Cruise the Great Barrier Reef with Captain Cook Cruises
Clownfish seen at the Great Barrier Reef; photo by Lincoln Fowler/Tourism Australia.

Come aboard as three generations cruise along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef looking for “Nemo” and his undersea friends — and find them.

“Can we visit Nemo again?” asked my eldest son as he climbed into the large Jacuzzi spa with me. No, he was not talking about the movie, Trent was raving about the real thing: the clownfish that swim about in one of the greatest marine environments in the world — the Great Barrier Reef.

We just happened to be cruising along this magnificent stretch of water on a four-day trip with Captain Cook Cruises. Our small and very comfortable cruise ship plies the northern part of the Reef off the east coast of Australia. Just the territory little Nemo himself tried to swim across in the blockbuster Disney-Pixar movie, Finding Nemo.

An Amazing Undersea World off the Coast of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest natural feature on earth, stretching more than 2,300 kilometers along the northeast coast of Australia from the northern tip of the province of Queensland to just north of Bundaberg. From our vantage point in the spa on the top deck of the ship, the world around us was filled with the light eggshell blue of a sunny sky over the gorgeous deep blue of the sea stretching out like a shimmering, wavy carpet. But not too wavy. The great thing about the Reef is the lack of big waves. No seasick kids or parents. Now this was my kind of cruise.

We left Cairns, Queensland’s northernmost city, several days before, aiming to travel further north to Cooktown, Queensland’s northernmost town. In between we explored the sort of tropical islands usually seen in glossy brochures: gleaming white sandy beaches edging green forested hearts.

We were ferried to a few of these for visits filled with sandcastles and paddling, walks and talks. We all experienced great delight from poking at seaweed and playfully pretending to stomp on tiny little crabs that sank themselves into the wet sand quicker than even a toddler’s jumping feet.

The ship stopped at a particularly shallow part of the Reef, floating there like a great mother ship while little offspring — glass-bottomed boats — puttered away from her to bob over great swathes of coral. Through the looking glass we saw a glorious underwater world where many Nemos and their finned friends swam amongst colorful coral.

Not Fancy but Very Comfortable and Small Cruise Ship

The ship we sailed on, while smaller than the large ocean-going vessels, still has all the comforts on its three upper decks, including swimming pools, hot tubs, small library/DVD room, a dining room and evening entertainment.

The cabins were surprisingly large for so small a ship and I reveled in some of the biggest attractions about cruising: someone else to clean my room (aaah), make my bed (sigh), cook my meals (uh yes), wash up (sob). Oh I loved it.

While there are no specific children activities, we brought our own toys for down time between tours, eating, movies and spas.

Living & Sailing Through History with Explorer Captain Cook

We were following in the wave-steps of Captain James Cook, an Englishman who, in 1770, sailed up this way and parked his tall ship, the Endeavour, inside a sheltered inlet for a time. A thriving town appropriately called Cooktown now hugs this inlet and it’s a fascinating frontier settlement.

Half a day’s shore leave gave us time to explore its museums, monuments, character-filled main street fronting the water and observe the sort of interesting rough characters who only thrive in such remote Australian outposts.

A tour guide drove us up to Grassy Hill, the local lookout. Captain Cook climbed this high point several times during his stay (without the help of a minibus) to get his bearings and find a way back out through the dangerous reefs. It’s certainly a spectacular view of land, river and sea. I gazed at the lush tropical landscape, as wild and green as it was in the Captain’s day and imagined the wildlife hiding in the bush and the crocodiles waiting in the mangrove swamps by the water.

Back on the cruise ship, we settled in for a delicious seafood lunch and discussed our family plans for the rest of the afternoon. These involved the two Jacuzzi spas on the upper deck where I pondered Trent’s request for more Nemo spotting.

I was saved having to make a definitive response by a shout below decks. We rushed to the side to see people pointing at a whale coming up for air, his long sleek back shining in the sun. He opened his air hole and breathed, then submerged.

The Family Connection with Grandparents in Tow

We did have another chance to ride the glass-bottomed boat on the way back to Cairns with my accompanying mother (do travel with grandma if you get the chance, great bonding for the generations), who was even led on an unforgettable snorkel by an accommodating staff member. Grandma arrived back on deck, animated and full of wonder at the underwater world she had just found. It proves life does start in your mid-60’s.

Our last night on the ship was full of laughs and entertainment as the vessel sped back to Cairns for a morning arrival. The staff put on a show that was as wacky and hilarious as amateur acts can get, and we bade the hardworking crew a fond farewell when we docked in Cairns.

Nemo’s, spas, wonderful food, friendly service, islands, an historic frontier town and a clean room. What a great trip… and not necessarily in that order.

Planning a Captain Cook Adventure with your Family

Please note that the Reef Endeavour, the ship this family sailed with several years ago, has been moved to Fiji. For the 2015 season, Captain Cook Great Barrier Reef Cruises range from three to seven nights in length, and are now done with the Corral Princess, a similar ship. Rates include all meals, afternoon tea service, excursions including the glass bottom boat cruise, and more. Scuba diving excursions are available, for a fee.  For more information on upcoming itineraries and fares, visit Captain Cook Cruises.

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This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.