A Low Isles snorkelling tour in Tropical North Queensland is a good chance to swim with sea turtles and see other marine life in calm waters.
It’s a glorious day with perfect blue skies and glistening aquamarine waters as we sail from Port Douglas on a luxurious Lagoon 500 catamaran, Sailaway IV.
Low Isles Day Trip
Sailing to the Low Isles
Visitors come here 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.
The two small islands share a common reef.
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.
Low Isles snorkelling
One reason why the Low Isles is such a popular destination for a Port Douglas day tour is the reefs are very close to the island, which means it’s easy for beginning snorkellers to enjoy the experience.
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 back into the water, lie down and kick our feet.
Within minutes we’re swimming over coral gardens among schools of colourful angelfish damselfish, sea cucumbers and other marine life.
150 species of hard corals and 15 species of soft corals thrive in the waters around the Low Isles.
These denizens of the ocean live amongst the corals and are easy to spot in the low waters around the islands.
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 a while, 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 snorkelling tour around the Low Isles is one I’ll always remember.
This section of the ocean is teeming with turtles that are used to paddling among swimmers and snorkellers.
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.
History of the Low Isles
Later, a walk around the smaller of 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.
The light station is controlled by Queensland Parks and Wildlife and juts out from the flat western side of the island.
This typically Queensland-style light station has an 18m tower with a timber frame and a galvanised sheath and porthole windows.
The light station might seem remote but it has actually served as a useful place to collect weather since 1887. Read more about the history of the Low Isles lighthouse.
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.
Before James Cook even sailed past in 1770 (1770 is the year James Cook sailed to Queensland and the name of a town on the Queensland coast near Agnes Water), indigenous communities used the Low Isles as a neutral ground for opposing tribes to meet and settle any tribal disputes.
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 a charming seaside town 70km north of Cairns. You can hire a car or take a coach service from Cairns airport.