The captain brings the ship to a halt in the middle of the high seas — no land in sight in any direction — and orders the passengers into the ocean, one by one. This scene may well have been a nightmare for hapless voyagers in days gone by, but in the balmy conditions off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the present day, it is pure bliss.
From the moment I jumped into the warm water, I knew this was an experience I would treasure. The brightly colored fish of various sizes and shapes, crystal-clear water, spectacular coral and the peaceful silence that snorkeling in a balmy sea produces combined for a magnificent experience.
I felt at one with the ocean, as much at home there as the fish that swam blithely past me, showing no fear of a fellow ocean dweller. It was as if I had just dived into a giant aquarium. Such are the delights visitors can expect on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the most unspoiled and charismatic spots on the planet.
There are several ways to experience the reef, including from the air, scuba diving or in a glass-bottom boat, but my wife and I opted for snorkeling — by far the easiest option. Snorkeling is a skill that can be learned in only a few minutes, and is the ultimate way to explore all the reef has to offer.
There are many ways to get to the reef; we decided on a voyage on the Reef Endeavour, a small cruise ship with a capacity of only 160. The intimate size of the ship is a welcome alternative to the giant cruise liners that also travel up and down the coastline, and personal service is an added feature.
Sailing out of the city of Cairns, in far north Queensland, the Reef Endeavour has two weekly cruises — a four-night trip north and a three-night journey south — or a combination over seven nights, to which we treated ourselves.
The Reef Endeavour sails to some of the most picturesque points on the reef, and passengers simply jump into the water with snorkeling or scuba equipment.
Regarded as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism that can be seen from outer space. Stretching some 1,500 miles (2,414 km) along Australia’s coastline, it dates back 240 million years and is one of the highlights of any trip down under.
The reef is comprised of 2,500 individual reefs, and is home to 2,000 species of coral, many with spectacular fluorescent colors.
Trying to find “Nemo,” or the clown fish as he is officially known, has been a favorite “sport” for snorkelers since the Disney movie. One of the more shy fish on the reef, Nemo can be found hiding discreetly in cracks in the coral. We were lucky enough to spot him more than once.
At one point I found myself only 65 feet (20 m) above a reef shark lurking at the edge of the reef, but I never felt in any danger.
The reef shark is a harmless member of this feared family of predators, and with the calm, clear waters and the serene surroundings, you just don’t feel in danger.
For those who prefer a drier view, the Reef Endeavour also has a glass-bottom boat. A marine biologist accompanies tours to tell about the many varieties of coral and fish on view.
In addition to stopping on the reef, the cruise visits luxurious resorts on Dunk, Fitzroy and Lizard Islands, where visitors are free to use the hotels’ superbly designed swimming pools.
Another highlight is a visit to historic Cooktown, 214 miles (344 k) north of Cairns, named in honor of its founder, Captain James Cook. Ironically, Cook’s ship, the original Endeavour, came to grief on the reef in 1770, and Cook took refuge in what became Cooktown to repair the damage as he continued his epic voyage around Australia.
It took Cook the best part of two months to get the vessel seaworthy. There must have been times when he was tempted to stay in the tropics, rather than return to the bleak cold of his native England.
The town — the last outpost of civilization in northern Australia — has a museum dedicated to Cook, including artifacts from his historic maiden voyage to the great southern land.
Before or after the cruise, I highly recommend exploring in and around Cairns. The region boasts many worthwhile sights, including junglelike rainforest walks and massive waterfalls. The most famous of these, Milla Milla Falls, is among the most-photographed spots in the massive state of Queensland.
The best way to see the rainforests and the waterfalls is on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, the world’s longest electronic gondola ride. The system extends nearly five miles (7.5 km) and takes 1 1/2 hours to complete with stops at several points along the route, including a mountaintop with a rain-forest boardwalk and scenic Barron Falls. At the end of the ride is the charming village of Kurunda, with its tourist markets selling local wares and Aboriginal artworks.
Cairns itself is a thriving tourist town with many attractions, including the Reef Hotel Casino; Royal Harbour, with its numerous market stalls selling arts and crafts; Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park; Sugarworld Water Park; and Hartley’s Creek Crocodile Farm.
For those who prefer taking it easy, the luxury resorts of Palm Cove and Port Douglas are an easy hour’s drive north of Cairns; both lay claim to spectacular beaches and five-star resorts.
If You Go
While the water is warm year-round, the Aussie sun becomes oppressive during the summer months (December to February), and it is best to travel at other times.
A warning: Everywhere one travels in the far north, the warnings are clearly posted: Swim at your own peril. The waters in the area are the home of the dreaded saltwater crocodile, one of the most dangerous predators known to man.
Captain Cook Cruises (www.captaincook.com.au) has four-night northbound cruises departing Cairns every Monday and three-night southbound cruises departing every Friday. Prices include onboard accommodations, all meals, snorkeling equipment, glass-bottom boat excursions and guided rainforest and island walks.
Cabins on board Reef Endeavour are small but well appointed, with most opening straight onto the open deck. The boat also has a swimming pool, for those unwilling to venture into the open waters and, of course, a well-stocked bar.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park