Great Barrier Reef – To Visit or Not?

Great Barrier Reef

Hawksbill turtle image credit Sola HayakawaGreat Barrier Reef (GBR) is touted as a special place, and has been on my bucket list for a long time. The question remains – ‘Is it still the special place it once was, and worth a visit?’

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?

Great Barrier Reef from The AirA 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Live aboard a boat?
  3. Stay on an island? Most islands are very expensive and still require a boat trip to reach the reef, so we passed on this.

Dive platform Spirit of Freedom, image credit Sola HayakawaIf 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.

Here’s the low down on the Spirit of Freedom liveaboard, the reef, the activities, the boat…MV Spirit of Freedom dive boat

 

Daily Activities

Wendy and Tom, image credit Sola Hayakawa

  • 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.

Diving

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.

Potato cod, image credit Sola HayakawaCod 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.

Yellow Snapper, image credit Sola HayakawaOur 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!

Wendy on the sundeckWe loved diving on the Spirit of Freedom. While it is a lot of diving, you can choose to sit out some dives. We did 9 of 11 dives and enjoyed relaxing on the empty boat when other guests dove.

The Boat – Spirit of Freedom

Sunset on the Great Barrier Reef, image credit Sola HayakawaIt 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.

Outdoors

  • 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.

Indoors

  • 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.

Food

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.

Crew

Loading dinghy with diversA 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.

Lizard Island Land Excursion

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.

Conclusion

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.

41 thoughts on “Great Barrier Reef – To Visit or Not?

    • Are these islands directly accessible to snorkel or dive on the reef, or do you still need to boat out to sites? Are they doable for day trippers?

  1. We did a liveaboard about 10 years ago north of Cairns: a smaller boat, but similarly wonderful experience. It’s good to hear that there are still healthy segments of the Great Barrier Reef.

  2. I agree that perhaps the GBR has been overrun and overdone. We visited as day trippers a few years ago and although we had a great experience, we were a little saddened by the lack of fish and colourful coral. However, it was an awesome experience, and we did love it. Living in WA means that we must and should get north to Exmouth – and soon 🙂

  3. I took a day trip to the GBR from Cairns many years ago. I found it rather touristy but I enjoyed seeing the fish (and a turtle) from a glass bottomed boat. But the best view was probably from the aeroplane as we left Cairns…

  4. OMG! this looks so gorgeous!!! I would really love to dive there 🙂 Such a beautiful place to relax and have fun! Too bad im really far away 🙁 All the fauna there looks amazing! Thanks for sharing this amazing reef!

  5. One of these days, I vow to get over my claustrophobia enough to at least snorkel. Hopefully, it will be this winter during our liveaboard visit to the Galapagos. Salt water crocodiles. Gah! Are they positive they don’t swim out too far? What type of underwater camera did you use? Since I am likely to never scuba dive, I was happy to live vicariously via your wonderful photographs.

  6. Great post! Very interesting to hear about the different ways to visit the GBR. Liveaboard sounds perfect for divers and it must be wonderful to sleep out on the ocean and experience the environment on the surface as well as underwater.

  7. This looks like such a wonderful experience! I’d love to try a liveaboard, and the Great Barrier Reef sounds like the perfect place to give it a go.

    • Yes, while I am not a fan of liveaboards in general (even though I love boating), it is the best way to see the Great Barrier Reef.

  8. Wow.. I really love scuba diving and seeing the magical creatures in their aquatic world. And the seafood looks lip smacking 🙂 And new destination added to my wish list. Thank you for writing such useful details, tweeting it right away. 🙂

  9. The great barrier reef looks incredible. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit and after reading this article, I want to bump it quite high on my bucket-list. Your photography is amazing. You really got to see so much. It’s a shame about the night dive but at least you got to see so much in your day dives 🙂

  10. OMG!! This is one experience I would love to have atleast have once in lifetime. The underneath beauty is simply amazing. I am already taken away by your pictures. Food too looks great and the sunset picture is just mind blowing. Loved your Great barrier reef tour and ya bit sad about night dive.

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  13. Alright so to me I think a 4-day liveaboard to see the Great Barrier Reef on something like the Spirit of Freedom sounds like an amazing way to cross off the GBR off your bucket list! Though I have to say a 6am wake up call is pretty painful! Though to spend your day either diving or eating sounds like a great life!
    I Love all your pics but I have a question, So I am not Padi certified. Is it really worth it if you don’t really dive? I can Snorkel, Snuba, and I can unofficially dive but I am don’t have much practice.

    • Eric, If you are interested in the sea and the world beneath the surface, all I can say is get certified. The world under the sea is amazing. I was a snorkeler and thought it was enough. I am now hooked on diving and snorkel the rest of the time. You can go out on a Discover Dive but that would be on a day trip. As a non-diver, you’ll likely think it is awesome, but it is nothing like what you see and do as a certified diver on a liveaboard.

  14. Your photos are totally breathtaking and would love to check the barrier reef out. I really hope it doesn’t get damaged like the media is claiming it is. I would love to check this out myself and get up close with the wildlife.

    • Danik, The coral is exactly what the media says. However, the colorful and plentiful fish life are there to see. And corals are regenerating. There are initiatives in the US and the Caribbean to restore the coral. We have worked as volunteers to help with that initiative in Curacao, and plan to do so again this winter. You should still go se it. And I recommend diving on Australia’s West Coast where the corals still are thriving.

  15. What an amazing experience. I would guess you need to be really fit for so much diving about the liveaboard. Are there any beginner dives that you can take part it or is it for more advanced divers? The food looks fabulous too.

    • Melissa, The food was fabulous! And they catered to particular dietary needs. In terms of beginner dives, you would need to ask them directly. I do think they cater to beginners. There was a boy on our boat who was getting certified. He was with his Dad and brother. I think he had a blast!

      Re: being fit – Any diving requires a level of physical fitness. I do workout regularly. If you are interested in see the world under the sea, and it is an amazing world, perhaps that is motivation to be fit.

  16. Wonderful article. We live in Florida and dive extensively here. Last fall I had the opportunity to attend REEF Fest in Key Largo, which is a several day dive / seminar event put together by the REEF community. There were several presentations on coral bleaching, black band, white band, and other coral issues that are facing the Keys. I imagine the same issues face the GBR. I also have a desire to blast Lionfish on sight but that’s probably just my south Florida thinking. They are natural on the GBR.

    TUSA liveaboard seems very luxurious. I did a liveaboard out of San Diego to San Clemente. I love spending the day doing nothing but diving and eating, but I could feel the accumulation of diving by the second day. I could understand opting out for a hiking day. It’s especially cool that the plane stayed below the 1200′ altitude limit for divers with nitrogen loading. Sounds like you get some sight seeing that way too. This sounds like a fabulous experience.

    • Jenn and Ed, While loved the liveaboard on GBR, we loved diving on the west coast of Australia even more – at Ningaloo Reef and the Muiron Islands! Not many US divers go there because it is such a long trip from GBR. I read about it and I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I planned Australia west coast time. So glad we did! I have 2 posts on that too.

      AT GBR Tusa took great care of us! I would not dive GBR any other way; a liveaboard is the only way to dive at GBR!

      The hike was not an opt out; it was part of the itinerary on our last day before we were flown back to Cairns. We opted out of one of the dives on a day where there we 4 or 5 dives. Tom has trouble with his ears, and it was a dive where we had to roll off a dinghy, which I don’t do due to rods in my back. We loved having the boat to ourselves too.

  17. The Great Barrier Reef has been and continues to be on my bucket list. I’m thrilled to read that it delivered on your expectations. I really love your stunning shots from your dives. So clear and colorful. Like the flexibility, you had to dive while others were resting and vice versa. I hope I get a chance to have a similar experience soon.

  18. It is so sad that the corals closer to land have been bleached. It’s the same in Mauritius where huge sections of the reef have died. Going out further afield is a great idea. I had no idea that this was an option and it is one that I will definitely consider next year when I visit Australia.

  19. A liveabroad trip would be amazing to experience the Great Barrier Reef, so great that you chose that option! Haha, love the eat, dive, eat, dive schedule – must have been so much fun!! Love all your pictures showing the beautiful life under water

  20. How I dream of getting there some day! Amazing creatures! A totally different world down there! I am nowhere near being an expert at diving, may be something for beginners should suit well. Food indeed is great!

  21. Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef has been on my list forever. I mean When I travel to Australia I will try it. It is good to know the best way to do so. It seems that a liveaboard is a great option. I like to get a 3 or 4-day trips and also be able to visit the Lizard island.

    • It’s Tusa Dive shop that runs that trip on their boat. They are a great operation! It’s important to have good staff and equipment for diving.

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