An expedition cruise along the Great Barrier Reef provides the chance to see the world’s most exquisite marine life, discovers James Litston
There were many reasons why I’d been so excited about cruising the Great Barrier Reef in Australia – but looking this ridiculous hadn’t featured among them. Yet here I am, dressed from head to toe in a baggy nylon body stocking complete with mittens, socks and a covering for my head. I look like a cross between a ninja and Nora Batty, but I’m not wearing this unflattering catsuit for a laugh. Snorkelling in these waters comes with a risk of jellyfish stings, so my ‘stinger suit’ is essential equipment for discovering the wonders of the reef.
I’m at Lizard Island, way up in the northern reaches of the Barrier Reef, and my fellow passengers and I are raring to get into the water – just as soon as we’ve stopped chuckling at our stinger-suited selves. “Just remember the suits are sheer,” our expedition leader, Olivia, had warned us. “So if you don’t wear anything underneath, we’re all going to know about it.”
Visiting Lizard Island is a rare privilege. The only other people for miles around are guests at its single, exclusive resort (where rooms cost more than £1,000 per night). We, however, are here as part of a four-night voyage with Coral Expeditions, and this is to be our first opportunity to snorkel on the reef.
Lizard Island is surrounded by a belt of coral and, diving in, I’m immediately struck by the profusion of sea life it supports. Tiny damselfish dart between coral heads, while sea cucumbers hoover up detritus from the sea floor. But best of all are the dazzling, rainbow-coloured parrotfish nibbling the coral.
The shore is just as idyllic, with its white, powdery beaches. I’d walked on one of the island’s 24 such beaches this morning, before my swim, and then hiked inland to its highest point. It was to this same elevated spot that Captain James Cook climbed in 1770, trying to spy a route to safely sail through the dangerous reef. The deep-water channel that he subsequently steered through is called Cook’s Passage, and the mountain he spotted it from is known as Cook’s Look.
This was not the first time we’d followed Captain Cook’s trail on our voyage. I’m sailing on Coral’s Northern Great Barrier Reef itinerary, and our first stop after leaving Cairns was Cooktown, on the Cape York peninsula. This sleepy backwater bills itself as tropical Queensland’s most historic town, making for an interesting stay.
The town was built on the spot where Cook stopped to repair his ship, HMS Endeavour, after colliding with the reef. At the James Cook Museum, we spotted Endeavour’s anchor and rusty cannon alongside a display of indigenous and colonial artefacts. I also popped into an Aboriginal art gallery for a fascinating chat with Willie, a local elder who runs cultural tours into the hinterland. I would have loved to accompany him and learn more about his people, but a falling tide meant we had to dash or risk being stranded on the mud.
Cooktown’s diminutive pier cannot accommodate large vessels, making it advantageous to be on a smaller ship. We’re on Coral Expeditions II, one of Coral’s three-strong fleet (a fourth ship will be added in 2019). It’s a 35-metre catamaran equipped to carry 44 passengers. Its double hull provides extra deck space and enhanced stability, which makes for a comfortable on-board environment and a smooth ride through the waves.
The company’s programme covers Tasmania, Southeast Asia, the Kimberley Coast and Papua New Guinea, but Coral Expeditions II plies the Barrier Reef year-round, alternating between three- and four-day itineraries that fit into a week-long exploration of the entire reef. Generous staterooms have sea views, while the large lounge and sun deck provide a choice of spaces for relaxing. The intimate ambiance, informative lectures and visits to uncrowded, out-of-the-way spots all add up to a cruise experience that’s immersive, adventurous and fun.
Moving on from Lizard, our next stop is about as out-of-the-way as it gets. We’ve sailed south to the Ribbon Reefs, a remote and little-visited stretch that’s way beyond the reach of day trips from the coast. As a result, these coral formations are pristine. Looking down from the deck, I’m mesmerised by their incredible colours: a shimmering patchwork of cobalt and turquoise in an otherwise midnight-blue sea. There is no sign of land. It’s magical, and I can’t wait to dive in.
Coral Expeditions pioneered cruising to the outer Barrier Reef, so Coral Expeditions II is built for purpose. The ship’s design allows it to pull right up to the reef and lower its moveable platform so that divers and snorkelers have direct access to the sea. The same platform allows those who’d rather stay dry to board a glass-bottomed boat, which means everyone gets to fully experience the reef. But however we opt to view it, it’s incredible. I spot brightly-hued parrotfish, pouty-lipped butterfly fish and yellow-and-blue fusiliers – just some of the more than 1,500 fish species that inhabit the reef.
There are giant clams with fat, neon lips, and shoals of angry-looking trevally lurking ominously in deeper water. But it’s the corals themselves that steal the show: and with finger, mushroom, boulder, plate and staghorn forms to admire, they offer a fascinating array of patterns, colours and shapes.
Seeing such healthy coral is particularly rewarding after reading so much about climate change-induced bleaching. Corals thrive best within a narrow temperature band, and bleaching (an immune response to warmer-than-normal water) sees the coral polyps that build the reef expel their symbiotic algae. This drains the reef of colour but also deprives the polyps of their photosynthetic partners, without which the corals eventually die. The corals we saw were vibrant, suggesting that they can recover if conditions improve.
We stop at two Ribbon Reefs and again, further south, at gorgeous Escape Reef, with ample time at each for us to snorkel, dive, take a trip on the ‘glassy’, or do all three should we wish. The experience satisfies everyone’s coral cravings and, according to passengers who are doing back-to-back sailings, it nicely complements the three-night itinerary of mangroves, sea turtles and other inclusions, adding up to a thorough and enjoyable Barrier Reef immersion.
As we disembark in Cairns I feel elated. Seeing the Barrier Reef is a dream come true and there can’t be a better way to experience it than this. It’s just a shame I’m going to have to delete all my holiday photographs. I’ll never live it down if friends at home see me in that stinger suit.
Coral Expeditions’ four-night Barrier Reef cruise costs from $2,280 (around £1,300) per person (coralexpeditions.com). Austravel can package this with flights, transfers and eight nights in Queensland hotels from £2,889 per person (austravel.com).