Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world, extending 2,300 km (1,429 miles) along the country's northeastern coast, from Bundaberg in the south to the tip of northern Queensland. This is roughly the same length as the West Coast of the U.S. from Vancouver to the Mexican border, or an area about the size of Germany or Italy, so it's impossible to explore the whole reef on a single cruise. One of the best options is a four-night Great Barrier Reef cruise aboard Coral Expeditions II, which takes in a 200-km (124-mile) section including islands, reefs and the township of Cooktown on the mainland.
--By Briar Jensen, Cruise Critic contributor
The Great Barrier Reef was declared a marine park in 1975 and received World Heritage status in 1981. It covers 14 degrees of latitude, from shallow estuarine communities to deep oceanic waters, and encompasses mangroves, sea grasses, sponge gardens and coral reefs.
There are 3,000 individual reef systems within the marine park, including fringing and barrier reefs. Coral Expeditions II is purpose-built for this environment, with a shallow draft that allows it to get close inshore to fringing reefs and also moor on the edge of barrier reef outcrops.
Named after Captain James Cook, who beached his ship Endeavour in the local river for repairs after damaging the hull on a reef, Cooktown is a laid-back coastal township. Cook spent 48 days in the harbour, the longest stopover of his three-year voyage, and a visit to the James Cook Museum gives a fascinating insight into the difficulties he and his men faced. Other options for the morning stopover are a visit to the Botanic Gardens or a walk up Grassy Hill.
The Lizard Island group lies 33 km (20 miles) off the Queensland coast, approximately 93 km (58 miles) northeast of Cooktown, and is the only continental island group close to the outer barrier reefs. Coral Expeditions II anchors in picturesque Watsons Bay with its curving white sandy beach. The bay is famous for its clam gardens, which you can snorkel over straight from the beach. The giant clams, a meter (three feet) and more in length, thought to be about 120 years old, can be found amongst the colourful hard and soft corals.
For those feeling energetic, you can climb the 1,177-foot peak (359 meters) on Lizard Island to Cooks Look, but you need to get up early for the 6 a.m. transfer to shore. The walk takes about 2.5 hours and is very steep in parts, but the 360-degree view is well worth the effort if you're fit. Captain Cook climbed this peak in order to look for a safe passage through the outer barrier reefs. Breakfast is provided on the beach after the climb.
Coral Expeditions owns several reef mornings, meaning you will have reef sites, like Ribbon Reef Number Three, exclusively to yourself. The boat drops anchor and moors stern to the reef, so the swim platform is literally on the edge of the reef, which makes snorkeling and diving a breeze. You can learn to SCUBA dive during the cruise, but you can see just as much snorkeling, and the glass-bottom boat offers another perspective, too. When you get out of the water there's freshly baked biscuits or cake waiting.
There are 600 different types of soft and hard corals in the Great Barrier Reef, and as Coral Expeditions II visits five different reef sites, including Two Isles and Escape Reef, you get to see a huge variety of corals. An onboard presentation by the marine biologist identifies the types of corals you will see, including table, mushroom, brain and leather coral.
Great Barrier Marine Park boasts 1,625 species of fish, including 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and you'll feel like you have seen most of them by the end of your cruise. Tiny darting damsels, dainty clown anemonefish, furtive puffer fish, colourful parrotfish, striped and spotted angelfish, iridescent wrasse and comic triggerfish create an underwater kaleidoscope. On the larger side are batfish, blue-spotted rays and blacktip reef sharks.
During whale migration season (June through to November) you are likely to see humpback and minke whales as you cruise between anchorages. The whales migrate from Antarctica during winter to the warmer waters off Australia to breed and give birth. The bridge keeps a constant lookout and if whales are spotted an announcement is made so everyone has an opportunity to see these mighty creatures. You're bound to see spinner dolphins though, at any time of year.