We’ll preface this highly o-fish-al debate by saying the only wrong way to see the Great Barrier Reef is to not see it at all, followed closely by visiting in the middle of summer during deadly box jellyfish and cyclone season. But choose your month wisely and beyond that, it’s hard to not fall in love with this breathtaking part of Queensland – no matter how you choose to experience it.
You’ve probably been told you need to get up there a million times, so why is the GBR so celebrated? As the largest living structure on Earth, comprising almost 3000 individual reefs and 900 islands, the GBR is often lauded for its size. Marketing fodder like “it’s as big as Italy!” and “you can see it from the moon!” are fun facts to add to your trivia arsenal, but when it comes to actually experiencing the reef, we can’t help but feel these tidbits are useful to NASA, Martians, Richard Branson, and just about no-one else.
The simple truth is, at any distance, the GBR is painfully beautiful. David Attenborough, 60 years after first making the claim, has been recently quoted as saying it’s still the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. And as someone who’s seen just about every natural wonder a single human can in one lifetime, we’d say his opinion carries a fair bit of weight.
So you’re convinced. You’ve planned your road trip to Queensland, got your accommodation sorted and are pumped for some facetime with the fishes. But there’s still one question floating in your mind: is it better to snorkel, or scuba dive?
Snorkelling – not a verb that captures the graceful mer-person vibe we typically strive for, nor a swashbuckling one if your GBR fantasy is of the Johnny Depp persuasion. But fill your lungs and clear your drums – one metre, two, five or more – and technically you’re partaking in what ranks alongside base jumping as one of the world’s most extreme and dangerous sports: freediving. The record of 214m, which is held by Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch, required breath-holding for over nine minutes and the ability to all but transform into Aquaman. Not so dorky sounding after all.
Whether you stick to the surface with a noodle under your chest, or start training to break Herb’s record, going minimal with just a mask, snorkel and fins offers a degree of freedom you don’t get when you’re bound to a diving group, burdened with tanks of air and BCDs (buoyancy control devices) and weight belts and, supposing you’re still a rookie, non-optional hand-holding from someone who knows what they’re doing. There’s also no risk of decompression sickness when you’re snorkelling, nor breaking your foot if you were to accidentally drop said 40kg of gear as you lurch around like a walrus on the deck.
Snorkelling gear is minimal, lightweight and relatively inexpensive. The skills are dead easy to learn, shallow duck-diving is essentially risk-free (although we can’t stress enough that deep freediving is a whole different ball game and should be pursued with training and caution), and we reckon there’s nothing better than having the option to come and go as you please, kick away from the crowd and strike out on your own.
Surface = front row seats
But won’t you be missing out on heaps of marine life if you stick to the surface? Heck no!
The Great Barrier Reef is famous for its water clarity and boasts visibility of up to 30m at the deeper dive sites. Snorkelling sites are likely to be much shallower than this, so even if you’re staying on the surface, don’t be surprised if you can see right to the sea floor, where neon-lipped clams and bulbs of brain coral and winging rays can be spotted plain as day with just a lungful of air.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that 90% of the reef’s diversity exists in the first four metres of water. On that figure alone, one could make a strong case for the surface being not only a great place to swim, but the better place to swim. Between the schools of kaleidoscopic fish darting through the staghorn metropolis and the gentle megafauna playing tug-o-war with your attention, we’d go as far as to say you’re more likely to have too much to look at than too little. And that, we think, is a marvellous problem to have.
If you’re not certified to dive and short on time, snorkelling is a smart choice that’ll maximise your time not only in the water, but actually enjoying it. It’s true you’ll still need to jump on a tour boat to get out to the reef (unless you’re based on one of the reef-fringed islands – lucky you!) but here’s a pro tip: go for a snorkel-only operator.
The groups are smaller, which means fewer fins thrashing in your face, and because snorkel-only operators don’t need to accommodate divers, the smaller vessels often have exclusive permission to anchor at premium snorkelling locations that favour sheltered shallows (where the colours of the reef will be the brightest) rather than deep, often exposed, drop-offs that are more suited to diving.
Our experience? The coral gardens we saw when we opted for a snorkel-only tour to Opal Reef and Tongue Reef – where larger operators can’t go – were hands-down the most healthy and vibrant, and the trip itself stands as the one that we gush about the most.
When you start counting a human’s anatomical disadvantages in the ocean, breathing underwater comes about as close to superhuman as a gill-less land-dweller can get. It’s the unnatural environment, a habitat for which our warm-blooded bodies are so desperately ill-equipped, that makes the sensation of being weightlessly suspended in the blue an experience that transcends imagination. “Dreamlike, ethereal, otherworldly, meditative, soul nectar.” These are the kinds of words divers reel off as they reflect misty-eyed on their latest underwater expedition.
No dive cert? No worries
For the uninitiated, the Great Barrier Reef’s warm, wide, light-filled canyons make for gentle introductory diving. These short no-experience dives are fully-guided and take place in spacious sites on the sheltered side of the reef, usually no deeper than 10 metres. The only prerequisite is to complete some theory on board followed by quick in-water training, which makes it a great option if you’re not prepared to commit to a four-day several-hundred-dollar certification course. Bear in mind that not everyone takes to scuba naturally, and issues with equalising and buoyancy could see you spending more time bobbing on the surface than actually experiencing the treasures of the deep.
For experienced divers, going to the extra effort and expense to dive the Great Barrier Reef is a no brainer. Full immersion isn’t just an out-of-body experience that only space explorers can begin to understand. The crux of it is this: when snorkelling, you spectate. When diving, you belong.
Now consider the rich community of creatures and unique habitats that call the Coral Sea home. Over 1500 fish species, 600-plus hard and soft corals, close to 150 species of sharks and rays, six of world’s seven sea turtles, around 30 species of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and dugongs, 215 bird species, 14 types of sea snake, and then of course there’s the 93% of the marine park that comprises vital non-coral habitats such as vast beds of seagrass, sponge gardens, mangroves, and deep ocean trenches.
It’s not hard to see why anyone would long to feel, however fleetingly, a part of that world.
The reef less travelled
The hive of surface activity that unfolds before snorkellers is by no means unimpressive. But one of the biggest draws for divers is the ability to explore deep, remote sites on the outer reefs, many of which can only be reached by joining liveaboard vessels for up to seven days – as is the case with Osprey Reef, a pristine lagoon located a whopping 350km offshore that’s famous for its teeming sharks, manta rays and coral grottos filled with seldom-seen macro life.
Now unless you have the lung capacity of Herbert Nitsch, pausing to admire and photograph miniscule marine critters such as nudibranchs and harlequin shrimps is an undertaking made significantly easier with a tank of air. But perhaps the biggest argument for donning an aqualung is the night dive. Going on an eerie adventure to see nocturnal marine animals and predators roaming after dark is one of those truly novel experiences that only the scuba community (or at least the non-fraidy cats among them) gets to gloat about.
You know what they say about apples and oranges? We think that’s where we’re at. But here’s our takeaway in a clamshell: any experience of the Great Barrier Reef – snorkel, scuba, kayak, SUP, glass-bottomed boat – is going to be unforgettable. The activity you choose will depend largely on how much time you have, your budget and what you want to see.
Want to experience the frenzy of colourful fish, corals and possibly find Nemo? Go for a snorkel. Got time up your sleeve? Try an intro dive. Keen to go further afield, explore wrecks, sunken amphitheatres, living walls and isolated bommies? Better get your PADI qualifications, stat!
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