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After swallowing a series of breaths in rapid succession, I plunged my facemask and snorkel into the warm Coral Sea and pulled myself down from the surface, kicking my long fins in a relaxed rhythm while pursuing a massive school of shimmering parrotfish.
There must of have been 30 of the Technicolor blue and purple fish, each changing course in nearly perfect unison and seemingly oblivious to our presence as we all navigated a deep canyon of pastel coral formations.
Living in Hawaii, I’ve seen some beautiful reef ecosystems — and I’ve often been told that hyperventilating prior to a snorkel dive helps you stay down longer. But I have been blown away by the rich diversity of sea creatures, color and fragile beauty of the Great Barrier Reef each time I’ve visited.
On this occasion, I traveled with Ocean Spirit Cruises about 23 miles northeast of Cairns to Michaelmas Cay, a narrow strip of white sand surrounded by a gorgeous fringing reef. A bird sanctuary and national park, Michaelmas offers relatively easy access to some stunning underwater scenes and provides a good place even for snorkeling beginners and travelers with little ones to explore the ocean.
The boat ride out to Michaelmas National Park lasts about two hours. This might worry those prone to seasickness, but a number of other passengers I was traveling with said the preventative medication offered onboard worked well. There’s also plenty of food available and a number of informative presentations about snorkeling, scuba diving and the marine biology of the reef to help pass the time.
Or you could do what I did for most of the commute and sit outside on the deck of the nearly 105-foot luxury Ocean Spirit catamaran, enjoying the view and the sea breeze in a shady gathering of comfortable chairs.
A number of activity options are available to folks once they arrive at Michaelmas Cay, including a trip out on a semi-submersible vessel that allows passengers a good look at the reef while staying dry. Others might be interested in an introductory scuba diving lesson, while experienced divers can take part in an outing for veterans.
People can also simply lounge in the sand of Michaelmas Cay and bird watch. The tiny island, only a little over 393 yards long, can host up to 23 different species of seabirds at one time; at the height of nesting season, more than 20,000 of them have been counted on the strip of sand.
For my part, I tried to spend as much of my time snorkeling as possible, inspecting many beautiful patches of swaying soft coral, searching for little orange Nemo fish (aka clown fish) and even spotting a sea turtle.
All told, the Ocean Spirit Cruise to Michaelmas Cay lasts eight hours and returns folks to Cairns around 5 p.m. Rates are available for adults, children and families.