Home Travel BlogAustralia Travel Blog What you need to know about snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef

What you need to know about snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef

by Silke Elzner

It is an early start for us the day we board a boat to explore the famous and breathtakingly beautiful Great Barrier Reef. Boarding a boat of Seastar Cruises at 7.30am we are excited of the full day ahead at sea, which includes snorkelling not just off Michaelmas Cay but also Hastings Reef.

Seastar proves ideal for us. Not just are we to see two destinations in a day, we also appreciate the small group size of guests, no more than 35.

Seastar Cruises

We are greeted by the young and friendly crew and speed off to Michaelmas Cay while enjoying some breakfast on board. The weather is perfect for an adventure like this – warm and mostly sunny. A ride on the bow of the ship with the salty sea spraying your face… what better way to start the day?

Our first destination, Michaelmas Cay, about the distance across the English channel, is the largest uninhabited coral cay in the region and a sanctuary for around 35 species of sea birds. When we arrive we are instantly greated by birds of all sizes and colours. Curiously they fly over the boat, scanning with their eyes the activity on board, while everybody is getting ready for their snorkelling experience. For some of us, this is the first time they try snorkelling, so floating vests and noodles are handed out to those less confident.

We all need to put on stinger suits, a protective full-body suit with hood and mittens to ensure we are not accidentally killed by a venomous jellyfish. This is Australia, after all, and everything around you can potentially kill you.

Snorkelling off Michaelmas Cay

Michaelmas Cay

Snorkellers returning

With a small glass bottom boat which is permanently moored off-shore the cay we are being transferred over to Michaelmas Cay. The island is a nature reserve, and only a small stretch of the beach is open to the public. Trespass the limits, and the authorities will take a lovely snapshot of you and fine you later.

With hundreds of birds looking on we waddle backwards into the warm waters of the sea, and then on to the reefs and corals.

Birds on Michaelmas Cay

Underwater fun

Hello fish!

We follow a guide from the crew who is pointing out the best sights while we are slowly swimming back to the boat. There’s hundreds of fish right under our bodies, big and small, black and in all colours of the rainbow. The corals are not less spectacular, some of them popping out in bright violets or yellows.

The guide dives for a giant sea cucumber and takes it up to the surface for us to touch. It’s spiky and hard-shelled, yet soft and spineless on the inside. We also come across a giant clam. We learn that these clams are ancient. It takes them 200 to 250 years to get to the size that we see in front of us. They are enormous. They will continue to grow until they outgrow their shell, which will be their death sentence.

When touching, they close slowly. It’s awe-inspiring.

There are not many tour companies allowed to moor at Michaelmas Cay, and Seastar is the first of the day. It’s only when we are about to leave that another boat arrives.

Various fishes

Touching a big sea cucumber

Ground dweller

Corals in the Great Barrier Reef

Yellow fish

Blue fish

Blue coral

200 year old clam


Exploring the reef


Another boat

Returning to the boat we get rid of our stinger suits and hang them up for later use. Once out of the water the suits heat you up very quickly, you feel as if you cannot breathe. Suddenly, the sun seems too hot. We are dehydrated and sweaty. The short swim back to the board appears more strenuous than expected.

It’s time for lunch, a mix of salads and platters of cold meats. There’s a good variety but suddenly the thought of food is less appealing. The boat is still anchored close to the cay but it’s not protected from the swell. Every couple of minutes or so we are swinging this way or that, to the dismay of our sense of balance. Nausea sets in, and it’s not just us who are felled like trees, pretty much everybody around us is affected with the exception of the crew. Sea sick tablets are distributed and popped like candy.

Despite this little setback we are all in good spirits. The scenery around us is lovely, the water bright blue and iridescent, the cay a stretch of sunny sand. Sitting on the bow of the boat you can watch the fish in the water without even getting wet.

After lunch we take the boat to our second and last destination of the day, Hastings Reef. This is an outer reef location, undisturbed by water that would be coming from the mainland rivers and streams. It’s old, and healthy, with lots of colourful fish and corals.

Still not back to our formal selves we skip this opportunity to snorkel in the water but watch the divers instead that safely explore the areas around the boat with their instructor. With Seastar you can try your very first dive, and I don’t think you will find a much better location than Hastings Reef.

You can sense that the area is teeming with life. In the distance there’s the familiar shape of a turtle surfacing. We feel very blessed to witness this, not sorry at all to pass on the snorkelling experience even though some guests report that they have seen Nemo somewhere out there.

Instead, we are boarding the second glass bottom boat that Seastar have moored out on the reef, a great way of exploring the wonders underneath you without actually getting wet. A guide and skipper does a great job of showing us around, explaining some details along the way. Unfortunately for me, the rolling of the small boat does me no favours and I am battling the worst sea sickness I have ever encountered. Back on the bigger boat I finally accept the sea sick medication and crawl into a corner to wait for better times.

Aboard the glass bottom boat

Peeking through the glass bottom

It’s already the afternoon and time to head home. There’s now beer on board and afternoon tea. We are salty and sweaty and exhausted, but full of great impressions that will be the start of wonderful memories. Heading back to Cairns I find a spot on the bow of the ship from which I can see the green stretch of the tropical forests and the first buildings of the city.

A fantastic experience that is highly recommended, but I urge you to take some preventative medicine before boarding the ship. You can buy sea sickness tables on board, but there are cheaper options in the shops on land. It will make for a much better and worry-free experience if you don’t get distracted by nausea all the time (and rest assured we had calm seas on that day).

Equipment provided is good quality, so there is no need to pack your own gear, and the crew did a really good job at explaining safety procedures and the itinerary.

The Great Barrier Reef is a wonderful snorkelling destination and should be on everybody’s to-do list when visiting the tropical north of Queensland. I wouldn’t recommend the tour for kids as I found it quite strenuous but for everybody else there were plenty of opportunities to discover the beauty of the reefs and the animals.

Thanks again to the crew of Seastar Cruises for making this an unforgettable experience.

Seastar Cruises, Cairns. $175/adult plus fees and levies. Diving not included and optional. http://www.seastarcruises.com.au

Returning to sunny Cairns after a full day on the water

Approaching Cairns