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

Colorful Lined Surgeonfish and Sixbar Wrasse with rock in background Great Barrier Reef Australia
Lined Surgeonfish and Sixbar Wrasse

By David K – (Wisconsin)
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 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.

Steephead Parrotfish and Checkerboard Wrasse with hard corals on the Great Barrier Reef Australia
Steephead Parrotfish and Checkerboard 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 Moved From Previous System

Nicole & Galen – Apr 27, 2019 – Thank You!

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.

Pam S – Apr 28, 2019 – Sorry David

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.

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

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 (southeast extreme of the Great Barrier Reef) 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 and 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.

Pat – Apr 30, 2019 – Fitzroy Excursions?

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?

David K – May 17, 2019 – Fitzroy Island

Hi Pat, we took a ferry from Cairns to Fitzroy and just stayed for half a 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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