Great Barrier Reef: Finding Nemo – The True Story

If you haven’t seen Finding Nemo, you’re going to want to go watch it right now…then come back in 2 hours.

It’s one of the best Disney movies, but what I found out on my day at the Great Barrier Reef blew my mind. Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but still…

Long story short: Nemo’s mom and all his siblings are eaten by a barracuda, Nemo gets captured, and his dad spends the rest of the movie trying to find his son. [Keep this in mind, and we’ll come back to it later.]

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Back to my day snorkeling the reef. I’m pretty sure the Great Barrier Reef is at the top of everyone’s bucket list. If it’s not, I don’t trust them.

Quick Facts

  • It’s the only living thing visible from Outer Space, which is kind of awesome, especially since we all travel to Space so often.
  • When they called it the “Great” Barrier Reef, they weren’t kidding. On our day trip we went to three different snorkeling sites, all of which were a part of one reef area, Opal Reef. To put it in perspective, there are over 2,900 individual reefs, so what we saw was like 0.0001% of the Reef. I’d say the Great in Great Barrier Reef is really quite modest.

After lots and lots of googling and reading reviews, we decided to do a tour with Calypso out of Port Douglas, and it didn’t disappoint. The Great Barrier Reef blew my mind – as you already know. It was absolutely incredible, and we even went on a not so perfectly sunny calm day, so that’s saying a lot. One of our guides told us they get complaints all the time that the reef isn’t as bright or colorful as they thought it would be. [They say they’ve seen Finding Nemo, and they know what it’s supposed to look like.] Remember, you can’t believe everything you see. However, I was mesmorized by the reef – it was everything I imagined it would be and more. No, I didn’t get to ride the East Australian Current with Crush, but I did float atop giant clams, see huge, tropical fish, and get up close and personal to all things coral. If it’s not on your bucket list, add it now.

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The day

I was slightly terrified upon boarding the catamaran for our day trip to the reef, as it was rainy, windy, a little chilly, and I had just passed a sign describing the sea conditions as rough. Ominous clouds hovered, and the guys on the boat recommended everybody take seasickness pills as it was going to be “rough out there.” Super. Being the hypochondriac that I am, I popped one and immediately felt better. (Fortunately, they had seasickness pills on board.) It was about an hour and a half ride to the outer reef, so we got outfitted with snorkels, masks, fins, some warm tea, and we were on our way.

The waves sure weren’t small, but after awhile, you just kind of got used to the rocking. I’ll still never like the sight of people grabbing paper bags, though. The sun peaking out ever so slightly in the distance was promising, not to mention, the water was the most gorgeous shade of blue despite the gray day. Maybe the white caps really helped bring out the blueness.

The ride to the reef went by surprisingly fast, and soon they were passing out stinger suits (just in case of jelly fish), and getting everyone ready to snorkel/dive. Calypso describes themselves as the “mother” (if I remember correctly) of the tour companies because they’re a bit over cautious when it comes to safety. I’d say that’s a good thing. We had a very thorough briefing of how to snorkel, where to stay, emergency signals, etc…Definitely the opposite of what I’ve experienced snorkeling in Mexico…

Just as we arrived at the first snorkel site, the sun came out. Perfect timing. And fortunately, it was pretty calm tucked behind the reef. The water was a leeeetle chilly, but as soon as we started swimming, I warmed right up. Plus, the sea creatures and coral pretty much made me forget about everything else. We weaved in and out of crevices, floated by plenty of fish, from clown fish to parrot fish, sea urchins, starfish, and even an octopus, and attempted to capture it all with a GoPro.

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Giant clams are pretty awesome.

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Look at this stuff.

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Isn’t it neat?

In between each site we got tea/coffee in an attempt to keep warm in the wet stinger suits. After the second snorkel sesh, we chowed down on sandwiches, pasta salad, veggies, and fresh fruit while one of the Calypso staff gave a reef talk. That’s when I learned about Nemo.


He talked about all things Great Barrier Reef, from the different types of fish and coral, its size, to threats to the reef. He assured us that although climate change is affecting the reef, it is not nearly to the extent that the news likes to make it out to be.

  • Brown coral, although not the prettiest, is the healthiest.
  • Ocean pH is 8.2 and falling.
    • Too much acidity weakens coral and its structure, making it more likely that a storm could wash it away (but this would take a very long time to happen)
  • Ocean temperature is rising – slowly.
    • If water gets too warm, coral gets stressed and rejects algae, its main food source.
  • However, coral can regenerate.
  • New coral grows over dead coral.
  • The new coral is showing adaptability to climate change.
  • Once a year around November after a full moon, the reef is covered in a “pink cloud” as a mass coral spawning takes place. (This can be seen from Space.)
  • This fish, a Maori Wrasse, is a friend of Calypso. The fish learned they weren’t a threat, so one always comes and hangs out right by the boat. And it’s huge. Interestingly enough, all are born female. One male typically has a “harem” of females, and it’s always the male that’s by the boat, while the females don’t come near. However, when the male dies, one of the females becomes male, and at the point, comes to the boat as if she knows that it’s safe, even though she’s never come close before. Cool right?

But, did you know? 

Clown fish are all born males. In the sea anemone, there will be just one breeding male, one female, and several young male clown fish. When the female dies, the breeding male will become female and then harass one of the younger males until it matures in order for the two to mate. And that’s how the cookie crumbles. Lots of incest over and over basically.

What really should’ve happened?

What I’m saying is that Nemo’s dad should’ve turned female and then harassed Nemo until the two could mate, have more baby male clownfish, and voila. The circle of life. Obviously Finding Nemo just wouldn’t have been the same that way, so Disney improvised.

Wild, but still a great movie and probably better they didn’t scar children everywhere.

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It was definitely a little harder getting back in the water after our lunch break, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss the last site. The last stop was around low tide so a bunch of the coral was actually above water at this point, allowing for even better visibility. It was also the site with the biggest drop off, and it got real deep off the edges which was cool to see. I could’ve just floated and stared at all of the different fish and coral all day, which I kind of did, but you get the point. Although it got a little chilly in parts, it was the perfect day. The ride home wasn’t nearly as choppy, and it seemed to go by very quickly. Everybody with Calypso was so knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful, and I’m dying to go back already.

Where to explore the reef?

There are a number of ways to visit the reef, the main hubs including…

  • Cairns
  • Port Douglas
  • Whitsunday Islands

There are other options as well, but those 3 seem to be where the majority of tours depart from.

How to Explore the Reef?

Not only can you do a reef tour from a variety of places, but you can also choose how you want to experience the reef. From the air? By sea? Under the sea?

  • Helicopter tours
  • Snorkeling
  • Scuba diving
  • Glass bottom boats
  • Party barge
  • And so much more

Personally, I’m all about life under the sea.

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Tour Companies?

There is no shortage of tour options, and it can be a little overwhelming trying to pick the right one. Obviously, the first thing you have to decide is how you want to explore the reef. If you want a bird’s eye view, you’re going to want to have a look at helicopter tours rather than boat tours. If you want a more personal experience, you’ll want to look into smaller operations or even a private charter if your wallet allows. Going with a big group? This might be your best bet.

My Recommendation

In short?

  • Port Douglas
  • Snorkel/Scuba
  • Calypso

Why Port Douglas?

Resort town, beaches, closest mainland port to the reef (source), a little less mainstream in my opinion. Cairns definitely has more accommodation options, restaurants, etc…but from what I’ve heard, it’s a backpacker, party city. I enjoy some good nightlife, but we’re talking about the GBR here.

Why snorkel/scuba?

I wanted to make friends with some fish, maybe even a reef shark. Although if you have more time to explore [and money], seeing the reef from above would be pretty insane.

Why Calypso?

Happy medium. You can choose to snorkel, dive, or even do an introductory dive. Plus, it’s a small-medium sized group. We had only 20ish people on the boat with us, and during summertime they still only allow about 65-80. Less people in the water means less disturbances and more sea life – and less chance you’ll get kicked in the face with a giant fin. They also take you to 3 different sites, each of which is unique. If you’re exploring the Great Barrier Reef, you want to be able to see as much of it as you can – even if it’s still pretty insignificant in the whole scheme of things.

It all really depends what you’re looking for. There are so many possibilities, and as far as Port Douglas goes, these are just some of the options.

  • Calypso [also have a strictly snorkel tour]
  • Poseidon
  • Quicksilver [400-500 passengers and a platform at the reef – different options for snorkel/scuba or viewing the reef from an underwater observatory]

In general, it seems the majority of companies offer similar activities, including snorkel, dive, as well as introductory dives all for similar pricing. You really can’t go wrong.

As far as Calypso goes, you can see rates here, what’s included, what to bring, and all about your day at the reef.

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We got no troubles, life is the bubbles under the sea.


Happy Great Barrier Reef -ing!

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Stinger suits and snorkel masks are always flattering.

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