Great barrier reef recommendations
December 28, 2019 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations on where to snorkel to see healthy reef.

I'm planning a trip with my late-teenaged daughter to Australia in June 2020. The primary goal is go snorkeling and see the great barrier reef before the bleaching gets worse.

I'm looking for recommendations on where in general to stay and where in particular to snorkel in to see healthy reef. And any other recommendations, really. Neither of us have been to Australia before and I expect this will be a once in a lifetime trip. We'll have a couple of weeks, and I'm thinking we'll want to visit Sydney as well. I'd like to do the usual touristy stuff too like seeing some of the unique animals in the wild.

We're not super athletic but we're up for things like hiking and kayaking.

Thanks in advance!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep to Travel & Transportation around Australia (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The southern reef has healthier coral at the moment, but you have to go outer reef to avoid stingers.

I recommend Heron Island, or Lady Eliot Island. Neither resort is especially cheap or luxurious. But they are both built on coral cays, and give excellent snorkelling just off the beach. The latter also offers the chance of seeing manta rays.

Alternately, you can stay in Cairns and Port Douglas and do trips to snorkel on the outer reef. However the boat ride is long, can sometimes be rough etc. The trips will set you back a hundred bucks a pop. It's just not as pleasant as getting up and walking straight into the reef.

Both of those islands also host large numbers of migratory birds, and at the right time of year Heron also has baby turtles hatching.
posted by smoke at 1:55 PM on December 28, 2019

In August 2018, we took a snorkeling day trip with Calypso from Port Douglas. See my previous ask about the entire Australia trip:
We had 16 full days in Australia, and spread it between:
4 days in Melbourne
3 days on a Uluru and Kings Canyon camping safari
5 days in Port Douglas
4 days in Sydney
It was a good mix of city, nature, beach, and culture. We didn't feel too rushed anywhere, but it would have been nice to have some more days everywhere but Uluru (which was great, but didn't need more time there).

posted by ShooBoo at 3:09 PM on December 28, 2019

In my experience the biggest thing that determines whether you have a good reef experience is the weather. Windy or after a storm and it will be murky and also harder work to stay afloat. So I second staying somewhere where you can just walk in and snorkel when the conditions are right. Or if you take a boat trip, stay a few days in the town and book last minute so you can choose a good day.
posted by lollusc at 5:41 PM on December 28, 2019

We stayed in Cairns in March and had a great excursion with Sailaway Port Douglas. Sailaway is one of the few family-owned excursion groups left. It was recommended to me by someone who works heavily with the industry up there, and our experience was worth every penny. They took care of everything, including breakfast and lunch and sunset drinks on the way back. I have some challenging dietary restrictions and they made sure I was well-fed. The boat is designed for far more people than they take on trips, which means you have plenty of space to spread out. You leave very early in the morning and get back late, but it's very much worth the trip.

There are more reasons to go to Cairns than just the Reef, however. It is also the site of the world's oldest tropical rainforest, the Daintree Rainforest. It is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet. Our trips there were just as amazing as our trips to the Reef. We took the Skyrail (an aerial tram that lets you view the rainforest from above, with stops that immerse you in it) up to Kuranda, and then took a classic train back down to Cairns. (We paid for all the upgrades and every single one was worth it.) We also did an Indigenous-led walking tour of Mossman Gorge, where we learned about the Aboriginal history of the region as well as nature in the area.

We also spent a day driving around the Atherton Tablelands, specifically to see as many waterfalls as possible. We got very wet (turns out it's called "rainforest" for a reason!), saw amazing views, and under_petticoat_rule had an unfortunate encounter with a leech. Highly recommend.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Cairns, which had spectacular views of the bay at Cairns, was a fairly easy walk to the CBD, and had staff that I cannot say enough about. I had a series of 4am conference calls; they let me use the lobby so I didn't disturb my partner while he slept and brought me a steady stream of flat whites plus the occasional nibble, just to be kind.

As people have mentioned, the one challenge if you're not actually staying on the Reef is that, if there's bad weather, you might not go out. We solved for this by staying several days in Cairns and keeping our other plans flexible. Our trip did get moved by a day due to weather, so we did our Kuranda trip instead. There's so much to do that it's easy to fill your days.

Now, if the idea of rainforest is of absolutely no interest: in addition to Lady Eliot Island there's the full-on luxury at the Intercontinental Hayman Island or qualia. (Yes, with a small q.) Both are located on the Whitsunday Islands, which is further south than Cairns. The islands are right there on the Reef and have tremendous white-sand beaches.

As far as the rest of Australia goes: it's a big country (as big as the continental US) and there are SO MANY different things you can do. One experience that is not well-known is Ningaloo Reef, which is off the West Coast of Australia. There's a number of areas where you can swim out to it from shore. Ningaloo is a huge reef that has not experienced the coral bleaching that the GBR has (or much bleaching at all, really). It's 160 miles long and is the largest reef that is so proximate to a large land mass. Basically, if there were no Great Barrier Reef everyone would talk about Ningaloo because it's really impressive; instead it is relatively untouristed and undeveloped as compared to, say, the GBR.

If you give me more idea of your particular areas of interest I can absolutely give you more pointers for the rest of Australia!

Full disclosure: I worked for Tourism Australia in a previous life. I don't work there anymore but my experience there does influence my recommendations.
posted by rednikki at 6:28 PM on December 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately, lizard Island has been heavily impacted by coral bleaching in the last few years. I'm sure its still okay, but not sure it would be worth the eye watering expense anymore.
posted by smoke at 7:45 PM on December 29, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you all for the responses! They're all very helpful and I love all the suggestions. And thanks especially to rednikki for taking the time to write such a long reply. I'd love to spend some time in the rainforest and the Mossman Gorge tour sounds great.

Will the weather likely be stormy in June? And if so, do the storms tend to be week-long or will they come and go in a day or two?
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 9:43 PM on December 29, 2019

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