Snorkeling at Byron Bay's Julian Rocks Marine Reserve is one of those unforgettable, once in a lifetime experiences. It's one of the few snorkel sites where you can swim with tropical species found on the Great Barrier Reef. However for us, the main attraction was swimming with turtles. Although the images on the Byron Bay Dive Centre website do show you turtles up close, it doesn't seem to prepare you for how close you can get, out on the trip. It was one of those moments when your eye meets that of another species and something passes between you, like the dolphin at Tin Can Bay, the turtle at Mon Repos or the Asian elephant at Australia Zoo - all indescribable experiences that connect you and enrich your life.
Imagine swimming so close to a turtle you feel you can reach out and touch it. The calmness of sound in water, the tranquil, bubble filled underwater setting, contrasting with the swell of the sea at the surface and the birds settled on jagged Julian Rocks.
Our trip was professionally handled by Byron Bay Dive Centre. Our multi-national group received clear, concise instructions telling us what to expect, during the pre dive briefing and at various points out on the boat. Short and humorous directions meant that all group members understood what to expect and what was expected of them, how to seek help and stay safe during the experience. Fittings for equipment, which included a wetsuit (helps keep you warm and buoyant), mask, snorkel and fins, were done first, the briefing was next then it was time to jump into the minibus for the 5 minute trip to Palm Valley for our launch at the Pass. At the beach, we watched the boat being reversed into the water and released off the trailer, until it was ready for the group, who climbed aboard in knee-deep water.
Surfers and swimmers were warned of our presence and intention to launch with a loud hooter. Following the instruction to hold on tight to the rope, on the side of the rubber duck we were sitting on, we took off into the waves at the shore and quickly made our way out past the break. Luckily it wasn't heavy surf on our trip and the ride was exhilarating although I have to say, not for the faint hearted. The five minute ride brought us to Julian Rocks, which is a Marine Reserve inhabited only by birds. Dolphins are often seen on the short ride out. Mooring 25m or so off the rocks, we put on our snorkeling gear and slipped into the water off the side of the boat.
Accompanied by two crew, we made our way towards Julian Rocks. Protected somewhat by the waves coming from the other side, the shallow waters are home to 3 different species of sea turtle, an assortment of rays, wobbegong sharks and over 400 different species of fish. It was eyes to the sea floor and off we went. The schools of fish were varied and colourful, large and small. When popping my head up to recount our family group, who were swimming in pairs, I noticed one waving and pointing to her head. We had devised hand signals for the creatures we might see, as we travelled down to Byron in the car. "Head" meant loggerhead turtle so we all swam quickly over and were amazed to see two turtles below us. We watched them swim under us then surface next to us for air.
The turtle calmly looked me in the eye then dived back down, popping up several times for air, right next to us. The patterns on the shell were intricate and beautiful. We saw the wobbegong shark lying on the seabed. It was well camouflaged, with its blotches and frills that made it look like rocks and seaweed. The variety and colours of fish were stunning.
The hour in the water was surprisingly tiring and our two youngest (aged 10 & 12) were ready to swim back to the boat, just as the hooter blew to signal time up. All our family had great fun with the underwater camera, which you can hire from the Dive Centre. We even managed to capture a turtle swimming by on video. Our images were quickly transferred to DVD on our return to the Dive Centre (or you can bring your own memory card).
Our return boat ride brought us back to the launch site. We hopped out and walked up the beach, travelled by minibus back to the dive centre where we rinsed out wetsuits and were able to take a hot shower. Photos were burned and our trip was complete. Memories were made and it will be a trip our kids will not easily forget in their lifetime. For me, that's one of the best gifts of childhood – the making of rich and varied memories, experiencing something new and amazing.
Snorkel Trip Facts: Max number 12, min number 4, cancellation by the passengers less than 48 hours prior to departure incurs a 100% canc fee. Prior to that time, the centre is able to reschedule or issue a full refund. Should Byron Bay Dive Centre cancel due to unsuitable sea conditions, then all money paid is refunded or your trip date is rescheduled. We had several attempts at our date, as the weather wasn't producing the right conditions for snorkeling. We phoned prior to departure and had to reshuffle the date, a couple of times. So you may need to be flexible but that's ok, as you want the optimum conditions when you do snorkel. Snorkel tours are at: 8am, 11am & 2pm. Just remember if you are travelling down from Queensland that Byron Bay is in New South Wales, and therefore their time is 1 hour ahead during summer with daylight saving. So your 8am departure would be 7am Queensland time. Don't miss the boat. Check the time carefully when you book. Also, if you are prone to motion sickness, I'd recommend you take something for it before hand. I also wouldn't take young kids out, unless you are confident of their swimming ability and conditions on the day are good. The Dive Centre address is: 9 Marvell Street, Byron Bay and their contact number is: 1800 243 483 (8am - 8 pm). The Centre is open all year round, only closing for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.The cost for the snorkel tour is $55pp. We felt that it was good value for money.
The Dive Centre can help you with recommendations for accommodation if you want to stay overnight. The Links page on their website also gives local info and other relevant links. There's plenty to see and do, so making a trip out of your visit to Byron, is worthwhile.
In addition to the varied adventure options there are shops for the shoppers, and a bar near the beach for the non-shoppers. There's also an Arts & Industry park on the outskirts of town (5 minutes from the main street), where you can watch glass blowing or check out the offerings of local art in the various galleries, showrooms and studios.There is an Arts Trail which offers a uniquely Byron experience.