from the mainland with no land or other vessels in sight, and it’s time to jump into the azure blue water. As you hit the water, you give the “okay” sign, and head towards the expanse of reef. It’s only a few metres away, the edge dropping into the deep blue hue. A few more kicks and you’re over the coral; that’s when the overwhelming beauty of the Great Barrier Reef kicks in. Colourful corals of all sizes, pretty reef fish, giant clams, starfish and the odd small shark combine in a show of nature which is simply breathtaking. And there’s another huge bonus; it’s not overrun with hordes of tourists standing up on coral and “flapping around”, cutting visibility and scaring the fish away. 

There are many ways to visit the world’s largest and most impressive reef, including day-trips and flightseeing in planes or helicopters, but if both leave you wanting, a cruise is the ideal solution as well as a great way to avoid crowds. Cruising offers serious divers, first-timer divers, snorkelling enthusiasts, and sightseers a more in-depth and leisurely way to explore more of the reef’s picturesque sides and natural charms. They include tiny coral cays, small islands teeming with unique plants and wildlife, historical sites, and the various pockets of the inner and outer reef itself. Many of them feature different coral formations and marine life, and some cannot be accessed by day-trippers.

Coral Expeditions has five small, expedition-style ships built for cruising hard to access destinations such as the outer sections of the Great Barrier Reef. One is the Coral Expeditions II, which cruises the region year round, accommodating 42 guests in 21 staterooms. The ship was fully refurbished in 2015 and has facilities similar to larger cruise ships, but at just 35 metres long and with a shallow draft, it can anchor just metres from the outer reefs, offering guests a unique cruising experience. Coral Expeditions has a number of Great Barrier Reef itineraries to choose from, with one of the most popular being a four-night Northern Reef Cairns to Lizard Island return experience departing every Monday. Tides and weather can force changes to the schedule, but a typical journey goes something like this:

Day One: Cairns And Double Island

The sail-away from Cairns is a perfect introduction to cruising the Barrier Reef; a glass of bubbly is served as the petite ship cruises out of the Marina and into Trinity Bay towards Double Island where she’s moored for the night. It’s the first sunset on board with Palm Cove on the mainland off to one side, and Double Island off to the other. On our cruise there’s only around 20 people on board with a mix of adventurous types mostly from Australia, Britain, the US and Canada along with a handful of Europeans from Switzerland and Italy. This is also the first introduction to the culinary delights on board, and our onboard chef produces an impressive seafood buffet in the dining room. It sets the scene for the remainder of the cruise. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is good and plentiful and complimentary tea and coffee is available 24 hours in the dining room.

Day Two: Cooktown And Lizard Island

As with most days, it’s an early start to make the most of the time at each location, and to take advantage of the best tidal conditions. A continental breakfast is served at 6am, and a hot breakfast is ready by 6.30am, ahead of a 7am arrival in historical Cooktown, the site of the first white “settlement” in Australia in 1770, although it was entirely by accident. Captain James Cook was forced into the Endeavour River after he hit a reef off Cape Tribulation, and he and his crew spent nearly two months on the banks of the river repairing the ship. There are at least six monuments to James Cook in Cooktown, which now has the feel of a real frontier town thanks to its isolation. In the past few years a paved road was finally built to connect it to Cairns, but it’s still a rough track and it seems everyone in town has a 4WD and/or a boat. After a day exploring, it’s full steam ahead to Lizard Island for sunset drinks on Turtle Beach, where another amazing sunset bathes the bay in wild array of yellow, oranges, reds and purples.

Day Three: Lizard Island And Ribbon Reef #9

Within minutes of stepping onto its beautiful white sand, it becomes obvious how Lizard Island got its name. Strolling across the beach and heading towards the scrubland, a one metre monitor lizard seems unconcerned about the presence of humans nearby. While the reptiles are a distraction, this is one of the most exclusive destinations in Australia, and with 23 beaches and some of the most beautiful reefs in the region, this is an ultimate Barrier Reef experience. The area is renowned for its clown fish, turtles and giant clams and this is just the beginning of some of the most amazing snorkelling experiences on this cruise. There’s also an option to climb Cook’s Look, a steep path to the top of a lookout used by James Cook in his travels, which gives fantastic views over Lizard Island and other Barrier Reef Islands. By late morning the Coral Expeditions II is heading towards the first true outer reef on this itinerary, Ribbon Reef No. 9. Perched on the edge of the continental shelf, this is the first serious opportunity for scuba divers to plunge into the deep blue, but the snorkelling on its own is remarkable. With the ship backed up right onto the edge of the reef, everyone on board is able to snorkel and explore the corals, giant clams and huge array of tropical fish without getting in each other’s way. And as always, the glass bottom boat swings into action for those who aren’t entirely comfortable diving or snorkelling. It’s the type of experience which results in a lot of excitable conversation at dinner - even the most well-travelled on board can’t compare it to anything else.

Day Four: Ribbon Reef #3 And Escape Reef

While Ribbon Reef No. 9 is undeniably a magical experience, everyone on board is warned that things are about to get even better. Another superb outer reef, Ribbon Reef No. 3 is a paradise for divers and snorkelers and it seems to be the realm of clown fish and giant clams yet again. There are still no signs of any other boats and Ribbon Reef No. 3 is ours to explore exclusively; and just a few metres away from the sports deck on the back of the Coral Expeditions II. But at 10am, the anchor is drawn for the three hour journey to the final destination on this journey - Escape Reef. Another remote outer reef, Escape Reef is pure sensory overload and the final dive chance on the cruise. A giant green sea turtle puts on a show for about five minutes as the highlight. It’s the final night in the bar, ahead of a farewell special roast dinner, and the general consensus is that this is an active cruise, although it is possible to opt for a lounge chair on deck instead of hitting the water.

Day Five: Cairns

At 8am, we’re back in the “big smoke” that is Cairns, and its time for the people on the four-night cruise to disembark Coral Expeditions II. The lucky ones who’ve opted for the longer expedition get to stay onboard to continue on with a three-night cruise taking in another lineup of fascinating destinations and reefs including Sudbury Cay, Dunk Island, Nathan Reef and Fitzroy Island. For the rest of us there’s time to enjoy a stay in Cairns, or head for the airport to fly back to reality. 


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