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  • Writer's pictureAround the World in Vegan Eats


We headed to Cairns with one major thing in mind: experiencing the Great Barrier Reef first hand. The Great Barrier Reef is actually made up of around 3,000 individual coral reefs lining the coast of Queensland, and it is of particular importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, with much of their history and cultural identity intertwined with this incredible reef system. Home to thousands of species of fish and molluscs, as well as sharks, rays, whales, dugongs, dolphins and jellyfish, this ecosystem is rich with life.

The Great Barrier Reef was a place that I had dreamed of for most of my life, and I was desperate to make sure that we had the best day here imaginable. Saying that though, we also questioned our responsibilities to the planet as tourists: was our visit going to be detrimental to this already endangered ecosystem? We knew a little about the threats that climate change and human activity have presented to life in the reefs, with our impacts on the planet causing the poor water quality and warmer weather causing the coral bleaching that is apparent across the Reefs. How did we make sure that we behaved responsibly during our visit to the famous coral reefs? And then, once we had found a way to visit the Great Barrier Reef, would it be vegan-friendly?

How did we visit the Great Barrier Reef?

We wanted to spend a whole day at the reef, so had a pontoon day trip in mind. We chose Sunlover Reef Cruises, who operate their Moore Reef cruise daily. We chose Sunlover for several reasons, including the fact that their tours are certified by Eco Tourism Australia, recognising their commitment to sustainability. The tour also offered a full lunch, which included vegan options (hooray!), snorkelling gear, and two smaller, separate boat tours from the pontoon. It was an expensive day out, but we thought that Sunlover offered some of the best value for money of all the pontoon tours we found.

Our day started with a boat trip from Cairns harbour out to the pontoon. I will be honest with you right away: it was choppy, and we definitely needed seasickness tablets! Don't be the people who think they'll be okay without taking a tablet. We saw the effects of this attitude on a few people on the boat - a couple of blokes started off cocky and soon enough had their heads in a paper bag. Don't ruin your day: take a seasickness tablet! If you've not brought any, they even sell them at the bar! After around an hour on the choppy seas, the boat moors at the pontoon and the day is your own. We were desperate to snorkel as much as possible, but decided not to get too wet before lunch! Instead we took the glass-bottom boat tour, to get our first glimpse of the coral reefs; then we went out in the semi-sub to take a closer look! While the reefs were still teeming with life, we were sad to see obvious effects of coral bleaching; this made us determined to research more about this, and what we can do to help, when we returned home.

After lunch (which I'll discuss further below) we pulled on a stinger suit, grabbed some snorkels and flippers, and plunged into the ocean. (Another word of warning: though the pontoon is very safe, with constant lifeguard supervision, wear a stinger suit! They offer them for free, and will help you avoid a very unpleasant - and in some cases, life-threatening - situation should a jellyfish decide to come and say hello!) Now, Mike and I are not the strongest swimmers - I actually only learned to swim aged 23. But with the lifejackets provided, and a little help from the flippers, we had no problem swimming to our hearts' content by Moore Reef Pontoon. If, like us, you're less of a natural in the ocean, there are some helpful floaty platforms to lean on while you get your bearings and have a breather too.

I have been building up to describing our experience in the water because oh my goodness. It is no exaggeration when I say that this was genuinely one of the best days of my life. Exploring the reef along with the many fish that call it home felt like such an honour, and to be able to have this experience with my best friend, at a place I had wanted to visit my entire life - words cannot describe the elation I felt here. We met many fish, especially the beautiful yellow and blue Caesio cuning fish with which we were lucky to get a photo, but nothing compares to the final creature we met at the end of our snorkelling adventure.

We had been snorkelling for around three hours, and were planning to head back to the boat - so we decided to have one last swim around the pontoon to say goodbye to the reef. We had been swimming for about ten minutes before Mike excitedly beckoned me over: a beautiful turtle was swimming towards us, looking right at us as we gently kicked through the water. We spent about fifteen minutes with this majestic creature: when we came up for air so did she, it felt like she was as curious about us as we were about her. It was only when we realised that we were the last people in the ocean, and everyone had got back aboard the pontoon ahead of the boat's departure back to Cairns, that we bade this beautiful turtle farewell. As we stepped back onto the pontoon I was overwhelmed with emotion, tears prickled my eyes as I fully appreciated how special those moments with our turtle friend were.

Is tourism bad for the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef and tourism have a complicated relationship. Visits to the Great Barrier Reef contribute enormously to Australia's economy, and some of that money goes back into measures to protect the reefs. Much of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, especially that causing coral bleaching, is caused by society more widely: agricultural run-off entering the waters, climate change causing water temperatures to rise, and illegal and unsustainable fishing are some of the key culprits here.

However, we cannot discount some of the negative effects of tourism to the Great Barrier Reef, on the corals and marine life that call this place home. Corals are delicate: impact from boats, as well as from visitors standing on them, has caused significant damage to corals across the world. There have also been cases of animals being affected by the obtrusive behaviour of tourists attempting to get closer to them, touch them, or even catch them. Finally, the waste that people can often leave behind pollutes the waters, the reefs, and has a negative impact on the lives of the creatures here.

So it is important to make sure that, as well as visiting the reefs with a responsible company who make a clear commitment to sustainability, we behave respectfully as individuals too. As snorkelers in the Great Barrier Reef we are visitors to the home of all kinds of marine life and need to treat it that way: make sure that you're not leaving anything behind (besides, in my case, tears of joy!) While you're snorkelling, make use of the floating platforms if you need to take a break - don't step or rest on the delicate corals that make up these reefs. Admire the animals from a distance: if they are curious and come closer to you, then absolutely let them, but remember that a boat, pontoon, and a few dozen swimmers aren't a natural part of their environment. Just by being here, we are having a potentially negative impact on their lives, making it that bit less natural. And for goodness sake, don't leave any trash behind!

How was the experience for vegans?

Overall, we were very pleased with the food and beverage options for vegans on Moore Reef Pontoon. Served hot and buffet-style on the boat, the menu clearly marked out exactly which dishes were safe for vegans and vegetarians, as well as those following gluten free and dairy free diets. This menu has clearly been curated with a variety of diets in mind, and this was something that we very much appreciated as we piled our plates high with vegan delights! (Note that 'v' on the menu means vegan, while 'veg' means vegetarian - a little confusing, but besides the cake, we didn't feel particularly restricted).

The food itself was pretty tasty, and full of carbs to help sustain us through lots of swimming. The coconutty yellow curry was packed with roasted root vegetables; I'm not the biggest fan of taro, but the variety meant a nice combination of sweet and savoury flavours in a thick yellow sauce. The salads were fresh, and the cous cous especially tasty; brilliant that the slaw was vegan too! Overall, this buffet allowed two non-meat-eaters to eat to their hearts content, without feeling like we were missing out. This was one of my biggest worries (besides jellyfish) going into this trip, so I was over the moon with the quality of vegan grub that Sunlover offered.

What were our lasting impressions of the trip? Would we go back?

This trip was genuinely a once in a lifetime highlight... but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't go back! We learned a lot about the Great Barrier Reef while we were there, and even more when we returned home, determined to understand more about coral bleaching. It was really sad to see this human impact with our own eyes, and it strengthened our resolve to live as sustainably as possible, and ensure that we are behaving responsibly towards our planet - wherever we are in the world.

We were both really impressed with the experience on board the Sunlover boat - even down to the friendly and helpful staff running around with ice chips and paper bags for everyone who hadn't heeded their warnings to take a seasickness tablet! The boat itself was comfortable, and the experiences offered on board the pontoon were really educational and fun too. There are paid opportunities on the pontoon too, including diving sessions and the opportunity to purchase the photos captured by divers throughout the day, but we never felt hassled to spend any more money. You could also take part in fish feeding towards the end of the day, but we were far too occupied snorkelling!

But my lasting memory? The short time we spent, the only people left in the sea, swimming with a beautiful turtle. I will never forget that.


  • Find out more about the Great Barrier Reef, as well as the threats to it and what the Queensland Government are doing to mitigate them here.

  • Find out more about coral bleaching from the UN Environment Programme here.

Have you been to the Great Barrier Reef? Do you think it is a good place for vegans to visit? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


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The centre of Vienna with tall, historic buildings all around
Cairns is best known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef!

Where should I stay?

For the convenience of accommodation in the centre of the city, as well as excellent reviews, and modern, recently renovated private and dorm rooms, check out The Village, Cairns. For more of a social vibe, with a swimming pool, BBQ facilities, hammocks, a TV room, and the choice of privates or dorms in a homely atmosphere, Travellers Oasis, Cairns is really popular with tourists.

Tours & Experiences

Some of the most beautiful and unique views in this area come from the incredible village of Kuranda - and the train ride to get there is one of the most famous and scenic in the world. Why not try this Kuranda Scenic Railway tour, which also includes the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, for spectacular views over this ancient rainforest! Or, if that's not for you, check out some of the top-rated Viator tours below!

Please note that the tours displayed below are automatically selected for their popularity by Viator, not chosen or recommended by us. Please carefully consider the ethics of animal-based tourism activities before taking part!

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