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The eco-tour operators helping to regenerate the Great Barrier Reef

Natasha Dragun takes to the Great Barrier Reef to discover how eco-certified tourism operators are uniting to spotlight, and save, this immense World Heritage Site.

There are few nature-based experiences quite as humbling as drifting over the world’s largest reef, turtles bobbing all around like drunk snorkellers, dolphins dancing in your wake, an embarrassment of tropical fish gliding over car-sized coral reef bommies.

The sheer immensity of the Great Barrier Reef takes your breath away – it spans some 2,300 kilometres from the tip of the Cape York Peninsula in the north to Bundaberg in the south, covering 344,400 square kilometres of Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland. That’s an area around the same size as the whole of Japan, Germany, or Malaysia.

And then there’s the marine life: 10 percent of global coral gardens and the same proportion of the world’s fish species – including 30 types of whales, dolphins, and porpoises – call this part of Australia home. Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles come here to breed, alongside 215 different types of birds.

Great Barrier Reef - humphead wrasse and worldwide coral
© Tourism and Events Queensland/Gabriel Guzman

This is one of the most complex ecosystems on Earth. And it’s also one of its most fragile, with a number of environmental threats including coral bleaching, cyclones, and crown-of-thorns starfish, which feed on coral polyps. Thankfully, Tropical North Queensland’s savvy tour operators are up to the task of protecting this precious environment.

Eco Great Barrier Reef tours

Passions of Paradise eco-tour company

The Passions of Paradise catamaran is an idyllic way to explore the reef from Cairns, slowing down when it’s time to splash about amid the marine menagerie. But the eco-conscious company offers much more than transport across the water. Since 2019 it has been a partner on the government-funded Coral Nurture Program, designed to unite tourism and science to protect this World Heritage Site.

In addition to planting coral nurseries, Passions encourages guests to get involved in the Eye on the Reef monitoring program, a citizen science movement that allows researchers to stay in touch with reef conditions via input from those cruising, snorkeling, or diving around it. You can sign up to be part of the action on an eco-conservation experience, which also sees you monitor reef health and plant coral in the company of a Master Reef Guide aka the world’s leading reef experts, interpreters, and storytellers.

regrowing coral reefs at the Coral Nurseries Dive Site
Passions of Paradise Coral Nurseries Dive Site at Hastings Reef © Tourism and Events Queensland

Cairns Premier Great Barrier Reef & Island Tours

Husband and wife team, Perry Jones and Taryn Agius operate Cairns Premier Reef & Island Tours. A passionate partner of the Coral Nurture Program since 2019, the duo’s boats Ocean Free and Ocean Freedom offer a front-row seat to this maritime initiative, while ensuring their reef sites continue to be protected through a parade of eco-forward projects captained by Master Reef Guides including, crown-of-thorns eradication, Eye on the Reef surveys and annual contributions to turtle rehabilitation.

Cairns calling

Cairns is the kind of city where time seems to standstill. Perhaps it’s the long days of sunshine, the promise of lazy alfresco meals, the sloosh of boats departing the marina for the outer reef. It’s here where I jump aboard a catamaran with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel, whose Indigenous rangers describe how the reef was formed according to Dreamtime lore, before revealing the treasures that lie beneath the glossy surface.

Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel

Exploring with your head underwater is the only real way to comprehend the immensity, and environmental significance, of the reef. “When you fall in love with something, you want to protect it,” my naturalist tells me before. Then we dive down to examine an enormous purple clam enveloped by a moray eel. There’s also the chance to glimpse the expanse from a glass-bottom boat or even a helicopter, hovering low over the dreamy patchwork of blues.

Like Passions, Ocean Free and Ocean Freedom, Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel has Advanced Ecotourism Certification, a badge of honour showing the operators’ commitment to have a minimal impact on the environment and help protect and preserve the destinations and communities they explore. When it launched, Australia’s Eco Tourism Certification was a world first. It remains a pioneering system to identify responsible tourism companies and (as of 2018) destinations.

Learning about Indigneous culture with Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel
Learning about Indigneous culture with Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel © Tourism and Events Queensland

The Wind of Great Barrier Reef in your Sails

Less than 70 kilometers north in Port Douglas, Sailaway has been awarded just about every green tick imaginable. They have an Advanced Ecotourism Certification, are a Climate Change Leader and also one of the five tourism companies partaking in the Coral reef Nurture Program. It contributes $20 from each passenger ticket to offset carbon emissions and renewable reforestation.

My catamaran is bound for the Mackay Coral Cay. It is a ridiculously beautiful part of the reef, where powdery sand fades into gin-clear water. And then the opaline hues of the fringing reef. Bliss doesn’t even begin to describe being here. The fact that Sailaway is only one of two companies permitted access makes it even more pinch-inducing.

Sharks in the Dark

Just as exclusive as the ‘Sharks in the Dark’ tour by Divers Den. The company also holds coveted Advanced Ecotourism Certification. After dinner, we dive from the liveaboard. We swim with all manner of reef sharks, gliding through a soft light cast by the boat into the water. The great barrier reef climate is perfect for eco-adventures like this.

If you’re visiting between June and July there’s also the chance to flipper about with dwarf minke whales. Or come back in November to witness coral spawning in all its fascinating glory. It’s unlike anything you’ll ever see. Tourism operators and researchers are pioneering strategies to ensure the spawn goes exactly where it needs to for coral regeneration and future reef health.

Cairns Aquarium is a vital contributor to reef research and development, with an on-site turtle hospital open to small groups.

Coral Expeditions offer small-group, multi-day cruises around the reef and beyond, with naturalists and expert guides on board.

Frankland Island Reef Cruises take you snorkelling around the dreamy archipelago with a marine biologist and Master Reef Guide.

Reef Magic Cruises cruise to an outer-reef pontoon for a day of snorkelling and diving with this Advanced Ecotourism Certified company’s marine biologists.

Sunlover Reef Cruises visits Moore Reef with experienced marine biologists. They can also drop you at Fitzroy Island.

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions take you on scuba expeditions while staying on a liveaboard, with ship staff and guests updating reef reports en route. One expedition is to swim with minkes.

Calypso Reef Cruises dive and snorkel tours visit the Low Isles and blissful Agincourt Reef. The company had Advanced Ecotourism Certification.

Frankland Islands great barrier reef climate
Frankland Islands © Sean Scott, Tourism and Events Queensland

What is coral?

Coral is the name for marine invertebrates that form reefs. Multiple individual polyps make up the underwater colonies. Coral reefs as the basis for entire marine ecosystems.

It is vital to preserve coral reefs as they support healthy marine environments. Coral is becoming endangered through climate change.

Given their various benefit to both humans and marine life, authorities have adopted different coral reef restoration methods and methods for regrowing coral reefs.

Why are Coral Reefs Important?

Coral reefs provide habitats and the basis of marine ecosystems. They also protect coastlines from storms and erosion, absorb carbon dioxide and purify water.

Studying coral reefs have led to medical breakthroughs in the treatment of asthma, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.

Coral also aids in climate tracking. Their limestone deposits provide records of weather patterns and coral growth.

The Great Barrier reef is an irreplaceable Australian marine ecosystem and the biggest reef in the world. The tourism industry brings in over three million visitors per year.

regrowing coral reefs
Marine life © Tourism and Events Queensland

Great Barrier Reef Climate

The Great Barrier Reef has a tropical climate. The skies are mostly blue and the ocean temperatures are around 22 degrees Celcius. Daily temperatures range around 18 – 31 degrees Celcius. In summer the Great Barrier Reef experiences higher humidity and rainfall while in winter days are sunny with low humidity.

This article originally appeared in volume 40 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.