You can’t go to the Great Barrier Reef and not get wet. One of Australia's most beautiful highlights, it's the perfect place for snorkelling virgins to find their flippers
I’ve never been very good with water. I love looking at it but the sheer power of the open sea scares the hell out of me. Before I went to Australia, I was adamant I wouldn’t set foot in the ocean. I mean, you’ve got no idea what’s circling beneath you and – being the lucky soul that I am – it would be so typical for me to get ripped to bits by a shark.
The Great Barrier Reef was enough to change my mind, though. Not only is it one of the world’s most beautiful places but it’s actually alive. It’s just a shame all the best bits are underwater. Still, I was determined to see the reef for myself so signed up for a day trip from Cairns. Not only would our little catamaran take me within touching distance of the coral, but I was going to go the whole hog and lose my snorkelling V-plates, too.
As we chugged out of the harbour, I watched the dry land disappear. It was a beautiful day and in between soaking up the area’s natural beauty, I listened to the facts and figures being thrown at us by the crew. I couldn’t accept that the reef is actually bigger than the whole of the UK and made up of around 3,000 ‘clumps’. And I never knew how sensitive the coral could be either – just one touch from a careless human could kill off a massive chunk.
With this knowledge resonating around my head, it’s no surprise that by the time we reached our first stop – Michaelmas Cay – my stomach was doing backflips. The catamaran came to a halt just off a sandy beach and small dinghies were soon powering hordes of people over to the island. Armed with my prescription goggles and mask, my shivering, bikini-clad self soon joined them.
After a little safety briefing, I was assured that the Cay was a great place for first-time snorkellers because the water wasn’t deep. All I needed to do was put on the mask, stick my head under the water and breathe normally. Biting my lip, I looked round at my fellow passengers. They had already spread out and were splashing around in the water, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ whenever they resurfaced. Even the kids seemed to have it down to a fine art, so how difficult could it possibly be?
Tightening my mask and goggles, I practised my breathing. OK, I’d been doing it for 24 years without a hitch but this was different. I knew I had to bite down on the mouthpiece as I breathed and although it felt strange, I was glad to find I could do it. Bravely, I waded out into the warm water and bobbed up and down a bit at shoulder level. So far, so good. The water wasn’t deep enough for sharks (one less thing to worry about) and so clear that I could see the silhouettes of brightly-coloured creatures darting around beneath my feet.
Keen to see more, I breathed deeply and dunked my head under the water. This was it. My first snorkelling attempt would almost have been impressive if (a) I hadn’t held my breath and (b) I had opened my eyes. My brain knows you’re not supposed to do either under the water – it’s just not natural – so it must have gone into automatic override. This was going to be harder than I thought.
Desperate to succeed, I kept trying but often emerged frustrated, panicky and gasping for air. I was also alarmed to see how quickly my goggles filled with water and convinced myself that I’d kicked the coral to death on more than one occasion. Maybe snorkelling just wasn’t for me.
I was about to throw in the towel and head back to shore when it happened. I’d gone under for what felt like my hundredth attempt and found that I could see perfectly well. More’s to the point, I was breathing comfortably like a real-life amphibian. I resurfaced, puzzled. Did that really just happen? I dipped my face under the water again and, sure enough, found myself in the bizarre watery world once again. It was like opening the door to Narnia.
Concentrating on my breathing, I looked around in amazement. Shoals of fish danced around me and with every wave, the huge pieces of coral seemed to inhale and exhale with almost as much precision as me. It was incredible – so real, yet unreal. I was so unprepared for the whole thing that I felt like I’d been thrown into a giant fish tank. I had literally discovered a whole new world, and very pleased with myself I was, too.
Once I’d mastered the art of snorkelling, I could quite happily have stayed out on the Cay all day. But as part of my trip, we had one more stop to make and that would be the real test – snorkelling directly off the stern of the boat.
I was almost bursting with excitement by the time we got to Paradise Reef. I was still a little apprehensive – after all, we were in much deeper water now – but I was quietly confident that I’d be OK. After clinging to the catamaran ropes for a while and getting used to the water, I felt brave enough to let go. Soon, after a deep breath, I was off again, face buried happily in the ocean.
Here, the amount of animals was almost breathtaking and miraculously, it wasn’t long before I’d found a sea turtle to follow. He didn’t move very fast but that was fine by me – it was a privilege to be able to trail behind.
I’m pleased to report that I didn’t think about sharks once while I was in the sea that day. I was far too distracted by the beauty of the reef and besides, research shows they prefer much deeper water anyway. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Trips to the reef
Passions of Paradise in Cairns organises day trips to the reef from $125-$129, plus wetsuit hire ($7), reef levy ($10) and prescription mask hire ($10).
Where to stay
Bohemia Central: a relaxed hostel in the centre of Cairns, just a stone's throw from all its main attractions. It has a wide range of rooms on offer, an achingly hip bar area and a mini travel agency that offers almost every excursion you can think of, from boat trips to hot air ballooning.
Gilligan's Backpacker Hotel and Resort: this resort-style complex is the Ritz of all hostels. It is renowned for being a bit of a party place and offers a wide range of rooms that cater for everyone from budget backpackers to three-star travellers. You won't fail to be impressed by the resort's enormous 1,000-seater beer hall.