Taken from the UNESCO website:
The Great Barrier Reef is a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia. It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction..
I’ve been dreaming of going to the Great Barrier Reef for years, but, until now, it hasn’t been feasible. Let’s face it, when we lived in Montreal, Australia was a long way to go for a week’s vacation. Not only that, the boys were younger, and neither Neil, or I wanted to go to there unless we could enjoy it to the fullest. It’s not the kind of place you want to visit and come home regretting that you missed parts of it.
Well, this was a once in a lifetime trip and going out to the reef was a large part of it. During our week on Hamilton Island, we booked three tours that took us off the island to visit Reef World, Whitehaven Beach and Chalkie Beach/reef. We actually went out to Reef World twice. It’s a large floating reef pontoon that is situated on Hardy Reef. The pontoon is accessible by boat/ship (I never know which is correct) or helicopter and offers scuba diving, snorkeling, a semi-submersible, underwater viewing, etc.
Our first trip out, we took the boat, which takes about an hour to reach the pontoon from Hamilton Island. We had perfect weather for the ride out and I had a great discussion about cameras and equipment with the photographer on board. You know I had to take every lens I own with me…just in case. Anyway, as we were getting close to our destination he wished us a great day and commented that we had picked a good one as it would get “bumpy” later in the week.
What? Bumpy? That doesn’t sound good. But before I could give it much thought we were off and getting suited up to go snorkeling.
Now, before you ask, no, we did not dive on this trip. Three of us are certified divers and, yes, it would have been nice. However, in our family, we have one who wants to be certified, but isn’t yet (it will come in due time) and another who is not terribly comfortable in the ocean. He’s a fantastic swimmer but the ocean is really not his thing. He humors us by snorkeling but, if given a choice, he’d rather not even do that. So, that being said, when we travel as a whole family, we stick to snorkeling. Besides, the reef isn’t as pretty when you go very deep because you lose the light that really makes the colors pop. So, we have no regrets.
The reef was absolutely beautiful and we saw a lot of different corals and fish, but, even in the shallows, it wasn’t as colorful as I had expected. A lot of the coral in the upper sections were white or grey. We asked one of the biologists who works on site giving the guided snorkeling tours why this was, and this was his explanation:
- with 150-300 people visiting every day, the reef is being damaged, not only by snorkelers and divers touching the reef (with either hands or fins) but it’s being bleached out by the sunscreen everyone wears.
- the environment is changing…it’s effecting everything, and the reef isn’t immune. Vast parts of the surface coral have died from exposure (to air and the sun) and now the reef is trying to grow outward as opposed to up.
- Disney might have exaggerated it a bit.
When he mentioned that last part, I started to laugh. Do people really think the reef will look like Finding Nemo?
Apparently, many do.
Even though the reef wasn’t as colorful as I had seen in photos, it was still spectacular. I don’t have a housing for our large DSLR but Neil has a great point and shoot that does well underwater. He quickly mastered snorkeling and filming and took several great short movies that I’ve included at the end of the post. And by short I mean, they are all under a minute, so don’t panic that I’ve included hours of home movies. We spent most of our time at the pontoon in the water and explored as much of the reef as we could. Except during our guided snorkel, we had to keep within roped off sections. I appreciate that Australia is trying very hard to protect the reef while still promoting tourism. I’m sure it’s a difficult balance.
Now, I’ve always said that we have fish of our own in the family. All the boys are great swimmers but both Zach and Jacob are excellent snorkelers. Like Neil, they are able to free dive, staying down quite deep for a long time. Besides making it a pain to keep track of them underwater, this skill resulted in a few things.
1. They were able to go down and see some really cool stuff and then stay there and pose for photos. This is Zach next to a smallish giant clam. Yes, we saw larger ones. Crazy isn’t it?!
2. They were able to send a group of Japanese tourist, who were in the underwater viewing area, into an absolute frenzy trying to take photos of themselves with one of the guys swimming by in the background. Once the boys figured out what was happening, they decided that hamming it up was necessary, which required even more photos from the tour group. I would be willing to bet money that Jacob and Zach have shown up on many a Facebook page in Japan. LOL!
All in all, it was an excellent way to spend a day.
On our second trip out to the reef, Neil had booked us onto one of the helicopters. Of course, I had my camera with me and had the lens sticking out the little window for most of the journey. Sam, who’s starting to get into photography, also had his camera with him. Umm…we might have been a little obnoxious with the photo taking. Oh, come on! How could we pass this up? It’s the Great Barrier Reef and, if you think it’s beautiful underwater, the aerial view is even better!
Day two snorkeling the reef was the same as the first…awesome! If I were to do it again, though, I’m not sure I would do two days at Reef World. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and the helicopter ride was unbelievable, but we found out later that there was a different tour that went out to Bait Reef where you could also dive and snorkel. We were told that it generally has fewer people going and the colors are better. Unfortunately, we were too late to book and everything was sold out. We still had a great time, though. That is, until the trip back on the boat.
So, remember when I told you that the photographer mentioned that it was going to be “bumpy” later in the week?
Oh, it wasn’t pretty.
You have to know that Sam and I get seasick on a regular basis, so we wear the patches behind our ears when we go on trips like this. We had them on. It didn’t make difference.
As soon as the boat got away from the outer reef and out into the shipping lane, it started pitching.
This wasn’t bumpy, this was more like the crab boats on Deadliest Catch when they’re in a storm in the Bering Sea. OK, I might be exaggerating…but only just a little. You couldn’t move around that boat at all, and things were falling off the benches and tables. We had to brace ourselves so we wouldn’t get thrown from our seats. I was doing OK for about 15 minutes but after that I couldn’t take it. Patches, no patches, I was clutching the barf bags for dear life. The poor staff, trying to hand out ice chips and the bags, were having a hard time keeping up with the demand. In the end, I think about 75% of the passengers were sick on the ride back, and even a few of the staff looked several shades of green.
I told you it wasn’t pretty.
And, when nearly everyone around you is heaving into little bags, even the strongest of stomachs gives up. Jacob.
On our last day of vacation, we went to Chalkie and Whitehaven Beach. Fortunately, the wind had calmed down and we didn’t go near the shipping lane. Thank God! The day was glorious and calm, the scenery spectacular, and nobody got even a little nauseous. It was Perfect!
The water off of Chalkie Beach wasn’t nearly as clear as it was at Hardy Reef, but in no way was it lacking in sea life. At one point, there was a marlin hanging around the boat that was causing quite a stir and we were able to swim with a sea turtle for a while. Both very cool!
After lunch our boat moved from Chalkie beach on to the amazing Whitehaven Beach.
Whitehaven Beach is a definite “must-see” in the Whitsundays. The crystal clear aqua waters and pristine silica sand of Whitehaven stretch over seven kilometres along Whitsunday Island , the largest of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays. It defines nature at its best and provides the greatest sense of relaxation and escape….
At the northern end of Whitehaven Beach is Hill Inlet, a stunning cove where the tide shifts the sand and water to create a beautiful fusion of colours. As the tide shifts, the white silica sand and turquoise shades of the inlet blend seamlessly to create a breathtaking view of swirling Whitsunday colours.
Sounds nice doesn’t it? The tourism board isn’t exaggerating, not one little bit. This beach has been voted Australia’s most beautiful beach and I can see why. In fact, it’s probably the most beautiful beach I’ve personally ever seen. West Coast, East Coast, Caribbean, Mexico…nothing I’ve seen compares. If you ever have the chance to go this area, you must include a stop at Whitehaven Beach. You just have to.
So there you have it, our week of Aussie heaven! Between Hamilton Island and the Barrier Reef, it’s definitely a dream location, and it was as good or better than I’d hoped in just about every way. That’s impressive because, I’m sure like many of you, I have/had huge expectations of what the reef would be like. I thought this was also pretty telling; at the end of the trip, two of the boys didn’t want to come home, they would have stayed forever. That’s saying a lot considering we didn’t allow laptops or phones on this trip. They were pretty much unplugged from the internet for 8 days, and I can report that they all survived the withdrawal.
The child who was ready to leave was missing his laptop. He’s addicted.
I swear, I’m almost finished…I just wanted to mentioned again, I took WAY to many photos on this trip. I’ve tried to narrow it down for the post but there are more shots of the reef and our trip HERE if you are interested in taking a peek. Also, if you’d like to see a few more short clips from underwater, they are below. And because I can’t help myself and they didn’t really fit into either post anywhere, here are two of my favorite shots from the whole trip.