What to Expect on an Outer Great Barrier Reef Trip

Australia & South Pacific

Scuba divers passing through colourful tropical coral reef with fishes, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

It’s a rare list of Australia’s “must-sees” that doesn’t put Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef somewhere near the top. The world’s largest underwater wonder, the reef supports more than 1,500 species of fish, 30 species of marine mammal, 411 types of hard coral, and a third of the world’s soft corals, creating an ecosystem unmatched anywhere else underwater.

Stretching from Australia’s northernmost point in Torres Strait to Fraser Island, just a couple of hours north of Brisbane, the reef isn’t a difficult addition to a Queensland coastal itinerary. Not all sections of the reef are equally accessible to visitors however. There are definitely some points where tourism is better developed, and perhaps most importantly, better equipped to let visitors experience the reef without further damaging this natural treasure, already fighting for its survival.

While reports of the Great Barrier Reef’s death have been exaggerated, there’s no denying the challenges this delicate ecosystem faces, both from direct human interference including pollution and resource extraction – both on land and at sea, and more from insidious forces such as sea temperatures elevated by climate change. Between 1998 and 2017, alarmingly frequent mass coral bleaching events threatened large sections of the Great Barrier Reef, and the fight continues to stabilize water conditions for reef life as much as possible.

Great Barrier Reef coral subjected to warmer sea temperatures in 2016 causing a mass coral bleaching event, Australia
Despite mass coral bleaching, efforts to stabilize and restore the Great Barrier Reef are beginning to take effect.

Understanding these threats is part of appreciating the reef’s beauty and fragility, but the narrative isn’t all doom and gloom. The Great Barrier Reef possesses a remarkable natural resilience, and many local tourism operators give back to the reef by taking an active role in its restoration and preservation. Among these is Quicksilver Cruises, operating out of Cairns and Port Douglas. Quicksilver commissioned its Reef Restoration Research Project in response to cyclone damage that affected a patch of reef close to its pontoon. With the installation of several mesh structures, one of which receives a gentle electrical current to test the potential for stimulating coral regrowth, the project aims to strengthen coral gardens devastated by increasingly aggressive storm activity.

That pontoon is our destination on Quicksilver’s Outer Reef cruise, which includes transport to Agincourt Reef, lunch, and access to a variety of activities over 3.5 hours of free time. Snorkelling is the obvious inclusion, but passengers also have access to a semi-submersible submarine ride through the reef, an underwater viewing platform, and at extra cost, diving, guided snorkelling, an ocean floor helmet dive, and helicopter rides over the surrounding reef.

Suggested Day Tour: 
Cairns: Outer Barrier Reef Cruise Full Day Tour

Gate to Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia
Port Douglas: Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

A cruise on Quicksilver’s flagship Wavepiercer isn’t exactly a boutique experience, with room for up to 240 passengers. But while we do feel a bit anonymous, the friendliness of Quicksilver’s staff can’t be faulted, nor their level of organization. After 40 years in business, they’ve got a day on the reef down to a fine art. After prompt pickup from our hotel in Cairns, we’re taken to Port Douglas, where Wavepiercer is moored. But the vessel’s sturdy design, optimized to reduce carbon emissions, ensures a smooth and comfortable journey.

It’s a 90-minute trip out to the reef, allowing plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with the layout of Quicksilver’s pontoon and the activities on offer. A small morning tea is included. We pass on the diving, guided snorkelling, and helicopter upgrades, but do make our way immediately to the semi-submersible sub to beat any potential queue. Strictly necessary? Perhaps not, since the line-up doesn’t seem to get especially long throughout the day. It does however offer a fantastic introduction to the reef before getting out to explore on our own. Having one of the reef’s famous green turtles glide gracefully by makes me wonder how close the animals will get to curious snorkellers.

Green Turtle rubs shell against coral to polish and clean itself, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
A green turtle rubs shell against coral to polish and clean itself

A buffet lunch is provided on the pontoon, with a good range of vegetarian along with meat options to suit most palates. Afterwards, we leave our valuables secured in a storage area, and take a quick tour of the underwater viewing platform. To be honest, the windows here offer only a view of the area closest to the pontoon, which doesn’t do the reef justice, but it’s a good spot to familiarize ourselves with the local fish and digest lunch before donning our wetsuits.

No need to worry about the pontoon not having your size. There’s plenty to go round, including flippers, sterilized snorkels, and goggles including prescription options. Feeling svelte and sun-protected, it’s time to hit the water.

This is really what a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef is all about on an Australia vacation. Explore this underwater marvel at your own pace, as schools of colourful fish swim around you just above the coral gardens they call home. Waterproof cameras are available for hire if you’re a serious shutterbug, but there’s also something to be said for just being in the moment, exploring this underwater world. The section of reef designated for snorkelling is large enough to accommodate everyone without feeling overcrowded. Confident swimmers however will want to get well clear of the pontoon to see the most impressive corals and colours.

Snorkelling at Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Snorkelling on Agincourt Reef at the Great Barrier Reef

Whether you opt to ditch the buoyancy vest or not depends on both your swimming strength and how deep you plan on going. One huge benefit to keeping it is the ability to paddle face-down on the surface, enjoying a mostly uninterrupted show. We’d planned to return ours to the pontoon and return for a deeper excursion, but ultimately felt no need. Clear, shallow waters allow us to admire an awesome variety of creatures and coral, and while the divers gliding beneath us no doubt saw more, this surface approach let us focus on nature rather than little concerns like having to stay afloat or timing our breath.

What you see on any given day on the reef will vary, but a pair of bright purple giant clams, some small rays, and an astonishing variety of tropical fish all make this hour-plus of our trip worth the long boat ride. It’s also more tiring than you’d think, and many passengers enjoy a nap on Wavepiercer’s smooth ride back to Port Douglas. If you’re visiting in the winter months though, look sharp. It’s not unusual to spot dolphins or even migrating whales in the open waters.

Quicksilver Cruises operates trips to the Agincourt Reef year round from Port Douglas, with coach transfers available from hotels throughout Cairns and Port Douglas.

Cairns Esplanade at Night, Queensland, Australia
Cairns’ esplanade at night

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