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Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Port Douglas

Getting There - Most of the reef tours that run out of Port Douglas depart from the main marina, located on Wharf Street. There are a variety of operators, ranging from small boats to large ferries, depending on your budget and personal preference. 

The Snorkel - With a family trip to Port Douglas scheduled for July 2023, this was an area I had wanted to visit for a long time. With two World Heritage Sites on the lifelong list of places to experience as an adult, the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef, first on the agenda for the trip was the Great Barrier Reef. Having visited Ningaloo Reef for the second time, a month prior to this trip, I was keen to see how they both compared, and also get in plenty of snorkeling while it's the off-season back in Perth. 

There are no shortage of tour operators running out of Port Douglas, and we ended up selecting Wavelength due to the relative small numbers on each tour compared to others. There is one tour boat parked in the marina that looks like a converted ferry, which did not look like it would be the most enjoyable experience. Unlike Ningaloo where you can walk off the beach and immerse yourself in the coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef is located about 90 minutes by boat before you reach the good snorkeling sites. With the jellyfish that plague the beaches here, you are left with the tours being the best way to get out into the water. Joining Caris and myself on the tour was Candy and Hal, who we toured Tasmania with back in 2021. After selecting our wetsuits and getting a briefing from the crew about what to expect over the course of the day, we were soon powering away from the marina. Getting out to the various reef sites they can visit depending on the conditions requires crossing open water, so if you get seasick, pack some tablets.

Today we would be visiting Opal Reef to start with, getting in the first of three extended snorkels for the day. I had heard some not so nice stories about tours on the Great Barrier Reef taking you to floating platforms with large crowds, where you see some degraded reef. As you can see in the photos, this wasn't the case and when we arrived at the first snorkeling site, there was no platform to be found. Keen to get in the water, we jumped straight off the back of the boat and swam towards the reef. Given we were about 50km offshore, I wasn't expecting the water to be as shallow as it was. The boat was parked in about 5-7m of water and the shallowest part of the first reef we explored was just over a metre deep. This was a welcome relief as Caris is still learning how to duck-dive, so would be able to see a lot more in the shallower waters. The crew had let us know where the best spots were, so we ventured out and it didn't take long before we spotted an array of marine life ranging from Giant Clams, to Butterflyfish, to a Bluespotted Fantail Ray.

Armed with my faithful Olympus TG6 that has served me well over the years, Caris and I surveyed the reef and started exploring the various canyons and crevices that were bursting with life. There were different coloured corals everywhere, sea grasses, giant clams and a great number of fish species to be photographed. Trying to keep a steady hand, underwater photography is a tricky practice when you don't have a weighted belt and the fish keep ducking into dark corners of the reef. Not knowing how long we'd have before the boat horn would sound, if I could get a good photo then fantastic but I was keen to keep moving and see what else was here. There was plenty to see and it felt amazing to be back in the water so soon after Ningaloo. Most of the fish didn't seem too worried about hiding and I was spotting plenty of new species on every section of the reef we visited. 

Eventually Caris and I separated as I was following different fish, letting them lead me to new and exciting spots along the reef. Along with the fish, the coral formations were really interesting to photograph with lots of plate coral, staghorn coral and softer forms that looked like oyster mushrooms. There has been a lot of news over the past couple of decades about the Great Barrier Reef and the coral bleaching events that have taken place thanks to rising sea temperatures and extremes of weather. While coral bleaching is not a unregular event on the reef, the frequency of such events is cause for concern, but listening to the crew (most were marine biologists or studying to become one), the reef is still fairly healthy. I think people come to the Great Barrier Reef and expect the vibrant colours they see in professional photos, something often achieved with filters, post processing and high end equipment. Coral is naturally fairly washed out in colour, apart from a few brighter species.