My recent trip to the Outer Great Barrier Reef with Sailaway was more than I hoped it would be.
Since 2015, I’d visited a couple of spots on the GBR which didn’t have the best coral. Not long after I then read umpteen news reports about half the reef being mass bleached to death and like many people, I feared the worst.
However it’s easy to underestimate the scope of the GBR. Whilst climate change is a real threat (as it is for all other tropical reefs globally) this natural wonder spans 2’300kms in length and I was mindful that I’d only seen two teeny backyard patches of it.
The better areas near Port Douglas (or so I’d read) were said to be on the Outer GBR which house the biggest diversity of life and quality coral. So as soon as lockdown lifted, I squeezed my post-‘Rona body into a wetsuit one-size up and sailed for two hours out into the Coral Sea.
As it turns out, I gained much more from this experience than just a few scores of good pictures- the experience completely changed my understanding and relationship with the reef.
Visiting Mackay Coral Cay on the Outer Great Barrier Reef
At Mackay Coral Cay, I saw a city of coral packed with species I’ve never seen before. Taking the shape of wild mushrooms, flowers, fingers and stocky brains, the colours were subtle pastel and earthy shades which I learnt was a sign of health- florescent colours mean the coral is stressed and may indicate the early stages of death.
Some, we were told, glowed more vibrant hues earlier on in the year when we had multiple heatwaves (if you were following my Insta stories then perhaps you remember me moaning about how stifling it was), but thankfully they’ve since recovered. I was quite surprised to learn that they could regain health so quickly.
Whilst there was some evidence of mortality at this site which I think is normal these days, the majority of coral appeared healthy. It was a relief to see.
We arrived early so it was like rush hour down there. Triggers of fish were eagerly roaming the blue streets, weaving through the soft coral or kept hidden in their little nook. Each had their own place and watching them was totally fascinating.
We spotted a great diversity of animals, from a range of tropical fish (including Nemo) to rays, green turtles, fat sea cucumbers and vibrant orange & blue stars.
The site was ideal for snorkelling as it was shallow, enabling us to access all of it. I’ve visited ones in the past that were more suited to divers as they were quite deep, but this one (I was told) was like a special coral platform.
I was impressed by the giant clams that sized up to one-meter long. They contracted as we swam over and attempted to peer inside the two openings on top. One hole allows them to breath and I could see the gills inside, whilst the other has the ability to squirt water at predators as they’re a bit, err, slow at escaping.
We saw a whole garden of these beauts on our second snorkel, although maybe I’d been staring at them too long- or there was a lack of oxygen to my head- because they started to resemble something else. 🙈
At the centre of this diverse ecosystem is Mackay Cay – which is basically an idyllic white sandy island that pokes out in the middle. There’s a few of these beauts along the Great Barrier Reef and a lot of the region’s marketing pictures are taken there.
We travelled over on a glass bottom boat and everyone shared their discoveries so far with the Marine Biologist. Only 19 of us were out that day but the atmosphere was tangible. We were all buzzing from our first snorkel and couldn’t wait to see more.
We only got to spend around 15 minutes on the island which was plenty of time as we were starving by that point! I never considered snorkelling a “sport” until today- just swimming around for an hour burns between 250-300 calories. Plus extra for squeezing into the wetsuit.
The ocean around the cay was a stunning shade of turquoise, which I haven’t yet seen in far North Queensland, and the sand was powder soft. We were told that turtles have previously come to nest on the cay and that lucky visitors were able to watch the babies crawl back to the ocean.
As we took photos and foraged for shells, the sun finally appeared and warmed us up.
We saw heaps of cone shells around which I learnt about recently after watching the whole series of ’72 Dangerous Animals: Australia’ on Netflix! The cone snail, I discovered, contains the most potent neurotoxins known to man and a sting could be potentially lethal. I think most of these were empty but I resisted picking one up to find out.
There’s a saying of the sea here : “if it’s a cone, leave it alone”.
Sailing, Snorkelling & Sustainability with Sailaway
If you’ve been following my blog then you’ll know I’ve been trying to reduce my carbon footprint this year. So one reason I chose to visit the Outer Reef with Sailaway is because they’re the most carbon-friendly operator that head there from Port Douglas.
As they mainly sail over they rely primarily on wind power, which extends travel time by about half hour longer but I think it’s a small price to pay.
Plus, I also went sunset sailing with them before lockdown and they have one super saucy boat! Let’s not cut that short.
Sailaway have received the highest level of eco-accreditation as a tour provider and it’s clear to see they have the environment at the heart of their operations. We were told about a number of reef conservation initiatives they’re involved in, like the coral nurture program and Eye on the Reef.
Passenger numbers are also low to minimise any human impact on the coral and social distancing on the big boat was easy. There were only 19 of us out on the day so we had a whole seating booth to ourselves.
Pre-Rona, Sailaway cap guest numbers at 45 but this is lower now to allow for social distancing. Other bigger operator in the area took more than double that prior to the pandemic.
On board we also had an awesome Marine Biologist called Brook who was knowledgeable, super approachable and evidently enthusiastic about her job. She definitely has the best office I’ve seen around here!
On the way over she lead a presentation which outlined what we may see and made a lot of scientific jargon accessible to everybody – I think even the kiddos could tell you what symbiosis and algae were.
Brook then lead a guided snorkel at the first site and was on hand to answer questions, challenge misconceptions, educate us on conservation, reef threats and consider ways we can support the GBR once we return home.
I definitely left feeling like a Great Barrier Reef ambassador and fully appreciating how special this place is.
How adventurous are you?
To visit the Outer Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas and Cairns, you need a relatively adventurous spirit. You’re mainly on the boat all day at the helm of the elements, so it’s lively out there!
There were two older ladies on the trip with us who had a good go at snorkelling but I don’t think my Mum would have done very well (although I do feel that Aussies are generally more adventurous than us Brits), so it depends on your nature.
If you’re really not a boat person, have mobility issues or children under 5/6 then you may prefer visiting Low Isles instead. The journey there is only 40 minutes or so and you’ll have more island time to chill and the ease of snorkelling from just off the beach. Although the coral won’t be as diverse, the older ladies we spoke to said they saw turtles and heaps of reef sharks so the animal life is there.
The boat ride on the way back was also rocky as! The staff were really good and warned us of this in advance, offering sea sickness tablets (free herbal ones, or $3 full throttle ones). I didn’t take any so I suffered a lot! Usually I don’t get sea sick and I avoided vomiting, but it felt like a long 2-hours back home. Fortunately we had lots of space so I just laid down and tried to sleep it off which helped.
May-August is the windier season here which can cause bigger swells, although outside of these months you should be sweet. Even so, the experience was worth the heavy ride back home!
Also, stopping at Hemingway Brewery for a cold beer on the return at the Marina worked wonders.
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Overall, I had an awesome experience visiting the Outer Great Barrier Reef with Sailaway, if you hadn’t guessed that already. 🙂
The staff were excellent, the spot at Mackay Cay had a whole range of marine life that kept us intrigued and the boat was a saucepot. Lunch was also pretty good considering we were on a boat! Unlike my previous experiences, having a marine biologist on board really made a difference too.
It also ignited a desire to learn to dive, which I’ve never been overly keen on in the past (despite naming my blog Travel Mermaid I’m not a natural water baby…and hail from London people!). There’s so much of the Great Barrier Reef to explore and by going deeper I’d be able to see more nooks and crannies. So watch this space!
Have you ever been inspired to start a new hobby on holiday or have you taken a PADI course in the past? Comment below and spill!
Booking Your Trip
If you’re travelling to Port Douglas and fancy having a go too, I’d recommend pre-booking your trip in advance. Currently Sailaway are not going out to the Outer GBR everyday and have reduced numbers, so it’s best to lock it in so you can plan the rest of your trip around it.
Advance bookings can be made through Get Your Guide where you can see reviews and receive free cancellation. To book or find out more deets, check out:
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My trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef was not comped and all views are my own – I pay my way so that I get the same authentic experience you do. In this article I’ve included some useful links so you can easily book your trip with Sailaway which are affiliate links, of no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Travel Mermaid.