Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef – Our close encounter with Sharks, Clownfish and Giant Clams

One of the undisputed highlights of our trip to Australia was the day we spent snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Here’s the story of our day swimming with exotic fish, checking out giant clams and confronting my fear of sharks.

Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef

There are so many Great Barrier Reef trips available that we spent our first day in tropical Cairns shopping around, debating which to choose. Eventually we decided to spend a bit more cash to join one of the faster boats on a day-long trip; apparently the equipment was better, we would get out to the reef quicker and we’d get to explore three top snorkelling and diving spots.

We set-sail early and sped out into the Pacific until all we could see around us was open, shimmering water. Clad in fetching stretchy stinger suits to protect us from deadly jellyfish stings we donned our masks and flippers and prepared to jump into the unknown.

Andrew in a Stinger suit Stinger Suits for Snorkeling the Barrier Reef

The Reef Shark

For as long as I can remember I’ve had an irrational fear of sharks. Yes, my fear probably does stem from watching Jaws as a child and having an over-active imagination, but every so often I’ll have a nightmare about something chasing me through the water, or become obsessed with a news report about a recent shark attack and I’ll promise myself afresh never to get into a position where I could come face-to-face with one of these terrifying beasts.

Yet, there I was in Australia, home of all manner of fierce, life-threatening creatures. I was in the middle of the ocean bracing myself to jump into the cool, deep water with nothing but a noodle for comfort and my shark-fear lurking in the depths of my unconscious.

Snorkelling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef

There was nothing for it but to jump in.

After struggling to adjust my mask and position my noodle Andrew and I were swimming off towards the coral; the water was perfectly clear and calm, so much so that you could see straight to the sandy bottom and make out each strand and spike of multi-coloured coral swaying in the currents. In fact, the water was so glassy-clear that there was no mistaking what came gliding through the forest of coral beneath us – a long, grey, pointy-nosed reef shark.

I clutched at Andrew in horror as its body slid, snake-like in an s-shape through the maze of coral, my brain struggling to catch up with my beating heart. In a second, as if it knew we were looking, the shark disappeared into the blue and we both surfaced, Andrew prying himself away from my vice-like grip and complaining that I was going to drown him.

As the immediate panic receded, to my surprise I didn’t feel the urge to swim straight back to boat, in fact, seeing the shark ultimately put me at ease; it had seemed shy and furtive, far more wary of us than we were of him. I’d come so close to a shark and nothing had happened – my irrational fear had been just that, irrational.

Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef

Later, we learnt how rare it is to see a reef shark. So many are killed by hunters who capture and hack off their fins. No longer able to swim, the sharks are left to sink to the ocean-bed where they drown, all for the imaginary benefits a dose of shark-fin soup can bestow. Our snorkelling guide explained how regularly sharks are killed and how, since they have a gestation period of a year, their numbers must be dwindling – however, they aren’t classed as endangered since there are no concrete figures of how many sharks there are in the wild.

Now, I think of that reef shark gliding gracefully through the water and feel ashamed that I could be scared of such a timid animal. Sure, I’d die of a heart-attack if I came up against a Great White, but apart from that I can confidently say that my fear of most other kinds of sharks, as well as snorkelling in deep water has disappeared.

Great Barrier Reef Fish

After that astonishing start to our snorkelling trip we swam further out into the sea, surrounded by fish so colourful and strange I couldn’t have dreamt them up if I’d tried. Some were as flat as plates, or were thin and eel-like; others had long beaks or huge misshapen heads. Flurries of electric blue, neon pinks and splashes of orange came from all directions as fish darted nimbly around, careful never to brush us as we clumsily crashed through the water. Many had elaborate markings; combinations of spots, stripes and squiggles. The biggest rusty-coloured swollen-lipped fish gathered near the rear of the boat waiting to be fed.

Great Barrier Reef Fish

Later we looked up the names of some of those fish; butterfly and angel fish, sergeant majors, coral trout and parrotfish among them. I wish we’d been able to take better pictures and video of our under-water experiences but the only disaster of the day was Andrew’s ‘waterproof’ iPhone case leaking. This broke the phone’s button and left permanent damage; it now refuses to turn off and likes to wake us up in the night to play random songs or tell us that voice dialling is unavailable. We’ll invest in an underwater camera for our next snorkelling adventure.

Sea Cucumber

In the afternoon we were taken on a reef tour; our guide retrieved, from 15 meters below, a sea cucumber for us to touch, its suckers silky soft and squirming under our fingertips. We dived down to see clownfish disappearing in and out of their anemone and spotted giant clams one and a half metres tall, almost as big as me! We were introduced to Nigel the Maori Wrass who protects that particular reef; he was blue with a black stripe along his back and a huge bulbous head and he liked to swim up to investigate the divers and snorkellers.

The Pacific Ocean

All too soon it was time to leave and exhausted, we hauled ourselves back on board for chocolate cake and the trip back to land. As we sat on the deck I marvelled at how flat and two-dimensional the water looked from above, despite all the strange and alien life that I now knew teemed beneath the surface.

snorkelling on the great barrier reef

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*Our day-trip snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef cost £120 per person; including snorkelling gear, lunch, morning and afternoon tea

  • Debbie
    Posted at 14:19h, 24 May Reply

    That sounds like an incredible day (minus the iPhone dying)! Would love to experience the GBR. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy
      Posted at 00:30h, 25 May Reply

      Hi Debbie, yes it was incredible; all we need now is a good underwater camera for the next time we snorkel!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 14:45h, 26 May Reply

    What a thrilling day this looks to have been! When we were in Borneo, we did quite a few dives where we got to see reef shark and it was so amazing to see a shark in the wild; I can’t believe you got to see one snorkeling! You are definitely lucky! I will say, though, that I don’t know that your fear of sharks is ENTIRELY irrational, though reef shark certainly are shy and seem to have little to no interest in humans; they are far more likely to slink off if they sense they are being watched or followed. But if you ever encounter a great white, I think that’s a fair time to panic!

    Sorry, that’s probably not helping, is it? 😀

    I will say, though, that the one thing that disappointed me in reading about your adventure is the bit about how at one point your guide had you all touching things in the underwater environment. That’s a HUGE no-no, as snorkeling and diving are very much passive “look but don’t touch” activities. This is the second account I’ve read of someone doing a tour of the GBR and having a guide who encouraged touching of the marine life and that makes me really sad. The GBR already has so many conservation issues that I wish more effort was put into properly educating tourists about the potential harm that can be done to marine life when we touch it!

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:25h, 27 May Reply

      Hi Steph, yes we were really lucky to see the Reef Shark, I wish we’d been quick enough (and had a good enough camera) to get a picture of it. You raise an interesting point about touching marine life; we wouldn’t have considered touching any of the animals or coral ourselves and were warned emphatically by our snorkelling guide not to do so. I think the fact that this very same guide then later picked up the sea cucumber made us think that this must be ok then, especially since he’d seemed so passionate about marine and shark conservation – we just assumed that he wouldn’t harm anything. Perhaps we should have thought about that more – thanks for pointing this out, I will certainly ask guides about it on future snorkelling trips if they attempt to do the same.

  • The Guy
    Posted at 12:40h, 27 May Reply

    Great to see you had so much fun. Cairns is a lovely spot and great to access the Barrier Reef. I took my Scuba Diving course there a few years ago and it was very enjoyable. On the advanced course we did night swimming with sharks.

    There is little need to be afraid of sharks at the Barrier Reef. The water is too warm for the dangerous sharks to come to so you are pretty safe. It is all the other stuff which you have to be careful of which is why they tell you not to touch anything. Especially the brighter the colour of the fish or creature the more dangerous it is likely to be.

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:59h, 27 May Reply

      The night swimming with sharks sounds intriguing! Learning to dive on the Barrier Reef must have been pretty incredible (but expensive) too; it seems like Australia is full of beautiful but dangerous creatures.

  • Dlmerril
    Posted at 15:37h, 30 November Reply

    Hi Amy,
    This sounds incredible! Can you tell me which tour operator you went out with? I am trying to add a trip to Cairns onto a business trip to Melbourne and only have about 36 hours to spend up there. I am trying to. Get as much groundwork done ahead of time as possible!

    • Amy
      Posted at 15:42h, 30 November Reply

      Hi, thanks for commenting, we went with Silverswift We had a great time, hope you can fit it in and have a great time. 🙂

  • Louisa Klimentos
    Posted at 03:08h, 31 October Reply

    Never go to Queensland during the monsoons ,between November and April .You may experience Terrential rain and cyclones

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