Expedition Cruising in Australia

Australia has embraced the growing worldwide passion for exploring by small ship with its own special brand of adventure and expedition cruising.

The ancient continent of Australia adds a unique offering to the global catalogue of boutique ship itineraries with its spectacular marine and coastal landscapes awash with European and indigenous history.

Small ship, adventure and expedition cruising came into its own during the close of the 20th Century and set a new benchmark for intrepid travellers looking to experience the natural and cultural wonders of the world responsibly and sustainably. Small ships, with fewer passengers and a gentler footprint, enable access to ecologically sensitive environments off limits to the larger cruise liners which require prohibitive infrastructure and facilities. The intimate and conscientious nature of small ships makes them perfect for some of Australia's lesser-known and challenging coastal regions.

One of the obvious and most popular destinations for small ship cruising is Australia's fascinating UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. Stretching almost 2000 kilometres from Bundaberg to New Guinea, it’s the world's largest collection of coral reefs with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of molluscs, it comes as no surprise that around two million people visit the reef annually.

Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef

The tiny fleet of vessels operating in this region is best exemplified by Cairns-based Coral Expeditions which operate year-round from their base of Cairns, itself a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Take one of their three or four-night cruises from Cairns or Townsville and explore the outer reef where the most magnificent coral and marine environments exist. There are opportunities for both experienced and novice scuba divers alike and onboard PADI-certified divemasters offer introductory dives for those who want to go beyond snorkelling.

Even if an aqualung is not for you, snorkelling is an excellent way to view the brilliant corals and dizzying array of brightly coloured reef fish as most of the action is just below the surface. All equipment and expert supervision is provided and you don't even need to be a swimmer, just drift and relax.

Ashore you can visit historic Cooktown, the site of Australia's first mainland European settlement where Lieut. James Cook careened the Endeavour for three months to repair damage sustained after a collision with the reef. Explore the pristine landscape with a guided bushwalk of Lizard Island and there are also several opportunities to wander undisturbed on a truly uninhabited coral atoll.

Lizard Island (R Eime)

As an extension to the Great Barrier Reef a few operators offer more adventurous explorations of Cape York, venturing north to the very tip of Australia and even across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands. These rare voyages are perfect for those wishing to gain a more intimate understanding of the rich indigenous history that exists “across the top” of this land. On one of these enlightening voyages you will learn the little known relationship and trade between the Aboriginals and the other seafaring people from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and even the Philippines.

Across the continent, to the Indian Ocean, is Australia's fabled Kimberley, so vividly portrayed in Baz Luhrmann's blockbuster movie, Australia. The choice of vessel for this region is vast, ranging from cosy smaller luxury launches such as Reef Prince, to opulent mini cruise ships like the acclaimed Coral Adventurer, carrying around 100 guests. Selection is purely personal based on your budget and desires with the smaller boats perfect for groups, families and corporate charter, while the larger boats offer the chance to mingle with new people and enjoy the expert commentary and lectures that usually form part of the larger ships' activities.

True North on Montgomery Reef (R Eime)

In the Kimberley, expect to see some of the world's oldest rock art hidden among the craggy overhangs that line the rivers. Some scholars argue that the Bradshaw (or Gwion Gwion) murals represent the most ancient of all, while the more recent Wandjina paintings are magnificent examples of art produced right up until the arrival of European explorers and settlers.

Fishing for the legendary barramundi (Lates calcarifer or Asian Sea Bass) on one of the numerous rivers is also a highlight for visitors and some of the higher-end vessels will carry their own helicopters to offer unparalleled views of the truly breathtaking landscapes. Time your visit for the early months (May-June) and the wet season run-off creates spectacular waterfalls at locations such as Mitchell Falls and the Kings Cascades. Choose mid-season for comfort, climate-wise, while the later months are better for bringing in the big 'barra'.

Broome, the remote and eclectic gateway town to the Kimberley, has its own peculiar outback personality and is renowned the world over as a pearl-producing region of the highest quality. Several vessels include visits to the aquatic pearl farms where the pinctada maxima shells grows in the rich waters to produce their distinctive fine white-lustred pearl. Exquisite pearl jewellery from the most prestigious suppliers, either Paspaley, Kailis or Linney's is almost always available on board.

One of the most awarded Kimberley cruise operators, True North, also offers an insightful annual exploration of Western Australia's Coral Coast at the very start of their Kimberley season. Beginning in Fremantle aboard True North, the trip takes in such locations as the Abrolhos Islands, site of the infamous Batavia mutiny, gorgeous Shark Bay and Ningaloo Reef as well as the seldom visited Monte Bellos group, where a complete warship was once vaporised in an atomic experiment. Today, the islands have reverted to their former beauty where sublime sea turtles lay their eggs in the warm sand. If you're lucky, you'll witness young hatchlings make their perilous dawn dash into the surf.

Elephant seals in chorus on Macquarie Island (R Eime)

For the seriously adventure-prone, there exists Australia's most remote Southern territory, Macquarie Island, forming part of several specialist itineraries to the sub-Antarctic that attract a growing number of visitors to the bounty of wildlife only seen in these wild latitudes. Administered by the Australian Antarctic Division, the now UNESCO World Heritage-listed island was once a bonanza for sealers and penguin hunters who made the perilous passage to harvest these animals for their valuable oil. Artefacts from these dark days can still be seen amongst the tussock grass.

For expert, independent advice on expedition cruising in Australia or anywhere in the world, consult:

Expedition Cruise Experts

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