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Floating in the water over coral stacks around 20 feet tall watching a cloud of tiny blue and orange fish darting around my hands, I forget what it took to get here. All I can think of is how mesmerizing this view is, I want to remember it clearly. The sun has been in and out, and when it strikes the water, the fish and the coral are illuminated. Fish are sparks of color on the mossy brown coral.

I enjoy snorkeling, any chance to snorkel is a treat, and we’ve seen some wonderful underwater scenery here and there. For that reason, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR), is an iconic place we’ve decided to visit. There are hundreds of boats that go out to the reef, and many different ways to have a look. Non-swimmers can ride glass-bottom boats or semi-submersible watercraft. Families can visit a large pontoon that provides a place for kids to jump in and splash around. Divers can explore deep places. We chose to go with a group based in Port Douglas, Wavelength, that provides a snorkeling trip to Opal Reef. The company is owned and operated by a marine biologist based in Port Douglas, and all the on-board staff are marine biologists.

We had an early start to a long day, leaving home at 7 am for Port Douglas, arriving before 8 am. With about 40 of us aboard, the boat left port at 8:15 or so, driving out across the water so fast that waves broke against the windows while the boat rocked and pitched. It was impossible to walk across the room without clinging to the rails. During this, the staff gave us orientation briefings and described what we’d be seeing, calm as though these were everyday conditions–I guess they are. The boat finally stopped and anchored, yet we saw nothing around us other than a slight change in the color of the water and breaking waves a few hundred yards away. This was the reef. It’s not like snorkeling around the edge of an island, there’s nothing above the surface.

Amanda and Jim arrived in Australia on Sunday–we saved this adventure for their visit so that Amanda could use her skills as a marine biologist to point things out to us. They were among the first into the water. We suited up and flopped in, taking pool noodles for a little extra support.

Under the water, we could see coral of all kinds. Some has been bleached by warming seas, as much as 40% at the first site we visited. The effect is disconcerting. Dead coral is either white or brilliant, neon colors. Living coral is green and brown. If you visited the Great Barrier Reef twenty years ago, it might make you sad to return.

Our second stop along Opal Reef was more typical of a living reef, with 10% or less dead coral, and impressive outcrops of flat “table” coral. Water currents keep this section a bit cooler than other areas, thus the lacy, flat corals have survived.

At our last stop, we saw stacks of coral. Huge boulders are solid corals that could be thousands of years old. Smaller corals grow along the sides of the oldest corals, and on top of them, and gradually the stacks grow larger and larger. The shapes are wonderfully complex, and thronged by fish from tiny shimmering flecks to big ones longer than 18 inches. Teal green, brown striped, and orange pink parrot fish nibbled the corals, flicking their tails. Some of the colors were very tropical, pink, orange, turquoise, lemon yellow.

While Jonathan and I snorkeled on top, Jim swooped under the surface to take close-ups with his new Go-Pro camera on his wrist. Amanda dove down and up as well.They peeked at the tooth marks the parrot fish leave on the coral, and peered at sea feathers (a type of star fish). I’ve never gotten the hang of diving under the surface and clearing my snorkel when I return to the air. I was happy to watch them.

Most of the photos in this post come from the tour company. We decided to buy the photos from our day on the reef, and they throw in a group of their best reef photos so that eveyone could have a photo of a shark, a “Nemo” fish, and a giant clam. The giant clams were one of the highlights of the trip for me, I didn’t realize there were still enough of them that you could easily see them on the bottom. They are huge, and often a glowing bright blue or purple in the middle, where algae live in a symbiotic relationship with the clam. Our stop was a sort of “clam garden” and we saw quite a few, including some that are so old they’ve been engulfed by coral. One of the crew members swam down to a giant clam and waved her hand about six inches from the opening and it slammed shut! Very fun and creepy, it reminded me of an old cartoon.

We had a glorious day,  a wonderful time, well worth the boat ride and getting up early. We hear a lot about the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, and all that is true. The reef is under immediate threat from warming seas, pollution, dredging, mining, and too many people like us who would like to see the GBR in person. It is a fascinating environment, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

Good to Know About Visiting the Great Barrier Reef:

We went with a snorkel-only trip because we knew we didn’t want to Scuba dive, and the focus on a single activity would make a smooth visit. Wavelengths is locally owned by a marine biologist. With one in the family, we’re sympathetic, and were pleased to find the staff really all were marine biologists.

Timing:

Our visit was May 22, toward the end of “stinger” season, and it was not necessary to wear a lycra suit to prevent stings from tiny jellyfish. (I wore a full suit, head cover, and socks to keep warm.) The water was warm, 26° C (almost 79° F) and that made our day easier because we didn’t have to worry about getting cold right away. High season is June-October. Since we visited before the busiest time of year our boat was almost but not completely full–max. number of passengers is 48, and we had around 40.

Conditions:

We visited at the end of the rainy season, and found it was still rainy on shore. We were concerned that the trip would be canceled and we’d have to rebook. They had promised to call, text, and email if there was a schedule change, and when we heard nothing, off we went, and the trip went out on time. On the reef it was partially overcast, with periods of sun that were very warm (nice). The sun on the water improves visibility, and those moments were the best.

The ride out to the reef was pretty rough. I don’t get seasick, but we bumped quite a bit, probably because going slower would end up taking most of our day going out and back. Some people felt nauseous, but sitting outdoors looking at the horizon seems to settle most stomachs.

When we arrived at our first snorkeling spot on Opal Reef, the water was rough. In fact, this was the roughest water we’ve ever tried snorkeling. It wasn’t a problem, other than occasionally getting some seawater in the snorkel, but you spit or blow it out and keep going. Interesting, though, that the experience of the people who do the trips makes them say, “No Worries,” when on our own we would not go into such choppy water. Once in the water, I rarely gave it another thought. There were a couple of spots where we had to kick and paddle pretty enthusiastically just to stay in place, so we probably got more of a workout than on a calmer day. There were always crew members in the water with the group and crew members keeping watch in case anyone signaled the three things we learned: Help (save me), Turtle (come look) and Shark (come look).

Crew/Guides/Staff:

One aspect of the trip we liked was that everyone on the boat worked on all the tour activities. The marine biologists gave safety briefings, doled out coffee and tea, kept things neat, led snorkeling tours, and took photos. We even caught the captain mopping the deck at one of our stops. Everyone pitched in to make a good trip and that was the result. Crew members were well-informed and willing to chat about the weather, the reef, fish identification, whatever questions came up. They were uniformly pleasant and helpful. I’d give Wavelengths high marks as a tour provider.

Cost:

Our trip was about $250 AU per person. We got ourselves to the landing in Port Douglas, though it was possible to be picked up from hotels in Cairns and Port Douglas. Everything on board was included: tea and coffee before departure and after our first and third stops, lunch at the second stop. There were bottled drinks for sale, and the photos did cost extra ($30 as a download; $45 with a cute Nemo usb), but there weren’t unavoidable added costs.

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