Ask anyone what’s on their Australia bucket list and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear them say ‘the Great Barrier Reef”. Each year, approximately two million tourists visit the reef to swim in its warm tropical waters, search for Nemo among the anemones and chase after sea turtles.
Cairns’ location means that it never gets particularly cold. The summers are hot and humid and the winters milder and dry. June to August is the high season because venomous box jellyfish have migrated elsewhere in search of warmer waters and the air temperature is more comfortable. These months also mark the annual migration of humpback and minke whales up Australia’s east coast.
VISIT THE GREAT BARRIER REEF WITH CONTIKI…
AND HAVE NO REGRETS
Cairns is the final destination of one of the best tours EVER – Contiki’s BEACHES AND REEFS TOUR. This trip runs between Sydney and Cairns and takes in virtually every adventure activity along the way. It’s the perfect way to meet other travellers and can be described as nothing other than the ‘trip of a lifetime’. The Barrier Reef tour with Ocean Freedom is actually an optional extra, but usually everyone joins in. Not only is it the last chance for you all to hang out as a group, but you’d be a fool to miss one of the world’s most incredible natural sights, especially given Australia’s constant challenge of conserving the Great Barrier Reef.
Once aboard the Ocean Freedom, you can choose to sit on deck or inside. When it picks up speed, it’s definitely best to stay indoors if you want to stay dry! They provide some cubbyholes for your belongings, but it’s a good idea to keep essentials like water, sunscreen and sunglasses with you, as there’s often a queue to access them.
Aside from the reef itself, one of the highlights of this tour is the food. In addition to a smorgasbord lunch of mixed meat, seafood, bread and salad, they provide platters of fruit, cheese and biscuits, and cakes at regular intervals throughout the day. There’s also a bar where you can set up a tab, but remember not to drink and dive. It’s strictly forbidden.
This tour is a great option for snorkellers as the destination – Upolu Reef – is shallow and somewhat sheltered. All rental equipment is included in the cost of the trip and members of staff enter the water with you to assist nervous swimmers and to guide you to the best spots on the reef.
During the day, you’ll visit two sites – Upolu Cay Reef and Outer Edge Upolu Reef. If you’re only going to snorkel at one of them, pick the Cay as the sea on the edge of the reef is a little choppier and it’s harder to keep your snorkel clear. If you’re having difficulties, you can swim alongside one of the guides and hold onto a float.
Scuba dives are available to both certified and beginner divers.
In addition to the $195 price of the tour, introductory dives cost $105. If you like it, you can then tag on a second one for an additional $50. Certified dives are $70, plus $35 for a second dive.
If you’ve never dived before, they’ll provide you with a detailed briefing of the necessary skills and safety aspects before assisting you into the water and taking you down in small groups for up to 30 minutes. It’s a great way to get a taste of whether diving’s for you. If you’re hooked in immediately, there are plenty of dive schools located in Cairns where you could get your PADI qualification afterwards.
On your dive – and perhaps also your snorkel – you can expect to see some fantastic marine life, including bright and colourful reef fish, a huge variety of corals, giant clams, giant tritons, starfish, sea slugs, sea cucumbers and, of course, Nemo himself.
On Upolu Cay Reef, the waters are shallower, while Outer Edge Upolu Reef has a dive site called ‘Wonder Wall’ with depths of up to 15 m. All dives are guided and the staff check your experience beforehand to make sure you’re comfortable.
GLASS BOTTOM BOAT
If you’d rather not get your hair wet at all, you can take a tour aboard Ocean Freedom’s glass bottom boat. Obviously this doesn’t compare to the freedom of snorkelling or diving, but the visibility is still surprisingly good. It’s also a great way to learn more about the marine life as your skipper answers any questions you might have about what you’ve just seen.
I was really impressed with the way the crew of Ocean Freedom organised everything. They made sure no one missed a briefing, staggered dive groups’ entry into the water, ticked everyone off when they returned to the boat, guided groups of snorkellers and made sure everyone knew when the glass bottom boat was about to depart. With so much going on, it could have been chaos, but they ensured that each individual had a hassle-free experience. On top of that, they made a real effort to get to know every guest, which, with so many passengers, is not an easy task.
I’d definitely recommend this trip to snorkellers and beginner divers. Certified divers might be more drawn to a Great Barrier Reef liveaboard, but they should still consider this tour if they’re short on time or can afford to do both. It has a more laid back feel than a liveaboard, you can enjoy time on the reef with non-certified friends, and the dive sites are just as impressive.
My day trip with Ocean Freedom was a very popular optional extra on Contiki’s Beaches and Reefs Tour from Sydney to Cairns, which was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience. To find out more about Ocean Freedom, visit their Facebook page.