on October 3, 2010
One of the main attractions of coming to Cairns is the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is where the Reef is relatively close to the shore and even the outer reef is fairly accessible for those wanting a day's diving or snorkelling Still, the outer reef trip involves two hours each way on a boat and will set you back at least 500 AUD for a family of four (or around 200 AUD per adult). An alternative for those who want to either save money or don't feel up to all this time on a boat (or both) is visiting one of the inner reef locations. Green Island is a coral cay located off the coast near Cairns and can be reached in about 45 minutes catamaran ride. The island itself is a resort: you can stay on it, at a price, but you can also just use the facilities, walk in the island's rainforest or simply stay on and swim and snorkel off the beaches. As the Island is a resort, there is no public transport as such to it and it has to be reached by a tour operation. Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises operates full day and half day trips. The full-day departures are at 9am and 11am, returning at 5pm, while the half-day departures are at 9am and 1pm. The price of the trip is the same regardless of the length of stay on the island and it's 75 AUD per adult, 37.50 AUD per child over 3 years old. A family deal means the second child travels free. The basic price includes travel to the island and a choice of either hire of snorkelling gear or a glass-bottom boat tour. Optional extras include buffet lunch and a semi-submarine tour, hire of flotation vests and Lycra suits for protection against jellyfish and sun, Seawalker Helmet Diving, Introductory and Certified Scuba Diving and even Para-sailing. We went on the 1am whole-day tour with the snorkelling gear hire and in addition to the basic package bought the lunch and a semi-submarine tour. We were not sure whether we should opt for a half day or full day tour, but were very glad that we chose the full day as we could have easily spend another couple of hours on the island, as it was we were in a bit of a rush at the end. It's worth trying to get the 9am departure that gives you five rather than four hours on the island, especially if buying additional activities. The disadvantage is that the early departure is served by the Big Cat – a slower and larger vessel that takes about an hour to reach the island. The 11am departure is served by the smaller and faster Reef Rocket which takes 45 minutes and seemed like a more pleasant boat to take anyway.The whole experience, despite its very commercial character, was rather fun if and when you got into the spirit of things: once you got past the trauma of having your picture with the Rocket's life buoy taken by a grinning guy in a seaman's hat, the boat itself was new, clean and comfortable, with plenty of seating inside and outside. There was also a small bar selling drinks, crisps and similar at not completely unreasonable prices and the snorkelling gear was given out (on a payment of 20 AUD deposit) on board too. During the crossing, a video loop that advertised other tours and activities run on several screens, but it wasn't too invasive. We stayed mostly outside, on the spacious decks, where we could see the receding hills around Cairns and after about 20 minutes, in front of us, the low lying, emerald island. The boat moored by the island jetty and we decided to take our pre-paid lunch first. This was served at the Big Cat vessel, moored at the same jetty, and consisted of an adequate buffet with a selection of cold meats, salads, fruit, rice and similar: very much institutional food, but at the 15 AUD reasonable value in comparison to what one would have to pay in the resort. Another alternative (and probably the best choice for the budget-conscious) would be to bring your own picnic food.After lunch we make our way to land. In addition to the resort (which we didn't really explore apart from a quick dash to the bathrooms and an ice-cream purchase), the island is covered with thick, tropical rainforest which can be easily explored using board-walks laid around it. But we have seen the rainforest before, and will see more (in fact we are staying in the rainforest of sorts at the moment) and the sole purpose of our trip is to have a taste of the Reef. We put on our snorkelling gear (none of us ever swam with flippers, so this part is an interesting exercise with falling over and walking backwards) and after deciding who's going to look after the little one (who, at four, isn't quite ready for the experience) we set off into the sea. The reef is very near the jetty at Green Island, and you only need to walk into the sea by about fifty, maybe hundred yards, to be able to see quite a lot. I have no comparison standard, but as somebody whose only experience of living coral so far was in an aquarium, I am seriously impressed: hooked really. The variety of coral is quite staggering and a little surprising: tree-like, spaghetti like, boulder and brain-like versions are everywhere. Between the corals, masses of fish, from "normal" looking silver ones to the colourful, tropical kinds previously only seen in tanks. On the sandy bottom, occasional giant clam and under the corals, more lurking creatures: we spy a stingray with blue eyes on stalks and what could be (but probably isn't) an octopus.Snorkelling is surprisingly tiring (all that flippering, I suppose) and when time comes for our semi-sub tour I walk on slightly shaky legs.The semi-sub is essentially a boat (which from outside looks more like a pontoon with a superstructure) whose bottom part is immersed quite deeply in water (by my reckoning we are about two meters below). We sit on benches, with panoramic windows on both sides. Apparently, it provides more of a "divers view" while the standard glass bottom boats are more an alternative to snorkelling.The semi-sub tour takes about twenty minutes and is pretty good: the guide is entertaining and knowledgeable, and we see a bigger variety of fish and coral that we have seen snorkelling (though if you are a proficient snorkeller and don't have to supervise a beginner nine year old and non-snorkelling four year old, you'd be probably better just sticking with the snorkelling). There are also, apparently, turtles, but sadly we don't see any at our end of the sub. K is inconsolable (she has a serious obsession with marine turtles) and as we prepare to get off, and the next group (which is smaller and won't take all the spaces) boards, the guides tell us to stay on for another try. Luckily, we manage to see one on this second round, zooming quickly under the boat near the sandy feeding grounds. K is happy, and so are we.As we wait to board the Rocket for the return journey, we see some reef sharks swimming near and under the jetty. I wish we had time for another swim, but it's time to go back. **All in all, our Green Island experience was a happy one. The "tour" aspect of it was quite bearable (although could have been toned down),with no hard sell of extra activities and commercial photos. The beauty of the rain-forest covered coral cay and the attraction and magnificence of the reef (however small a glimpse we had of it) transcend all the tackiness of the tour business. It's not a cheap experience: if you want to do more snorkelling you need to either consider staying somewhere where you can just do it off the beach or maybe even staying in an island resort. As a taster of what the whole thing is about, it worked well, was suitable for our family group and left me wanting more – one day.Recommended as a begging' introduction.
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