Open Door Travelers
[Skip to Content]

The Travel Blog

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Image Title: Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Taking the plunge! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Taking the plunge! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: We found Nemo! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
We found Nemo! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: A stunning GIant Clam. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
A stunning GIant Clam. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Our dive boat, the Reef Encounter [Photo: Reef Encounter]
Our dive boat, the Reef Encounter [Photo: Reef Encounter]

Kshuuuup-Blublablublabubble-Kshuuuup-Blublablublabubble-Kshuuuup-Blublablublabubble. The sound of my own breathing through my regulator is the only thing I hear. The only thing I can see is the dimly lit beam of my dive light and my dive buddy’s light playing in the void.  From time-to-time I see shadows pass through the beams of light and I can sense the giant trevally fish and reef sharks frighteningly close – and they are hunting! I’m on my first night dive on the Great Barrier Reef and I have seen a hundred or more giant trevally and somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 reef sharks along with various other creatures of the night like rock crabs and lobster (called cray fish in Australia).


I’m on a three night/four day live-aboard dive boat with my wife, Diane, who is snorkeling. We left Cairns at 8:00am this morning on the Reef Experience, a day excursion boat that holds around 80 passengers, for a snorkel and dive experience on the Great Barrier Reef. About 30 nautical miles from Cairns we should arrive at the first reef and 15 of us will be transferred to the Reef Encounter live-aboard dive boat. The boat sleeps up to 40 guests, but on our trip in early March the number of guests ranges between 16 and 25 and includes newlyweds on a honeymoon, retired couples, singles, and families with young children. On the Reef Encounter, we are enjoying the perqs of having booked the Top Deck package which includes a comfortable air conditioned stateroom with a queen size bed and ensuite bathroom. The package also includes a personal dive guide/waiter/concierge/assistant, bar package and plated gourmet meals paired with wine (except for those of us doing a night dive . . . .) on the sun deck instead of the buffet served to everybody else in the lounge. For a truly jet-setting experience and a modest upcharge, you can hire a helicopter to get to and from the dive boat since it has a helipad. We could get used to this life style. Our personal guide is named Meg and she is a rock star. In addition to getting us settled into our stateroom, she will be my dive buddy for fourteen dives over the next four days.


The general program is water entries at 6:30am, [Move Boat], 8:30am, 10:30am, 1:30pm, [Move Boat], 3:30pm, and 6:30pm [Night Dive]. Divers are allowed to do four dives per day; snorkelers can do as many entries as they want; and divers are welcome to go out with snorkelers if they are not diving. Our boat is split pretty evenly between divers and snorkelers which makes Reef Encounter unique so non-divers are included in the program and not just given a snorkel to play around with while the divers dive. This is great so Diane and I can spend time in the water snorkeling together. In fact, many of the couples sharing the boat with us are only snorkeling and not diving at all. The four reefs we are going to visit over the next four days are all between 2m/6ft and 20m/60 ft deep. If you are not on the Top Deck program, divers can elect to pay $15.00 AUD for a guide or you will be buddied up with other divers. Snorkelers can also pay for a guide to show them around the reef. Just before the 10:30am water entry every day, the Reef Experience boat shows up and transfers a new crop of guests to the Reef Encounter and just after the 1:30pm water entry every day the Reef Experience boat shows up to transfer an old crop of guests off. This schedule allows guests to book as many days as they want to stay. Generally speaking, people who have only booked one night seem to be leaving the boat wanting more and people who have booked three or more nights look like they’ve seen most of what there is to see. Two nights/three days looks like a sweet spot.


Both the Reef Experience and Reef Encounter boats offer all the gear you need for snorkeling and diving, including full-body lycra stinger suits during jelly fish season from October to April. The dive gear is a little tired but well maintained. The octopus gauges include pressure in bar and computer with time and depth, although I am using my own Aqua Lung Dive Computer. Both boats also have full-time underwater photographers with professional dive cameras and strobes to capture your experience. I am also using my Nikon W300 underwater camera and my GoPro to capture my own images and video. Divers can elect to take SSI Scuba courses from beginning to advanced while on the boat and snorkelers can take a one-time introductory Scuba dive. Like any dive boat, it’s important for divers to make sure to inspect their gear and verify that they have a full tank – every dive. With so many divers coming and going on different schedules, the boat has a procedure for checking divers in and out of the water (shudder . . . Open Water Movie) and for checking tanks as full or empty. Even with the checking procedures it’s still very easy for a minor distraction to result in an unfilled tank being strapped on for a second dive that won’t end well. Similarly, complacency is the arch enemy of divers on a live aboard dive boat – Always remember to do Buddy checks for every diver on every dive.


The individual reefs that we are diving; Saxon Reef, Norman Reef, Hastings Reef, and Michaelmas Reef, are roughly strung together over a 10 nautical mile section of the 1,200 nautical mile Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest coral reef eco system in the world and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Great Barrier Reef has: 1,500 species of fish, 125 species of shark, 3,000 species of mollusks (shells) including giant clams, 215 species of birds, 400 species of coral, and of course . . . . Nemo. This magnificent display of bio-diversity is managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA, colloquially referred to as Grandpa). GBRMPA enforces strict laws regarding fishing, anchoring, researching, and diving the Great Barrier Reef. It also collects a tourism tax from tourist concessions and protects the annual $3 Billion AUD tourist industry.


The reef dives are . . . [just fill in the blank with your own superlative adjectives]. Truly, its hard to describe the bounty and diversity of marine life. To be fair, the visibility of around 10m/30ft this week because of recent cyclones is not quite up to Great Barrier Reef standards, but even snorkeling from the surface it’s easy to see giant clams, turtles, wrasse – including Frank the Napoleon Wrasse that thinks he’s a Black Lab - sharks, and . . . . Nemo. The coral species are breathtaking: Stag Coral, Brain Coral, Spaghetti Coral, Finger Coral, Mushroom Coral, Fan Coral, and many, many others in a rainbow of colors. Divers are also rewarded with an artist’s palate of fish busily darting in and out of coral caves and crevices. The dives are all shallow, the deepest I will see over fourteen dives is 17m/51ft with average depths around 8m/24ft. The general protocol on Reef Encounter is 40-minute day dives and 30-minute night dives which are strictly kept to 10m/30ft maximum depth. The water temperature of 29C/84F means that wet suits aren’t needed.


It’s now three days later and the dive boat has moved full circle back to Saxon Reef. I am gearing up for my last dive before transferring to the Reef Experience boat for the trip back to Cairns. As I strap on my BCD, Meg comes up to me with a big grin to tell me that she has arranged a ride in the inflatable tender out to a part of the reef that doesn’t get dived as often, because it’s too far away from the anchorage at the edge of the reef. Remember I said she was a rock star? So we climb into the tender and motor about 300m/300yds away from the Reef Encounter. The driver stops the boat and SPLASH, we simultaneously roll backward off the sides into the water and one more time, the only sounds I hear are of my own breathing through my regulator. We see all the usual suspects of coral and turtles and sharks and . . . . Nemo.  As a special treat, Meg leads me through coral canyon to a 10m/30ft tree trunk lodged between two reef sections and we pull up a seat to just look around. How surreal for a whole tree to drift 30 nautical miles out to sea and come to rest on the Great Barrier Reef so that we can have an underwater, front-row seat to enjoy the show.  Cool.




[Disclosure: No goods or services were received for preparation of this article.]