Visiting the Great Barrier Reef with Reef Experience

Photo by James Demetrie via flickr

Living in Australia, I am fortunate to have access to some amazing and vastly different places that make up this wonderful country. One such place that has been sitting on my bucket list for a long time is visiting the Great Barrier Reef. The heritage listed site is also included as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and can even be seen from outer space. It’s also been immortalised in a Hollywood blockbuster, one that has had those who visit, on a quest in finding ‘Nemo’ and more recent a search for ‘Dory’.  This is one place that is truly spectacular and if you should get the chance visit far north Queensland, make sure that a tour of the Great Barrier Reef is on your itinerary. 

About the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is located off the coast of far north Queensland. The reef is the worlds largest coral reef system that stretches along some 2000 km. The reef is made up of thousands of little reefs and hundreds of islands that are made up of both hard and soft coral. It is home to a massive ecosystem filled with millions of colourful fish, molluscs, starfish, turtles, dolphins and sharks. It became a world heritage site in 1981 with millions of tourists visiting each year. 

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Reef Experience Tours 

There are many tours that will take you out to the Great Barrier Reef and it may be a little confusing as to which company to go with. Costs vary significantly as to what is included or what’s not included. I did quite a lot of research into which tour would suit our needs, as we were a group of four with different swimming abilities and what was also value for money. I came across the Reef Experience website and found that this tour would suit us perfectly. What was even better is the cost of the tour was all inclusive with no more add ons once you got on the boat. Everything that is stated on their website is exactly what you get. We as a group couldn’t have been happier with this tour. 

Reef Experience have been operating since 2008, is Australian owned and is one of the last family operated reef tours in the region. They operate 3 large vessels on the reef with one used for day tours, whilst the others are used for ‘live aboard’  which is for extended overnight stays.

Reef Experience offers five different reef locations and on any given day two can be selected to be visited dependent on weather conditions. 

What really makes this tour, is the wonderful, knowledgeable, funny and caring crew members that are there for every step of your reef experience. 

Below is a recount the day tour I took with Reef Experience.

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0730 a.m

We were up bright and early (way before 7.30), as we were staying in Palm Cove. If you are staying in Cairns you get to take advantage of the free shuttle bus that is offered for pickups in the Cairns CBD. So we jumped on the earliest bus from Palm Cove, which had us arrive into Cairns at around 7.00 a.m. The bus station was only about a 5 minute walk to the Cairns Marina, so as we were early we grabbed a quick coffee before heading down the wharf. 

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The Reef Experience boat is located on the Finger A wharf which is the first wharf you encounter at the main port, so there was no issues with finding where the boat was at. 

So at this point we were filled with some nervous excitement. We had been hoping for a calm day but the weather gods were against us, as we had already noticed how choppy the water was. Little did we know how choppy it was going to get later!

After we had had our coffees, we headed back down the wharf to get ready to board the boat. The Reef Experience boat takes around 90 passengers but on this day I think we were at about 70 people for this tour. We were greeted by a friendly crew member, who ticked off our names and sent us on our way to board. Once on board we selected a wetsuit, some flippers and a snorkel.

The boat is quite spacious with lot’s of tables and chairs, a servery come bar for later, upstairs there is a large deck area with oversized sun lounges, which we found a perfect place to stretch out on, later in the day. 

The tour begins with the formalities, filling out a one page form with your details and to disclose any medical conditions you may have. House (or boat rather) rules, safety and the general run of the day was next discussed. We were each assigned a number to ensure we were all accounted for after being in the water or if someone fell overboard. 

0830 a.m

Time for breakfast! On this tour all meals are provided and for breakfast we had an egg and bacon roll. Everything was freshly made, the breakfast was actually tasty much to my surprise. Tea and coffee (whilst stationary) along with water were freely available.

At this point you could also buy some sea sickness tablets for $6 and as we were warned it was going to be a rough ride it might be a good idea. There were also ginger tablets that you could have that were free to take. Of the four of us, neither took up this option. More on this regrettable decision later!

Whilst the boat was stationary and everyone was tucking into the breakfast, we were given a talk on the marine life that you could expect to see in the reef.  Underwater camera’s were offered for hire if anyone wanted to get some underwater shots along with accessaries for gopro camera’s. I ended up buying a floating handle for my gopro as I was terrified of it losing it in the water. Then the boat began it’s journey to the reef which was to take around an hour to arrive at the first location.

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Scuba Diving & Snorkelling 

Everyone has the opportunity to scuba dive even if you have never dived before. Those that would like to try scuba diving (and aren’t certified) are given an introductory lesson and are able to scuba dive through supervision. This is included in the price. I was with my group of four, which was my son who could not dive due to having had grommets inserted a few times as a child, my sister who is not a confident swimmer and her partner who was a confident swimmer but chose to snorkel with us. 

For non confident swimmers or non-swimmers, a crew member will support you in the water. Yes they will get in to help you feel comfortable in the water, along with floating aids if required.

Those that chose to snorkel were offered a noodle to take into the water, with many taking this offer up. As the day was quite choppy, the noodles helped with buoyancy, especially when you got a little tired fighting the current.  

We were all offered wetsuits to wear in the water, not so much for added warmth but for protection from the coral. It was low tide when we were there so it was a necessity to have good covering as coral can be sharp. 

Somewhere around 9.30 a.m

Okay, so a lot happened prior to reaching the first reef location. Remember earlier when I stated that none of us took the offer of the sea sickness tablets? Well this came back to haunt us. The journey to the reef was through 30 knot winds and from this you can guess it was no pleasure ride! The seas were rough and my stomach was riding every wave. Admittedly, I had said earlier (or boasted) that I don’t get seasick and it’s only an hour ride and that we all will be fine. Well, myself and 90% of the people on the boat began one by one dropping like flies. My sister who was most nervous about this boat ride, didn’t even flinch and was one of around 4 people left inside the boat not suffering in the clutches of seasickness.

Conveniently there were brown paper bags all around the boat if you suddenly developed seasickness. In my wisdom, I took a couple of bags to our table ‘just in case’. After watching so many people being assisted outside to get fresh air, it was my turn and I couldn’t hold on any longer. I must say that every team member who helped those who were vomiting bags and bags full, were incredibly professional. They were incredibly caring to each and every person who needed assistance. I was guided by two staff members to the back deck, my sick bag was changed, they got me some serviettes and a drink of water. Not once was I made to feel an inconvenience. Everyone on that boat was treated with the same care, and honestly I was amazed how they just took it in their stride. I’m mean these crew members were happily (ok that’s going a little too far) handling other peoples body fluids and disposing them! A professional team through and through on what was said to be the one of the roughest days they have had. 

Once the outside air hit my face and three vomits later, I immediately felt better. I could also see a few boats on the horizon so the reef wasn’t too far away and once I felt normal again I went back inside. Plus the boat slowed down too which helped a lot. 

10.00 a.m

We finally make it to the first location and our boat backs up to the reef. The boat is brought as close as it possibly can to the reef and drops anchor. Those who were snorkelling could jump in straight away from the sides of the boat and those that were diving were put into small groups for their dive. I believe on the day there were around 8 or 9 groups, so you were free to snorkel until your group was called to dive.  

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Once into the water, I was surprised about the water temperature. It was a warm 25 degrees, something I’m not used to coming from Melbourne way. From there it was a matter of swimming to the reef, which wasn’t too far and enjoying the sights below. During this day trip, the reef was at low tide so the coral didn’t appear that deep and I was concerned about accidentally touching it. The day was quite choppy, which had the water splashing over head and a strong current to swim against. The current was continually trying to pull you back to the boat, so it made it difficult to get anywhere fast and was a little tiring. Regardless of the conditions, the experience was absolutely incredible. My pictures don’t really do the reef justice. There were plenty of fish of all kinds and colours swimming right below me. The coral was varied with different shapes, formations and various earthy colours. The weather was quite overcast on this day, which made visibility in the water of a blue hue. When the sun peaked through the clouds and shed some light into the water, the colour was more pronounced and clearer.

Honestly this was an amazing experience, the reef was huge and I’m pretty sure I could have swam for hours if it wasn’t so choppy. I ended up spending around 45 minutes in the water at each location, which was plenty for me. 

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11.00 a.m

For non-swimmers (there were quite a few on this tour), the chance to see the reef was still available by way of a little glass bottom boat ride. As you can see from the picture above, it doesn’t look that fancy or very big for that matter but it showed great visibility when looking at the reef below. You got to see quite a lot traveling over the reef from the comfort of your seat. I was really impressed with what we got to see and I was especially happy for my sister who didn’t make it out to the reef, being a non-confident swimmer. I could assure her that what we were seeing on the boat was what I could see whilst snorkelling. 

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12.00 pm

After around 2 hours of snorkelling or diving, it was time to get back on board for Lunch. I wasn’t sure of what the lunch was going to be like, as it was billed as a bbq and salad.  I was hopeful though, as breakfast was pretty good. In fact the salads were fantastic and not what I expected. There was Couscous, Greek, Noodle and Coleslaw salads, along with honey soy chicken, steak and sausage. The honey soy chicken was seriously delicious and I made myself a little roll with chicken and coleslaw. This second meal received another thumbs up in the food department. 

13.00 pm

Once lunch is down, it was time to move on to the next reef location. Now as you know earlier I mentioned the weather conditions weren’t ideal, aka really rough and choppy. Moving the boat to the next location required going through some rough breaks in the water. It was decided that the safest option would be to stay at this reef but move to a different part of the reef. There are normally five reef locations that the tour can go to depending on the conditions. Unfortunately today was not a calm day so the prospect of visiting other reefs wasn’t going to happen. Once again, the boat anchored and we all put on our (wet) wet suits and jumped right back into exploring this amazing reef. I spent a fair amount of time snorkelling, trying to find Nemo, Dory but what I really wanted to see was a turtle. At this location, a turtle was spotted swimming between the boat and the edge of the reef. You’ve got know idea how mega disappointed I was when I heard people saw a turtle. Oh well, I never found Nemo for that matter but I did find Dory and a host of other stunning fish species. 

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14.45 pm

As it was getting towards 3 p.m it was time to start getting ready to leave and head back to the Cairns Marina. Out come the cheese and biscuits and if you are so inclined (and not worried about seasickness) you could buy a wine or beer to go with those biscuits. It was then announced that the ride back will be rougher than the ride up and maybe take the opportunity now to down a couple of seasick tablets. All four of us thought this was a good idea. Indeed the ride was twice as rough as it was coming over, the boat crashing down with every wave. Lucky for us the tablets worked, although my stomach was still wondering what was going on. 

4.30 p.m

We arrived back into port right on time at 4.30 p.m. Just prior to disembarking we were all thanked for choosing to tour with Reef Experience and that we all assemble for a group photo up on top deck. What a fabulous day we had visiting the Great Barrier Reef and all it has to offer. As we left the boat, the crew had already lined up outside to high five every person on the boat. Such a great touch to an end of a great tour. 

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Tips:

  • Take the sea sick tablets if the water is choppy or if the crew say it’s going to be a rough ride.
  • If you have a gopro and you are diving, get a red filter for your camera to diffuse the blue light (they are available for purchase on the boat). If you are snorkelling then it’s not really necessary. My photos were taken without a filter in overcast conditions. 
  • Don’t have expectations of seeing incredibly colourful coral. Most professional photos of coral have been set up with spotlights to get as much light as they can on the subject. If it’s overcast the hue of the water will be different. What you are really looking at is the shapes and formation of the coral. 
  • Don’t be concerned about sharks. Sharks typically feed at dawn and at night. They don’t tend to hang out at the reef as fish can easily hide within the coral. 
  • After your first dive, go up on the deck and wring out your wetsuit of excess water. 
  • Make use of the noodles to help you float especially in rough conditions. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask to be assisted out into the reef with a crew member. They would hate for you to miss out if you are a non-swimmer. 

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Cost

The tour that I was on was the $195 Reef Experience day trip

There are various other pricing options for overnight stays or longer. 

Contact 

Reef Experience 

www.reefexperience.com.au

Tele: +61 7 4037 2700

100 Abbott Street
Cairns
QLD, 4870 
Australia

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*Cover Photo by

James Demetrie

4 COMMENTS

  1. Another great article Wendy. Diving the Great Barrier Reef has long been on my list of must do experiences. For those who want scuba certification, I think getting class room training close to home and then getting dive certified in the warm clear waters of some amazing place like this is a wonderful way to go. Getting seasick for me has been unpredictable, so I always opt for the tablets given a choice. Ginger anything for an upset stomach is gold. Great advice on the camera and filter too. I love my GoPro, but one of these days, I’m hoping to bite the bullet and just buy a really top notch underwater camera kit. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks again for your kind words Dale. I like your idea about scuba certification. I myself would like to try diving and as it’s quite daunting to me, easing my way into it with class room training is a good starting point. The GBR is totally amazing and I can’t wait to get back up there and do it again! Diving is definitely the way to go as you get to see more of the marine life up close and at those depths you do need a good camera. I’m hearing about sea sickness, I think I’ll class myself in that bracket now of being unpredictable, although the ride was the roughest I have been on and that includes heading out of the heads of Sydney which is notoriously rough!

      • You’re most welcome Wendy. I always enjoy your articles and photographs. You would totally love scuba diving. I originally got certified in Seattle, USA where the water is cold and visibility limited. Classroom training there was stellar, but after a few dive trips in warm tropical waters I became convinced that was the best place for the actual dive part of certification. I’m really intrigued by the GBR and can’t wait to take a trip there. So far my underwater photos completely pale in comparison to the incredible colors to be experienced diving, but my hope is to at least improve. Sea sickness is strange. I’ve weathered huge nasty seas on some occasions no problem and then become terribly sick just getting back on the boat ladder in relatively calm water. Go figure. I love diving, but pretty sure I wasn’t meant to be any kind of real mariner. Keep your stories coming please!!

        • That makes me really happy that you enjoy my articles and I will most definitely keep them coming! I would totally agree with you about learning to dive in tropical waters. For one it’s warm, two the water is clear and three the amazing sight below is addictive and I’m pretty sure there are no rivals to this reef.

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