Just like Texas, everything in Australia is bigger.
So far on my travels through Oz, I’ve seen giant waves, giant kangaroos, giant trucks, giant floods, and one giant cow. Best of all, I got to visit one giant reef–the largest coral reef in the world.
The Great Barrier Reef is both physically and mentally monumental: it’s iconic and world famous but really just too massive for human comprehension. We’re talking about an ecosystem that’s longer than California–the largest living “thing” (or animal community) on earth.
You don’t “see,” “visit,” or “do” the Great Barrier Reef. You can swim in it, sail near it, dive on it, or helicopter over it–except there really is no “it.” Once you’re there, the Great Barrier Reef feels like the universe–simply limitless. The only way to measure distance is in shades of blue.
The city of Cairns exists for the sake of taking tourists out to the reef, and there are a hundred different ways to do that. I was less inclined to ride on one of the larger boats–the kind that carry 400 people at a time and hand you a well-used snorkel before dropping you into a roped-off stretch of shallow reef.
Instead, I traveled on two small sailboats and went diving as much as possible.
I realize that not everyone scuba dives or even wants to try, but in Aussie lingo, diving the Great Barrier Reef is pretty spekkie (spectacular).
For starters, the sheer scale of the coral is mind-blowing: cliffs, canyons, pillars, towers, shelves and swim-throughs that make a person feel like a guppy. What’s more, the coral is so alive and colorful: brilliant yellow to pastel pink, violet and orange, mint green, and intense blue–so intense that you swear someone painted it and dropped it in the sea.
[A school of sweetlips explores the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. By David Doubilet/NGS]
And then there’s the fish. After just two minutes underwater on the Great Barrier Reef, I am bored with the rest of the world. I have no need for Cirque de Soleil, Christian LaCroix’s spring collection, Dr. Suess or Lady Gaga’s latest crazy dress. I mean, have you ever seen a sweetlips? Or a unicornfish? Or a school of say–seven hundred fairy basslets, swirling over your head?
The Great Barrier Reef is highly protected, so that each dive site I was on promised maximum fish life, and all of it so diverse. I have been lucky enough to dive in many beautiful spots in the world but the Great Barrier Reef surpassed anything I’ve ever seen in the Caribbean or other parts of the Pacific. There’s a few lifetimes of diving out there and I’m so glad I got a few days’ taste.
Sigh–so that’s how much I loved the reef.
Now–in case you’re interested–here’s me sounding like a guidebook:
For the divers: I did six dives over three days on two boats. I stayed shallow simply because there was a lot more to see: my deepest dive was only to 60 feet (20 meters) and my shallowest was only to 12 feet (4 meters). My longest bottom time was 55 minutes–my shortest was a 30-minute night dive. Near shore, I dove Pinnacle Reef (off Green Island), and on the outer reef I dove Thetford, Flynn, and Milln Reefs–all brilliant, unique, and rich with fish life. Visibility ranged from 15-20 meters, though heavy rains affected some areas.
If you’re afraid of jellyfish, you can wear a stinger suit (which I did twice). Otherwise, I dove in just board shorts and a T-shirt (to protect me from the sun). The water temperature was a lovely 30˚ Celsius (86˚ Fahrenheit) on the surface–in fact, it’s the warmest water I’ve been diving in.
Both sailboats had their own private moorings on healthy, live reefs located inside protected marine park zones. Ocean Free offers day trips, the other (Coral Sea Dreaming) was a live-aboard that allowed for maximum diving on some hard-to-reach reefs.
The best part of being on a live-aboard sailboat was that it was small, personal and let you be right on the reef. Meaning that at six in the morning, I could suit up and go diving–right when the reef was at its most active–fish everywhere! If you’re a diver who’s done it all, I highly recommend an early morning dive on the outer reefs. Also, a night dive–nothing compares to swirling around in the glowing green bioluminescence (or almost kneeling on a lionfish).
You’ve never been diving but want to try: Yes, do it! A lot of boats (like Ocean Free) offer introductory dives with as much handholding as you want. The only problem I see with doing your very first dive on the Great Barrier Reef is that you will be ruined for life. I learned to dive twenty years ago in a murky quarry in Ohio and it’s been uphill ever since. Getting to dive the Great Barrier Reef was kind of a crowning glory. In Cairns, plenty of operators offer diving certification courses, which can take 3-5 days. It’s hard to think of a better vacation.
For the non-divers (no way, no how): If you’re not a diver and don’t plan on becoming one, then definitely try snorkeling. After coming in from each dive, I would jump back in the water and snorkel right back over the site I just dove because what you see at 3 feet deep is entirely different to what you see at 6 or 20 feet deep. Snorkeling on the surface means more sunlight, brighter colors, and a lot of adorable juvenile fish. Again, I would advise against the giant “factory” boats that carry hundreds of novice snorkelers (they scare all the good fish). Instead, consider going with one of the dive operators who will usually let you join the adventure at a reduced rate.