Boating from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef

Waiting to board the catamaran at Cairns Marlin Marina with the Shangri La Hotel in the background (Photo rights: MCArnott)

When we asked friends from Brisbane and Sydney what’s the best time to visit Australia, they said September to November, not March when we had planned to go. Our timing to experience the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t the best either. The Lonely Planet advice? Avoid going between December and March when the weather can be hot, wet, humid, or all three.

All proved to be right, making our trip to the Great Barrier Reef somewhat of an adventure.

In Your Bucket because…

  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • It’s an experience worth its fame in any season, but try to plan for winter when conditions are best.
  • For anyone who can endure seasickness — including non-swimmers and disabled visitors.

 Off to the Outer Reef, Rain or Shine

Passing by Green Island on the way to Norman Reef (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

Passing by Green Island on the way to Norman Reef (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

It’s the end of summer in Australia. Having basked in the typical dry hot air of the Red Centre, we’ve done a complete change in scenery and are now boarding a high-speed catamaran in the typical rain and humidity of tropical North Queensland. The greyish blue of the Coral Sea is not the hint of a smooth sailing, but off we go to the Outer Reef (Norman Reef) with Great Adventure Tours.

Once aboard, we head directly for the stability of the stern and for fresh air. Considering the crowd, it seems that the “typical March weather” has not discouraged visitors.

“Don’t think about it!” My husband says as I mention the unsettling motion of the seas. When he begins to share historic facts, I know he is trying to take my mind off my weakening sea legs.

The British explorer Captain James Cook discovered the immense barrier reef in 1770 when his ship struck the coral as he searched for a passage through the maze of reefs and islands. Cannons and even some ballast went overboard to keep the damaged boat afloat. Eventually, Cook and his men got the Endeavour to a sheltered area (known as Cooktown today) where they could repair. Given this small taste of a temperamental sea, I can’t imagine 18-century’s sailing and living conditions aboard, and exploring uncharted territories without setting foot on terra firma for months.

Bad weather and seasickness are part of the adventure to the Great Barrier Reef (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

Bad weather and seasickness are part of the adventure to the Great Barrier Reef (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

But so far, so good… I am holding my (undulating) ground, and my breakfast. I do the “wave riding” and the “horizon viewing” tricks against seasickness. I look at the seabirds that take our vessel for a fishing boat, though no fish bits are being thrown overboard here. And then the cabin door flies open and a group of seasick girls collapse on unoccupied seats, unprotected from the rain. I empathize as some bury their faces in brown paper bags while others hug their bellies. Right now, none of them cares that they are en route to one of the world’s seven natural wonders. What a scene! The — revived — compulsive picture-snapper in me discreetly gets a shot of their misery, only to feel the unmistakable jolt in my stomach. Just in time, I pluck my own seasickness bag from a crew’s hand. This is something to keep in mind when sailing to the Great Barrier Reef… in March.

Stay Dry or Get Wet, but Visit the World’s Largest Reef 

Pontoon in sight!

Approaching the Great Adventure Tours pontoon at Norman Reef, Queensland (Photo credit: MCArnott)

Approaching the Great Adventure Tours pontoon at Norman Reef, Queensland (Photo credit: MCArnott)

At last, we dock at a multi-level covered floating platform. By now, I am cold and hungry. I buy a peony-pink fleece jacket with the logo “Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia.” Yes, I have been here, regardless of anything that might happen next.

I have to pass for now on the appetizing buffet and get ready for snorkeling. I’m outfitted with wetsuit and gear, while those opting for scuba diving get their tanks, weights, and dive gear. There are also rides on semi-submersibles and scuba scooters, or the opportunity to stay dry in the underwater observatory. A few passengers cower miserably, still trying to regain their full senses.

Moments later, I slither into the famous water, and let myself float as if I were overlooking a giant aquarium. Fish with stunning combinations of colors and designs glide below me in an endless choreography. On the ocean floor, spongy-looking coral (called hard coral) adds a creamy-brown to the seascape palette; sea-fan shaped feathery (soft) coral undulates in muted hues. It isn’t as flamboyant as I expected. I am told that the rain doesn’t affect visibility but the absence of sun dulls the colors.  And on any given day, sediment suspension, tide, and algal bloom can affect the color spectrum. Besides, up to 75 percent of coral is of a brown/yellow color.

Here at the Great Barrier Reef, some 1500 species of fish swarm around more than 400 types of coral, 4000 types of molluscs, and fields of seaweeds. When I swim underwater, some of the fish come to size me up. I recognize the shimmering parrotfish (and sand-producer-pooper) attracted by the abundance of coral to nibble on.

A Reef Monitored Closely to Keep Culprits at Bay

Reef scenery

Reef scenery on a better day (Photo: Courtesy Quicksilver Connections)

A couple of hours later, it’s time to return to Cairns. I look at the helicopters flying over and wish we had booked a sail over/fly back tour. Never mind, once the pontoon disappears from view, I realize that all is smooth toward the Southwestern front. The experience was worth it… even in March.

Later, we ponder climate change and human actions on the 2000-reefs-chain (1250 miles wide from North to South). Over-fishing, land clearing and urban development affect old reefs whereas global warming and ocean acidification affect new reefs. To keep the culprits at bay, marine parks occupancy at the Great Barrier Reef have increased by close to 25 percent since 2005: a major step in the right direction.

“The best underwater viewing conditions would be winter/spring–due to less of the plankton and nutrients responsible for the coral bright colors–a medium tidal change, about 15K SE wind conditions, and bright sunny weather… and the reef will show in all its glory,” says an enthusiastic Russell Hore, Reef Biosearch Manager at Quicksilver Connections. Maybe next time.


  • We stayed two nights at the Shangri-La located by the pier. Great Adventure Tours booking was available from the hotel late on arrival day, for a 10:30 AM departure the next day. You can book ahead online (no booking fee).
  • Great Adventure Tours is connected to Quicksilver Connections.
  • Trip Advisor gives a list of  Cairns hotels suitable for all budgets.
  • Disabled visitors must specify their level of mobility or handicap at booking time.
  • Although a water environment always requires caution, some operators offer facilities for children (daycare and enclosed swimming area, kids-size snorkel equipment and safety gear). A pontoon allows children to enjoy underwater viewing, and  to walk around, unlike going by boat to the reef itself (with no pontoon). Green Island is 45 min. away from Cairns by boat and offers beaches and rainforest options.
  • Check Cairns Visitor Center  for Live Aboard Tours for advanced scuba divers.


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