James Litston ticks the Great Barrier Reef off his bucket list on a small-ship Coral Expeditions cruise
Whether it’s Captain’s cocktails, a formal night or simply just because, there’s an expectation of dressing up when it comes to cruising – but not like this. As I zip up my nylon body stocking and pull mittens, socks and balaclava into place, I’m conscious that perhaps I’m not looking my best. With its baggy, unflattering fit, my top-to-toe costume makes me look part ninja, part Nora Batty. It’s ridiculous, but it’s essential equipment for exploring the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.
In addition to 600 types of coral, six kinds of sea turtle and more than 1,500 fish species, the Great Barrier Reef teems with jellyfish, some of which can inflict painful stings. My nylon ‘stinger suit’ may look absurd but it provides protection from even the deadliest jellies. Fortunately my fellow passengers and I all seem to have packed our senses of humour, so once we’ve stopped laughing at our stinger-suited selves we can dive in and see what’s about.
We’re at Lizard Island, way up in the northern reaches of the reef, and the sea life here is said to be incredible. That’s because we’re way beyond the reaches of the average day trip, so Lizard’s coral is pristine and undamaged by boatloads of tourists. Indeed, there’s absolutely nobody here for miles around except for guests at the island’s exclusive, and pricey, 40-suite resort. We, however, are anchored offshore on Coral Expeditions II, and this is our first time underwater on this four-night Northern Great Barrier Reef cruise.
Diving in, I’m immediately struck by the sheer profusion of life, in particular the clouds of colourful fish. I watch tiny, neon damselfish darting among the coral while schools of rainbow-bright parrotfish browse the reef. They defecate clouds of sand as they pass; ill-mannered, perhaps, but this chewed-up coral is the raw material of Lizard’s white, powdery beaches.
We finish with sunset cocktails on one such gorgeous, empty strand before returning for a seafood supper. We quickly demolish the buffet of Queensland prawns and Moreton Bay bugs (a kind of lobster) before heading back outside to throw the scraps overboard. Drawn by bright lights, a number of predatory fish have gathered for the feast: some giant trevally, a leopard shark and a Queensland grouper as big as a dustbin. I’m glad
I didn’t meet them during our swim.
Coral Expeditions, the Australian company we’re sailing with, essentially pioneered overnight cruises to the reef’s outer stretches more than 30 years ago. Since then, it’s grown to a three-strong fleet serving some of the most undiscovered parts of Australasia: Papua New Guinea, the islands of Indonesia, Cape York, Arnhem Land, Tasmania and the Kimberley Coast. The small-ship, expedition-cruise ethos translates into an intimate and friendly experience that stays true to Coral’s pioneering spirit. Even the largest ship, Coral Discoverer, has just 36 spacious staterooms, though this will be eclipsed next year when a fourth ship, 60-room Coral Adventurer, joins the fleet.
Coral Expeditions II – the smallest ship, with 22 cabins – remains loyal to the company’s roots by plying the Barrier Reef year-round, alternating between three and four-day itineraries that combine into a flexible, week-long sailing. I’ve chosen the four-day Northern portion as it involves more time in the water, but for clients interested in back-to-back sailings, it pairs nicely with the three-night Southern Reef itinerary’s rainforest, mangroves and sea turtles for a thoroughly immersive experience offering maximum variety and insight.
The ship itself is a catamaran that’s designed specifically for the Barrier Reef. Its small size means it can access interesting ports beyond the reach of larger ships, and being double-hulled provides additional deck space and a smoother ride through the waves. A good-sized lounge and sun deck present opportunities to mix with other passengers, while my simple but comfortable stateroom is a peaceful bolthole in which to relax. The overall ambiance is much more intimate than an ordinary cruise, yet creature comforts such as quality dining and a turndown service keep things classy, and the evening entertainment of lectures and quizzes is most informative.
With their short durations, the Barrier Reef cruises are particularly popular with British clients who don’t necessarily want to commit a full week to a cruise. Sales through the trade are strong, with flexibility being key to the Barrier Reef sailings’ success, according to Kevin Preston, If Only’s Australasia product manager.
“The Barrier Reef itineraries attract a broad cross section of interest,” he says, “although we also do well with the Kimberley and Tasmania sailings. The discerning, 40-plus market is core for these cruises, especially early retirees enjoying longer trips to Australia. Barrier Reef cruises also sell well to honeymooners and families as they’re so easily combinable with a range of Australasian itineraries, including a typical Sydney, Reef and Rock. Weekly, year-round departures and easy access to Cairns, Coral’s home port, also make these cruises easier to package – plus there’s no single supplement.”
It’s also worth noting that the onboard environment is extremely relaxed, so clients don’t need to pack smarter clothes as might be expected on a more mainstream cruise. This works well for me, as I’m in Australia for a month and don’t want to be hauling excess luggage all over the country. Masks and snorkels are available, free of charge, on the ship, so there’s no need to bring my own, and I purchased my stinger suit onboard, which simplified pre-trip planning.
Moving on from Lizard Island, we head south to the Ribbon Reefs, a remote and little-visited stretch of coral for more diving and snorkelling. There’s no sign of land in any direction, just a dazzling patchwork of colours where the reef shimmers under the surface. While some passengers board the glass-bottomed boat and others take a diving excursion, I grab my snorkel and submerge to discover corals of all shapes and forms. I see finger, mushroom, boulder, plate and staghorn corals in mint condition, plus big schools of pouty-lipped butterfly fish and yellow-and-blue fusiliers.
Back on board, I’m able to appreciate that everyone – from experienced divers to novice snorkellers and those who don’t get in the water at all – has been able to observe and interact with the reef without leaving their comfort zone. This means that even clients who might not feel so confident in the water can fully enjoy the reef in safety and even improve their snorkel or diving skills thanks to expert tuition.
Coral Expeditions are not inexpensive, but the value these cruises offer is nevertheless excellent. After all, the Great Barrier Reef is true bucket-list stuff, and clients would struggle to find a more immersive, adventurous or fun way to experience this natural wonder. Just remind them maybe to leave their dignity in port before embarking, because absolutely nobody looks good in a stinger suit.
If Only (0141 955 4000, ifonly.net) offers Coral Expeditions’ four-night Great Barrier Reef cruise from £1,299pp (two sharing). A package combining the cruise with five nights at Thala Beach Nature Reserve (Port Douglas) and four nights at PARKROYAL Darling Harbour (Sydney) costs from £2,499pp (two sharing), including domestic flights. coralexpeditions.com