03/04/2009 105 °F
It was a 3 hour flight from Alice Springs to Cairns, although it seemed like it passed by in a flash.
Out of the dry, dusty, fly-filled, burning heat and into the humid, sticky, tropical heat. We landed in Cairns and jumped in the car to head up to Port Douglas. It was about an hour drive north (about as far as the paved road went) to Port Douglas from Cairns, and I was hoping that we'd see some wild kangaroos.
We pulled into the little town of Port Douglas and if felt like we were the only people around. After checking into our apartment, we went down to the main strip. The tropical vegetation was very different than anything else I had experienced in Australia. It was amazing to me how diverse the different regions of the country were, only reenforcing the fact that Australia is a very huge place. Everything was green, no bare dirt was visible anywhere. Each tree and bush was an explosion of leaves and flowers. You could tell this area saw a significant amount of rainfall.
We stopped into a bar for a brew, and surprisingly enough, hockey was on TV. I didn't know that Australians even knew ice hockey existed. As it turns out, the bartender had lived in Canada for a while, so he had an appreciation for the sport. The bar had some live music, a guy on the acoustic guitar accompanied by a didgeridoo (Aboriginal instrument) that sounded awesome. We ended going to a couple other bars, playing some buck hunter, and sharing way too many pitchers. One of the bars had an interesting urinal. As I've mentioned before, the Australian urinal is really just a metal plate on a wall that you whiz on and a drain at the bottom. This bar took it one step further and had you whiz on a window. At first I thought I was doing something wrong and that the lady on the back patio would wonder why a guy was taking a leak on the window, but there was nowhere else to go. It was surprisingly nice to have a view while doing my business as opposed trying to find something interesting on a blank wall. Of course the influence of alcohol may have made this more interesting to me than other (sober) people.
After the bar kicked us out, it was time to get some rest before our reef tour.
The next morning we stumbled out to wait to be picked up by our tour company. We went with a company called Wavelength. Wavelength specializes in snorkeling and small groups. The other tour companies have giant boats and offer underwater observatories, scuba diving, sub rides, and loads of other ways to get extra money from you. Since the coral and fish only live at a depth of 5-15 feet, you don't need all the other equipment to take in the views. By not doing the extra activities, our group didn't have to wait for the scuba divers to get ready or drop people off at observatories. Instead we could go directly to the best snorkeling sites. Since we had a smaller group, we weren't running into each other all day and got some breathing room out on the reef.
We boarded the boat and started our 90 minute trek to the first snorkeling site. Our guide explained what we would be doing, the proper way to use our snorkel equipment, and instructed us to get in our special snorkeling suits. Because of the threat of the jellyfish, we each had to wear special suits to protect ourselves even though the deadly jellyfish are rare out on the reef. The suits weren't too restrictive, but we looked like we were going in for bobsled training. Once we arrived at the first site, we all plunged into the water.
The first snorkeling site was along the continental shelf where the ocean floor just seems to end. It was a little freaky with such a vast open area water to our backs (which of course I knew was teeming with sharks just waiting for an open opportunity to strike). Our guide tried to show us all the different varieties of coral and appreciate the uniqueness of each formation.
The coral was a variety of colors, from pale khaki to deep green, but some of the coral seemed to glow with vibrant colors. Anemones moved with the ocean currents. Fish swam in an out of coral structures, moving from one overhang or hole to another. You would be watching a single fish picking through the reef when a giant school of fish would explode from the reef. The muted sound of being underwater heightened my vision, making the beautiful colors and formations stand out even more.
We got back on the boat and headed out for a deep water snorkeling site. This was a spot were there was an island of coral surrounded by very deep water. The island had multiple overhangs that fish like to hide under. Kicking down from the surface, you could sneak under and take a peak. Large spotted barramundi, squid, and other various fish were everywhere. Ghost whips snaked eerily upwards as fish wove their way in and out. A large school of fish actually took up residence under our boat, taking advantage of the new shady spot.
Our guide, Fluffy, was awesome. He had such an obvious passion for the reef and everything that could be found on it. Since he could hold his breath for 3 minutes, he would dive deep into the water and find the best overhangs and spots for us to view. He also had an awesome superman suit.
We made our way back to the boat and headed to the third site. It was only 100 yards away from the second site, but it was back on the continental shelf. More amazing views of coral formations and a variety of fish awaited us. A school of black fish twisted their way through the coral. Fluffy picked up a sea cucumber and passed it around. Fish huddled around a log that had gotten caught on the reef. Giant clams glowed with a blue interior. Anemone fish hid in their anemones.
We climbed back on the boat for the final time. We had spent 6 hours out on the reef and it was time to head home. Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef had lived up to the hype.