Fellow ShermansTravel.com bloggers Donna Heiderstadt and Andrew Skwarek posted recently about the romantic and scuba-tastic aspects of the Great Barrier Reef, and I was all too happy to jump on the bandwagon last week when Tourism Queensland brought me to Australia for, among other experiences, a full-day reef cruise.
I was expecting the jaw-dropping beauty that Andrew encountered during his trip and found it during my excursion aboard the Calypso (www.tropicaljourneys.com), one of several reef tour boats operating out of Port Douglas. What I wasn’t expecting to find when I stepped out onto one the catamaran’s outdoor decks was a couple with two young kids.
Even though I write this blog, it had never occurred to me until that moment that a bucket list experience like Great Barrier Reef would be appropriate and perhaps even better with kids. The couple was up from New South Wales to celebrate the dad’s birthday, and after explaining that I was a U.S.-based travel writer without the decency to bring along his own children, they graciously agreed to let me snap their photo for this post.
And while I refrained from stalking the family for the remainder of the cruise, one thing was clear from watching them – snorkeling was as kid-friendly and low-key in Australia as it was anywhere else I had experienced it. Just a zillion times more magical.
Like other operators, the Calypso offers both snorkeling and diving – the former for kids of all ages, the latter for those 12 and older. The majority of passengers snorkel ($190 AUS for adults, $135 kids 4-14), and those who do are issued jellyfish-deterring stinger suits, fins, snorkels, and impressively airtight masks, as well as decidedly uncool but reassuringly buoyant wacky noodles. Instructors also monitor snorkelers from the boat and from within the water, but overall are not overbearing and will leave you in peace to enjoy yourself.
Our cruise included visits to three dive sites on the Outer Great Barrier Reef – the impossibly colorful Blue Buoy, the more monochrome SNO or Southern area of North Opal reef (including a guided, in-water tour and chances to touch a few kinds of coral, otherwise coral touching is a big no-no) and Split Bommie – short for Bombora – two side-by-side chunks of reef that create a dramatic chasm.
Each of the dive sites yielded different experiences and speaking from the snorkeler's perspective, every time you smack your mask into the water you're bound to see something very different. The colors and textures of the coral seem limitless, the fish almost uniformly nonchalant, except for such times as when a school of hundreds of pale blue fish abruptly switch direction in unison when they sense you. During such moments you'll often say to yourself, "Did I really just see that?" One crew member noted that the almost universal reaction from visitors is childlike glee (so just imagine how an actual child would react) as well as disbelief that an hour in the water – each of the three dive site sessions lasts approximately that long – flies by in an instant.
If you don't have your own underwater camera there are relatively inexpensive ones for sale on board and a very good one available to rent. You'll also have access to the services of Jayden Marwick, who gamely dons scuba gear and shoots underwater photos (available for purchase) as well as above water and underwater shots of all passengers; the aforementioned NSW family is shown here in their snorkeling gear.
Since the sun in the Southern Hemisphere is unforgivably harsh, you'll want to apply and reapply sunscreen, particularly on the part of your forehead where your mask is harboring constant sunlight. I learned this the hard way. Also hydrate often and stay nourished; the crew provides drinks, lunch and goodies throughout the day. If necessary, take seasickness medication necessary before the boat sails – the galley furnishes both natural and chemical remedies. Also, avoid touching or grazing the coral, as a scratch will mean treatment with antibiotic ointment and about two weeks of healing.
Ask older travelers about their bucket lists and you'll likely find that the Great Barrier Reef is high among the places they regret not visiting the most. All the more reason that you should take your kids, and perhaps one day they'll return with their own.