Close Encounters of the Reef Kind
Story and Photos by Dawnelle Salant
The city of Cairns in northern Queensland is one of the most popular places from which to visit Australia ’s Great Barrier Reef . Although Cairns is the scuba diving capital of the Great Barrier Reef , there is one major drawback to accessing the reef from here; it lies nearly 70 kilometres off shore. Day trips usually involve a three hour journey to the reef, often on choppy water. By the time you arrive, there’s only 2-3 hours left to explore the reef before returning to Cairns . Luckily, on my last trip to Cairns , I discovered the perfect way to make the most of your time on the Great Barrier Reef .
Reef Encounter is a 35 meter luxury catamaran, or what I like to call a floating hotel, that anchors near some of the reef’s best dive sites. You still have to make the sometimes gruelling journey out to the reef, but this way, you get to stay and enjoy the reef for as long as you want.
When my mom and I arrive at Reef Encounter, I spend a few minutes exploring the boat, noting important places like the dining room, the bar, the hot tub and our spacious stateroom. But as lovely as the accommodation is, the real reason I’m here is the diving. I’m one of those ocean loving, water-logged people that can’t get enough of the marine life that coral reefs have to offer. My mom prefers to enjoy the sun and the unbeatable views of the reef from the top deck of the boat, so I don’t feel the least bit guilty leaving her on board as I descend for the first dive of the day.
We’re anchored at Hastings Reef and I follow my guide, Mia, as she leads us around the maze of coral. The first few minutes are spent swimming to the dive site, Coral Gardens , and I’m amazed at the huge wall of coral that rises to my right. Mia motions for me to follow her, and we swim up and over a break in the huge wall and enter the Coral Gardens .
If stopping breathing underwater wasn’t so dangerous, I’d be holding my breath in awe. I feel as if I’ve swum into a National Geographic documentary. The sun is streaming in through the crystal clear water and illuminating the shallow patch of coral we’re swimming over. A few of the thousands of tropical fish whose home we’ve invaded dart out of my way as my bubbles rise to the surface.
The Coral Gardens are a series of huge coral bowls covering the ocean floor. The flat bottom gently slopes up in places, forming shallow coral walls. At one point, a huge shelf of coral has grown up and outwards, providing shelter for a massive cod. A few feet over, an orange and white clownfish hides in the white tentacles of an anemone. I subconsciously pat myself on the back for finding Nemo! Giant clams are strewn amongst the coral formations, their fluorescent green and blue flesh disappearing as their shells snap shut in alarm. They are easily the size of my leg.
All too soon, the dive is over and I’m back on board the Reef Encounter recounting my underwater experiences to my very relaxed looking mom. As we lounge in the sun, the boat moves to its next destination – Saxon Reef. As soon as we arrive, I’m back in the water for one more dive before dinner.
Although the coral here is not quite as abundant, this turns out to be one of my most memorable dives. Just after descending, I see a large shape out of the corner of my left eye and turn my head quickly. What greets my eyes is a sight I’ve been both hoping for and dreading; a shark. Granted, it’s a harmless whitetip reef shark, but my heart misses a beat or two nonetheless.
That night, after a delicious meal prepared by the onboard chef, I relax with a glass of wine. The gentle rocking of the boat lulls me to sleep much earlier than usual, but that’s okay because I have an early date with the sunrise.
The sunrise dives are definitely worth getting up for. The water is warmer than the air, and as I descend into the darker water, I can see the orange sun rising in the distance. The fish seem to like this time of day too and I see a puffer fish, another shark, and a giant triggerfish that looks almost like a cartoon character as it regards with me the huge white eye on the side of its head. Anemones and clownfish are more abundant than I had imagined and I become enthralled with the magical creatures. Please note – Nemo was never lost. He lives all over the Great Barrier Reef !
Over the course of three days, I manage to fit in six dives, a few visits to the hot tub and two amazing sunsets. And if that’s not enough, on the way back to Cairns , the transfer boat stops at Breakaway Patches, a dive site famous for turtle sightings, and I jump back in the water for one last dive.
The coral here is in pretty bad shape; most of it is dead or dying and covered with algae. But the algae is what attracts the turtles; its one of their favourite meals. Not long after I descend, I see a dark shape heading straight toward me and turn to greet a small green sea turtle who appears to be staring me right in the eyes. He’s close enough to touch, and I reach out and caress his shell. He rubs up against me, almost like a cat, before swimming off. It’s the perfect farewell to the Great Barrier Reef .
Before You Go
For more information and bookings, visit www.reeftrip.com . Delicious chef prepared meals are included in the cost of your stay.
If you don’t travel well on water, there is the option of taking a helicopter out to the boat for an additional cost.
Stay for a night or for a week – the length of your stay is completely up to you.
If you’re not a certified diver, introductory dives are available so you don’t miss out on the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef . If you want to get certified, courses are offered right from the boat. Night diving is also available.
If you need accommodation in Cairns , I recommend the five star Cairns International. With two swimming pools, 3 restaurants and classy colonial charm, the Cairns International is the perfect base for exploring the tropical city.