Australia Pt. 3 – Great Barrier Reef: Snorkeling and Sea Turtles

Great Barrier Reef, QLD – June, 2011

Continued from: Australia Pt. 2 – Cairns at Night: Planks and Legends

Continued here: Australia Pt. 4 – The Secret Beach: Coconuts and Croc Watch

After the bus dropped us off, we sprinted in swimsuits and coveralls through downtown Cairns, past bars with chairs on tables, past sundry stores and galleries, and then down the esplanade and onto the docks. People pointed, some laughed, an old man hosing off his shop’s walkway shook his head and muttered something about us damn tourists no doubt. Surely, we would soon be vindicated and the mocking would cease as a grand entrance into the boat terminal would find us just getting in under the gate if lucky, or long jumping from pier to seaward vessel if not.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault but I’ll just say that one of our group who neither lived in my mod or was named Samantha took a bit longer to get ready than the rest of us and we missed the bus that would get us on time to our 7AM Great Barrier Reef tour, the one we each paid a nonrefundable two hundred AUD deposit to join the day before. The next bus, if it made the lights and took liberty in the roundabouts would arrive in downtown Cairns with about three minutes to cross the nearly one kilo between the bus station and the dock. We quickly realized time was not on our side unless the esplanade had been replaced by a track overnight and our sandals could double as running spikes. Still, with a chance to snorkel through one of the planet’s greatest wonders we had to make a go at it.

Jeff’s watch clicked seven exactly as we burst into the boat terminal, surprising the clerk and the dive instructor, who were slowly checking in a fit old couple with matching hats.

“Oh there’s no rush” said the dive instructor, a tall man who looked a bit like the Brawny man moved to Florida. He had a bald head and his muscular yet top heavy body looked like an upside-down Giza Pyramid. “Other than those two, you’re the first ones here!”

“I thought it said the boat leaves at 7?” Samantha said, a bit breathless from the parade we just conducted to wake up all of Cairns.

“Ah! I knew you were from North America by your voices, but now I definitely know. You’re on Aussie time, mates!” He pronounced ‘Aussie’ like Mr. Osbourne’s first name, as all locals seemed to, smiling as he mocked us for our promptness.

“Anyway, I’m Simon, dive instructor and resident polymath. I’ll give you snorkel school, cook your lunch. But that’s all later. Tell me about yourselves!” The guy’s energy was palpable and we each summed up the first twenty or so years of our lives in a quick few sentences.

“Excellent, welcome aboard!”

It was twenty more minutes before the whole group was on the boat, a double-hulled white catamaran with a large central cabin and two main decks. Simon gathered the passengers who numbered several dozen and began what he called snorkel school, in which we all donned the proper equipment and practiced breathing and clearing it of water.

“If your snorkel gets full, say the word ‘two’ while exhaling and it’ll shoot right out.”

The entire boat then filled with a chorus of “twooo” as people made awkward breathy sounds like they were wheezing into a didgeridoo. After a few more pointers, the cat was untied and the engines churned us out to sea. Quickly, the low rises of Cairns disappeared off of the horizon, and then the verdant mountains behind the city, low and rounded like tropical Appalachians, took a breath and slid under the blue. A grey haired woman on the crew came around and asked what size we would like for our wetsuits. After answering, I asked if they were for jellyfish.

“No, love, it’s not jelly season. They’re for the chill.”

Soon, our first dive stop arrived in view, a short spit of a sandbar called Michaelman’s Cay, and a glass-bottomed water taxi was ready to shuttle us from the main boatto shore. There were no trees or structures on the cay, only small patches of grass, a drooping rope fence, and a flock of birds so numerous that even from hundreds of meters away they made an audible whirlwind that outmatched the sound of the waves when they flapped their wings in unison. Simon took this as an opportunity to explain that the entire back side of the island was a protected bird zone and that we could actually face federal charges if we felt the need to tread over the rope even for a moment. This was about as serious a tone as I’d heard anyone take in Australia about anything thus far so we decided to take heed.

The group quickly disembarked onto the sliver of the island not reserved for birds and we put on the rest of our gear. The majority of passengers, and all in our group except Asher, opted for a life jacket on the assumption that we would have more fun face down in the Coral Sea if we did not have to worry about keeping ourselves afloat. I was the first off of the beach, duck-walking in my oversized flippers to the tide line where the shockingly cold water penetrated my wetsuit almost immediately. The idyllic aquamarine sea was clear as thin blown glass for two stories down, and the low morning sun danced along the crests of each serene ripple, the light dancing in near unison as if the cay were a stage for a candle waving crowd. All other senses suggested the sea would feel like bathwater, but like a bright January afternoon that coerces you into leaving your coat, the view did not fortell the shiver.

I grew accustomed to the chill after dunking my head a few times, a trick mastered from late spring swims in Ohio, and blowing the water out of my snorkel whale-like, engulfing more saltwater than intended but in better shape than before. After a few more adjustments to my snorkel and a quick battle with foggy goggles, I was suddenly with the group about ten meters from the island, staring down at the expansive reef. The landscape wasn’t nearly as polychromatic as I had expected, mainly deep blues, fuchsias and grays, but the scope was massive and the water so incredibly clear that what colors were there stood out to be even more striking: A school of bright orange clownfish dispersing from beneath an anemone, a salmon-toned crab claw, the electric blue gullet of a yawning Pacific clam. The clams were scattered around the reef bottom, their enormous stony shells as wide as a human’s wingspan, which were almost all clamped shut, their sine curve jaws squeezed tight like a wobbly-mouthed vise. Simon assured us that they actually clench their jaws rather slowly and that they wouldn’t spring closed quickly like a bear trap but still offered the surprisingly necessary suggestion to keep any appendages of value away from them.

Asher proved why he forwent the life vest, diving down and shoving his camera in the faces of crabs, schools of fish, and on one occasion a giant sea turtle. The turtle glided between the rocks and coral, swerving around other reef dwellers like an impatient driver in heavy traffic, but then paused abruptly as if it knew that Asher was clicking away at the shutter.  The turtle hung out with the group for a few minutes than went on its way.

It was hard to believe Asher wasn’t a collegiate swimmer or diver based on his aptitude in the water, but he was vehemently denying it.  “Never even been swimming outside of a pool, really” he said when we called him out on his claim.  Not seconds later he launched himself about ten feet downward and plucked a two dollar coin that looked almost intentionally hidden between two rocks. He surfaced and held it up to the sun like pirate Gollum holding a piece of eight before quickly propelling himself back to the floor of the reef. I thought I was good swimming shape, breathlessly dog paddling and trying not to kick the coral with my flipper. 

Floating flat on my stomach and staring downward proved to be far more productive, and once I got the hang of breathing through the snorkel I could relax and it was incredible. I adopted the jellyfish’s strategy, allowing the cold waters of the Coral Sea to control my orientation, self-adjusting only when the water below would gradually shift to a royal blue, indicating that I was beginning to stray from the shallow reef. 

Even the most conservative estimates have the length of the Barrier Reef exceeding that of the west coast of the US. It is a staggering thought that I could dead man’s float from Seattle to San Diego and only lose sight of the coral habitat for the occasional deep water channel. After what felt like a third of that distance, I resurfaced to find I in fact was quite a ways from my group. Jeff was trying to dive without taking off his lifejacket, while the rest were having a laugh at the expense of a phallic looking coral with shaggy and appropriately placed anemones clinging to its base.  We spent the rest of the time at the cay circumnavigating the shallows, taking more photos and becoming continually amazed at the different shapes of the corals, the way fish schools dispersed and regrouped around a human-sized obstacle, the impossible shade of the water which lay on the hue spectrum somewhere between a summer sky and blue Gatorade. After about an hour we were called back to the boat for lunch, a command I was ready to adhere after a morning of current fighting and paddle flailing.

We dined inside the cabin on grilled chicken, prawns, massive stacks of biscuits, and more fruit salad than I thought could fit in a cat’s galley. Like at the lodge, there were mangos in just about everything, including julienne cut slices in that decorative spot on the corner of a serving dish usually reserved for endive or inedibly limp lettuce. The prawns, enormous and salmon toned, had the size and shape of an adult forming a “C” with their hand, and just a few would be filling enough for another several hours of floating aimlessly in the sun.  The animals were served whole- Shells, eyeballs, etc. and I looked around for a utensil like a lobster cracker to assist in the eating process.

“I guess just down the hatch they go?” Asher remarked after sneaking a how-to look at the young couple next to us, chomping on them, shells and all.  He had the confused and desperate glance of a gradeschooler trying to figure out what textbook page everyone was on.  Samantha and I were the only others that had these massive crustaceans on our plates, and in they went.

It was quite tasty, though the crunching and swallowing of sharp skeletal fragments was a distraction to the enjoyment, and the rostrum felt like a too-large crisp shard slicing its way down my throat. I learned later that we definitely ate it incorrectly, and that the couple we imitated was most certainly just as clueless as we were, but after one go, I decided to have the chicken as a viable substitute. The rest of the meal was excellent, but I spent the better part of the next hour fruitlessly twiddling a carrot or corner of a biscuit, trying to pick shards of exoskeleton from between my teeth.

Simon had by then begun doing magic tricks near the front of the cabin, surrounded by impressed tourists, namely twenty-something women who were more interesting in watching the illusionist than the illusion. One trick involved cards from a deck being wrinkled up in the hand of one of his volunteers/admirers and then pulled out of the very beer bottle another was drinking. Moving on from wizardry, Simon then asked for anyone to name a country, state, or province anywhere in the world and he would give us its capital.

“Swaziland” said one and he answered immediately.

“Chad” said another. Again, Simon was correct.

“These are all easy ones. Come on! Something a bit more obscure, and I’ll really show you what I can do.”

“How about North Carolina?” said Samantha, going subnational and homeward.

“I’ll do ya one better. How about both Carolinas? No need to discriminate!” After Raleigh and Columbia were recited, a task that may seem easy until you realize many Americans cannot name more than a couple of state capitols, a lanky Brit thought he had him with a relatively unknown Chinese province. Simon feigned as if he were stumped before muttering an answer. I had no idea whether this was correct until the Brit, phone in hand, looked up and said “Damn it all, he’s right.”

As we had a few hours to go before the next dive stop, Asher and I decided to visit the bar. Returning to our table with pints of Victoria Bitter, the others became envious and did the same before we all made our way outside toward the bow. The front of the catamaran had large nets where the deck would be, and they had the give of a trampoline and held the weight of multiple people lounging on them like hammocks, fortunate as the rush of the waves several meters below would be the only thing to catch you should they not. Sipping our beers, we joined the party on one side, the net sinking just enough to provide a backrest as we sipped and watched the cerulean sea splash below.

“Who wants to plank the bow?” said Jeff “extra points in the plank-off”

Unsurprisingly, Asher volunteered for this relatively risky endeavor while I readied the camera.

“Idiots” said Emily and sprawled back on the net as if she were making a snow angel with a lager in hand.

Asher crept up to the very tip of the boat and took a step up onto the ledge that separated us from a dive into doom. Slowly, he took one foot off the ground and then the other, attempting to make himself parallel with the boat deck while remaining balanced. Instead of planking, however, he looked sprawled out, hanging onto the railing like Leonardo DeCaprio would have if the Titanic had hit the iceberg in the middle of the iconic arms out scene on the bow. I snapped a picture anyway and said “We’ll clean that up in the editing room.”

The second stop was not at all like the first.  The water was dark, choppy, and the boat stopped nowhere within ho of land.  This was the reef that the boat company owned the rights to, and from the surface it appeared to be just a stretch of open ocean.  The wind had picked up en route, and when we jumped off of the deck, we were met with four foot swells swatting at us from the direction I could only assume was out to sea.

Earlier, Simon had begun the second excursion with a quick lesson on deeper water snorkeling.  “The boat has to anchor a good lot from the reef, so you’ll be swimming twenty meters or so over a deep water channel” he warned.  “If you get skittish, my best advice is to stay in a group and avoid looking down until you’re over the reef.” 

My group managed to stay together for the most part as we fought through the smacking surf, ingesting plenty of saltwater as it filled up the snorkel faster than I could exhale a breathless ‘two’, the now useless magic word. Once stabilized, I couldn’t resist, and slowly lowered my goggles below sea level. I could see the crest of the reef some meters ahead, but straight down provided no frightening vistas, just an endless midnight blue like a sky just after dusk.  Expecting my gaze to be met with a three finned shadow, tail wagging in my direction like a dog on prowl, I was relieved to only stare into the near space-like infinity. The lack of murkiness was astounding though, and as soon as the ocean floor rose to about twenty meters below the choppy surface, it displayed itself with more vibrancy than even the first.

Snorkelers who paid extra and were certified followed Simon along a submerged valley whose banks were flat-topped corals, each with different tones of the same color like the stratified walls of a canyon. We took turns handing each other our life jackets and trying to swim down to their level while getting a closer view of the reef, this one much further down, rising to a few meters at its shallowest.

Underneath was all quiet, the crashing waves above only churned up the view of the sunlight when looking toward the surface.  Without the jetty, the life below looked untouched and unbleached, the teal tint of several meters of water now dissolving and the nearer I sunk to the bottom, the effect on the color of the reef was like that of removing sunglasses in a forest. I held my breath for as long as I could before flapping my way upward and retrieving my life jacket from Jeff.

We had drifted due to the constant pull of the waves and the bottom appeared to slink further away just as we did to the boat. Then suddenly, it fell completely away and was replaced by a sinking abyss, not gradually like the side we approached on but at a right angle like the drop off from Finding Nemo. A few corals clung to the sides of the underwater cliff before the bottom disappeared completely, an eerie foreboding reached up from the cool ocean floor thousands of meters below and we turned back around.

The trip back to shore was quicker as the wind had picked up enough for us to sail, resulting in splashes of saltwater every few seconds, inundating anyone who remained on the deck nets. When Cairns was back in view, the boat slowed down and Simon took the opportunity to thank us each by name. There were at least fifty passengers and we had only introduced ourselves once at the beginning of the voyage. “Thanks Emily, goodbye Samantha, Asher – enjoy Fiji when you go, Jeff good luck with the whole med school thing. See you later Nick.”

We made our way through Cairns to the bus station, and the dinner crowd was getting into its Saturday swing. This time, we didn’t run.

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