Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, Australia - April 2019

by David K
(Wisconsin)

Lined Surgeonfish and Sixbar Wrasse

Lined Surgeonfish and Sixbar Wrasse

My wife, 18 year-old daughter, and I just returned from an 11 day trip to Cairns, Australia, the "gateway to the Great Barrier Reef." We snorkeled in two locations: Fitzroy Island and the outer reef, which I'll describe first.

We booked a couple of half day tours to Hastings Reef with www.skedaddlecairns.com.au. They use a smallish but very fast boat that gets you to the reef in just under an hour. Our first day out was rough with two meter waves, though it was a little calmer over the reef, and visibility was good. Stinger suits were needed as it was jellyfish season. Fish were abundant, with many varieties of parrotfish, butterflyfish, wrasses, triggerfish, and angelfish. Giant clams were numerous. There were few large fish, though I did see a Maori Wrasse.

A significant fraction of the coral was dead, which I've read is due to tropical cyclones, climate change, and Crown-of-Thorns Sea Stars. In Belize, where I snorkeled last fall, the reef is healthier.

The boat crew were professional and thorough. My only complaint is that they went a little "overboard" with safety. For example, if they deemed that your snorkel was not visible enough, they asked you to use theirs. With beginners on board, perhaps this was necessary.

On Fitzroy Island, you can snorkel right off of the beach. Unfortunately, the visibility was poor, and the majority of the coral was dead. Despite this, we saw a surprising number of interesting fish.

I'm glad that we got to Australia, but it's an awfully long trip from the midwestern U.S., and I'll probably stick with the Caribbean for a while.

Comments for Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, Australia - April 2019

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Apr 27, 2019
Thank You!
by: Nicole & Galen

Hi David, thanks for taking the time to share your story about and pictures of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, Australia from Cairns. We appreciate your observations about the state of the reef and sea life on Hastings Reef and from Fitzroy Island. Healthy alive reefs are sadly getting harder and harder to find these days.

Apr 28, 2019
Please Try Indonesia
by: Pam S

David, I am so so saddened to hear about your experience at the Great Barrier Reef with dead coral. Although not at all surprising considering the back to back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

If you are not opposed to trying to snorkel that part of the world again, I highly suggest you just aim 1,700 miles northward of Australia and visit the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia. It is magnificent, with the highest coral and fish diversity on the planet and has also managed to evade the majority of bleaching events.

We've been twice and although the travel there is grueling, it is more than worthwhile. We are planning our third trip.

Another advantage of Raja is, there is much superior shore snorkeling so you don't have to ride in a boat unless you are traveling from island to island.

Happy snorkeling!

Apr 29, 2019
Our Experience on the Agincourt Reef from Port Douglas
by: Dave

We were just in the Cairns and Port Douglas area a few weeks ago. After being kept in the harbor for four days while we visited Heron Island (SE extreme of the GBR) because of high winds, we decided to take one of the big boats out to the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs from Port Douglas (45 minutes north of Cairns).

The good news was that the large boat handled the rough weather very well. The bad news was that the two of us, along with 200 other people were herded out to the outer reef where Quicksilver had their large permanent platform. The experience was far from what we had tried to have on Heron Island where the Heron Island dive shop would take 10-15 people out at a time, typically 50% divers / 50% snorkelers.

With the whole ocean to be explored, Quicksilver roped off an area smaller than a baseball diamond’s infield and expected everyone to stay in that area where they could be monitored by lifeguards. Someone actually came out in a boat and chased us back into the roped off area when we started to explore the reef... until I found the guy in charge and had a chat. After explaining that we were competent swimmers and comfortable taking care of ourselves they relented and pointed to an area outside the prison ropes we could swim and not be bothered.

The place we had purchased our tickets had very specifically said that the outer reaches of the GBR were still healthy and vibrant at Agincourt and had resisted the effects of warming waters and coral bleaching because of the proximity to deep water. They lied. The only live coral I saw was of a fast-growing kind of staghorn coral that had grown about 12-18" since the last beaching event in 2017. The rest of the coral, better than 90% was completely bleached.

I spoke to a marine biologist on the boat out to the reef about the coral bleaching. Especially since we have seen very vibrant coral in warmer waters in Fiji and have heard of the incredible coral in areas of Indonesia, Western Papua, etc. He said it came down to the types of coral. That the species of coral around Indonesia, Fiji, Palau, etc. could tolerate warmer water while the coral on the GBR had reached a tipping point at 30-32°C water temperature and was now at extreme risk.

The last thing I’d pass on is that both my wife and I swam with 3/2mm shorty wet suits and did not experience any issues with stingers. It was the tail-end of stinger season and we were out at the outer reef where there is less of a problem even in season.

Apr 30, 2019
Pam, What Hotel in Raja Ampat?
by: Pat

Thanks, Dave, for the GBR update and awesome photos!

Do you think the visibility on Fitzroy Island is always poor? How poor, like 10-15 feet or like 30-40? Good to hear about the resort, piqued my interest... Did you take the excursions from that hotel?

Pam, any hotels you'd recommend that had shore snorkeling in the Raja Ampat area? Was it any time of day you can shore snorkel? Or does the wind pick up (like trade winds in Hawaii)?

Time to get another trip on the books. We cruised the Caribbean w/Viking this March (9 islands, 11 days) and snorkeled a half dozen islands. Fun, but on cruise excursions you're lucky to get 45 minutes in the water at each stop. We are now SO ready for a trip with more water time - a hotel with shore snorkeling.

Apr 30, 2019
Raja Ampat
by: Nicole & Galen

Hello Pat and Pam, since Raja Ampat is a separate subject from the GBR that this page is about, I am going to suggest you take your conversation about snorkeling in Raja Ampat over to Pam's page about it here.

May 17, 2019
Fitzroy Island
by: David K

Hi Pat, we took a ferry from Cairns to Fitzroy and just stayed for 1/2 day. The price was pretty reasonable (around $70 per person round trip). Visibility where we snorkeled was maybe 15 feet, but you had to get to within six feet for good fish photos. I don't know the reason for the poor visibility, or if that was a just a particularly bad day, but it was low tide, and in many areas the water was only a few feet deep, so that plus the wave action probably stirred up the water.

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