Cairns: A day on the Reef

Our day out to the Great Barrier Reef coincided with our middle-child’s fourth birthday.  It also coincided with the first sunny day of our holiday!

Birthday boy

On the advice of locals and tourist information, the best way to explore the reef with a family is to take a boat out to a tethered pontoon.

Reef Magic pontoon

This is opposed to boating out to Green Island, as the sand there is corally and not great on little feet.  We chose Reef Magic for our trip, mainly because the competitor Sunlover’s pontoon had a pretty cool waterslide that ended in open water – a tantrum avoiding strategy as we knew our kids were too young.  (It would be great for older kids though!)

Despite the blue sky, the ride out was a little choppy.  My churning stomach put me at the stern of the catamaran for most of the hour and a half journey.  Fortunately, this was a prime position for pointing out the pod of dolphins and two Humpback whales that we encountered.

You are out on the reef for close to five hours.  On paper, it seems excessive, but it flew by.  Consider how long it takes to get a family of five kitted out in wetsuits and life jackets alone!

Guess which child was not happy in their wet suit?

When we were finally ready to enter the water for our first snorkel (Thomas and John had prepared with a free learn to snorkel session at our accommodation), it was so crowded and choppy that Connie started to wail.  Stephen took her to the enclosed open water ‘pool’ and I headed out with the boys, a pool-noodle under each boy.  Considering the conditions, the boys did very well.  John (who hadn’t liked the snorkel or mask and had opted just for his normal swimming goggles) put his head in the water and saw some fish before opting for the safety of Daddy and the ‘pool’.  Thomas lasted a few minutes longer, excited by the fish and coral but ultimately finding it difficult to deal with the choppy water and number of fins in your face.  He too went back to Stephen.

That left me unhindered to explore Moore reef on my own.  The fish were magnificent and there were interesting passages through the coral to explore.

In the end though, the choppy conditions and guilt of leaving Stephen to wrangle with three kids and all their paraphernalia got the better of me and I swam back to the pontoon.

Fortunately, the pontoon has plenty of other options for non-swimmers.  There’s fish feeding, where the huge resident (but wild) Maori Wrasse, Wally, comes right up to the snorkelling shelf to take food. There’s an underwater observatory facing out to the snorkelling area.  There is a semi-submersible for the ‘submarine’ experience.  And there’s a glass-bottom boat which gave the kids prime position for sea-cucumber spotting (there were a lot as the other passengers can now attest to!)

A buffet lunch is also provided.  If you’ve ever tried to manage plates for five with three youngsters in tow, on a floating pontoon, all while wearing wet-suits, you will realise why five hours is a perfectly reasonable amount of time on the reef!


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