Colossal clams, colourful coral, dreamy cays and rays – my recent trip to the Outer Great Barrier Reef with Sailaway was more than I hoped it would be.
I’ve visited a couple of spots since 2015 that had degraded coral and read umpteen news reports about half the reef being mass bleached to death, which made it easy to believe the worst. But equally it’s easy to underestimate the scope of the GBR. There are over 3’000 reef systems here and I was mindful that I’d only seen two sites. I’m no mathematician, but I’d say that leaves a lot more reef to explore [cue British sarcasm].
The better areas near Port Douglas (or so I’d read) were said to be on the Outer GBR which hold the biggest diversity of life and quality coral. So as soon as lockdown lifted, I squeezed my post-‘Rona body into a wetsuit that was a size up and sailed for two hours into the Coral Sea.
Visiting Mackay Coral Cay on the Outer Great Barrier Reef
Mackay Cay put my faith back in the Great Barrier Reef. 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.
Whilst there was some some evidence of mortality at this site which I think is normal these days, the majority of coral was 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 floating around me at crossings sending me into a trance. Each had a 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 you to see all of down below. 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 surprisingly impressed by the giant clams that were up to 1 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 along the Great Barrier Reef and a lot of the region’s marketing pictures are taken on them as they appear remote and pristine.
We travelled there on a glass bottom boat and everyone spoke about 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! I’d 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 and I’d just recently watched the full 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 didn’t pick them up to find out, remembering the saying of the sea : “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. Having an expert on board really enhanced our experience. Not only were our misconceptions challenged, but we were educated about the reef which made our experience more impactful.
Passenger numbers are also low to minimise any human impact on the reef, capping guests to 45 (although this was pre-Rona so it may be less now). Some bigger operators in the area take more than double that.
I left our trip fully appreciating how special the Great Barrier Reef is and Mackay Cay offered some of the best snorkelling I’ve experienced.
I’ve never been overly keen to learn how to dive (despite naming my blog Travel Mermaid I’m not a natural water baby…and hail from London people!) but it ignited an obsession to take a PADI course and learn more about the underwater world. So, watch this space!
However I do think you need a relatively adventurous spirit to visit the Outer GBR from Port Douglas or Cairns. You’re mainly on the boat all day at the helm of the elements, so it’s lively! There were two older ladies on the trip with us who had a good go but I don’t think my Mum would have done very well, 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 reef 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.
Even better if…
Like anything great, it can always be greater. On out trip, I felt it would have been even better if…
~ We visited a different site for our second snorkel. Our boat did move a bit further along the Cay to a place called ‘Clam Gardens’ which housed a pretty neat collection of clams (as it’s name would suggest). But I didn’t feel that the coral or diversity of animal life was as varied as the first site and the website gave the impression that we’d also be visiting Undine Cay.
~ Also, at no fault of Sailaway, the boat ride on the way back was 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), but I suffered a lot.
Usually I don’t get sea sick and thankfully I was spared, although it was a long 2-hours back home. We had lots of space so I just laid down and tried to sleep it off which helped.
It’s the wind season here from May-August which caused bigger swells, so outside of these months you should be sweet. Otherwise if you’re really bad for motion sickness then there’s another highly rated operator that visits Mackay Cay from Cape Tribulation (Ocean Safari) which will drastically shorten your journey time.
When To Go & Booking Your Trip
The reef is accessible all year round but there’s a few seasons here you may want to be aware of.
Wet Season ~ November to April
This is also the tropical “summer” so temperatures will be higher during this time, which makes the water a dream but it’s stinger season too! But don’t worry, Sailaway provide a stinger suit for the trip to cover you up in the water.
The rain doesn’t usually hit until late December/January to around March/April and tropical cyclones occasionally occur, but otherwise the ocean is typically calm. Even on a non-sunny day the visibility should be great, as was the case with us.
Dry Season ~ May to October
These are the cooler months so you may prefer a half wetsuit (particularly from June to August), and Sailaway provide these also. Marine stingers aren’t around during this time but the swell pumps up a little due to the trade winds.
Booking Your Great Barrier Reef Trip With Sailaway
I’d recommend booking your tour in advance 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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Otherwise, see what other awesome things you can get up to in Port Douglas with my guide.
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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.