Finally, it’s happening. An Australian cruise ship two-thirds full of passengers set sail this week, seven months after the global suspension of cruising in March.

Carrying 48 guests from Queensland, Coral Expeditions’ Coral Discoverer departed Cairns on Wednesday on a seven-night itinerary around the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike the banned big ships, this small Australian-flagged vessel is exempt from the government’s ongoing cruise restrictions due to its capacity of less than 100 passengers.

But final permission to cruise in the midst of a pandemic did not come easy. The company worked with a health emergency specialist to develop a management plan, focused on COVID-19 testing, screening and safety procedures onboard and ashore, which then had to be approved by all state and territory authorities.

All of the crew and guests on this week’s sailing are Queenslanders, aside from three Australian residents who entered the state more than two months ago.

Each person was required to undergo a health assessment by a local GP 7-10 days before departure, a PCR test (nose and throat swabs) on Monday and a temperature check by the onboard doctor every day of the cruise.

health assessment before onboardingSocial distancing and hand-sanitising are enforced, the buffet has been replaced by table service, and passengers are advised not to share things such as pens, menus and snorkels. It might sound like a lot of strict rules, but the reality is these changes do little to taint the experience. Following these protocols effectively creates a safe “travel bubble”, with mask-wearing not necessary and a higher level of service in the dining room.

Coral Expeditions pioneered overnight cruises to the Great Barrier Reef in 1985, so it’s somewhat significant that this week’s restart is back where they started. To date, the company has received 170 bookings and hundreds more enquiries, particularly from new customers. On this first voyage of the season, only nine are past passengers.

“We have seen a steady and building interest in the Great Barrier Reef series since we launched at short lead in late July. It’s very encouraging. There is strong pent-up demand for travel amongst Australians,” said Jeff Gilles, commercial director.

passengers from Queensland“All of our bookings are from Queensland residents and the flux around the opening of borders is not surprisingly the main prohibitor to travel conversion at the moment. We hope that the restart of operations and positive experiences over the first trips will lead to more confidence and awareness of the expeditions.”

The ‘Outerknown Adventures of the Great Barrier Reef’ itinerary explores the less visited northern precinct and visits Cooktown, Lizard Island, Osprey Reef, Hope Island, Ribbon Reef and Fitzroy Island. Highlights include a visit to the Daintree.

Another eight departures are scheduled this year on 21 and 28 October; 4, 11, 18 and 25 November and 2 and 9 December. Special offers include $500 travel credit, one night’s accommodation at the Pullman International, no solo supplements and half-price fares for children.

Follow the cruise in this day-by-day voyage log: