Amber Connor describes it as "Shark Tale" without the animation. Little cities of fish abound. Brilliantly colored marine creatures fearlessly swim next to human visitors.
"My husband and I were fortunate enough to swim next to a sea turtle bigger than a beach ball for 20 minutes," Connor says. This wonderful destination is the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia, a maze of 3,000 reefs and 900 islands measuring more than 1,500 miles. Known as Australia's "Blue Outback," the reef was established as a marine park in 1975, according to Fodor's.
The reef is the only living organic collective visible from Earth's orbit, is one of the wonders of the world, and was declared a World Heritage site in 1981.
"It was every bit as phenomenal as we expected it to be, plus more," says Connor. "The weather was mild and perfect, yet the water was as warm as a heated swimming pool."
"Stinger season," on the other hand, is from November to April, and visitors are warned not to swim off the coast because of the abundance of deadly sea creatures.
"That's something they just need to be aware of," she says. "It's just a message to people that it's not advisable to swim off the coast at that season."
Most visitors will only spend one day exploring the reef and the rest on the mainland, where they can enjoy many other wonderful treasures, Hodgson says. Cairns, Queensland, for instance, boasts proximity to the reef and to a nearby rain forest.
Snorkeling or scuba diving are popular activities at the reef, and many boats provide dive instructions on site. Those terrified of the water can ride in a glass-bottom boat or see the reef by helicopter if they are prone to seasickness, Hodgson says.
Divers can hop on a live-aboard, which generally lasts from two to 10 days and can explore uncharted reefs and the Coral Sea, Fodor's suggests. A general day trip to the reef costs $120 on average, Hodgson says.
Visitors can stay in Great Barrier Reef island resorts such as those at Bedarra, Lizard and Hayman islands. If the trip is a family affair, choose a place like Daydream Island, which focuses on entertainment for the whole gang. Many people resort hop, as the islands are all relatively close to one another, according to Fodor's.
Now is the time to visit, as Hodgson says airfares are cheap.
"At the moment, there are unbelievable airfares out to fly to Australia," she says. "Travel is really something that people kind of put on hold, but the memories and education we gain is something that can never be taken away from us."
Hodgson stresses that the reef is a living environment, so touching the coral is forbidden, as it will break or destroy it. Because the reef is a World Heritage site, taking items like shells and coral from the area is also forbidden.
Fishing is also restricted in some areas and particular animals -- such as whales, dolphins, and green turtles -- are protected, according to the Australian government culture portal Web site.
"Just be aware that the human is the visitor and to treat it with respect," she says.
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