Great Barrier Reef adventures to feed the soul

Cairns offers the biggest variety of tour options to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Pictures: Michael Turtle

Cairns offers the biggest variety of tour options to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Pictures: Michael Turtle

In the evenings, Alessandra Giannascoli cooks at the excellent Italian restaurant called L'Abruzzese that she recently opened in Cairns, serving local dishes from the region of Abruzzo where she's originally from. It's a distinct cuisine because Abruzzo was surrounded by mountains and didn't have the same cultural influences as other parts of the country ... but, sorry, I'm getting distracted. This story is about Cairns, not Italy.

By day, Alessandra is a marine biologist. After Cyclone Yasi in 2011, she came to the Frankland Islands to assess the damage to the marine life. She's been studying - and caring for - her little patch of the Great Barrier Reef ever since.

"To make a difference, you actually had to go in the same place all the time," she explains to me. "If you move around, then your data collection is not accurate, so you have to look over and over and over at the same patch."

Alessandra Giannascoli leads snorkelling safaris and walking tours of the Frankland Islands.

Alessandra Giannascoli leads snorkelling safaris and walking tours of the Frankland Islands.

Alessandra leads tours for Frankland Islands Reef Cruises, the only operator that comes to this part of the Great Barrier Reef. Usually she would be out here almost every day but Cairns, a city that is usually heavily-reliant on international tourists, has been doing it tough since the start of the pandemic. Thankfully there are still quite a lot of Australian visitors who realise the reef is not something you just see once and cross off your list - it's animate and each visit is new and different.

We start our tour by cruising down the Mulgrave River, tropical forest sliding by on either side. The Frankland Islands are only 10 kilometres offshore so it's not long until we land on Normanby Island, our base for the day. Here, Alessandra leads two guided snorkelling safaris, pointing out Nemos (as we still call them), reef sharks, and dozens of other colourful fish that I don't quite catch the name of. Although her commentary is interesting, listening requires me to keep my head above the surface, and I want to be underwater, taking it all in. It's some of the best corals I've seen on the Great Barrier Reef, especially this close to the mainland - colourful in some parts, sure, but also just healthy and full of fish.

This part of the reef is teeming with life.

This part of the reef is teeming with life.

"When you get people coming over to the island, they think that the reef is dead, they don't have great expectations," Alessandra tells me (once we're out of the water and I can hear). "So, showing them that it's not like that is probably the nicest thing you can do, it's a nice feeling."

It's some of the best corals I've seen on the Great Barrier Reef, especially this close to the mainland.

Just like the expression says, no man is an island, and on the Great Barrier Reef, no island is an island either. Everything connects and one of the things that sets this tour apart from others is the hour-long walk we do around Normanby Island, Alessandra showing us life in the rockpools, the importance of the trees and the birdlife, and how it all fits together to create the reef ecosystem. It's an interesting way to experience the reef - on land and underwater.

Alessandra is a marine biologist by day and a chef by night.

Alessandra is a marine biologist by day and a chef by night.

Even though the coral and marine life around Normanby Island is doing well, parts of the Great Barrier Reef are under threat. Just last month, UNESCO's advisory body on natural World Heritage Sites, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), updated the conservation status of the reef to 'critical', the worst level. The IUCN pointed out that it's the general effects of climate change that are the main danger, not local activities that are easier to manage. Still, the coral bleaching that's occurring and the effect it's having on animals that live within the reef is a real and current problem that we all have a role in addressing.

Thankfully there are still plenty of places along the Queensland coast where you can experience healthy vibrant sections of the Great Barrier Reef, and Cairns has the biggest variety of tour options. There are cruises aimed at families where you'll dock at a pontoon with a waterslide; there are trips specifically for people who want to focus on diving; others have a strong emphasis on conservation, with Passions of Paradise a locally owned leader in this kind of ecotourism; and there's also Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel, run by Indigenous sea rangers who add a cultural heritage angle to the tour.

Some of these trips are led by a person known as a Master Reef Guide, an accreditation bestowed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Alessandra is one of them, and there are only about 60 others along the whole Queensland coast (and I bet none of them can make pollo all'Abruzzese!). They're chosen not just for their detailed knowledge of the reef and marine biology, but for their storytelling ability - and that's so important right now when almost all visitors are Australian. We need to see the reef as more than just colourful fish and pretty coral, and more than just 'threatened'. We need to understand its story so that we can be a part of it.

Michael Turtle was supported by Cairns & Great Barrier Reef. You can see more details about Great Barrier Reef tours on his Travel Australia Today website.