The Naked Truth About Nudey Beach and the Great Barrier Reef
Every visitor to Australia should to see the Great Barrier Reef; however, the decision to visit the inner reef or outer reef depends on goals, budget, and swimming ability.
Hot Take: Maybe a bit overhyped as an experience, exploring the Great Barrier Reef was our reason to come to Australia and checked off a major bucket list item. (4.5 stars)
Pro Tip: Watch the weather for a calm day, the experience changes dramatically based on the conditions.
There are some experiences that you dream about from the moment that you first hear about them. For us, diving on the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef system) was one of those experiences where we would prepare, train, and spend whatever we needed to make it happen. In fact, as we started to think about the ‘must-do’ experiences we wanted to have on our year abroad, the Great Barrier Reef was right up there with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Egypt’s Pyramids, Munich’s Oktoberfest, Croatia’s Yacht Week, Transylvania’s Castles, Jerusalem’s holy sites, and Italy’s basically everything. In fact, we got SCUBA certified mostly because we were going to the Great Barrier Reef, so it is fair to say that we invested many, many hours (and much treasure) into making this dream a reality.
Like most things where your personal level of expectation is set to 11, the actual experience of exploring the Great Barrier Reef was both amazing and disappointing at the same time. The amazing part will be easy to understand once you finish this post, with the disappointing feeling stemming mostly from how hard it is to enjoy the vastness and wonder of the Reef as a limited time visitor. But we have no regrets in checking the Great Barrier Reef off our bucket list and hope you will do the same. Note: even if seeing the Great Barrier Reef is not in the cards for you, please help keep the Reef healthy by reducing your carbon footprint and your use of plastics (especially single use plastics like straws and bags). Future Generations deserve to be able to see what our parents generation was able to behold in the seas and reefs of the world.
Great Barrier Reef Primer
Once you get serious about visiting the Great Barrier Reef as a time-constrained tourist, the major question you will be faced with is ‘what part should I visit?’. Comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretched over 1,400 miles (2,300 km) with an area of approximately 133,000 square miles (344,400 sq km), it is an understatement to call the Great Barrier Reef vast. A lifetime living in Cairns, Australia (the closest major port to the Reef and the starting point for most visitor trips) spent solely exploring the Reef would only cover a small portion of the total area. For a tourist with only a few days, it is laughable to think you can fully experience the Reef; but even a small sample can be quite divine. So targeting your trip is critical and should be tailored to what you want to do (not what the internet tells you that you should do). We had a blast exploring each of these areas, so our advice is not to be worried about what you don’t see but instead focus on enjoying what you are able to make it to.
Inner Great Barrier Reef
Since the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 900+ islands, it makes sense that you should be able to visit some of them. The tourist accessible islands stretch up and down the Queensland coast, but we’re going to focus of the ones easiest to access from Cairns. Formed as coral atolls that have been built over many years to become habitable (e.g. Green Island) as well as by being cleaved off of the mainland and surrounded by the sea (e.g. Fitzroy Island), there is a great variety in the ways these islands came to be and this impacts your visit to the islands. However, one major advantage these islands share is that they are closer to the mainland (so a 45 minute boat ride instead of 2 hours). The shorter distance over calmer, protected waters will greatly help those prone to sea sickness and directly translates into lower cost to visit them ($40-65 per person as opposed to $100+ for the outer reef). The next advantage the islands share is that they are more traditional ‘Robinson Crusoe’-type places with actual soil and vegetation on them as well as beaches. So if you are looking for more of a ‘snorkel-then-chill-on-the-beach’ experience, you won’t get that on the outer reef (since there is nothing above the water). Finally, if you are not a confident swimmer, the islands of the inner reef are much easier to manage and FAR less intimidating than the open water of the outer reef.
While we would encourage anyone with the time and budget to see one of the islands of the inner reef (we saw Fitzroy Island for $35 each with Raging Thunder), there are some downsides to consider. First, the coral is pretty bleached and has been stepped on by many tourists (despite all the warnings not to do this). Also, you are not going to see any of the big fish and other unique species of the outer reef. Think of this much more as a nice beach with some coral areas than as a dream snorkeling location. Furthermore, the visibility when we went was pretty bad (less than 6 feet or 2 meters), so we had to dive down to see a lot of the coral. We don’t want to sound overly harsh, as a day at the beach, Fitzroy Island was amazing (and the best beach we saw in our time in Australia)…but compared to our Great Barrier Reef dreams, it left us wanting more. Nudey Beach was recently ranked 2018 best beach in Australia and is only a 15min. hike from the pier. If you have the time plan a full day at Fitzroy island as they have several hiking trails with stunning views and pristine quiet beaches where you might be the only one there.
Outer Great Barrier Reef
Since the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2,900+ individual reefs, it makes sense that you should be able to visit some of them as well. While only a very small part of the total area is available for tourism, the Reef is so large that the various tour boat operators each have over a dozen private locations reserved exclusively for them (so you are guaranteed to not have the 15 boats at the same dive site shenanigans that we saw throughout SE Asia). While parts of the Reef have suffered major bleaching events in recent years, there are still many vibrant places left (which is, not surprisingly, where your reef tour boat will go). Many of the boats have a similar price (though there is one slower, older discount boat that is popular with shoestring-budget backpackers) and will set you back about $120 each with SCUBA dives adding another $100 (if you do two dives). We booked a tour with Passions of Paradise [https://passions.com.au], which has a reputation as a locals boat (it is one of the last ones owned by individuals that live in the area as opposed to big corporations) that wouldn’t be overrun with Asian tourists (there are some horror stories about 300+ tourists crammed on to a boat). The Passions of Paradise only takes ~80 passengers (on our day it was more like 45 people since we were there in autumn) and we would highly recommend them.
The advantages of seeing the outer reef are numerous and it is the ‘true’ Great Barrier Reef experience as far as we are concerned (you can’t go to Queens and say you’ve been to New York City…you’ve gotta make it to Manhattan if you can!). Firstly, the aquatic life and coral is pretty amazing. We saw giant clams, coral polyps, and huge ocean fish that we had never seen before. Due to rougher seas during autumn, the visibility when we went was not brilliant (about 20 feet or 7 meters); however, the visibility conditions didn’t prevent us from seeing anything and was HEAPS better than at the inner reef. We also recommend diving over snorkeling (if you can) as the conditions were better under the water than on the surface (though the snorkeling was excellent as well).
As much as we want to just recommend the outer reef, there are a few disadvantages to consider. Firstly, cost is a major factor as our trip to the outer reef cost about 5 times as much as an inner reef trip (though adding SCUBA was a major cost contributor). Secondly, the 2+ hour boat trip each way over rougher seas causes at least 15-50% of the passengers to get seasick (according to the crew). You are highly encouraged to take anti-seasickness medication, but this can make you drowsy and miss much of the experience of the day (vacations should be about fun, not endurance!). Next, at the outer reef you are just out in the vast ocean with no beach time or other escapes from the constant rock of the ocean. While this can be exciting for some, it can be disorienting and feel like 9 hours of torture for others. Finally, if you are not a confident swimmer, outer reef can be very intimidating (though the boat will have folks to swim with you and it is really quite safe).