Review: Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas offers a personal experience

Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is a world-renowned natural landscape that attracts lots of visitors, and large reef cruises can seem crowded and a little impersonal. There is another option. Join this small group reef cruise and snorkelling adventure. Review: Vanessa O’Hanlon

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

4.5 stars

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas with Wavelength Reef Cruises

These small group Great Barrier Reef tours from Port Douglas provide a personal cruise and snorkelling experience. Explore the outer reef with a maximum of 48 guests. The fully qualified crew spend time in the water with guests, assisting those that need it and highlighting points of interest. Snorkelling gear and lunch are included. Duration: 8.5 hours (approx.)

‘I glide gracefully through an old world; prehistoric creatures of the sea swim past to the rhythmic cacophony of bubbles and muffled deep breaths; I am surrounded by the living ecology of the coral reef; in the vastness of her natural beauty, I feel so small.’

I have to admit that there’s a moment when I would rather stay tucked up in bed in my hotel, than tackle the drive from Cairns to Port Douglas, then the unfamiliar underwater world on a Great Barrier Reef snorkelling trip with Wavelength Reef Cruises.

I pass through roundabout after roundabout, until the tarmac leads me onto one of the world’s most spectacular coastal drives. As the sun slowly rises over the glistening cobalt blue sea, I know I have made the right decision.

The Great Barrier Reef, made up of more than three thousand individual reefs, is a true Australian treasure. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is recognised as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas. Image: Vanessa O’Hanlon

The up-market North Queensland resort town of Port Douglas is the gateway to Low Isles, Agincourt and Opal Reef, an outer ribbon reef featuring clear water, stunning coral, and vibrant, magical sea life. It’s also the starting point for my tour with Wavelength Reef Cruises. Wavelength is owned by Jenny and John Edmondson. Each cruise has a maximum of 48 guests and visits three snorkelling sites from a choice of 12. Many of the sites can’t be accessed by larger boats.

The appeal for me runs deeper than being part of a smaller group. Many of the crew are qualified marine biologists, and can impart a wealth of knowledge to guests about the Great Barrier Reef.

Our vessel, Wavelength 4, is a modern catamaran, designed to provide a soft and stable ride in open sea conditions. Sunny and warm, the smooth 90-minute ride out to the edge of the continental shelf is perfect. I suppose you could say that we’ve lucked it with the weather – or perhaps I have a little inside knowledge.

Soon the time comes to don the stinger suit. The group of varied nationalities gets a little giggly at the prospect of all-over Lycra, but it’s better to be safe than stung!

The rules are clear: don’t touch the coral, use the safety signals for ‘OK’, ‘not OK’ and ‘I need help’, buddy up with someone and have fun! Now on with the flippers and snorkels to discover Opal Reef!

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas. Image courtesy of Wavelength Reef Cruises

Dive site 1. Bashful Bommie

A friendly greeting awaits our first dock. Angus, a Maori wrasse, swims around the back of our boat. Taking the plunge, we jump, dive or slide down the stairs into the warm 27-degree water. Someone laughs at the brightly coloured noodles. Yes, some of us need flotation aids. They may make us look like a kids’ swimming class but personally I am thankful for the extra support.

One side of the reef below provides prefect protected shelter for the smaller coral-dwelling fish, the other is a deeper ocean channel for larger sea life. Joining Angus are red bass and Spanish mackerel.

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

The coral ranges from shallow gardens to colourful boulder corals that thrive in deeper waters. After an hour it’s time to stop for morning tea; after all, it’s hungry work being a fish!

Dive site 2. Rayban

With everyone feeling a little more at ease, it’s time to learn a little more about the reef. We break into three optional groups and the marine biologists take us on a twenty-five-minute guided snorkeling tour. Swimming a little deeper, our guide points out a large clam, and under strict supervision we can even touch some of the coral.

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

Image: Bigstock

We witness a shallow water coral releasing a gooey substance that protects it from UV light. The same substance has been tested on humans. I’m surprised to learn that the chemical Oxybenzone used in our sunscreen lotion is causing massive damage to these coral reefs.

Dive site 3. South North Opal

It’s time for lunch while our boat makes its way to our third and final snorkel site – South North Opal. A deli-style lunch is served and we are free to sun ourselves on the deck or enjoy an interactive educational discussion with one of the marine biologists. I learn what the different coloured corals represent, and more importantly, the contribution warmer sea temperatures are making to coral bleaching.

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

Small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas

South North Opal offers more vivid coral gardens to enjoy. Often it can be too choppy to access this particular site but today we’re in luck.

Following afternoon tea, we cruise back to Port Douglas. The sun slowly drops towards the spectacular rainforest-clad mountains.

For a more personal reef experience and the added benefit of expert marine knowledge, this small group Great Barrier Reef tour from Port Douglas is a must-do.

Vanessa travelled as a guest of Wavelength Reef Cruises.

Additional images: Bigstock


Vanessa O'Hanlon

About the writer

Vanessa O’Hanlon is an Australian television news presenter with the Nine Network and an avid traveller. Her travels began with a flight to Egypt, a visit to the pyramids and a camel ride and instantly she knew there was no turning back. Since then Vanessa’s backpack has seen a thing or two, from discovering relatively untouched Bhutan to bracing the cold winds on the peaks of Mt Kilimanjaro. Her travel tales span nearly 50 countries. Combining a love of writing, photography and exploring the unknown, Vanessa is pleased to share her adventures with The Big Bus tour and travel guide readers.

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