The Great Barrier Reef

Sea cucumber

Last weekend, we took a spontaneous trip up to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef, the “GBR”.  My dear friend Joyce (our first visitor from America!) had spent the preceding week with us as part of her 3 month world tour / planned job hiatus.  We’d had a fantastic time showing her around — the beaches, the (blue) mountains, the zoo, the restaurants — but she was planning on continuing her Australian adventure with a few days in Cairns (a place both she and my husband had a very hard time pronouncing). The friend she was hoping to explore Cairns with cancelled last minute and it seemed a shame to let her visit the GBR alone. So Thursday evening, we booked flights leaving for Cairns early Saturday morning and returning Sunday night.

Cairns and SydneyCairns is a three hour flight from Sydney.  We set our alarms for 430am (a time I would have considered ungodly early until recently — yeah that’s what Sydney will do to you) and were out the door at 510.  The airport was buzzing and the excitement was starting to course through our veins. We were going to see the Great Barrier Reef!  As we split a ham & cheese croissant at Sydney airport, we laughed at the last time we’d taken such a spontaneous trip — nearly 7 years ago when we were living in London.

Sydney is no London when it comes to accessing glamorous European destinations in a weekend, but the airport sure helps make up for it. We didn’t even have to bring ID!  I’ll repeat that because it’s so awesome: all you need for a domestic flight in Australia is your boarding pass. No more “remove your liquids”, “remove your shoes”. We’d checked in online and breezed through to our gate in 10 minutes. The plane spat us out at Cairns airport at 930am and, by 10am, we were walking around the CBD.

Cairns’ central business district consists of a mix of large and small streets with a ton of restaurants, cafés, bars and hostels.  It oozes that beach town vibe but it isn’t packed, at least not at this time of the year, not like Bondi Beach.  From the CBD, it’s a 10 minute walk to the water where a lot of the larger resort style hotels have set up shop.  Joyce was staying at a hostel and in the spirit of keeping it real, we’d decided to hostel it too. Before you conjure up images of 8 people packed in bunk beds with one bathroom, our hostel, Northern Greenhouse turned out to be awesome and we had our own room and (most importantly!) our own bathroom.

We grabbed some breakfast, a walkabout and a much needed power minute nap, we headed to the pier with Joyce to catch our ride to Green Island. Green Island is a coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef with island rainforests and white sand beaches. We’d picked one of the many half day packages offered from Cairns and set sail at 1230. By 1.15pm we were changing into our gear and getting ready to jump into the water.

Green Island
Green Island
Our first look at Green Island
Our first look at Green Island

Hundreds of fish less than 2 metres from the shore! Some of the highlights were the pointy nose blue gar fish, a humongous sea cucumber that had anchored itself to the sea bed, and a giant school of silver fish that encircled us in a continuous and rapidly moving line whenever we came close. I wish we knew the names of everything we saw. We snorkelled in a few different spots and saw some awesome fish but Green Island was a tad crowded in the end. I was surprised to see so many tourists from China, most with large families. Many of the signs and menus had translations in Chinese.

We got back to Cairns by around 430pm and after a shower and a rest, headed over to Fettas for dinner.  I love all kinds of Mediterranean food and had spotted this little gem on our walk in town. We wouldn’t have committed to going there, however, had it not been for Joyce’s success in getting the lowdown on Cairns from a group of local lads.

Fettas was amazing. It was quite possibly the best Greek food I’ve ever had. All three of us got the banquet which meant we’d get to try a little bit of everything and, most importantly, wouldn’t have to make any decisions (big win). The belly dancer and plate breaking (I counted at least six) only added to the fun.

After dinner, we headed over to Gilligan’s, the place we’d gotten the most reccs for as the not-to-be-missed part of a trip to Cairns. I’m not sure how to describe Gilligan’s.  It’s technically part of a hostel but it’s really a gigantic indoor / outdoor club…

Before you judge it though, let me tell you it’s super fun and completely unpretentious. People were gathered along long communal benches and a cover band was playing a mix of 80s rock and top 40s. We kept telling ourselves we’d leave and call it an early night but we ended spending the next few hours dancing to the perfect 80s mix. Interestingly, the dance floor never got too crazy. Is it possible the 80s were lost on this younger crowd? Eek!

The next morning, we awoke bright and early for our ride to the Outer Reefs. We were going to hit up three sites and see the actual GBR. We packed up and went back to Macaron cafe, the lovely French place we’d eaten at the day before and put away some delicious croissants and quiches before heading to the pier.

There were 50 odd people on board, a mix of snorkelers and divers, and the tour was very structured. A fantastic guide gave us an overview of the types of marine life we’d see. We were also fitted with “stinger suits” — lycra suits that were meant to protect us from sunburn and from blue jellyfish, also known as “blueys”. A friend had warned us that on an earlier trip to the GBR, she’d been stung by a bluey on her FACE. Wtf!

The hour it took us to get out to the reef flew by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to jump in the water. The fish were huge and would come right up to the boat for food. We’d been instructed to look out for Nigel, a giant blue parrotfish who’d been domesticated by the boat’s photographer and was always willing to pose for a good shot.

Swimming with Nigel
Swimming with Nigel

The coral was amazing and endless and took on all kinds of forms. Our guide had told us that coral nomenclature was fairly straightforward — e.g. looks like a boulder? It’s called boulder coral. Looks like a brain? It’s called brain coral. And so on.

We had lunch after jumping in at the second site and tea after the third site. We also went on a 30 minute snorkelling tour with the guide who dove down to retrieve and show us various types of sea cucumber. He also led us to a giant sea turtle!  Swimming with that massive creature was just incredible.

Giant sea turtle
Giant sea turtle

We also finally got to see “Nemo”, which had been hard till now because clown fish typically hide in a stinging anemone that they alone are immune to.

Clown Fish
Finding Nemo

After the tour, Joyce and I wandered off for a last bit of snorkelling. On our way back to the boat, I spotted a nurse shark! We chased him for a while and got a few pics, but he eventually out-swam me and disappeared into the deeps.

By the time our boat pulled back in to Cairns, it was 430pm. We were exhausted and my hair was a giant, salty, dried out mess. We got back onto the pier, found the cab we’d booked and headed back to Cairns airport for our 6pm flight to Sydney.  What an amazing weekend!

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