A snorkelling tour around the Low Isles in Tropical North Queensland’ is a chance to swim with sea turtles.
It’s a glorious day with perfect blue skies and glistening aquamarine waters. We’re sailing from Port Douglas on a luxurious Lagoon 500 catamaran, Sailaway IV. Today’s visitors are from around the world. Tanned French and Spanish couples sunbake on the deck alongside pale-skinned English families, while Aussies from around the country sit back and take in the scenery.
After an hour of calm sailing, we are one of the first vessels to throw anchor near the Low Isles. The pair of islands 15km northeast of Port Douglas are coral-cays with lush vegetation surrounded by white sand and plenty of coral.
A glass bottom boat transfers us to the beach on the coral cay where we collect our floating noodles and prepare for our guided snorkelling tour. Those of us who aren’t used to snorkelling are given basic instructions on how to put on the masks, snorkels and flippers (all supplied by the organisers).
From the beach, we wade backwards into the water, lie down and kick our feet. Within minutes we’re swimming over coral gardens among schools of colourful fish. We paddle behind our snorkelling guide, Michelle, who stops now and again to lecture us about the different species of coral found around the area.
She points out giant clams and a shy turtle hiding at the bottom of the ocean. Sponges, starfish and sea cucumbers are passed around.
Then someone spots a turtle floating just beneath the surface of the water. As the turtle drifts past, I kick my flippers a couple of times and breaststroke after it. Gliding along effortlessly in a turtle’s slipstream is an exciting spot to be. And I’m determined not to let it out of my sight.
After awhile, the turtle slows down and sticks its leathery head out of the water scouting the horizon. We’re eye-to-eye, treading water some distance from the shore. Wise old eyes stare curiously at me before it plunges into the deep and swims away.
This section of the ocean is teeming with turtles that are used to paddling among swimmers and snorkelers. During a recent study of the area, The Planetary Coral Reef Foundation, a non-profit organisation with a mission to protect the world’s coral reefs, spotted as many as 45 turtles over a period of six days.
Most of the turtles sighted in the area are green turtles but sometimes it’s possible to spot a hawksbill turtle. And if you’re very lucky you might even see one of the other six of the world’s seven endangered species of marine turtles. In Australian waters, turtles face a high risk of extinction through being entangled by marine debris, fishing nets and illegal fishing operations.
After the tour, I stay on in the water and explore the ocean on my own while others take a ride in the glass bottom boat, which is included in the price of the trip.
Later, a walk around the Low Isles reveals a lighthouse that has been operating since 1878. The first Europeans to occupy the Low Isles were a lighthouse keeper and his family who moved into the lighthouse that year. But before James Cook even sailed past in 1770, indigenous communities used the Low Isles as a neutral ground for opposing tribes to meet and settle any tribal disputes.
In 1928, the Royal Geographical Society funded a study to examine the structure and ecology of the surrounding reef, basing the research expedition on the Low Isles. This was the first scientific study of a coral reef anywhere in the world and many current theories of coral reef ecology are based on the findings of the expedition. Today, the Low Isles is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and within the protected Great Barrier Reef Heritage Area.
Back on the catamaran, we dig into a buffet spread of fresh king prawns, cold chicken, meats and salads. Schools of Red Bass Snappers flit around the boat foraging for prawn scraps. A few people dive in for a closer look at the fish. I’m about to put on my snorkelling gear and dive in too when one woman lets out a loud shriek. She leaps out of the water and onto the back steps of the catamaran screaming that one of the fish had bitten her nose. The Chevron barracudas have arrived.
Port Douglas is 70km north of Cairns. You can hire a car or take a coach service from Cairns airport. See Sailaway Reef & Island Tours
While in Queensland, meet the volunteers at the Tolga Bat Hospital.
Queensland’s amazing Cairns Aquarium has lots to see. Check it out here.