Top reason why you should visit the Great Barrier Reef now

August 31, 2020

The downside of most of our travel bucket list experiences is they’re on everyone else’s bucket lists too.

If you’ve ever craned your neck over a crowd to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, or queued for hours for a spot on a Statue of Liberty ferry tour, or been shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others shuffling through the Vatican, you’ll know the more iconic the attraction, the bigger the crowds.

Wouldn’t it be nice to feel your experience at these iconic spots was a little more … intimate?

Right now, in many parts of Australia, it can be – even if it’s a by-product of some pretty unfortunate circumstances.

Tourism-dependent regions across the country have seen visitor numbers nosedive due to the COVID-19 crisis. Far North Queensland, for example, lost its crucial influx of international tourists at the start of the year, and copped a double whammy when state border shutdowns locked out the usually heavy stream of winter visitors from Victoria and NSW.

Great Barrier Reef in the Tropical North Queensland vacation

There’s barely a silver lining to be gleamed from these dire straits. But it has created a bittersweet glimmer of opportunity for Australians who are able to travel right now – some of our biggest and best tourist attractions are as quiet and crowd-free as they’ll ever be, so if you’ve ever thought about ticking them off, and are able to do so, now’s the time to strike.

Plus, you’ll be giving support to regions who really need some love right now.

There are few places where people will be so palpably happy to welcome you than Cairns, where I recently enjoyed one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, the Great Barrier Reef, without the usual peak season frenzy.

You can went to Moore Reef, less than two hours by boat from Cairns, on a day trip with Sunlover Reef Cruises.

Sunlover has a 50m long, two-storey pontoon at Moore Reef, which is basically a mini theme park in the middle of the Coral Sea.

During four hours of downtime on the pontoon, visitors can snorkel and scuba dive at their leisure, visit the underwater observatory, take a glass-bottom boat tour, splash around in the kids’ pool, enjoy the touch-tank presentation, watch the fish feeding display, take in the views from the sundeck, and launch themselves down the only theme park-style water slide on the Great Barrier Reef.

Sunlover had been seeing an up-tick in bookings when a reopened Queensland announced it was “Good to Go” in July, and there was a healthy crowd of us that boarded the catamaran in Cairns for our tour – but not so many it felt impossible to social distance.

There was no massive queue to check in, no jostling to board, and plenty of room to breathe – a welcome relief after months of avoiding crowds and isolating at home.

There have been some tweaks to Sunlover’s tours for COVID safety – the on-board buffet has been replaced by a packed lunch (a personal smorgasbord that includes a wrap, sushi, salad and a muffin), and there are new rules about using snorkels and goggles (you must stick with your own all day).

Once the catamaran pulled up alongside the pontoon, the fun really began. As the other visitors buzzed about collecting equipment and choosing activities, I joined a guided snorkel safari tour with marine biologist Paolo, who took me and a couple of others far beyond the swimming boundaries to a less-visited area of the reef.

Paolo delivered expert commentary as we fluttered along, explaining the varieties of sea creatures and coral we were seeing, giving updates after the mass coral spawning event in November, and excitedly pointing out the odd sea turtle that calmly cruised below.

But it’s hard to not be distracted by the beauty of the scene below the water – the kaleidoscope of colours, the interesting shapes, the serene flow of life, the meditative silence.

At one point on the tour I popped my head above water and realised we’d meandered a long way from the pontoon, which by then seemed to be a mere speck in the distance. So pleasantly lost had I been in my own little stretch of paradise, kilometres out to sea: no crowds, no pandemic, no worries.

If just for a little while.

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