Visiting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is on most traveler bucket lists. The GBR is not just for divers or backpackers or adventure seekers. We visited as a family with young kids and had an amazing day on the Great Barrier Reef with kids.
We have all heard how climate change and ocean acidification are threatening our coral reefs throughout the world. The concern for the world’s largest barrier reef that extends 2,300 km down the coast of eastern Australia is paramount. We had been to the reef as backpackers 12 years ago and since then have snorkeled and dived in many parts of the world. We weren’t sure what we would find this time on the Great Barrier Reef. Would we see a sick and bleached reef or would we see a thriving, colourful reef full of marine life?
When we travel with our kids we travel not just for enjoyment, but to learn together as a family about our earth – its resources, its cultures, its wildlife. Visiting the GRB as a family allowed us to experience this incredible marine wonderland, but also to prompt discussions about climate change and the threat to the world’s oceans.
For us our primary purpose in holidaying in Cairns in tropical north Queensland was to experience the Reef. Yes, there are so many other amazing things to do in the area, but the driving reason for our visit was the Reef. Don’t be intimidated by visiting the Great Barrier Reef with kids. Let’s walk through how to organize your trip and what to expect.
First of all, be prepared to shell out some money to visit the Great Barrier Reef. This was by far the most expensive activity we did while in the Cairns area, but it was worth every penny. Plan to spend $500-600 AUD for a family of 4-5. Most companies have a family rate (2 adults, 2 children) that will save you money. You can go to some islands closer to Cairns, which are wonderful day trips, but please make sure you go out to the Outer Reef while here.
You are going to be overwhelmed with choices for which company to choose for your Great Barrier Reef tour. I spent hours reading various reviews and weighing the pros and cons of each. We ended up going out with Sunlover Reef Cruises and it is a perfect choice for families. You will need to book in advance to reserve your spot and transfers from your hotel can be organized.
The first thing you will notice when comparing Great Barrier Reef cruises is that some go out to a pontoon (a floating activity centre). These have larger boats and offer a wide range of ways to experience the Reef. Sunlover goes out to Moore Reef and we were really eager to try out their brand new pontoon (more on the pontoon a bit later). You spend over 4 hours on the pontoon exploring the Great Barrier Reef. There are so many things to do on the pontoon at the Great Barrier Reef for kids.
All of the tour companies are congregated at the Cairns Harbour with check in counters at the Fleet Terminal building. The Sunlover catamarans are fast and modern with lots of comfortable seating on two levels. The boat departs at 9:30, but you will want to check in an hour prior to get settled.
It is a 1.5-2 hour trip out to the Outer Reef and winds are generally blowing 25 km/hr, making it a bit lumpy. We are very used to being on boats, but we would still recommend you take a sea sickness tablet before departing. Many, many people were seasick on our boat and it is a bit harder to jump right into exploring the Reef when you are feeling poorly. On your way out, the crew will do a snorkeling briefing, explain the various activities on the pontoon and there is a marine biologist presentation. Our kids enjoyed listening and watching this presentation where they learned how coral is related to jellyfish and how the coral grows.
The kids and adults loved this thrilling waterslide and even our 5 year could go down by himself. There is a lifeguard operating the slide and keeping a close eye on the kids. How cool is it to be able to waterslide into the Great Barrier Reef!?! Our kids could have spent all day on the waterslide, but we managed to drag them away to explore the other areas of the Reef and Pontoon.
Off the one side of the pontoon Sunlover has a cordoned off area for snorkeling. I must say I was a bit worried that we would be relegated to snorkeling in a very small area. I definitely needn’t to have worried because the snorkel area was huge and over an amazing section of Reef. We lived on a sailboat for 5 months in the Bahamas, so our kids are very comfortable swimmers and snorkelers. However, even if your kids aren’t as confident, there are lots of safe ways to snorkel comfortably. On the pontoon there is snorkel equipment organized by sizes, soaking in disinfectant. You just help yourself to what you need. We found the equipment to be in good shape and there were lots of sizes and options for the kids. They have snorkel vests (life preservers) available and we had our 5 year old wear one.
You may have heard that there are dangerous jellyfish in the waters off the Great Barrier Reef for 6 months of the year (Nov-May). It was the end of jellyfish season when we visited in May, but we opted to wear the suits just in case. They also help keep the kids a bit warmer in the water plus work as sun protection. You can rent the full body stinger suits on the pontoon for $5/each.
There are easy access platforms off the pontoon for you to put on your equipment and enter the water. Once you get in, you will be immediately amazed by the amount of fish surrounding you. If you swim farther from the pontoon in the enclosed snorkel area you will be rewarded by the brightest colours and largest variety of fish.
I was a bit worried what we would find under the water at the Reef, but was pleasantly surprised. Moore Reef looked incredibly bright and healthy and it was some of the best snorkeling we have done. We saw so many varieties of fish and coral, a few sea turtles, a small reef shark and even Wally, the wrasse (a huge fish that hangs out near the pontoon). The kids lasted about an hour in the water before they got cold, but my husband and I took turns going out on our own because it was so beautiful. You can buy or rent an underwater camera from Sunlover, but we just used our own Go-Pro.
The benefit of going on Barrier Reef tours to a pontoon is that there are lots of other ways to experience the Reef without getting in the water. This makes it a great option for families with young kids or non-swimmers.
We took a ride in the Semi-Sub and saw some of the corals and fish outside the snorkel area. It was a fun 20-minute trip, but I would still try to get in the water if you can because the colours are more vivid and you see more fish in the water.
We were so busy snorkeling and testing out the waterslide, that we didn’t go out on the Glass Bottom boat. That would be another great way to see the Reef while staying dry. These 20 minute trips are included in your ticket. Just check the schedule on the pontoon for times; no need to reserve.
On one side of the pontoon, you can descend into an aquarium like observatory where you can see the fish swimming by. This was a really cool area to check out, especially when they do a fish feeding in the afternoon.
Also towards the end of the day, the crew pulled a few sea cucumbers and starfish up into a touch tank. The kids loved touching these animals and hearing more about them from the crew.
If you are a certified diver, you will probably want to sign up to see the Reef lower down. Even if you aren’t certified, you can do an introductory dive with a guide, no experience necessary. Sunlover also offers the Sea Walker Helmet Diving experience where you walk on the sea floor.
You can partake in a Snorkel Safari where you go outside the snorkel area with a snorkel guide. We had read really good things about that, but found the marine life in the snorkel area to be really amazing and felt we were experienced enough we didn’t need the additional tour.
If you can’t bear the thought of traveling two hours by boat to the Reef, you can hire the helicopter to take you there or back. It lands on a floating platform near the pontoon and would be a wonderful way to see the Reef if you have some cash to spare.
The boat stays docked beside the pontoon the whole time you are there. On the pontoon you have fresh water showers, change rooms, all snorkel and dive equipment, and a second story sun lounging area with lounge chairs and beanbags. They even have a small kids swimming pool, which is an enclosed, shallow ocean pool off the pontoon. Our kids loved playing around in there and it would be a great place for toddlers or teaching younger kids how to snorkel. They can still see the fish, but are safe and contained in the kids pool.
Safety was an obvious priority on the pontoon and the boat. There were lifeguards watching out over the snorkel area and keeping an eye on everyone.
There were a large number of Chinese tourists on the trip and all announcements and activities were done in both languages.
With all the activity, you work up quite an appetite. The buffet lunch offered lots of choices and it was really peaceful sitting out on the pontoon eating lunch out over the Reef. They serve tea and coffee in the morning and afternoon and there is a bar on the boat where you can buy snacks, drinks and ice cream.
The Great Barrier Reef is an epic trip for visitors to Australia. Visiting the Great Barrier Reef with kids made it that much more special as we saw the awe and amazement in their eyes. Sunlover Reef Cruises’ new pontoon is a family friendly way to experience the Reef. It is perfect for young kids, but equally great for more experienced snorkelers and swimmers. The pontoon offers so many wonderful ways to view and experience the Reef. Great Barrier Reef holidays aren’t cheap, but after spending the day on the Reef, you will appreciate what a value packed day it was. Best of all, you will have memories that will last a lifetime.
This World Heritage Site is suffering, but by creating more awareness on climate change, hopefully we can slow the degradation of our coral reefs. Don’t wait to visit this amazingly beautiful place; visit now while the colours are still bright and the marine life abundant. Then talk to your kids and talk to others about why coral reefs are important and how climate change and ocean acidification is killing them.
Our kids learned so much from our time in far north Queensland. They learned about rising sea temperatures and the effects on the GBR. They learned about sea turtles consuming and dying from plastic bags and balloons. They learned why new coal mines are bad for the environment. Our visit provoked lots of family discussions and THIS is why we travel – to teach them and us to respect the world’s resources and cultures.
Written by Dawn Nicholson from 5losttogether.com, travelled in May, 2017
Disclaimer: Sunlover Reef Cruises graciously hosted our day to the Reef. As always, all opinions are our own.