The Sunshine State could well be called the water state given its penchant for fun in, on and around the ocean.
We’re cruising along the outer fringes of the Great Barrier Reef, about 60km offshore from Cooktown after launching from Lizard Island (a short flight from Cairns), searching for the Coral Sea’s most gregarious creature: dwarf minke whales. They were first discovered at the Reef in the 1980s, making them one of the latest animal species studied in the world’s oceans. The Great Barrier Reef is also the world’s only known dwarf minke whale aggregation point and the only place you can swim with them.
Nothing can prepare you for meeting dwarf minke whales – no other creature in the sea embraces ‘the human encounter’ with such gusto. The longest encounter Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has had with these inquisitive creatures is 10 hours – the average is 90 minutes. I’m on a liveaboard dive boat cruise, which operates June to July when the whales frequent this section of the Reef.
When we first see the whales, I’m fed out along a line dragged behind the boat as 'bait'. Within seconds, there are whales on every side of me as I keep my head under with mask and snorkel on. They're so close I can look right into their eyes. For two hours, I swim like this; eventually it’s me who has to break contact. When I’m back on the boat, they continue to swim past, coaxing me to get back in. The other passengers and I are silent – speechless after our incredible experience.
While this may be the pinnacle of all marine animal encounters, the Great Barrier Reef offers many wild animal experiences along 2,900 individual reefs. On a snorkelling excursion from Heron Island, in the southern reaches of the Reef, 80km northeast of Gladstone, I’m only in the boat for 30 seconds before my guide is urging me to get in the water. There’s four 2m-long manta rays gliding by the boat, and for the next 30 minutes I get to swim in their wake as they feed. Winter is the peak time for manta rays in the area.
As one of only 90 fully vegetated coral cays on the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is part of the reef system, meaning marine creatures come right to you. “We’re part of the Reef; we’re actually in the ocean,” says Sarah Keltie, Heron Island Resort’s former naturalist on a morning walk around the island. “Oh, how could you be so cute?” she asks two baby shovel-nosed sharks that swim by. “Look,” she shouts at me as a baby black-tip reef shark swims past in clear water by our feet. “You’re a big girl, aren’t you,” she calls out to a passing 1.5m-long reef shark. At night, I walk to Heron Island’s small jetty to watch green turtles swim under the lights.
At over 2,300km long, the Great Barrier Reef can be accessed from many major towns in Queensland – you don't have to stay on an island or take overnight boat trips. From Cairns, you could take a fast catamaran to a permanently moored pontoon with Sunlover Reef Cruises and enjoy snorkelling, diving, swimming or glass-bottom boat rides across the outer Great Barrier Reef, as well as the onboard waterslide and underwater observatory.
Or take a day cruise from Port Douglas to the outer Reef, visiting three snorkelling and dive sites with Calypso Reef Cruises. There are few places on the planet that offer the experiences available within the Great Barrier Reef. At Reefsleep, I take a two-hour journey by high-speed catamaran from Airlie Beach to a pontoon floating on the outer reaches of the Reef, where I sleep out in a swag under the stars.
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There are also locations along the Reef that are home to Australia’s most luxurious 5-star resorts and restaurants, including qualia on Hamilton Island and Niramaya Villas and Spa on in Port Douglas – their restaurant, Chapter One, is one of the most awarded restaurants in North Queensland.
For something truly indulgent, Lizard Island Resort has long been the domain of visiting celebrities and is only accessible by propeller plane from Cairns. Along with the 5-star cuisine and its stunning villas with floor-to-ceiling windows built metres from the beach, some of my favourite times spent on Lizard Island have been visiting the research station on the opposite side of the island and spending time with some of the world’s leading marine scientists.
It’s an intimate way to be part of the conservation efforts in place to preserve the Great Barrier Reef, while living it up on one of the world’s most exclusive island retreats. All visitors to the Reef play a part as an Environmental Management Charge collected by most Reef tour operators goes towards research to help keep the Great Barrier Reef healthy for future generations to enjoy. Just by visiting, you get to play a role in protecting and advocating for the treasures of the Reef.
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