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28. Australian Road Trip: The Barrier Reef is Great

Updated on February 21, 2013

Michaelmas Cay (zoom out to see exactly how far out this little spot of sand really is).

Decisions decisions

We don’t like to think of ourselves as Tourists. I know, we are tourists by definition as we are on a touring holiday; but we don’t do the tourism thing that well; we like to think of ourselves as ‘Travellers’, but who are we kidding. There are some things that only tourists can do. One of those things is to take a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Unless you are good friends with someone who owns a boat, or you actually work on one of the reef tour boats , you are never going to see coral in Cairns without going on an organised tour. In other words – you have to become a tourist whether you like it or not.

Going out to the reef has always been on the must-do list for Sheila and me, so this is the opportunity that we both have waited a lifetime for – ‘A once in a Lifetime Highlight on the Trip of a Lifetime’ you might call it. I can do this, I CAN be a tourist. Sheila gives me a slap, “We are already tourists Mick, come to terms with it.” she chides.

During our stay with friends in Kuranda (see Hub: ‘26 Austraila Road trip: Cairns - Tropical Playground'), which seems like weeks ago (pre-Cooktown monsoon), we discussed the best way for a couple of tourists to see the reef. We talked about the pros and cons of visiting Green Island in comparison to taking a boat trip to an outer reef. It is a tricky one. Green Island is a small coral island located 27km offshore from Cairns and my mate Michael took his mother there when she visited and if it was good enough for Mrs Smith then it’s good enough for me. But, once we arrive back in Cairns my old mate Geoff poo-poos Green island in no uncertain terms, saying it is too touristy and… (though he need say no more)… and there are far better reefs to observe further out in the Coral Sea.

Reefer madness

The Passions of Paradise, Cairns NQ
The Passions of Paradise, Cairns NQ
The road east out of Cairns - Our destination is the outer reef, 47kms away
The road east out of Cairns - Our destination is the outer reef, 47kms away
Suiting up
Suiting up
Entering the Coral Sea
Entering the Coral Sea
My Sheila in open water
My Sheila in open water

All at Sea

So we don’t really know what to do as far as the Reef goes when we head off from Geoff’s first thing in the morning, bound for Cairns Harbour. With no idea of where we should, go much less with no prior booking, we wander into the big ticket office and before you can say "SHIT! IT’S A SHARK!" we have bought the last two tickets on a cruise to Michaelmas Cay. We get a good deal on the tickets and are soon chugging out to sea on a huge, catamaran, The Passions of Paradise, with about 30 other tourists. As it turns out, these tourists are mostly young backpackers and are quite fun to be around. The sun is out at last and ocean is sparkling. The skipper of the yacht tells us that we will motor out to the cay and sail back at the end of the day. We will stop and do a first dive at a reef enroute then go on the Michaelmas Cay which is 47kms out to sea. Meanwhile, we should relax and enjoy the day.

Some of our fellow passengers have paid extra to scuba dive, while the majority of us are content to snorkel. We are all given blue nylon stinger suits and those of us who are snorkelling are tooled up with fins, goggles and snorkel and prepare to go in. The thing is, we are out of sight of land in the middle of the bloody ocean. We all go overboard and are allowed to swim around at our leisure for what seems like ages. It is as you would expect, a magical experience. I did lots of snorkelling in Bundeena when I was a kid, but out here in the ocean, with the greatest coral reef in the world directly underneath, it is something completely different.

After a good 45 minutes in the sea we all reassemble on deck and the crew does a head count. Wouldn’t want to leave anyone behind out here, not that it would be the first time. There is that movie, “Open Water” where the couple are left behind by the dive boat and spend the rest of their lives fending off sharks before drowning. Who’d be a bloody tourist hey? We chug off again for another hour or so until we arrive at Michaelmas Cay.

On Michaelmas Cay

Michaelmas Cay is a remarkable place: a sand island, barely the size of a football pitch and only about a metre and a half above sea level. It is a National Park and Nature Reserve and is the home to hundreds of seabirds and turtles. Most of it is roped off so the tourists who swim ashore from the boats anchored beyond the coral can only access the narrow strip below the high-tide line. But who wants to spend too much time on a sand bar when the shallow water around it looks exactly like the animated wonderland out of Finding Nemo?

We spend at least an hour flippering around, diving down into coral canyons, peering into the gaping jaws of giant clams, chasing clown fish and generally marvelling at this awe-inspiring slice of nature. The sun is streaming down, adding to the psychadelically colourful coral gardens, the water is comfortably warm and all is well with the world.

The marvellous day is topped off with an exhilarating sail back to Cairns. The big cat carries one huge sail and it captures the afternoon onshore breeze for the 47km run back to Australia. Bikini clad ‘chicks’ and 'fit' guys lay about on the net trampolines that connect the hulls of the catamaran, soaking up the tropical rays and cooling off occasionally in the wave spray on the windward deck. Back onshore we both have that fantastic afterglow that you can only get from spending a day on the ocean in the sun.

That's another dream fulfilled, now what's next?

What this trip is all about!

Michaelmas Cay - a sandbar in the middle of nowhere
Michaelmas Cay - a sandbar in the middle of nowhere
Nemo? Nemo? Where are you Nemo?
Nemo? Nemo? Where are you Nemo?
Nemo? no, just another bloody parrot Fish
Nemo? no, just another bloody parrot Fish
The cay from the sea
The cay from the sea
Greetings from Mick and Sheila... underwater again
Greetings from Mick and Sheila... underwater again
Young gappers taking over the deck
Young gappers taking over the deck
Boat chrome and turquoise
Boat chrome and turquoise
Homeward Bound
Homeward Bound

Scary Film based on a true story

A fantastic fish fable

More on the Barrier Reef

A few facts about The Great Barrier Reef

There is so much information available about the reef that it is pointless for me to elaborate too much. Go online if you are planning a trip. Meanwhile, here are just a few facts to wet your appetite.

The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space!

It is the world’s largest coral reef, made up of about 900 islands and 3000 individual reefs!

Large populations of Dugongs visit the Great Barrier Reef? Dugongs are marine mammals related to the elephants.

Experts believe the Reef was formed around 18 million years ago. Due to various climatic and environmental changes, the reef we see today, has grown over the earlier reefs since the last Ice Age.

it is illegal to take home a piece of coral from the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to a wide diversity of life, some falling under the endangered category.

Animal: 30 species of whales, 215 species of beautiful birds, 6 species of sea turtles, 125 species of sharks and stingrays, 49 species of pipefish, 17 species of sea snakes and around 1,500 types of fish!

One of the oldest species of fish that can be found at the Great Barrier Reef is the Red Bass. This fish can live for more than 50 years as compared to other species.

Some of the world's largest giant clams can be found out here. One of the largest pearls was found in such a clam and was reportedly sold in New York for a whopping $ 10 million!

In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was made a World Heritage Site.

The Great Barrier Marine Park protects a major portion of the reef. This is to prevent misuse by overfishing and impacts caused by the tourism industry.

Tourists who plan to visit the Great Barrier Reef and wish to explore the area by boat should make it a point to do so in advance as there are only limited trips allowed into the water.

The Great Barrier Reef stretches out over 344,400 square kilometers.

(Facts garnered from

Cairns is not the only place wherre you can access the reef. Cooktown, Port Douglas, Mission Beach, Townsville, Airlie Beach and Yeppoon all have reef tour infrastructure. Airlie Beach is also the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands.

Where to go next...

The next leg of our trip sees us heading up to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest. If you have just stumbled upon this story and want to read more about road tripping and sightseeing in Australia then please visit any one of my 55 Road trip Hubs to get a flavour of what it is like to explore this vast country. Just to recap, we started in Sydney, drove down the beautiful south coast of NSW to the second city of Melbourne. We toured around Tasmania and then along the Great Ocean Road in southern Victoria. We explored the Goldrush heartland of the state and almost lost it when we broke down in the middle of the rugged Snowy Mountains. We have now been on the road for a number of months and have meandered up the popular east coast route until succumbing to the sensual, steamy delights of the tropical north.


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