Finally, the Great Barrier Reef (and it is pretty great)

Cairns Travel Blog

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Thursday, September 3

The two biggies on my Aussie vacation list were the Henley-on-Todd regatta (check) and snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. Today is a big day.

On the advice of our guesthouse owner, Maggie, we sign up with SeaStar. Cairns is a town that lives and dies by tourism, so it's not too suprising that there are heaps of Reef tour operators. We're glad for a recommendation from Maggie. SeaStar picks up and gets our earlier than other companies, it appears, to give you a little time before you are descending upon by the hordes of other tourists, just like yourself.

There are 33 of us on the boat. Their stated limit is 30 but apparently they decided to make room for 3 more -- us!  :)  After getting everything secured, we're off! It's about 90 minutes to our first stop, a teeny-tiny "island" where we'll do about 90 minutes of snorkeling.

It's a bumpy bumpy ride and I'm doing my best to hang on to my stomach because I don't want to take dramamine (it puts me to sleep). I did pretty well until we actually got to the "island" (it's maybe 200 yards long and 50 years wide). I don't actually lose anything but when we arrive, I am not a happy camper.  A little green and a lot surly.

Bless Jeff and Kitty. Kitty mostly (and wisely) gives me a wide berth and Jeff just silently endures my snarliness. Kitty had the good sense to take the dramamine before we left port. Jeff never gets seasick but he accepts how miserable it can make you and is very patient with me when I am.

The water temps are in the mid-70s, which isn't balmy. It's not cold either, but it is chilly. They offer us wetsuits. 

I hate wetsuits.

Wetsuits are a pain in the ass to get on. They are designed to fit snug and damn they do. The first suit they give me is too small, which doesn't improve my mood. I get the next larger size and Jeff helps me get it on. Long sleeves and short legs and a thick interior and I feel a little like I'm wearing a piece of carpet.

I tromp down to the swim ladder, put on my flippers and googles (so now I'm a clumsy piece of carpeting) and climb into the water.

I love wetsuits.

I am already very buoyant but I can float -- upright -- forever in a wetsuit. Without dog-paddling or kicking my legs or waving my arms or anything. Just stand there, in the water, with my head up. It's lovely.

AND, after the initial eep of contact with the water, it keeps me warm. I'm happier now.

The boat offers a dinghy ride to the beach but Jeff and I decide to self-propel. The water is maybe 10-15 feet deep and you can see all kinds of coral and fish and swimmy things (the really big fish like to hang out under the boat for some reason).  The boat crew offers a guided snorkel tour (tricky, since it's darned hard to hear him with your ears under water). We tried that for a little bit then all went out separate ways.

This was a big adventure for Kitty, since she's not a strong swimmer and has never snorkeled before. But she jumps right in (with the aid of a swim noodle) and is happily paddling away in no time. She's chilly (clearly needs more body fat!) but having a great time.

We didn't even try to take underwater pictures. They are never as cool as what you see on your own. But we saw plenty of clown fish ("Nemo") and all kinds of other colors and varieties.

My favorite thing was the giant clams.  They could be the size of my hand or the size of my torso. They were lined with a multicolored skin with two openings (the mouth and....the other end) with a fuzzy looking rim. When a cloud covered the sun or if you touched them, they would close up.

I hung over them and watched them for a very long time. They completely entranced me.

The colors of everything were amazing -- blue, silver, pink, green, lime, purple, orange, yellow, day-glo yellow, red, brown, black. Whole schools of fish would swim around you. We looked for turtles but never found any. We did see one ray hanging out on the bottom.

I love being in the water and this was heaven for me.

They finally called us back to the boat, where we stripped down and had lunch while we bounced to our second snorkeling location -- an open water area.

An aside about the GBR -- it's not a single reef. It's a long chain of reefs that parallel about half the east coast of Australia (roughly, Maine to NC in the US). They are maybe 90 minutes away by boat from the coast in most places. They are generally underwater but in spots they break the surface (not good for them) or come darned close to the surface. They host a stunning amount of aquatic life. They are generally fragile and growing all the time (though different types of coral grow at different rates).

They are a world-class diving and snorkeling destination. The tour operators have to be licensed to go there and are only allowed to go to certain places. You will pay a "reef tax" -- $10 - $20 -- with your tour fees to help support the preservation of the reef.

The water can be choppy. When we were by the island, the current was somewhat strong but the island kept the surf from being too strong.  After lunch (including prawns, BBQ chicken, and lasagna), we went to our open-water dive. My head and stomach were not completely happy about this but I didn't really give them a vote.

Struggle into the Swimming Carpet and jump in the water. It's markedly choppier than the first spot. Jeff, Kitty, and I decide to swim together. The current is stronger too, so we decide to go against it for a while and let it carry us back to the boat.

The water is deeper here -- 15 - 30 feet -- but the reefs are much closer to the surface in many places, because there are reef "walls" -- places where the reef has grown straight up to the surface or just below the surface. This close to the surface, they also cause more waves. We are also trying very hard not to touch or bump the reefs, which requires more vigilance on our part. More course plotting too, as we have to figure out where we can get through reef walls.

Kitty is still using the swim noodle, pink this time, and when she is head-down in the water, she looks like a pair of pink bunny ears cutting through the waves.

She's got some darned good eyes too. She was the only one to spot koalas on Kangaroo Island and she spots too gars -- slender fish with long pointy noses and tails -- just hanging out in the current. They are silver-purple and I never would have seen them.

We're scheduled to snorkel for about an hour but after about 30 minutes, the chop is making me queasy and Kitty is cold, so we leave Jeff to the snorkeling and we climb back on the boat. And, yes, I promptly take two dramamine.

The SeaStar also has access to a glass-bottomed boat. This is shaped a bit like a box, with a well in the middle that has glass on the bottom. It drives slowly over the reef and everyone peers down to see what's below the boat. You see lots of coral but not very many fish (it's a motorized boat so I think it scares the fish away). Kitty and I take a turn on that but mostly just relax on the boat.

After a snack of cakes and tea/coffee (and re-loading all the snorkelers and divers), we motor back to Cairns. I try to nap through most of that.

Once we got back to the hotel, Jeff and I decided, as long as we're in our bathing suits, to jump in the hotel pool (really, a small lagoon type thing that is very cute) and rinse off some of the salt water. Very refreshing.

After our showers, I was prone on the window seat in our room and happy to never ever leave it again. Jeff had other ideas and threatend to smack me on my sunburned legs (why did I put sunblock on my face, which was mostly underwater, and not on the back of my legs, which were upright to the sun all day?????????) if I didn't get up. He can be a very mean man sometimes.  :(

We caught a cab into town to the Ochre restaurant, which specializes in Australian cuisine. Scallops, lamb, and emu (finally!) and we went back to our room and passed out.

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photo by: Katie_Kate