Sorry for the delay with this one – I don’t think I’d anticipated before we left how tricky it would be to keep this blog up to date, and we’ve been lucky enough to have been having a packed schedule full of adventures so far, which hasn’t left a lot of time for writing! But we’re getting back on track now (well, we’re about nine days behind real life but that’s FINE!) and this is a fun one to share as it features one of Australia’s top natural attractions – the Great Barrier Reef.
Visiting the reef had been one of the things that we had most been looking forward to about the cruise, but before we reached Cairns we had another two days at sea as our ship navigated our way down the eastern coast of Australia. Jimi and I attended a talk held by the pilot who had joined the ship in Darwin and was assisting the captain navigating around the reef (which is particularly difficult!) The talk was fascinating, especially as we were visiting the reef during the only time of year where new coral is spawned. From the ship we could see the coral spores sitting like a slick on top of the ocean (which lots of people mistook for pollution).
Other highlights of our sea days included the screening of the Melbourne Cup horse race on deck (all the Aussies got VERY excited about this, though it was just a two minute long flat race…) and for me learning to play a new game with Rini, Yvonne, Kevin and Lawrence. It is a version of ‘Rummy’ (similar to the card game) and you play with tokens – it turned out I was great and won three games on the bounce before retiring while still in my prime.
We also went to the gym (I know!!) and dressed up for the last formal night. Ohh and ate two BBQs on the deck – to negate the earlier gym-going. Everything in moderation. (Except burgers of course, we had LOTS of burgers…)
On the morning we arrived in Cairns, we were up bright and early attempting to get our new phones to work again which was great as it meant were able to get back in touch with the UK again. We managed to call home before grabbing a quick breakfast in the pool café, and somehow positioning ourselves by a stairwell so that we were some of the first passengers off the boat when we docked. We’d arranged an excursion to Green Island today, so once we were off we walked along Cairns waterfront to the Reef Fleet Terminal where the boat would be departing. We checked in with our tour company Great Adventures at the terminal and sun-creamed up, before boarding a small catamaran for the island.
Green Island is a small island surrounded by coral cays, about 45 minutes by boat from Cairns. It has a rainforest to walk around, and lots of beaches with some snorkeling opportunities. We’d brought our own snorkels, and as such were able to head straight for a glass-bottomed boat trip when we docked at Green Island (as that was included in our ticket). The boat was long and thin, and seated maybe 20 people in rows down two sides, with the centre of the hull all glass which gave us an amazing window on the marine life below. We had a thirty-minute tour around the island, which took us over some stunning coral, several sea turtles and a whole range of fish, including a small family of clown fish. The driver also fed some of the big (30 – 50cm long) fish from the boat, so we could see them all splashing about around and under us.
Green Island was set up very much as a tourist destination with changing facilities, shops, swimming pools and several lifeguarded beaches. We headed straight for the beach, and found a place to dump our stuff before heading straight out to snorkel. The water was really clear, and around the island were patches of sea grass (where the turtles live) and coral (where so many colourful fish and starfish were swimming). The highlight had to be when a giant turtle came and swam right underneath us for about thirty seconds before heading further out again – it was incredible and we managed to get it on film too!
We took a brief ice cream break back on land before heading out again. About 20 minutes later we were snorkelling along the far edge of the life-guarded area when Jimi grabbed my hand under the water and pointed straight in front of us. Where there was a SHARK! Yes an actual shark. It was about 1m long (we googled afterwards and discovered it was a reef shark) but let’s just say we swam back to shore PRETTY SPEEDILY. Apparently reef sharks are pretty harmless, but we weren’t going to stick around to check that!
Done with swimming for the day (obviously!) we strolled around the rainforest for a bit before we had to catch the boat back to the port of Cairns.
The ‘all aboard’ on the ship wasn’t for another hour so we had some time to walk around Cairns, past the fountain and man-made beach before grabbing a drink from McDonald’s and walking back along the promenade to the ship.
Back on board we had a snack from the solarium, and went on deck to watch the sail out from Cairns. That evening we also made it to a Strictly Come Dancing style show prior to dinner (unheard of), before our usual routine of eating in the restaurant (our waiter had decided by this point in the holiday to bring us multiple desserts every night which we were certainly not complaining about).
We headed to bed after dinner, as the next day the boat was in Airlie Beach and we had to be up early for another snorkelling excursion. We got up and ate a speedy breakfast in the restaurant, before heading to the theatre to meet the excursion group. We were heading out on a small ferry to the reef and as the ship was tendering to Airlie Beach, we needed to be collected directly off the ship in the middle of the ocean. We were all given travel sickness pills which inspired confidence, and then disembarked straight onto the Cruise Whitsundays boat. It was rainy out and the sea was a bit choppy, but as we sailed to the outer reef it got progressively sunnier. Cruise Whitsundays own some pontoons on the reef, which were about two hours away from where our cruise ship was moored.
The ferry had several decks, and tea/coffee facilities on board, so we were feeling fairly refreshed when we got to the pontoon at Hardy Reef. The pontoon was basically a metal rig, with several stories in the middle of the ocean. There was lots of gear set up to borrow, so while we had our own snorkels, Jimi and I kitted up in wetsuits and flippers, before heading straight into the ocean.
The water was colder than we were used to, but literally a metre or so from the boat you were swimming over a large expanse of reef. The coral here was unbelievable – a rainbow of colours and shapes, and so many species of fish. The reef sloped off sharply at one side and just dropped completely out of view which gave you a kind of weird vertigo in the water. We saw a turtle in the distance here, but unlike at Green Island out here the coral was the real star. The fish were incredible again, and we also saw clams in every size and colour you can imagine. After about an hour we decided to head back to the pontoon for some lunch. It was a good thing we got out when we did though as Jimi was starting to go blue, and it took about half an hour out of the water for him to regain feeling in his fingers!
The boat served a buffet on board of salads and cold meats, so we sat outside on the pontoon with a plate trying to warm up before deciding to have a go in an underwater submersible boat trip, where you sat downstairs and through windows could look out on the reef. It was probably designed more for people who wouldn’t go in the water though, so that was a bit of a waste of time. Happily though Jimi had returned to a normal temperature, so we pulled on our damp and cold wetsuits again (a complete unpleasant experience) and got back in. This time we were on the hunt for clown fish, which we didn’t manage to see, though we did spot a moray eel right at the end which was cool! There were huge shoals of fish as well as individual fish, and we managed to get our photos taken underwater feeding a giant grouper. We ended up being the last people out of the water (definitely getting our money’s worth!) and had a quick rinse on the pontoon before getting back on board the boat.
The journey back to the cruise ship was a bit smoother, plus we also got given some delicious muffins to snack on so it was better in all ways than earlier. The boat diverted through a famous bay in the Whitsundays where you usually see dolphins, but alas there were none there!
We ended up getting back on board at about 4pm, and had the most amazing warm showers straight away before pre-dinner naps. All that exertion had clearly taken it out of us. We did make it to an after dinner show that night though called the Aussie Boys (disappointingly not a stripper group as I had been expecting) but three Australians who sang a lot of songs about our new country, presumably to get everyone in the mood for our next arrival. At this point on the cruise we had done all our excursions, and had just one more day at sea before the cruise was over and we docked in Brisbane…!