How to Enjoy the Great Barrier Reef (when you’re a little afraid of the ocean)

Originally published on 13 August 2013. Updated August 11, 2020.

Cairns (pronounced “cans”), here we come! Cairns is in the northern-most part of Australia in the state of Queensland, Australia’s Sunshine State! As soon as we walked off the plane, we felt a wonderfully warm temperature: 26 degrees (79 degrees F)!

Flying into Cairns!

We had decided to check our bags on the flight from Sydney to Cairns because we were on a different carrier than usual (Virgin Australia), and we were unsure of bag requirements. We were quickly reminded for half an hour of why we do not like to not check bags! Oh well. We picked up our bags, grabbed a cab, and set out for Koala Court Apartments! Getting a two bedroom apartment was less expensive than a hotel, and we have SO much space!

We checked in, got a map, and out we went in search of the Esplanade. Our apartment is about a 20 minute walk from the Esplanade, or boardwalk, where most of the restaurants and shops are. There aren’t a lot of beaches in Cairns, as I anticipated there would be. Instead, it’s a “jumping off point” for excursions such as hot air ballooning, boating, train rides, rain forest adventures, helicopter rides, and of course the Great Barrier Reef!

Steve and I stopped for lunch at Barnacles Bill’s Seafood Restaurant where I tried the barramundi fish they have everywhere–it’s like tilapia–and Steve got the prawn pizza. We organized our afternoon plan of attack over lunch: Steve would go for a run and stop at the grocery, and I would go to the Cairns History Museum and plan our itinerary of excursions for the week. Ready, set, go!

Prawn Pizza at Barnacle Bill’s

The Cairns History Museum was quite interesting. There were artifacts ranging from Aboriginal culture, farm life, Bush Pilots, daily life, immigrants, sea life, etc. The city was very important in WWII, and the museum covered a lot of that. Apparently there were many naturalized Australian-Italians prior to WWII, but nearly all of them were sent out during the war. American soldiers were stationed in Cairns, and the Australian men were all quite jealous of them because they got all the girls–American soldiers were exotic and exciting! oh, that American accent!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man for whom Cairns is named!

Next stop… Excursions! I went into one of the dozens of tour offices around and spoke with an Australian girl who set me up with some great adventures! We decided to do the hot air ballon ride and ferry trip out to Fitzroy Island one day, and a train ride through the rainforest to Kuranda village the next. What fun!

Steve found me reading a sign about the culture in Cairns, and we walked back to our apartment together. The next morning was to start early at 3:30! We had to be ready for a 4:15 pickup to make our sunrise hot air balloon ride!

As predicted, morning came early! Steve and I were ready and waiting for our bus pickup at 4:15, and the driver was a sweet Japanese man who seemed intent on doing his job! We made several other stops before our driver said we’d be heading up a mountain to a small village called Mareeba, where the balloons take off.

It’s an hour’s drive! And so we began winding our way up the mountain, down a bit, up some more, through emu and kangaroo territory (road signs here really do warn of kangaroo and emu popping out onto the roads, just like deer in the States!), and round and round we went. Steve and I noticed were the only white folks on the bus, everyone else was Asian. A large portion of out busmates were from China, so our driver gave instructions in English AND Chinese!

At long last, we made it!

Ready for the ride of our lives!

The balloon ride was very serene. It’s so calming to be up high above the hustle and bustle. We saw the beautiful sunrise, fog settling over the Atherton Tablelands, islands rising above the water in the distance–it was beautiful! I think Steve liked it pretty well, too. We even saw a bunch of wallabies hopping around through the trees on the way back down! What interesting to me about hot air balloons is that they are truly guided by the wind. the pilot can make the balloon go up or down and in circles, but not in any particular direction. We did indeed land where he thought we would, though.

Any hot air balloon landing is really just a controlled crash, which I think is hilarious! This landing was smoother than the one I experienced on my balloon ride in Turkey a couple of years ago. To get into the landing position, you have to face backward, hold on to the ropes, bend your knees slightly, and prepare for impact! The pilot said on windy days, the basket sometimes tips over, but thankfully not today!

High above it all.

Next up, the ferry to Fitzroy Island!

And what a lovely ferry ride it was! The water here is a beautiful bluish-green, and you can tell by the dark spots in some places that reefs are there. The day is a beautiful one here, and made more so by the contrast of the blue sea and sky with the green of the islands between. There’s something addictive and contenting about being on the water. When we got to the island, we made a beeline for the bookings shop to pick up our snorkels and fins!

Ferry-side views

Most of the shore on Fitzroy island is not sand, but dried coral! It’s been bleached white by the sun, so from a distance it looks like sand. We found a locker to rent for the day, took only our towels to the coral shore, and in we went to brisk South Pacific!

Ready to explore!
The “beach” is made of washed up coral.

I have a great secret to confess to each and every one of you who has ever commented on my bravery when traveling… I am, and have always been, afraid of swimming in the ocean! I so wanted to go to the Great Barrier Reef, but would I be capable of mustering the courage? Could I possibly allow myself to miss this much anticipated, first-time ever opportunity? Let’s find out together, shall we?

I had intentionally avoided thinking about the possible dangers. For months I fought the urge to let my mind run away with me, but there we were on the ferry, reading through the information we were given about the day, and Steve said it: “Oh good, it’s not ray season,” meaning stingrays and other rays. Now my mind just couldn’t stop itself… There are poisonous, lethal things in and around the reef. Oh dear.

So we got our gear, found a spot to lay out our towels, and started toward to water. Steve dove right in, and there I stood, knee deep in the water, fretting! The water was cold, so I let Steve think that was the reason for my slow decent. If I admitted to anyone I was scared, I might not do it! So in I went, put my face in, and there it was: the Great Barrier Reef!

The view through a glass-bottom boat.

It’s beautiful! It’s all colors and shades of neon! It’s big. It’s small. Parts of it look like a brain. Parts of it look like intestines. Fish of all kinds glide right through it. It’s close the the surface. It doesn’t look real, but there it is! I wish I had a water proof camera, but you’ll just have to use your imagination!

You’re not supposed to touch it–and don’t worry, I didn’t! Though it’s gorgeous, fascinating, interesting and unlike anything I’d ever seen before, I truly felt respect toward it and even responsible for it. I wouldn’t have wanted to touch it even if that was allowed. It’s peaceful and serene, even with the loud colors. I wouldn’t want to disturb it, and I hope others feel the same.

After about 15 minutes of swimming around less than 10 yards from shore, I was done! My goggles kept fogging up anyway. I swam to a spot where I could sit in the water but still be on shore, took off my gear, and enjoyed the scenery from above the water for a while. Steve, who was the much more adventurous one of us today, swam over to check on me. When he saw I was fine, he decided to swim further around to see more. I’m so glad he enjoyed it so much! He told me later it was a highlight of the trip so far! We recommend it!

I confessed to him later that I am afraid of swimming in the ocean. We sat on our towels on the hard coral shore for a while, enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company. The rest of our day was spent hiking around the island, taking in views of the ocean, and taking another quick dip into the South Pacific to wash away the day’s grime.

Handy Map of Fitzroy Island
Hiking Views

Tonight we dined on pizza–seafood for Steve and Australian for me, which included “bacon,” which in American terms is thinly slices ham, tomatoes, cheese, and egg. And for my next trick–time for bed!

Aussie on the left, seafood on the right.

Tomorrow’s big adventure involves a train ride through the rainforest and potentially holding a Koala! Stay tuned!

Want more? You’ll find everything you need on my Australia Page!

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3 responses to “How to Enjoy the Great Barrier Reef (when you’re a little afraid of the ocean)”

  1. […] Swimming at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia Aquariums do not do justice to the beauty of natural coral reefs. They are not just […]

  2. […] Opera House, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, held a koala, fed a kangaroo, and swam at the Great Barrier Reef! Talk about a trip of a […]

  3. […] it justice. The coral is┬áneon! It’s stunning. I learned something about myself there, too: I’m afraid of the ocean. I should be more embarrassed of that than I am. But I can still appreciate the beauty from […]

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