Swimming with turtles on the Great Barrier Reef

Every now and then, if we’re very lucky, we get to have travel experiences which strike a deep chord within us. It doesn’t matter how big or small the moment is – you know it when you feel it, and you know you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

In September of 2014 I was lucky enough to travel to Tropical North Queensland, Australia with Tourism Queensland. I spent a pretty epic 9 days in the region, and day after day was treated to some incredibly beautiful sights. I know I’ll blog more about it over the coming months, but right now there’s one particular moment I’d love to share with you guys.

Australia is (quite rightly) well known for the Great Barrier Reef. Stretching for 2,300km it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and quite honestly one of the most mind-blowing places on earth. If you want to feel small, just place yourself anywhere near the reef and you’ll realise just how tiny and insignificant we humans are in the grand scheme of things.

I had been lucky enough to visit Australia quite a few times in the past – I grew up in New Zealand so Australia is a very close getaway destination, and I enjoyed a fair few sunny holidays with my family there as a child. I’d seen the reef, been out on a glass-bottomed boat, and bought the stuffed dolphin. I knew what to expect.

I thought.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was getting incredibly excited about having the opportunity to snorkel on the reef. I’m no deep-sea diver, but I do love a good snorkel, and the chance to get out on the reef and see all the coral and underwater animals for myself was pretty exciting (I’ll tell you about my morbid fear of sharks another time).

Each of the planned excursions out on the reef seemed to include enticing images of turtles – people coming face to face with them, swimming alongside them and generally being at one in a turtle-y universe. And this just fuelled my already peak-level excitement. I decided that my goal for this trip was to see a turtle in the wild for myself. Just one would do – I’m really not that greedy.

Fast forward to day 7 of my trip. Just two days away from leaving my sunny little paradise and I was unfortunately no closer to actually swimming with a turtle (though I did have the great pleasure of visiting the Fitzroy Island Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, a charity which rescues and nurses turtles back to health – there are some truly great people in this world)

Just before boarding the catamaran that was to take us out for the day, I got a lovely surprise in the form of my friend Zach. He and I were both in Australia at the same time, and by some magic had ended up in the same city on the same day! With a bit of schedule-wrangling he was able to surprise me that morning by showing up at the dock, and it was the best surprise. What’s better than going on a cruise to one of the most idyllic places on earth with a dear friend? Not much, that’s what.

Heading out to the Low IslesSurprise visit from Zach!
On board Sailaway CruisesOn the way out to the Low Isles

Sailaway Cruises run cruises from Port Douglas to the Low Isles, and it was on this special trip that I got to experience something that will stay with me forever. I’d had the great fortune to snorkel a lot on this adventure, but this day trip in particular was beautifully organised, our group split up into smaller groups based on their different abilities, so that each could move along at the pace that best suited them. Suited and booted for the snorkelling, Zach and I put our iPhones into their waterproof cases, and headed overboard and into the ocean.

We happily snorkelled our way along in the clearest and warmest water you could image. Our guide pointed out some clownfish (“NEMO! NEMO!”) and the largest oyster I have ever seen. Every now and then I would feel a piece of algae brush up against my leg, and try and banish the thought of reef sharks from my head (harmless, I’m told. I was too scared to dig for any more info).

And then.

I knew I had been lagging behind (a particularly purple piece of coral had caught my attention) but I knew when I raised my head and saw our guide wildly waving at me, that the time had come. And sure enough, there he was. Gliding ever so slowly, completely un-phased by the flapping humans around him, we saw our first turtle.

We knew the rules, and we all honoured them. Don’t get too close, don’t try to touch them, and don’t get in their way. It’s important to remember that we are the guests in their home, and to act accordingly.

Whilst the rest of the group moved on Zach and I stayed put, completely and utterly entranced. This turtle was massive and yet swam around with the greatest of ease. If it were possible to smile underneath those masks suctioned onto our faces, you know we would have had grins about 10 feet wide.

Turtle, the Low Isles

Turtles and Clown Fish on the Low IslesTurtles and Clown Fish and coral, oh my!

Fast forward half an hour or so and we were still happily paddling away in the ocean. We’d pulled away from the main group and ended up having quiet time snorkelling around after the others had finished. When another turtle languidly crossed our path, I may have shed a tear inside my mask. If you know me, you know I like animals. Dogs, quite specifically, but really I suppose any animal will do. So it stands to reason that a turtle in the wild would do the trick. There was just something about this moment. The late afternoon light was cutting through the water, creating a curtain of dancing patterns which rippled over its shell. There was the vastness and the silence of the whole experience (we only communicated in gestures and rushed whispers), and the ease with which this big guy travelled along. We followed behind him (at a good distance) for a while. He was not phased by us, we did not bother him. But my goodness he was beautiful.

Turtle, the Low IslesThe exact spot where we were snorkelling, and the turtles that were cruising around just beneath the surface.

We were lucky enough to see a few more turtles that afternoon (who knows, it could have been the same one just visiting us a few times over. Sneaky sneaky), and it is one of those travel experiences which will stay with me for a lifetime. A humbling one, where you are shown just how small your place in the world is, and just how lucky we are to have such natural and vast beauty available to us.

The journey back on the catamaran was spent excitedly exclaiming over every single underwater photo we managed to capture. The sunset from the boat was glorious. The salty air was breezy and warm. Thank you Tropical North Queensland, for one of the best travel experiences of my life. It won’t soon be forgotten.


On the return to Port DouglasSunsets and bubbles on the way back to Port Douglas. Those smiles didn’t leave our faces for a really, really long time…

On the return to Port Douglas

On the return to Port Douglas



PS. This post is not sponsored in any way – I just wanted to share this amazing experience with you guys



  1. Wow!! That is my dream! I too am a completely insane animal lover, and for some reason turtles (especially giant sea turtles) have fascinated me lately. It seems that you had quite an incredible experience – hopefully someday I’ll make it out there and get to have a similar one 🙂


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