Great Barrier Reef
Having been there for 10 days in 2017, I have a strong opinion about whether it is worth spending the time and money, or not. It is not strictly a ‘yes or no answer.’ Check out our experience and my recommendations…
What is so special about the Great Barrier Reef?
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on earth and is visible from outer space. Encompassing thousands of reefs and islands with immeasurable species of fish, turtles, dolphins, mollusks, starfish, and what was once 600 soft and hard types of coral (not sure of today’s number), it is over 1400 miles long. I definitely wanted to see all the underwater beauty and did not care how many people said it was bleached or dead. We did see some bleached out or dead coral from the warm currents and cyclones.
Great Barrier Reef – To Visit by Land or Sea Visit
Are you going to the area mainly to see the reef? If yes, the first decision is – from where to base your visit:
- Land trip – Cairns or Port Douglas to boat out to the reef for day trips?
You cannot swim in the ocean from the beaches in Cairns or Port Douglas (the gateway to GBR) due to the saltwater crocodiles. Boating out to the reef is how most people get to GBR, which is pricey.
- Live aboard a boat?
- Stay on an island? Most islands are very expensive and still require a boat trip to reach the reef, so we passed on this.
If going out to the reef by boat, choose between day snorkel trips, dive trips, or a multi-day liveaboard trip. We chose a 4-day liveaboard to see the Great Barrier Reef. It was by far the best part of our 10 days in this region. Aboard the Spirit of Freedom we selected the Ribbon Reef to Cod Hole trip. These sites are in northern Queensland past Cape Tribulation, up to Cooktown, then north and east.
Great Barrier Reef on Spirit of Freedom Liveaboard
Disclamer: While we were invited guests by TUSA Dive for 3 nights/4 days discounted trip, these are our honest opinions.
Based on our experiences in Port Douglas, Cairns, and on the Spirit of Freedom, the best way to see the Great Barrier Reef is by liveaboard. Although I prefer land-based diving, a liveaboard is the ONLY way the Great Barrier Reef is worth the time and money, especially as an experienced diver.
- Wake up at 6:30 AM to crew knocking on your door. From this point, the days go as follows …
- Eat – A quick light breakfast.
- Dive – Prepare for diving or snorkeling; assemble on deck. Four divemasters take 22 people diving; groups are 4-6 people. Everyone suits up; groups enter the water to dive or snorkel.
- Eat – Back aboard, all check-in with dive time, depth, air usage, un-suit, and rinse equipment. Change into dry clothes and assemble for a hot breakfast.
- Dive – During breakfast, the trip director reviews dive #2 profile; then gear up to dive again.
- Then it’s Eat (lunch), Dive, Eat (snack), Dive, Eat (dinner), maybe Night Dive, Sleep.
- If no night dive, after dinner relax, talk, check out dive books or socialize.
In summary, the schedule is Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Sleep.
On our 4-day/3-night trip, we dove 3 days and hiked one. After assembling on the Spirit at a Cairns’ pier, an introduction to the crew, boat, and other guests, we lunched while motoring out to Saxon Reef for the first dive. This is the reef day trippers are often taken to since its distance is right for a 1-day round trip.
Day 1 – We did 2 check out dives. When Angus yelled “dive time” as he walked throughout the boat, guests hurried to get ready to dive. At Saxon Reef fish are plentiful, colorful, but corals looked mostly bleached out here.
After diving, guests clean up and relax while motoring to the outer reef on the edge of the continental shelf. Anchorage on the first night is north of Cape Tribulation, at the same latitude as Cooktown, in the upper Queensland region.
Day 2 – We had 2 dives on Ribbon Reef #3 at Christmas Tree Bommie and Wistful Gardens. After lunch, guests relax while motoring to Clam Gardens for afternoon and night dives. Take a look at underwater life we encountered …
While day dives were enjoyable, Tom and I thought the night dive was lacking. That may be due to our being the last dive group to enter the water. The other groups likely scared away the cool night sea life and stirred up the sand before we arrived. We love night dives and found this frustrating. My advice for a night dive is to ensure you are the first group entering the water or ask to go in a different direction from other groups.
Day 3 – Captain took us north to Ribbon Reef #10 – Pixie’s Pinnacle, rising approximately 100’ to just under the surface. Divers and snorkelers are treated to a plethora of schooling fish. It’s fun to find the small hidden creatures here too.
Cod Hole was also good; we dove two different profiles. The first Cod Hole dive was amazing – coming face-to-face with giant potato cod. The second dive is a special treat that the crew does for guests. Divers sit in a circle in the sand with their cameras while Angus brings the cod over and feeds them (supposedly).
After divers blew through a lot of air waiting for Angus, who could not find a single cod, he settled for feeding the perch. They are colorful and quite aggressive. Angus was upset, as he claims it was the first time ever that he found no cod at Cod Hole. Oh well, diving goes that way sometimes. It was still fun to be in the water with all the large perch.
Our last dive of the trip – Dive #11 was at Dynamite Pass on the northern tip of the reef. Due to currents, this is a drift dive where divers relax and enjoy the ride with the masses of marine life. One of my all-time favorites are the schools of black, white and yellow sweetlips. They are gorgeous!
The Boat – Spirit of Freedom
It is a unique and wonderful feeling to be out in the middle of the ocean on a small 122’ vessel, taking in the vast ocean, the breeze, sun, and, when lucky, the sea life that comes to the surface – like turtles, dolphins, flying fish, etc.
Spirit of Freedom is well appointed and maintained; it has everything guests need. With several indoor and outdoor spaces, the guests spread out and the boat never feels crowded.
- Sun Deck – Top covered and uncovered deck areas for relaxing, reading, writing, sunning, napping, and watching the sea. There are lounge chairs, tables, and cushioned benches.
- Dive Deck – Has 26 stations to suit up, store gear, and for air fills (efficiently done in place with air hoses that are moved between each station – no moving tanks). The dive deck has a table and washtub for cameras, and fresh water showers.
- Dining Salon – meals served and dive briefs given here.
- Forward Lounge and Ship’s Bar – large space to relax on big couches. Tea, coffee, and sweet treats are available free all day. There is a camera work station. The Ship’s Bar, available 24/7, has a fridge stocked with soft drinks and spirits. When the crew is around they serve; otherwise, it’s an honor system.
- Galley/Small Kitchen – for food prep. It’s amazing that such a small space provides delicious meals for 22 guests plus 10 crew.
- Cabins – 13, plus crew quarters. Cabins are small, ranging from doubles to quads, each with a private bathroom. Only 1 shower each day per person ensures a fresh water supply for the whole journey.
Tusa Dive provides storage for additional luggage not needed for the cruise. We brought only our dive gear, few clothes, and toiletries for 4-days on the boat.
It’s a treat! Food is plentiful with many choices. Cook decides menus after receiving guests’ allergies and preferences. From the morning’s fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, to whole fish, sushi, cold cuts, Asian veggie fish bowl, meats, poultry to desserts, sundaes, and so much more served for lunch and dinner. At dinner, house wine and soft drinks are included. The food is a treat for the taste buds!
I reminded Tusa of my melon allergy before our departure. When I spoke with Cook, I learned that all melons were removed from the boat as an extra precaution.
A crew of 10 served 22 guests. Captain Ross is knowledgeable, friendly, and open to discussion. Angus, our Trip Director has worked on Caribbean, Australia, and South Seas dive boats; he heads up 4 instructors and 2 trainees. A dedicated cook, ship engineer, and head of housekeeping serve guests.
The Spirit has great processes and procedures to provide a great experience for everyone. Dive staff help wherever manpower is needed. One Divemaster was busy giving an advanced course, while the others attended to everyone’s diving needs; staff socialized with us when not working. Crew members were upbeat, helpful, fun to be around, and diligent about their work.
On our last day, after rising early and packing up, we had breakfast and were transported via dinghy to Lizard Island for a hike, picnic lunch, and plane ride back to Cairns. A great way to end the 4-day excursion. Hinterland Air runs small low flying planes between Lizard Island and Cairns. The flight offers breathtaking views of GBR and the northern Queensland coast.
In answer to the question ‘Is the Great Barrier Reef worth a visit?,’ my answer is, if you are going to experience the reef, then ‘yes,’ but ONLY by liveaboard.
We spent several days in each of the gateway towns to the Great Barrier Reef – Port Douglas and Cairns. Locals told us that the corals accessible for day excursions to GBR are mostly bleached. Our first dive to a day-trippers destination proved that. While it was nice to see both towns, the two gateway towns are expensive, crowded and not that special. If you love beach towns, the hustle bustle, nightlife, and don’t mind the inability to go on the beach, then visit these towns for other things that they offer.
For land-based stays with snorkeling or diving and a beach experience, Western Australia’s Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef is a better choice.
If you choose a liveaboard on the Great Barrier Reef, know that Tusa Dive makes it easy from pick-ups, transport at the end, to taking care of your every need. We trust that you will love any trip on Spirit of Freedom if you love being on the water.
After our liveaboard, we visited in Cairns for 3 days.