Australia

What’s so great about the Great Barrier Reef?

The boat was pitching from side to side and up and down. Waves burst over the bow to smash against the windows. Inside the cabin on the bottom level, passengers heaved into brown paper bags so thin and ineffective the crew had to make desperate dashes to the bins as the contents began dribbling out the bottom.

It’s the side of the Great Barrier Reef cruises you never hear about.

The boat was at half capacity, with just 40 people on board, yet even with a near perfect forecast for the day, it heaved over the ocean swell just as people inside the cabin heaved into their bags.

great barrier reef

THE Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of those marvels you dream about seeing one day. Crisp waters of aquamarine rainbows hiding an entirely different world just beneath the surface. You see it in the videos – dip beneath the smooth waters and there you’ll find neon-coloured corals and fish to match the decor, all looking like a kind of underwater Vegas.

And why wouldn’t you want to visit!?! It’s the world’s largest coral reef system, with over 2,900 separate reefs covering about 344,400 square kilometres. That’s roughly the size of Germany, and the length of the entire North American west coast from Vancouver to the Mexican border. It’s one of the 7 wonders of the natural world and is the only living thing visible from space. They’re impressive stats.

And it’s not just big, it’s diverse. The reef holds:

  • 1,625 species of fish
  • Over 3,000 kinds of shell
  • 630 species of echinoderm (starfish to those playing at home)
  • Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle
  • 39 species of whales and dolphins
  • 1 of the world’s most important dugong populations…

… And for those who like a bit more of a thrill, 133 species of sharks and rays. Oh and let’s not forget the coral – there are 600 species. Phew.

And then there’s the ugly truth. Like the fact that brisk winds often sweep across the reefs, causing not just rollicking on board the boat , but a chill in the air that makes you rather reluctant to enter the waters.

Great Barrier Reef cruise

I have to be truthful. I grabbed the cheapest reef tour available. You know the kind of tour – a boat that chugs along so slowly its zippy neighbours are just showing off as they outstrip you within seconds. A boat crammed with tourists (though at half capacity it saved me the sound of 80+ dry-wretching tourists, all crammed in tight, an experience a fellow a hosteller had to endure).

Admittedly, the tours are all essentially identical, offering the same close quarters, BBQ lunches, outer reef visits, scuba diving sessions, and even “complimentary” glasses of wine, served with cheap cheddar cheese. So I couldn’t justify forking out another $100 for a premier experience.

And of course, money can do nothing for choppy waters.

And so. After an exhilarating (others may concede, nauseating) 2+ hours of wave surfing, we arrived at reef #1 with several passenger too ill to swim and many others too cold. A quick hustle over wetsuits and we were soon all in the admittedly tropically warm water.

Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef

The reef stretched to unfathomable depths below me. But that’s just it. The reef is incomprehensibly huge, and as equally deep. Which means snorkelling is limited to a superficial experience. As I hovered on the surface, the nooks and crannies where the most interesting of marine life would hide were, quite literally, out of my depth. From above, I saw no fluorescent eye-catching sights, just big blobs of purple mostly.

As I explored, a diver with a gargantuan camera blocked my view, shoved the camera towards me and gestured at me madly to signal I was impressed. She handed me a licence plate – a LICENCE PLATE!! – labelled Cairns and had me pose with it. I suppose the lack of coral led tour operators to think up this bizarre distraction. What does a licence plate have to do with the reef anyway?

But even without striking coral around there were at least fish, right? Well, the fish fared marginally better. The most intriguing of them, whose name I never learned, was an astonishing emerald that seemed to glow, with googly eyes that spun in their sockets and inconsistent patches of random colour. They looked, I thought, like prostitutes on the prowl. Heavily dolled up women from the 60s, who’d optimistically applied their make up on board the rollicking boat.

Travellers far more intrepid – or perhaps just more stubborn to recoup the costs of their tour – stayed out in the water as long as they could. Me? The goose pimples prickled after 20 minutes, and anyway, I got the impression I’d miss out on very little returning to the boat early.

After consultations with fellow travellers post-tours, it’s not just me when I say that the reef experience was, disappointingly, disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of the two reefs I saw that day. They go down a long way. But that’s even worse, because it makes what lurks below all the more tantalising. Like treasures just out of reach.

clam on great barrier reef

At the second site, as I fiddled to fix my snorkel mask in a better, less painful position and attempted – and failed – to “tchoo” the clogged water back up my spout, I cursed not giving a diving a go. I glided over the coral. But I couldn’t help thinking it would be more, well, colourful. And then I realised what I was feeling.

Sadness.

THE REEF IS DYING, that much is clear. Much of the coral was bleached; in fact there have been 2 big occasions of coral bleaching in the past five years. According to news reports, the reef could be a goner by 2030. That’s only 16 years away but so much of this coral already seemed lifeless. Coral has already declined in the reef by 50% in the last 30 years. The captain of my ship explained that rising water temperatures, violent storms, and pesky Crown of Thorns starfish were to blame for the reef’s deterioration.

The ride back to the mainland was even more of a rollercoaster than the trip out. A crew member stood on vomit duty, his arms filled with those ineffective brown sandwich bags.

… OK, it wasn’t all downsides. Our tour may have been the cheapest. But I bet none of the other passengers on the schmoozy ships got a conga line of high-five waiting crew members after disembarking. I delicately sidestepped the vomit duty staff as I jumped off the gangplank and farewelled the reef… Perhaps, though I hope not, for good.

What’s REALLY Worth Seeing in Tropical Queensland?

Now after I’ve put a downer on it all, here are some cool places and adventures you really shouldn’t miss in tropical Queensland – and a few destinations I’ll leave up to you:

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