As a high school teacher, my workday revolves around the trials and tribulations of teenagers and as I have said before it’s never dull! Some days are better than others, and in early December, I went on a Marine Studies excursion to Cairns – the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – with forty-two 15-16-year-olds and 3 other teachers besides myself.
Sounds like fun, heh? Well, it was!
The bulk of the trip was managed by Small World Journeys, an Australian based educational adventure provider. They looked after the itinerary, accommodation, most of the meals, and transfers while in Cairns. We organised our own transport to and from school to the airport and the meals not covered in the package. (One dinner, one lunch). We were, of course, responsible for supervising the kids and making sure they were safely in the right place at the right time for the 4-day adventure. The study tour included serious educational content with presentations from marine biologists balanced by hands-on activities including snorkelling at Fitzroy Island and Moore Reef.
On arrival, the weather came as a bit of a shock to the students! I am not sure what they had expected, but the 2000 km plane ride had taken us out of the subtropics to well north of the Tropic Of Capricorn. When we left Sydney, it was only 16ºC with low humidity. When we walked out of Cairns Airport, we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity. (34ºC and 69% RH) and some of them started to melt.
Our first visit was to the marine research labs at James Cook University. Here we learnt about the myriad of toxic, deadly and dangerous critters found in this part of the world, including brown snakes, cone snails, box jellyfish, Irukandji jellyfish, stonefish, the blue-ringed octopus and to top it off large salt-water crocodiles!
The second day had us at the Reef Fleet Terminal at 9:00 AM for a day trip out to Fitzroy Island to visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, snorkel and to do some mapping activities.
Day 3 was the highlight for both myself and the students with a trip to the Outer Reef. We were booked on a Sunlover Reef Cruise, and after 2 hours cruising, we pulled up alongside their Moore Reef Pontoon. On the way, we listened to Pablo, a marine biologist, explain what activities we would be doing and the tasks we needed to complete.
The students participated in two citizen science projects involving surveying designated areas for species abundance and coral cover and condition. Once back on the catamaran, their findings were uploaded to the Eye on the Reef database, giving a real sense that they had done something that actually counted.
All in all, we had 4 hours on the pontoon and students were able to snorkel and explore for nearly all of that time, either as part of the arranged activity or on their own. A buffet lunch, snorkelling gear and stinger suits were all included.
Small Journeys always include a social justice/sustainability twist to their itineraries so our final day involved a talk from two remote area health workers. These nurses work with patients who travel to Cairns for treatment from very remote areas of far north Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands. These people, often indigenous, suffer from a range of complex health problems which are exacerbated by their remoteness and the long term effects of colonialism and discrimination. Alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse are all too often part of their daily lives. The students sat quietly reflecting on what they had heard while they made up personal care packs using toiletry and sanitary items donated by the students themselves and other community groups.
We stayed at the Cairns Central YHA, which was comfortable and very centrally located. I am sure the other guests let out a muffled gasp when they saw a swarm of over-excited teenagers descending on the pool area after a hot, sweaty afternoon at the University! The next night we gave the house guests a break by taking our kids to the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, a large public swimming pool which had plenty of space for everyone!
I would highly recommend Small World Journeys to any school looking for an excursion of this sort. The guides were knowledgeable, friendly and well organised. The price was very reasonable for the inclusions and the provided risk assessment, excellent.
If you were looking to go to Cairns on a family holiday, I would certainly recommend the Sunlover trip. There were plenty of other activities in Cairns, which I did not get an opportunity to visit. If you are not a fan of the heat, you might prefer to go in June or July. According to the Small World Journey’s leader, September is pure bliss. Warm, but not humid and no stingers! I will certainly be looking to go back for another visit without 42 kids in tow. (AND with an underwater camera!)