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Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef in Australia

Updated: May 2, 2021

Bucket List Item: Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef was on my mother’s bucket list for so long. Before she passed, she took us to Belize to do the reef there in its place. The flight was shorter and more doable.

I like to think mom was smiling down on us as we explored the coral at the Great Barrier Reef! She was obsessed with coral and wanted to see the reef before it was destroyed by climate change.

(Family trip to Belize, December 2017)

We had only a few days in Cairns, but we had to make it happen. Raz had a tiny window of opportunity, and we took it! This blog will include lots of details about snorkeling, the Great Barrier Reef, and what you can expect on a snorkel trip from Cairns, Queensland.

About the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on earth. It is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and an endangered UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More than half of the Great Barrier Reef (which stretches for more than 1,400 miles) is already dead or badly damaged, and, likely, it will never recover. The injury is mostly because of a rise in sea temperatures, which has killed much of the coral.

(Photos Courtesy InDepth)

The Reef is a unique ecosystem, home to thousands of marine life species, including fish, whales, dolphins, and six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle. It is also the largest living structure on the planet, so big, it is visible from space. There are over 1,625+ different kinds of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, 30 species of whales and dolphins, and so much plant life!

We saw tons of living creatures and treasured the beautiful coral that lit up the seafloor. The vast amount of underwater life makes snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef unforgettable. Don’t miss this if you’re ever in the area!

Choosing a Tour Company

In most of the towns that line the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll find tour companies happy and willing to take you out to sea. You can do day or night tours, snorkeling, scuba diving, or even take a helicopter tour from up above.

I loved getting to snorkel the reef because getting up close and personal with it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. But when we return with more time, I will certainly choose to scuba dive!

Divers typically get to see bigger marine life, and I’m partial to diving myself after we experienced it in Belize. Whatever you pick, you’re almost guaranteed to have an experience of a lifetime.

(My reef photos)

Our day trip was provided by a company called SilverSwift, and I would recommend them to anyone leaving the Cairns port. With them, you’ll leave the port around 8 AM and return around 430 PM. Our trip, all costs included (snorkel gear, wetsuit, guides, food), was $189 AUD/person. I was told that was a steal because the prices have dropped alongside tourism of the area due to COVID.

PRO TIP: Rent a camera from the boat. We rented an underwater Olympus camera, and it was stellar! They sent us home with our own SD card filled with our photos and videos. You can also rent a personal photographer if you wanted to splurge.

Professional souvenir photos are available for a small charge and they were definitely worth it! Photos were important to me because no one knows how much longer the reef will be available to tourists. We heard locals saying that it might only be a few more years, due to the damage on the reef.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has been the highlight of my time in Australia. The sea itself was calm and still, and going in, we had huge worries about the weather. It was early February with an 80% chance of rain. But as we learned, the reef’s weather varies from that of the surrounding cities.

We had mostly cloud coverage and a few sharp rays of sunshine. When the sun comes out, you can expect it to really accentuate the coral’s color. February is peak jellyfish season, so we had to wear special Lyrca suits, but luckily we barely felt their stings.

The reef itself was massive, we found ourselves getting lost out there. A staff member from the tour company keeps watch from the boat deck and whistled loudly if anyone strayed too far out.

Rasmus and I got to see fish of every size, shape, and color and we saw a few sharks, dolphins, eels, and jellyfish. We didn’t get to see a turtle, and so, we must return for a dive! Nonetheless, the memories are carved into my brain, and the brilliance and colors won’t soon leave my consciousness.

Packing List

  • A good camera

  • Swimsuit and towel

  • Hat

  • Sunscreen (reef safe)

  • Extra dry shirt

  • A certification card for certified divers.

  • Cash for drinks at the bar

Available for Hire:

  • Underwater digital cameras

  • Professional underwater photo and video service on board

The Excursion

Our cruise to and from Cairns city was easy, about an hour, and in February it was beautifully peaceful. It was extra humid, but it doesn’t matter when you’re in the water. We did however take some seasick pills on the way out, just to be safe, and we felt great.

Our crew took us to two outer reef sites: Milln (spots - fish town and whale) and Moore (crevasse). According to our crew, “Locations vary with the day's conditions, and each site is chosen for visual impact, ecological diversity, and the challenge of discovery!”

This video was provided to me from our tour's photographers, InDepth:

Tips for Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

  1. Make sure to use reef-safe sunscreen. You’ll want to use sunscreen while you’re there, but you don’t want to harm the Reef in doing so!

  2. Take motion sickness pills before you go. It's always better to be safe than sorry. They said you could feel some mild drowsiness, but we felt great.

  3. Book a tour with a highly rated company like SilverSwift. Having a good boat crew makes all the difference. You want to go with experts!

  4. Bring a GoPro or an underwater camera. You’ll definitely want to be able to take photos underwater, and you’ll want something that is user friendly and designed for the ocean. I tried my phone in an underwater case at the first site, and it barely worked.

  5. Look, but don’t touch! The reef ecosystem itself is a living organism, and even a light touch can kill the coral. Avoiding touching it at all costs.

Where to Stay in Cairns

When touring the Great Barrier Reef you’ll probably want to disembark from Cairns or Port Douglas. Because we departed from Cairns I can recommend the Pullman International, it was a beautiful hotel with a great pool, and it was a 6-minute walk down to the dock.

Try to find accommodation as close to the dock as you can, because it’s a long day on the water, and you’ll want to be close at the end of the day.

Is snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef on your bucket list? Share in a comment below!


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