We thought that visiting The Great Barrier Reef while travelling to Australia, to see the corals and numerous colourful fishes and other marine life close up would be an amazing experience, unforgettable and worth making it that far.
And you know what? We were right! In fact, it was so marvellous that instead of one planned tour we did 3 during our week in Cairns, that is, every other day. We’d go more but it’s a challenging ordeal for the body to be 3-4 hours at rough seas every day, and we also wanted to see other unique attractions of the area, like a crocodile farm and the aboriginal Kuranda Village.
Stretching for about 2300 km, The Great Barrier Reef has the largest ecosystem and is the only living creature on Earth which can be seen from the space. Even knowing that it was still a wonderful and exciting surprise to see it from the plane window.
We went on our first Reef adventure on the second full day after the flight, as it’s not recommended to get on a boat within 24 hours after landing. Later we understood why.
As exciting as the Reef is, the way there is tough. A lot of people got sick or very sick, some even didn’t recover when the boat came to a stop. We were relatively fine because we took motion sickness tablets they were selling on board. It saved our day and let us enjoy the time at the reef to the fullest.
So how does a Reef Cruise look like?
A pontoon is a large floating platform with shade and all the equipment necessary for snorkelling, diving and other activities for the marine life watching (more about them below). The pontoons of both companies we tried were pretty much alike, as well as the offer of activities and the cruise price.
The approach and organization were a bit different, as well as the price for the things not included in the package, like diving, lockers, lycra suits (protecting from stingers and sunburn) rental. Reef Magic had less commercial attitude which we liked.
Both pontoons had a kid’s pool – a small enclosed area where kids can safely play in the water, with a bonus of colourful fishes coming for a visit. Sunlovers advertised theirs and we picked them first, hoping to have our toddler busy and entertained. It was fun to watch the fish but our girl didn’t like being in the pool. She enjoyed playing with snorkel equipment more.
All the three boats we tried were different. The bigger boats tend to be more stable but the size is not only what matters. The Sunlovers boat was bigger but it didn’t make the journey smoother or easier, on the contrary, we noticed more manoeuvres to avoid the waves with the ReefMagic smaller catamaran. On our third cruise, the boat was even smaller and it was the least enjoyable. All boats were air-conditioned, sometimes too much. One of the most popular things on board, second after motion sickness tablets, were motion sickness bags which Sunlovers had plenty everywhere on-board.
On the way to the Reef there’s no time to be bored. First, you can enjoy the view of islands passing by, then you’re concentrating on not to throw up. In addition, you are offered different activities to choose from at the pontoon, with quick training on those you’ve picked. There are also presentations from marine biologists about the Great Barrier Reef, its history and other interesting facts.
Times of the departure and getting to the reef differ as well: Sunlovers have one stop on the way and the journey to the reef takes 2 hours one way. Reef Magic takes you to the reef without any stop in 1,5 hours and departs 30 minutes earlier. Thus you get to the Reef one hour earlier which is yours – both companies leave the Reef at the same time. But a little stop on the way can make the journey a bit easier for the body because it gives some rest from constant motion.
Less time on the boat and earlier departure plus one more hour to explore the Reef was a great thing but not for the little one’s nap. With the later departure time, she fell asleep at the beginning and slept peacefully till the end of the journey. With the other one, though having got up at 5am, 9am was still too early for her nap. So when we arrived at the pontoon, she was still sleeping, on mommy’s lap, and daddy happily seized the opportunity to go exploring the marine world first, again.
Time at the pontoon flies, especially when you cannot do the activities together, as one always needs to take care of the kid. We didn’t take any diving but we really enjoyed snorkelling (included in the cruise package).
Fortunately, there were activities we could do with the toddler, like seeing the marine life from a glass bottom boat or semi-submarine, or watching a presentation at the underwater observatory, playing in the kids’ pool and lunch, of course.
The lunch was delicious and diverse, and included meat, veggies and fruit. The timing was different. We liked the timing of the Reef Magic more – with the earlier departure and shorter boat trip, there was enough time to do some activities before eating while with the lunch starting 30 minutes after arrival it was difficult to squeeze other activities in between.
For our third time, even though we enjoyed these 2 tours, we decided to try another one, Reef Experience, one that we hadn’t researched enough. We did read some reviews and check the rating which was good, but this experience was much worse than with the other 2 providers: a smaller boat with hard seats (instead of comfy soft ones of the other 2 boats we tried), very inconvenient when your toddler needs to sleep, torn suits and much less professional and organised. Because of their or poor time management, we lost 75 minutes of our reef experience and they refused a refund of any kind, even to acknowledge their fault. Having no pontoon, the boat took us to 2 different reefs, but it didn’t make our experience richer. On the contrary, lots of time was wasted on changing the location. Also, both reefs where this cruise took us to were not as colourful as the previous ones, they were actually mostly bleached.
We liked the pontoon version more. Even though you get to see one reef instead of two, you get more time for the activities. It’s also nice to have lunch outside in so nice weather, and that’s only possible on the pontoon, plus, it offers more space to walk and more opportunities to explore for the little one.
After a day at sea you are very tired and when going to bed you still feel the rocky motion of the sea.
How to Enjoy Your Great Barrier Reef Tour:
- Start with researching your options. There is a huge tourist business around this natural wonder, with lots of offers, packages and various providers. We enjoyed the cruises we had thoroughly researched beforehand and were disappointed with the one that we had hastily picked the evening before getting on board.
- To choose a perfect cruise, check different offers from different providers and decide what you want. The offer is abundant, from short few hours trips to several days packages, the program varies too. We decided to go for shorter options and book our activities separately, as it gives more flexibility and freedom of movement.
- How to choose: with the Internet and the abundance of information, it’s easy and difficult at the same time. There are reviews on Google, Trip Advisor, social media and blogs (this blogpost helped us with making our choice).
- Important: spend those 3$ and do buy the motion sickness tablets they sell on board. Most people (or maybe all) who didn’t take this remedy felt very sick and some couldn’t even leave the boat, not to mention joining and enjoying the activities. Imagine how disappointing it is to spend a lot of money only to feel sick and miss all the fun you’ve been looking forward to.
- Take a camera underwater. We rented a GoPro on board on our last cruise and regretted we didn’t do it on our first 2, as the corals there were brighter and water clearer.
- And last, but not least, please, don’t stand on the reef (unbelievable, some people did it), and don’t touch marine creatures you meet, it may harm them, really. The ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef is very fragile. Watch, admire and enjoy while it’s still there.
Was going to the Reef worth all the suffering of motion sickness and high costs?
Our answer is definitely yes. We absolutely loved this experience and could do it again and again. The world under the bumpy sea surface is incredible – like on another planet. And it’s very beautiful. In a few minutes you can see so many different species of marine life it’s mindblowing.
We saw schools of various fish, big and small: trevally, parrot fish, Nemo, a big Maori Wrasse called “Wally”, morays, a sea turtle and even sharks, to name a few. Reef sharks are quite small and not dangerous (at least we were told so) but still scary. There were also sea stars, sea cucumbers (those who eat and poop sand) and, my absolute favourite, Giant clam, a huge colourful mollusc which opens when the sun comes out or something yummy passes by.
Those trips to the Great Barrier Reef were a highlight of this wonderful journey which had so many other beautiful moments.