Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reality versus Expectations on The Great Barrier Reef

"The Great Barrier Reef! The Great Barrier Reef! We're going to the Great Barrier Reef!" my heart sang out as I began planning our trip to Green Island, off the coast of Cairns, Queensland.

To say that I was giddy with excitement would be an understatement. I think I have too many images from Finding Nemo floating around in my brain. Perhaps, I thought I'd stick my face in the water and hear mermaids singing "Under the Sea" to me. At the very least, I expected something on par with jumping into a Great Barrier Reef tank on display at an aquarium with a dense population of aquatic life. (Sidenote: If I ever plan an African safari trip, someone please knock me on the head and remind me that expecting a real life version of the opening credits of The Lion King is unrealistic.)

Basically, I was setting myself up for a big letdown. When something has the word "Great" in its name, you expect it to be really rocking awesome. I set the bar so high that I think the reef never had a chance. So, this isn't the blog post that I'd thought I'd write when we set out for the trip. If anything, it's like me running the game tape over and over in my mind trying to figure out why we came away with an outing that could be described as "a good day" as opposed to "mind blowing, life changing, and the greatest experience of my life."

Embracing our Limitations
My daughter and I get horribly seasick. While I was eager to get in some good snorkeling on the reef, I knew that spending all day on a boat or even a floating platform on the Outer Reef was not for us. I wanted to be on terra firma  to settle my stomach. My super skinny boy gets cold in the water easily. When we were in Maui, he'd get chilly despite wearing a wetsuit. Hence, I knew that we'd be spending a good part of the day out of the water to warm up.

"If you are a nonswimmer, choose a Reef cruise that visits a coral cay, because a cay slopes gradually into shallow water and the surrounding coral."
- Frommer's Australia
Based on all this, I zeroed in on taking a boat from the Cairns Reef fleet Terminal to Green Island. We could spend the day on firm, dry land and walk into the water from the beach to see some fish.

I also booked a 1-hour snorkel tour that would take us into deeper water 1.5 kilometers off the island for better viewing. Guests can book up to three 1-hour snorkel boat tours, but I thought one was enough for my family.

Great Adventures Cruise
I bought our daytrip to the Great Barrier Reef from Great Adventures which offers packages for both Green Island as well as continuing out to a platform on the Outer Reef. They were very easy to work with and had excellent customer service. We chose the earliest departure time and the latest return time to get the maximum 7 hours on the island. You can spend as little as 2.5 hours there.

As we checked in at the Reef Fleet Terminal, I noticed a sign saying that the conditions at the Outer Reef that day were choppy and rough. That made me glad I decided to only go as far as Green Island. The outbound catamaran was big and stable. The attentive crew offered cups of ice to anyone who looked remotely seasick. Seasickness bags were at every seat, and pills were for sale if you needed them. My girl and I had on accupressure bands on our wrists as a more holistic way of addressing our problem. I was also sucking on ginger candies. (Can you tell I was worried?) Videos played on the big screen TVs showing you how to use snorkeling gear and advertising some of the add-on options on the island like the SeaWalker experience which looks like wearing an old-timey diving helmet.

The ride out took 45 minutes. I walked off feeling just fine and not the least bit ill.

Cancelling the Snorkel Tour... sniff, sniff
The first thing we did when we arrived at Green Island was to confirm our snorkel tour later in the day. The blokes behind the counter discouraged us from going, especially if we were prone to seasickness. Although we had not noticed the rough waters while on the catamaran, it would have been easily felt on the small snorkeling boat. Also, the water visibility was rated as poor to mediocre that day. If we canceled right then, they'd refund our prepaid money. If we went out on the boat and were dissatisfied, too bad.  We decided to cancel... sniff, sniff.

Glass Bottom Boat Tour
At least we could still see the reef on the Glass Bottom Boat tour. We had been assigned a time to be out on the pier when we checked in at the Reef Fleet Terminal. Once we got there, we climbed on board the small boat and took off. While we never got very far from the pier or island, we saw some incredible sights. I think this came closest to fulfilling my reef fantasies. Giant clams! Schools of colorful fish! Real, living coral! It was wonderful (albeit very green-tinged), and I wanted to jump right in.

Peering downwards from the Glass Bottom Boat to gaze at the Great Barrier Reef.
Snapping photos through the glass didn't work out so well. So, no pics for you to view.

The guide was great at describing and explaining what we were passing over. At one point, he threw chunks of bread overboard. The fish started jumping, and seagulls swooped down to snag a few chunks of doughy goodness.

Fish and Fowl

Swimming and Snorkeling from the beach
There are two beaches on Green Island, and the main one is manned by Surf Lifesaving Queensland Lifeguards. All of us put on our snorkeling gear and swam out together. While we saw plenty of sea grass and even a sea turtle swimming past, there was not much coral and only a few fish. I was glad I did not spend the money on renting an underwater camera.

After a bit, the kids had enough and returned to the beach to play in the sand and splash in the shallow water. We were greatly amused watching a large Japanese tour group make multiple attempts to take a photo of everyone jumping up from the water at the same time. It involved much yelling and throwing of arms up into the air.

I thought about swimming out to where the glass bottom boats were. The signs on the beach said to stay between the flags. I figured that if I stayed between the flags but went a mile out, I'd still be okay. Right? Thankfully, I quickly came to my senses. I am not a Half Ironman Triathlete like my friend who I bet could have totally made it out there. Plus, being run over by a glass bottom boat is not my ideal ending to an Australian trip.

One nice feature was the large, rectangular frames of PVC pipe anchored off shore. I could swim out and snorkel, then go over to the PVC frame to hang on and rest for a bit before continuing. My younger son swam out there to join me and thought that just holding on to the frame and sticking his snorkel mask-covered face in the water was fun.

Snapshot from the beach. My 2 boys are in shallow water.
Snorkelers are towards the middle, and the corner of the PVC frame is at the back.

Other Island Activities
Even though we were there for 7 hours, we did not get around to doing everything on the island. There was a little place called Marineland Melanesia that looked interesting and purports to have what was once the world's longest crocodile along with croc shows twice daily. Walking between the beaches satisfied our urge to stroll along the interpretive Eco Island trails. It takes 45 minutes to go all the way around, so we probably did just 5% of it. Given a choice between the ocean and the pool, we chose the ocean. Even though we did not take advantage of all these activities, I think they make Green Island a good choice for families where not every person wants to spend all their time snorkeling. You can even just hang out at the dayspa and get a massage! Check out Bubs on the Move, for an overnight trip report to Green Island from a local's perspective.

Don't worry. The crocs are nowhere near the water you are swimming in.

A very small part of the rainforest Eco Island Walk complete with educational signs

Watch the SCUBA divers practice or just go for a swim at the pool.

Time for Tucker
If you spend 7 hours on an island swimming and playing, you will need to eat at some point. There were numerous options from a sit down restaurant to a pool bar to an ice cream stand. We chose one of the quick service counters for our lunch and sat at an outdoor table under a large canopy to enjoy our meal.

Bye bye, Green Island
At the end of the day, we clambored on the 4:30 p.m. catamaran for our return trip to Cairns. This one was smaller than the first catamaran but still stable enough to ward off motion sickness for me. We reached the Reef Fleet Terminal just under an hour later and strolled past the Esplanade to our hotel.

Our return boat

Would I do it again?
So, that was my one and only experience on the Great Barrier Reef. As I said, it was a good day, but not the great experience I had hoped for. Hubby ranks snorkeling here #3 behind going off Maui's Ka'anapali Beach and off Racha Yai near Phuket, Thailand. I think part of my regret is that I keep reading reports that the Great Barrier Reef is in decline, and that you need to go NOW! If I ever go back, it will probably be in at least a decade as I have many other sites to see higher on my list. I admit that my limitations greatly affected my choice to go to Green Island, but I probably would have had a worse experience if I was vomiting everywhere.

I really think I would have come away happier if we had been able to do the snorkel boat tour. However, one thing that I've learned in my travels is that you can't control nature. In my dream trip fantasy, we would stay on one of the Outer Reef Islands like the Whitsundays and do short snorkel trips from there.

Have you visited the Great Barrier Reef? I truly want to know what you thought about it.

What's your favorite snorkeling spot?

Well, I'm off to go and pop Finding Nemo into the DVD player and dream of what could have been.

Related Posts:
A Visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
To Kuranda by Cable, Back Down by Rail
Snorkeling at Thailiand's Racha Yai Island

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursdays on Budget Travellers Sandbox and "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration (or bring you back down to Earth advice).

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  1. I have snorkeled in Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii. Can't say I ever thought of going to the Great Barrier Reef and I am glad you wrote this as it gives me a real idea of what to expect if we did head to Australia, which my hubby would like to do, but I have more places in front of it on the list.

    1. I thought snorkeling off Maui was better, too. That was the first time I had ever snorkeled, so I am wondering if the newness of the experience made it more memorable.

  2. Wow, what adventures you are having. I am content to travel through your blog and pictures instead on boats where there are high chances of being sick. You would die laughing if I told you about my only experience of snorkeling in Key West Florida. I did see beautiful fish but I was so nervous I bit down so hard on the snorkel my jaw was sore for weeks. How,you know what a novice I am and will continue to be. I enjoyed your adventure. You are certainly experiencing a total chance of life. I look forward to traveling along with you in future posts. I probably will not get to that part of the world.

    1. I may have also forgotten to mention that I am not a very good snorkeler. I stay at the surface and haven't mastered diving down.

  3. I am sorry that your visit to the Great Barrier Reef did not live up to your expectations and that you have problems along the way that aided you not having the experience you wanted. I am yet to visit the Reef - yes I live on the other side of Australia, and yes it is on my list. And yes, I have heard too that the reef is in decline. What are we doing to our world??
    Have a wonderful week.and safe travels. We have been away for 6 weeks travelling and am just back and catching up on blogging world.

    1. Wow, 6 weeks of travelling. I can't wait to read all about it on your blog.

  4. I have only snorkeled at the tip of the Great Barrier Reef - good but not great. My best experience ever was snorkeling in the Galapagos where we were treated to manta rays, penguins, giant sea turtles and sea lions. All the snorkeling was truly the highlight of a week there.

    1. Okay, so you also found it good but not great. For some reason, I thought all the magic at Galapagos was on land and didn't realize it was good snorkeling, too.

  5. I've always dreamed of snorkeling there, but I've never even got close. It looks like a great experience though, even if it didn't live up to the experience you thought it would be.

    1. Hubby classifies it as good but not something worth flying halfway around the world to do. There are better snorkel spots closer to Texas.

  6. Oh, sorry it didn't live up to your expectations, Michele!
    This reminds me of my visit to Stonehenge. Like you, i had built it up so much in my mind that I was a bit let down when I finally went. It was still a great experience but not the mind blowing, life-altering one I had imagined.

    1. I want to go to Stonehenge someday. In my imagination, we are the only ones there (and I'm wearing a hooded cloak). I guess I better temper my expectations before I head there.

  7. How disappointing :(

    I have been to the Great Barrier Reef a few times including getting my diving cert on a liveaboard in the whitsundays, and also have been to Green Island.

    The reef around Green Island is not comparable at all to the outer reef in my opinion, and I would say the same thing about the reef around the whitsundays. You need to get out a bit more to have the finding nemo experience - and I did actually feel like I was in finding nemo the times I have been to the reef so it can be like that :) In saying that, maybe you are lucky to have not done it, because it has ruined divign and snorkelling for me everywhere else in the world as it has never come close to comparing

    1. Thanks Sharon, for letting me know about your experience and how the Whitsundays compare. I was wondering what Australians who have more chances to get out there thought about the reef. I really wish I could conquer my seasickness!

  8. I'm sad your trip didn't live up to expectations, Michele. I guess the weather had a lot to do with it and that's the thing about the Reef I think. Everyone expects the sea to be like a mill pond, but it can put a spanner in the works when so often it isn't. We visited the Frankland Islands from Cairns where the coral wasn't great, but it was a desert island experience for a day and we got to swim close to shore with turtles. Fantastic. We were worried that this was the Great Barrier Reef experience though and decided to try something else. So Then we did a day to the outer reef from Port Douglas, which meant all day on a boat, and that wouldn't have suited you guys - but for us it was amazing. We went to three different sites and the coral and fish were awesome. I think you're right, the definitive Disney experience that's touted, isn't there - you have to possibly experience it from a couple of different angles.

    1. You are so fortunate to have a few tries at seeing the Reef. It's interesting that there can be both a desert island like Frankland and a lush rainforest covered on like Green Island on the reef.

  9. My husband has been dreaming of going to the Great Barrier Reef which is why we're toying with that idea for the summer trip in a roundabout way to get to Guam. I may need to email you if that plan goes through for logistics. :) I don't really have any expectations so I'm glad you shared your experience. Sorry to hear about the snorkeling trip but at least now you can say you've been to the Great Barrier Reef. It's too bad it's on a decline. I just saw a post on GBR and they looked spectacular but they were divers. Maybe that makes a difference?

    1. I suspect that if I had made it to the Outer Reef platform (almost 2 hours from Cairns) or done a smaller snorkel boat daytrip that it would have been better. As long as we were in Australia, I am glad that we at least went there. I can picture your family doing a helicopter tour and seeing it from above.

  10. I would very much like to visit the great barrier reef.

  11. Would love to visit the place, haven't had the chance to do so but i get seasick easily too :(

  12. I get terribly seasick too - rough seas are not my friend.

  13. Michele, I've heard the same thing about the Reef being in decline. Isn't that just terrible? I'm sure sorry for all of your fears and concerns about being sea sick. I was on our boat constantly since I was little boy and never had a problem. But, I went deep sea fishing in very rough water once and that was a completely different story. All the paying passengers on the boat were hanging over the rails! I'm glad the trip worked out all in all for you! :)


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