Finding the right cruise agency to visit the Great Barrier Reef is a decision that can truly make or break your experience. The web is filled with good and bad reviews of many, so it’s no wonder the choice is a hard one to make. In this article, I aim to share our Great Barrier Reef experience with Reef Magic Cruises.
Before we dive into the nitty gritty, it’s probably worth mentioning noting some options that we considered as alternatives to Reef Magic Cruises.
- Calypso Reef Cruises
- Sun Lover Reef Cruises
- Reef Experience
- Quicksilver Cruises
- Big Cat Green Island cruises
Generally speaking, all are good options. But what set Reef magic apart for us was their google reviews, itinerary and fair price. Definitely take a look into these companies, as each have different activities (some might offer better snorkelling experiences, others might offer better diving courses) and locations that may end up being more suitable for you. For instance, some of the cruises only go to the outer reef and others might just visit an island which has limited coral species. So be sure to do your homework beforehand.
Booking and ticketing
One of the biggest variables in any trip to such a beautiful destination is the weather. Signs of rain or thunder can turn your vision of a sea vista into a cloudy dark nightmare. Worse yet, the tour could be cancelled. To get around this, we decided to book the tour two days before departing to Cairns and monitored the weather forecast. Whilst it seems last minute, it meant there was less chance of doom or gloom... an experience we had recently in Nusa Penida and were keen to learn from.
If you’re thinking of doing the introductory dive (read below), keep in mind before booking that your cruise needs to be more than 24 hours before your departure back home due to risk of decompression illness.
It’s likely you’ll be arriving a day or more before departing on your cruise. We found it a big time saver to visit the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns a day before to pick up our Reef Magic cruise tickets and have important questions answered. It’s a great idea for you to do the same. On passing the Terminal the next day to begin our ride, we found hoards of other tourists waiting in line to grab their ticket!
The boarding process was surprisingly quick at around 5 minutes. A quick sign in, name badge and obligatory free (but not free) photo later, we boarded the boat and took a seat at the top of the deck for the benefit of the open air.
We discovered shortly after that with the blistering heat, it might have been a better idea to sit on the middle deck as by population it clearly was the preferred outdoor sheltered area. Nonetheless, top deck is the place to get those scenic unobstructed shots of the reef mid-journey and on arrival an hour later.
En-route + The Extras
Over the course of the journey to the Great Barrier Reef, there will be Marine Biologists coming around offering extra excursions beyond the standard open snorkeling. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can opt in for these extras for an additional price. There’s also opportunities to purchase or hire equipment that you may need throughout the day.
If you’re planning on doing activities, be sure to fill in the safety questionnaire prior to arrival. It’s important that this is done before attending any of the activities as they strictly want to assess your ability and suitability to swim amongst the coral. They’re pretty strict with this, so be sure to talk to one of the members of staff who will gladly explain how to fill it out correctly if you are unsure.
Since Jessie had never snorkeled before, she didn’t feel comfortable heading straight for the Adventure Snorkel Safari where you take a boat to the outer reef and drift snorkel around the schools of fish and extensive coral. It’s an activity targeted at more confident swimmers, so we decided to opt in for both the Guided Coral Gardens Tour ($35 per person) and the Adventure Snorkel Safari ($45 per person) with the promise of a refund on the latter in case Jessie wasn’t up for it.
We’d also chosen to do the introductory diving ($125 per person) on booking the tour. Me nor Jessie had ever dived before, so it was a great chance to get a steady introduction into what could have been the start of a new hobby. Some of you going on the cruise may find that you get a coloured (green) wristband. This is how the crew identify you as introductory divers. If you don’t have one of these and think you should, then make your way to the lower deck and present your tickets at the bar to receive one before arrival.
Shortly after departing, we were invited to attend the introductory diving instruction. Here we were walked through each of the pieces of equipment in the divers toolbox, the safety precautions, special hand signals and two compulsory tests that we must be able to pass once the diving commences. Failure of the two tests would result in no diving. Rightfully so, as the two tests were putting the mouthpiece back into one's mouth and clearing the salt water (should it get knocked out by a silly swimmer or god forbid a big fish called Wally) and secondly how to empty filling water in the face gear should you be in a situation where you’re blind or have so much salt water up your nose that you’d end up in a coma.
It’s worth having a chat with the instructors if you’re concerned about any medical or health conditions you have. Jessie had a quick chat to one of the diving instructors about her Bells Palsy condition she had late last year, which paralysed the left side of her face. The instructors quickly got her to try equalising by holding her nose and blowing hard to see if she felt something hitting her ears (the ability to equalise is very important in diving!), and also to try on the mouthpiece to see if the muscles about her mouth were strong enough to hold it in.
Prescription goggles are available to hire. Particularly useful for you if you wear prescription glasses like me. At $5 for full-day rental it’s absolutely worth it. I used these throughout the whole day and every activity. Just be sure to check your prescription before arriving, as you’ll be expected to be able to provide this to the checkout assistant so they can find the one that won’t leave you with a splitting headache! A $100 deposit needs to be secured (but no charge is made to your credit/debit card) in case of loss or damage.
Cameras and Photos
Of course, you can’t go to such a stunning place and not consider camera options. Reef Magic cruises offered camera’s for hire ($75) for the full day and you can take the SD card home. We found that availability of camera’s was short, and pondering the options too long meant that we missed out on grabbing one in time. In the end we had to purchase a waterproof case for the iPhone 7 ($40) which would allow us to take our own photos underwater and worked well as a cheaper compromise.
Disappointingly though, there are limitations to which activities you can bring a camera along to. The Introductory Diving and Guided Coral Gardens Tour had a no camera policy. My guess is safety reasons, but could also be another reason to try entice you into shelling the hefty ($75 per person) price tag for professional photos available on the return trip of the cruise. Bear those limitations in mind. My advice here would be to bring your own submersible camera and save some money if you have one lying around at home.
Like myself, you may be a stickler for seasickness. There are a few well known methods for dealing with this and I find what works best for me is to stare out across the horizon coupled with deep breathing to rebalance my mind and settle the stomach. Whilst hot, the back of the boat on the top deck offered the best place to do this, with strong open air and seating that is easy to reverse sit on. There’s also shaded areas on the second deck in case the sun gets too much and you need a back seat.
If you have some scented oil handy (e.g. white flower oil, lavender and mint), then that can also help take your mind off things. Alternatively you can bring your own sick sickness pills purchased from a store or even buy seasickness tablets/ ginger tablets from the bar on the lower deck for $2-$3 per tablet.
Coral Gardens Snorkelling Tour
Since we had three activities booked for the day, we had quite a busy schedule. Shortly after arriving at Marine World, our names were up on the chalkboard and we were being told to get prepared for our Coral Gardens Snorkelling Tour!
Introductory diving was coming up an hour later, so with such a short window we decided it would be a great idea to get the wetsuit on before we did Snorkeling. The wetsuits are 5mm thick and perfect for insulating us from the chilly green waters of the Great Barrier Reef. We grabbed our rubber flippers and before we knew it we were lying in the water with our goggles on and instructor by our side.
The tour was done in the set enclosed bounds of the reef belonging to Marine World, with five people (instructor, me, Jessie and two older ladies) holding onto a safety buoy whilst being tugged around the water learning about life beneath the surface. This gave Jessie a huge amount of security, confidence and allowed her to practise her technique until she felt comfortable letting go of the buoy. I felt assured that with the gentle nature of the activity, small children ($25 per child) could enjoy this and learn a thing or two.
My only reservations on this activity was that there were five people holding on to the buoy, which can get a little uncomfortable when there’s consequently eight legs swimming closely in the same direction. Often I found I was swimming twistedly and catching legs with the lady next to me causing my ankles to get a little sore.
In case you don’t book any activities, you have hours and hours of time to swim around the free snorkel area. This is found in the same place as the Coral Gardens Snorkeling Tour and can be revisited as many time as you wish throughout the course of the day. It’s perfect for filling in odd spare time in the day or sending the children when you feel like a chill in the seating area.
Adventure Snorkel Safari
Adventure Snorkel Safari was the last activity of the day before we headed back to Cairns City. This tour is targeted for people who are more comfortable snorkelling in the open ocean, as it’s one hour long. We got onto a snorkel boat at around 1:45pm, and were further out towards the outer reefs outside of the free snorkel area.
The route that you snorkel depends on the conditions on the day. If the current is strong in a particular direction (which was what happened to us), the instructors would take us to another part of the reef. Once we got to the area of the reef, we had to do a small jump off the boat and into the ocean. Rest assured, the marine biologist who guided us around the reef also took a life buoy in case anyone felt sick or needed a rest. My advice if you feel that you will get tired after swimming a while is to wear a life jacket. This takes off a lot of the pressure in staying afloat and also fears when swimming in the open ocean. However, this may hamper your experience because you can’t duck down under the water as easily.
I would highly recommend this tour ($45 AUD pp adult and $35 AUD pp children). As you are swimming in areas which see less activity, arguably there’s more interesting marine wildlife here. There’s lots of different types of coral, such as plate coral, and you can see schools of fish swimming around in the coral. Jessie even caught sight of some jellyfish and a reef shark, animals you probably won’t see in the free snorkelling area (of course, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea). Wally, the dominant Maori Wrasse in the area, also swims around the area and paid us a visit while we were on the snorkelling tour.
The only downside is that your tour might crash into another reef vendor’s tour, leading to a lot of confusion over where to go. Be careful to stick with your group!
After experiencing both, we both agreed that the Guided Coral Gardens Tour was a little too basic for us, and we could have done without it. However worth bearing in mind that if you’re new to Snorkeling, it’s probably a good investment. An older lady who was new to the water really struggled and requested to be pulled out of the water. So you be the judge of that one.
In between snorkelling, Jessie and I also chose to do an introductory dive. We were told to get our gear on at the back of Marine World, where a diving instructor strapped us up with weights. Then, in small groups of four, we made our way down onto the deck for diving. It was here that the diving instructor made us do our two tests to prove we were able to dive safely. Once he was assured we could perform the tasks of clearing our mask of water and also the mouthpiece of water, off we went.
Should you do diving? Diving is very different to snorkelling. WIth snorkeling, you have the option of returning to the surface at anytime - you don’t need to focus on breathing as much. WIth diving however, this isn’t the case. If you are 10m - 15m down, returning to the surface takes a while, as you can’t immediately go back upwards (that will make you sick). Many people get panic attacks their first time diving, and Jessie was one of them. About 3 to 4m down, Jessie started taking very short breaths and panicking, and indicated she wanted to go back to the surface. Thankfully, after returning to the surface, the instructors calmed her down and another instructor took her diving again once he was free. The second time, she was able to dive without any problems.
I would definitely praise Reef Magic for letting Jessie dive again and taking the time to calm her down. It was above and beyond their duty to do that. However, the downside of this is that I felt the introductory diving lesson at the beginning of the day was too short and there was a length of time before you got to practise everything they taught you in the morning. Down in the deck before diving, they also didn’t spend much time practising diving techniques. If you’re a person who tends to get nervous with watersports, you might need a slower and more gentle introduction to diving.