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Reefs in Australia


My mom is leaving for a trip to Australia in a few weeks, something she has dreamed about for a long time. She was planning to go to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling, but has been hearing that it is in rough shape right now. I was hoping to help her out by asking:
1) Has anybody been to the Great Barrier Reef lately that can confirm the state of the reef?
2) If it is true that the Great Barrier Reef is not a good destination right now, are there other reef areas that could be a good substitute?

Also, one other random question: she does not use a smartphone (therefore not worth paying for a whole international cell plan since she wouldn't be using the data or anything), but would like to have the way to make a phone call or two over there. Any tips on the options available in Australia? Would a calling card/using the hotel phone be the best bet?

Thanks a bunch!

Posted by
5756 posts

Can't help you with the smartphone question, but I have been to the Great Barrier Reef (about 2 years ago) and can offer a qualified opinion on that...

It is true that the GBR has been suffering a bit from...well, a combination of things: 1) being "loved to death" by tourists (like any other mass tourist destination in the world, from Stonehenge to the Pyramids to the beaches of Hawaii). All those people have an impact. 2) Various localized environmental issues (runoff from the land, agricultural chemicals, pollution, etc.). 3) Coral reefs worldwide have been been impacted to varying degrees by environmental changes (including, but not limited to warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and more) - some places have been hit harder than others, and things are constantly changing.

So, all the above said, the GBR has indeed suffered somewhat. But the GBR is a huge thing (you can see it from space!), and it has not all been impacted to the same degree. There are places on the GBR that have taken more of a hit than others. As you might guess, the places that have been impacted most are (generally) closest to land and population centers, the easiest to get to, and the most popular tourist destinations - probably right where a casual tourist is headed: Cairns. If you/your mom has the option, get away from the mass tourist destinations (Cairns). I went on a week-long scuba trip on a boat that LEFT from Cairns, and the boat headed to the more remote, outer reef locations. The conditions there were quite good (at times really great). The problem, of course, is that 99% of the visitors do a day trip out from Cairns, and everyone goes to a small number of places. Those places are suffering most. To see the reef at its best, you need to go somewhere else - and that "somewhere else" is not quick/cheap/convenient for the average casual tourist. When we were 3 days out from the mainland, the reef looked awesome, healthy, full of life, pretty much everything I had hoped for - and I am very, very spoiled from doing scuba diving trips to some VERY remote, VERY pristine, untouched corners of the world. Which raises an important question...

Where else has your mom gone snorkeling? It's important because if she has only done this a little, she has probably never seen anything even close to a healthy tropical reef (most of the easily accessible reefs in the Caribbean, for example, are very badly damaged). If your mom has done lots of scuba diving in remote corners of, say, Indonesia, New Guinea or Micronesia, well then she might be disappointed at what she sees on a day snorkeling trip out of Cairns. But if all she has ever seen is a reef at a major tourist destination (cruise ship destinations) - or if she's never gone snorkeling before at all - then she will probably think the GBR is everything she had ever dreamed it could be - it's all relative to what you've seen before.

Most of us don't get to go to Australia very often. She's going. It would be a real shame to go there and skip the GBR. My suggestion would be to try to get away from the mass tourist spots (Cairns especially) if she can, and visit some other corner of the reef. But that takes time/money/effort, all of which are usually in short supply on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the far side of the world. Yes, mom should go snorkeling on the GBR, hopefully she can invest a bit of time to get to where its truly great, but even if she can't, don't skip it altogether. Better to see it even if it's a bit compromised than miss it entirely because its not as perfect as it was 20 years ago - the same is true of so many popular places, no?

Hope that helps. Cheers.

Posted by
274 posts

We are also thinking of going to Australia next August and see the GBR. Of course from Cairns! You gave me a great insite into what to expect there. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and informative reply!

Posted by
1134 posts

I just returned five days ago !

We planned to go to Airlie Beach which is south of Cairns. The actual reef is 80 km from Airlie Beach and there is only one day trip/overnight that makes this journey to the actual reef. We had planned a 3 day catamaran trip to cruise and snorkel what they call the fringe reef - the islands between the shore and the actual reef. It was incredible - we loved living on the catamaran with 6 other people. We have snorkeled all over the Caribbean, Cuba, Thailand, and Mexico, and we were impressed with the snorkeling !

The couples on our boat said to go up to Palm Cove instead of Cairns. Two dove from Palm Cove and said the diving was great up there and the outer reef was closer to the mainland from Palm Cove than from Airlie Beach. But they said the snorkeling was the same in the Palm Cove area as it was in Airlie Beach.

If she is leaving soon, where has she planned on going ? The location will determine what she sees and does.

Posted by
7139 posts

The Great Barrier Reef is over 1400 miles long, with 2900 individual reefs. Record high water temperatures caused a major coral bleaching event last summer, resulting in significant damage to sections of the reefs. It is still in dispute how much of the reef had been affected, how seriously, and its capacity to repair itself. What is acknowledged is that the far north is the worst affected, from Cooktown to Cape York. Pretty much all of the commercially accessible tourist sights are outside that area. So tell your mum to visit the reef, and further south if she can - Heron, Lady Elliott, Lady Musgrave Islands.

News report today: