Alternative ways to see Australia Great Barrier Reef

Alternative Ways to See Australia's Great Barrier Reef

For many years it seemed that coral reefs were offlimits to those who couldn't swim. Coral reefs became reachable, and, for us non-swimmers, could view them from a glass-bottomed boat. But, on excursions to the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aqaba, I saw more by just leaning over the side of the boat than by peering through the transparent bottom. That wasn't my experience with the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

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There are coral reefs in many places in the world, but the Great Barrier Reef is the most extensive of them all. Just about every book, article or television clip about it will tell you it's so huge, it's easily visible from a satellite in space. Nevertheless, back in 1770, the crew of Endeavour didn't see it until they ran aground on it. Fortunately, James Cook managed to refloat his ship, struggle to the mainland near Cape Tribulation and repair it, otherwise Australia's history might well have taken a totally different course.

While the repairs were being effected, he sent his Sailing Master, Robert Molyneaux, off with a few men in a small boat, to see if he could discover a safe passage through the reef. Molyneaux returned several weeks later, reporting a considerable lack of success.

Nowadays, boats cruise out from many places on the Queensland coast especially to see the reef.

When we visited Australia's Great Barrier Reef, they told us that walking on the reef wasn't acceptable. Whether it's submerged or not, neither hand nor foot was to be laid on the coral itself. Look with your eyes, not your hands was the message!

Several businesses offer reef cruises from various locations on the coast of northern Queensland; and the base from which to see the best of the reef is the city of Cairns. There's plenty of accommodation to suit all price ranges; cruise ships visit here frequently, too. Indeed, tourism seems to be the most visible industry in the city.

Cruising to the Great Barrier Reef

Alternative ways to see Australia Great Barrier Reef
We sailed with a company called Reef Magic Cruises, who proudly state that they are completely locally owned, and have exclusive access to the Marineworld reef platform. They have the admirable policy of restricting passenger numbers to well below what the boat and the platform are capable of carrying, so they are never overcrowded.

The morning didn't look too promising as we drove through the drizzly rain on an August morning to the Reef Fleet Terminal, where most of the Cairns-based operators tie up. Our boat, Reef Magic II, was a stylish, modern catamaran, capable of up to 27 knots.

The Marineworld platform is permanently anchored on the reef, about 90 minutes out from Cairns. On the way out to the platform, they showed us DVD of the things we expected to see, and were assured:

'Don't worry! It's not raining underwater!'

In fact, by the time we got out to the platform, it had stopped raining, and the weather would improve rapidly; already, there was enough blue sky 'to make a sailor a pair of trousers'. They usually allow their guests to spend about five hours here, during which you can, if you wish, just laze in the sun. But, if you did that, you'd miss the wonders below.

Scuba diving and snorkelling go on all the time, catering for various levels of expertise; all necessary equipment can be borrowed or hired.

NonSwimmer Options

Alternative ways to see Australia Great Barrier Reef
We were equipped with wetsuits, snorkel gear and flotation aids, and groups of four hold on to a lifebelt, towed around by an instructor. And, what did we see? Coral, of course, in a myriad of surreal patterns, among which swam fish of an infinite variety of sizes and colours.

"Can you see 'Nemo'?" was the question on everyone's lips. They swore the orange and white 'film star' clownfish was around, but I didn't see him; only blue and black clownfish. But, we were joined by 'Wally', the gigantic but friendly Maori Wrasse that's resident in the area.

Close by was an underwater photographer. She got a beautiful photo of my grand-daughter with Wally. For my picture, I was handed a sea cucumber ... an interesting, but visually rather dull sort of creature.

Staying Dry and Enjoying the Great Barrier Reef

Even if you prefer not to get wet, there's something for you. Marineworld has an underwater viewing chamber, which you can visit anytime, as often as you like. Or, there are two boats; one glass-bottomed; one semi-submersible.

The pilots of both are experienced guides, although sometimes both a guide and a pilot are carried. Having been on a fully submersible vessel in the Aegean Sea some years ago, I was prepared for some disappointment with the semi-sub, but it didn't happen -- there was a lot more to see. The glass-bottomed boat was different, too. The waters were so much clearer than those that I'd previously come across. Indeed, everything was so clear, it looked more like the boat was simply bottomless.

Reef Magic Cruises has been awarded Advanced Eco Accreditation, the highest level of accreditation bestowed by Ecotourism Australia. They were also the winning Queensland entry in Tourism Australia's "There's Nothing Like Australia" campaign ... and, considering the number of things there are to see and do in Queensland, that's quite an achievement.

The return trip to Cairns took a little longer that the outbound leg. The Captain spotted a couple of migrating humpback whales, and throttled the engines right back, not only so that his passengers could have a look, but because, when whales are in the vicinity, he's required to do so by law. But, he still announced over the loudspeaker, it wasn't going to cost us anything extra.

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Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, Keith Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.

Updated: October 22, 2016

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