This was the opportunity I had been waiting for since the summer of 2011 when I got scuba certified in Jupiter.  I was going to be on a boat directly above the Great Barrier Reef and all I would have to do is strap on an air tank and mask to dive down and see all the wonders it holds.  However, I wouldn’t get to do it on this trip.  The cold that started in Suva had followed me to Cairns and intensified, and with my head throbbing and my chest, nose, and ears completely congested I didn’t feel that I could comfortably clear my ears — that could be a recipe for disaster 70 feet below the surface.

So Her and I decided to book a snorkeling trip instead on the Ocean Free, a sailing yacht based in Cairns.  For AU$140 each we were entitled to a light breakfast on board at the dock at 8AM, the two hour ride to the reef, a couple of hours of snorkeling followed by a smorgasbord lunch, a ferry ride to Green Island with an hour and a half to walk around and explore the park and 5-star resort on the island, and a sail back to Cairns (weather permitting) with a free glass of wine.  This sounded good to us so we booked through our hostel, Castaway’s, and arranged for them to give us a ride to the dock in their shuttle.

Safety explanation from the crew of the Ocean Free

We boarded the yacht, a 75+ ft sailing yacht with two main sails and two jibs, around 7:45AM and were greeted by the very friendly crew: Rob, Dave, Matt, and Rachel.  They offered us a breakfast of tea, coffee, and blueberry muffins.  We each had a muffin and took photos of the boat and marina along with the other 20 or so passengers.

A little after 8AM, when all passengers had boarded, we slowly motored out of the marina and into Trinity Inlet outside of Cairns, heading towards the Great Barrier Reef.  The crew used this time to raise the main sails, but I think this was all for show as they never set the sails on the wind and instead motored the entire 2 hours out to the reef.  They also used the time to go over the typical boat safety and marine toilet talk.

The weather in Cairns was cloudy and slightly rainy, so we were very pleasantly surprised when the skies cleared up as soon as we got out of the inlet and the weather stayed consistently breezy, sunny, and hot for the rest of the day.  Seas were very calm with waves of about one to two feet making it an absolutely perfect day to be on a boat in the ocean!  Her and I enjoyed the two hour boat ride while some of the British and Japanese tourists of a more gentle temperament managed to become seasick.  We snapped some lovely photos of the tropical and mountainous Australian coastline and each other while we were slowly getting closer to our destination, Green Island.

We moored about 300 yards off the coast of Green Island right over the reef in water ranging from two to thirty or more feet with massive coral growths in every direction.  The captain announced “The pool is open!” so we all donned our masks, snorkels, and fins and dove in.  Our experience on the reef was amazing.

This was, by far, the best snorkeling I have ever done.  The coral growths were enormous, some over 30 feet high going from the sea floor to just a couple of feet below the surface with every inch covered in brightly colored coral and sea life.  Visibility was excellent in the very clear water.  Parrot fish and angel fish swam circles around us as we caused a large grouper towards his hole in the reef, we swam over dozens of giant clams easily the size of myself, and we discovered a sting ray hiding under a shelf of rock.  Her was definitely in her element, and by the time I had finished exploring the first reef growth, her was already 50 feet ahead of me swimming to the next one.  The highlight of the snorkeling for me came when we regrouped with the snorkeling guide, Rachel, and she showed us one of their regulars — a green sea turtle named Frankie.

Summer in Australia is stinger season, and all the boat guides are required by law to suggest that we wear a full body length lycra stinger suit, but none of them wore one and when Matt, one of the scuba guides, dove into the water in just his board shorts I had decided that I didn’t want a stinger suit either.  It really wasn’t necessary for us.  We didn’t see any jellyfish and were only subjected to the occasional sea lice bite — a minor nuisance.

Enjoying the cruise

After about an hour of swimming around, my cold-ridden body was letting me know that it was time to call it quits.  This coincided perfectly with the call for lunch.  The lunch was delicious and plentiful.  There was pasta salad, potato salad, garden salad, lunch meats with bread for sandwiches, and rotisserie chicken legs.  We gorged ourselves and had turkey sandwiches in celebration of Thanksgiving!

After lunch, the boat crew started to ferry people over to Green Island on their dinghy, a 5 minute ride, where we were able to explore the national park that occupied one half of the island, and the 5-star resort that occupied the other half of the island. As soon as we landed, we decided to head down the beach, beyond the lifeguarded area to distance ourselves from the resort crowd and begin to circumnavigate the small island — a walk that took about 45 minutes with lots of stops for photographs.  We made it most of the way, to a small helipad for resort guests before we were directed inland to the resort with its 5-star amenities including overpriced food, ice cream, and a very expensive ($28/person) and cheesy-looking wildlife park.

During lunch, the crew was throwing the chicken bones overboard and managed to attract several reef sharks.  When we returned to the boat from Green Island, we were told that we could still go snorkeling, even with the sharks in the water.  Her decided to brave it and hopped in.  She was promptly circled by three black-tipped reef sharks, but once they decide she wasn’t edible they moved along expedited by splashes from other snorkelers diving in.

After another hour of snorkeling the crew called everyone in, and we waved goodbye to Frankie and the reef.  About halfway back to Cairns, Rob turned the boat into the wind, cut the engines, and had Rachel and Matt hoist the sails again.  The wind was steady but not from an ideal direction, so we were only making about 2 or 3 knots towards Cairns under sail.  However, the peacefulness of hearing the wind and ocean was perfect.  To top it off, the crew passed out complimentary glasses of Australian white wine along with cheese and crackers.

Complimentary wine on the sail back

After 45 minutes of sailing, Rob turned the engines back on and we motor-sailed the last 30 minutes into Cairns arriving around 5:30PM.  The crew took the time to thank everyone on the boat as they walked back onto the dock.  They were a wonderful crew on a fantastic boat.

Sunburned but full of wonderful memories of the reef, we made the long walk back to our hostel.