"I guarantee you will see a turtle."
Music to the ears of any snorkeler, this promise from the Wavedancer crewmember delivering the orientation lecture has us biting our mouthpieces and spitting into our masks with anticipation. Turtles are the jewel in the Low Isles crown and they are what everyone has come to see.
Most of those aboard Wavedancer today are on a "shore" excursion off P&O's Pacific Jewel, which is in the middle of a Barrier Reef Discovery cruise. Pacific Jewel is anchored off Port Douglas and the day trip begins on a ship-to-shore tender before we board the luxury 30-metre motorised and sailing catamaran for the 15 kilometre, 75 minute trip out to the Low Isles in the Coral Sea.
On arrival we are treated to the longest and most comprehensive equipment demonstration and safety briefing in the history of snorkelling and there are tourists from all over the world paying very close attention. They have heard the stories of shark attacks and want to know about that. They have heard of killer jellyfish and want to know about that too. They want to know whether the turtles we have been promised will bite.
My eyes glaze over as the briefing turns to the vexed issue of how to operate a floatation noodle and I peer over the side and see a green turtle looking back at me. Turtles are attracted here by the plentiful seagrasses on the intertidal sand flats, which also draw dugongs and rays. C'mon, get on with it!
Described as a "small low island" by the ever-accurate but prosaic Captain Cook in 1770, the name 'Low Isles' was officially adopted in 1819 for these two coral cays and connecting reef. The larger cay, Woody Island, is inhabited only by birdlife and the smaller Low Island is our snorkelling destination, if we ever get to the end of this safety briefing, which - thanks to a question from the audience - has now moved on to a discussion about whether it is safe to eat lunch and snorkel in the same week.
Glass bottom tenders eventually transfer us about 100 metres from Wavedancer's calm lagoon mooring to the cay and on the way we pass over another relaxed-looking turtle chilling on a patch of sea grass, to the delight of all. We get kitted up on the sandy coral beach and many of us opt for the fetching top-to-toe, black Lycra body suits. The suits were strongly recommended during the briefing as protection against the sun and stingers, which the instructor said were "more prevalent during the summer months but could still be in the water today". Like many of the people pulling on the skin-tight suits - especially the well-fed cruising set - I look like a chubby black dugong and can't get into the water fast enough.
It turns out the apprehensive tourists who kept the orientation seminar bubbling along have nothing to worry about. This could be the safest snorkelling tour on the entire Great Barrier Reef. In addition to the thorough briefing, there is a clearly marked snorkelling circuit close to shore with resting pontoons, two lifeguards on duty and oodles of noodles and life vests available. The whole circuit is quite shallow and within minutes even the most angst-ridden first-timers are having the time of their lives.
The snorkelling trail is pretty crowded at first but eventually the throng of Lycra thins out like a dispersing oil slick. Visibility is superb and we are treated to a wondrous examination of the reef, with its diverse assortment of 150 hard and the more dominant 15 soft coral species, myriad colourful fish, molluscs, sea cucumbers and the aforementioned green sea turtles. It's also calm and clear enough to see the coral's tentacles gathering tiny bits of food. Especially striking are the fluorescent green and purple parrot fish and artistically striped surgeonfish. While the outer reef offers superior snorkelling, the easily accessible Low Isles is still a picturesque encounter and Wavedancer has underwater cameras for hire for $45, which includes the memory card, to capture the experience.
Those who don't want to get wet – or look like pregnant dugongs – take the glass bottom boat scenic tour over the soft coral gardens that surround the island. This sedate and less unflattering way to observe the bounty of the reef is very popular with older guests and non-swimmers. This Wavedancer tour is not suited to those confined to wheelchairs but the crew handle the semi-mobility-impaired guests with dignity and aplomb.
There is also a Beach Walk tour, which includes access to Russell, a marine biologist who takes us on an informative wander along the palm-fringed beach. Russell is a font of knowledge, as you'd expect, and answers all sorts of questions: "The Great Barrier Reef is actually 2300 kilometres long and comprises 3000 reefs and islands …Coral hasn't changed shape in 500 million years …Yes, the reef is threatened …No, I have never been bitten by a shark ...No, I don't know what's for lunch."
As it turns out, the Wavedancer crew put on a lovely lunch of cold cuts, salads and fruit (and, without a hint of irony, noodles). White-tipped reef sharks and other scavengers swim around the catamaran waiting for scraps, eliciting excited gasps when they thresh the surface. After lunch, those of us brave enough to take on the shallows of Low Island with full tummies head back over for another snorkel. This time it's far less crowded and I have plenty of sprawl room, which is more than I can say for my pliant Lycra swimsuit.
This little corner of the Great Barrier Reef has had its share of famous and infamous moments too. It was stripped of all vegetation by a cyclone in 1911, which also devastated the then little sugar exporting town of Port Douglas. Visitors have included former US President Bill Clinton, actor Matthew McConaughey and the Olympic torch. Steve Irwin was attacked by a stingray at Batt Reef not far from here and rushed to Low Island, where he died.
The Low Isles Preservation Society has done a lot of volunteer work to maintain this pristine environment, including the establishment of the Low Isles Heritage Walk, a short interpretive stroll through the middle of the cay. Regular placards tell of the history, wildlife, Aboriginal significance and the lighthouse, which began flashing in 1878. This was also the base for the first ecologically detailed scientific study of a coral reef anywhere in the world, commenced in 1928. A small room at the end of the walk houses various artefacts, from tools and bottles to coral samples and fish skeletons.
The on-shore breeze blows up on the way back to Port Douglas and Wavedancer raises her sails, which provides another thrill as they fill and strain against the wind. We are also entertained with a guitar singalong on the main deck as satisfied passengers catch some rays, relax with a drink from the bar and discuss the fun of the day. Swimming with the Low Isles turtles will live on in the memory long after the embarrassment of the Lycra has faded.
P&O's Pacific Jewel, Pacific Dawn and Pacific Pearl regularly undertake Barrier Reef Discovery cruises from Sydney and Brisbane. See pocruises.com.au
The excursion from P&O cruise ships is called 'Sail to Beautiful Low Isles'. Adults $195.99; Children (12 and under) $109.99. Includes lunch, snorkelling equipment and expert noodle tuition. Stylish Lycra body suits (sizes up to XXL) available for hire for $8 extra. Non-cruise guests embarking direct from Port Douglas: Adults $184; Children $98.
FIVE OTHER P&O CRUISES SHORE EXCURSIONS FROM PORT DOUGLAS
DAINTREE RIVER CRUISE
On this crocodile-infested tour of the Daintree River and Daintree Rainforest you'll also see plenty of exotic birds, explore Daintree Village and have a swim and gourmet lunch at the Sheraton Mirage Resort. Adults: $175.99, children (12 and under) $145.99.
Catch the outback spirit at a working cattle station on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. The show includes stunt horse riding, cracking whips, cattle dogs, quad bikes and bush tales, followed by an Aussie barbecue lunch and live music. Adults $119.99, children $69.99.
This Indigenous heritage tour features a welcome smoking ceremony, a walk through the rainforest to culturally significant sites, Dreamtime legends and talks on cave painting and other traditional practices. Lunch, an art gallery visit and a quick tour of Port Douglas also included. Adults $199.99, children $169.99.
FLAVOURS OF PARADISE
Visit Thala Beach Nature Reserve and sample a freshly husked coconut, drop in to a tropical fruit winery for mango, passionfruit, lime, ginger and lychee tastings and try a barramundi burger, croc burger and Brahman burger at Daintree village. Meet the farmer and see a working cocoa and sugarcane farm. Adults $149.99, children $119.99.
LUNCH WITH THE LORIKEETS
The renowned wetlands enclosure Wildlife Habitat offers a buffet lunch as lorikeets, curlews and cockatoos flit around you. Includes a coach sightseeing tour around Port Douglas. Adults $115.99, children $89.99.
Mal Chenu was a guest of P&O Cruises