Thursday, October 13, 2011

Great Barrier Reef: One of the Seven Wonders of the World

One of our dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef

On the morning of July 27th, we set out for a 2 day trip out to the Great Barrier Reef where we would sleep out at sea. Based on reviews on Trip Advisor, I chose leaving out of Cairns. Their boats are among the more ragged in the port, but the staff were excellent. After some negative publicity affecting other dive companies who accidentally left passengers out on the reef (gulp!), I found the security measures on our boats extremely thorough. They required a signature from every passenger at the termination of every dive, before the boat moved position and at nighttime. There was a diveguard on top of the boat as well as several crew and a safety boat in the water for every dive.

A pair of humpback whales off our bow
We left Cairns on Reef Experience, the company's day boat, early in the morning. We spent most of the two hour trip out to the reef on the top deck enjoying the sunshine and a complimentary breakfast. We were lucky enough to meet up with a pod of humpback whales who were happy to put on a show for us.

Once we got out to the reef, the crew transferred our bag from Reef Experience to Reef Encounter, ReefTrip's floating hotel. Once on board, we were shown to our rooms and given a short orientation about the plan for the next two days. Many of the crew were college age kids on Australian vacations who were working on the boat (usually in housekeeping or the kitchen) in exchange for free dives around the Great Barrier Reef. A couple of German guys who arrived the same day we did were working on the boat in exchange for scuba certification. They seemed to work long hard hours, but were able to participate in about 50% of the dives.

Reef Encounter
There were 4 dives a day and a harrowing night dive for the scuba group. The boat moved to a new dive site a couple of times per day. Overall, I loved it! We only snorkeled as the minimum age for diving is 12 in Queensland, however the experience was still incredible. Throughout this post, I use the term 'dive' loosely as we were always on the surface. The underwater pictures below don't really represent the actual experience. From the moment you put your mask under the water, it's hard not to be impressed by the thousands and thousands of fish in continuous motion all around you.

This carpet of green was shimmering in the current

Thousands of colorful fish

Of course, there are many small fish (up to 2 foot long) and I think I saw the entire cast of Finding Nemo, except the sharks.

Reclusive and solitary Moorish Idol
We saw a couple of rays and a sea turtle. The scuba group saw some reef sharks, but to Harrison's disappointment, no sharks for us. I was however lucky enough to scare a group of around 20 Giant Sweetlips (4-5 feet long, probably over 80 lbs) out from under a ledge

Giant Sweetlips (about 80lbs each)

All of us got in the water during our trip. Harrison and I never missed a dive and Cassandra came in for most of them. However, I was also proud of Trish (who is a reluctant swimmer) and Mackenzie (who was too young to use a snorkel) for venturing into the ocean a few times to experience one of the seven natural wonders of the world. 

Cassandra under the sea
Harrison, still uber-cool even while swimming!
The first dive with Mackenzie only lasted a few minutes. She went out with me towing her on a noodle, but her goggles fogged up immediately and she caught a swell in the face when she removed them to clean them off. That was it for day one. We never actually made it from the boat to the reef.

After the late afternoon dive, the bar opened but most of the passengers were exhausted after spending the day in the ocean, so there wasn't much drinking going on. I think almost everyone was napping. The kids settled into watching some ocean-themed animated movie (they had them all!) and shortly after dinner we all retired to our rooms. Even I was asleep by 10:00pm.

Sunset to close my 42nd year
The next day was my 43rd birthday! It started with my family, supported by a bunch of the other passengers and crew, singing happy birthday to me over a danish, anointed with whipped cream and a birthday candle. It was amusing to hear a constellation of European accents singing 'Happy Birthday to mumble mumble mumble, Happy Birthday to you'. A German guy gave me some Vegemite.

With the formalities finished by 8:30am, it was time for more dives. Thankfully, Mackenzie had recanted her threat to never go in the ocean again and had psyched herself up for another visit to the reef. The crew had suggested using a life ring instead of a noodle which added 360 degree support. It did the trick. She did great out there ... and loved the fish!

Mackenzie giving it another shot
With everyone in good spirits, one of ReefTrip's underwater photographers captured one of the best shots of our entire trip.

After lunch, we transferred back to Reef Experience to eventually make our way back to Cairns. The girls decided that they'd had enough diving for that day, so it was only Harrison and I that went in for the last afternoon dive. Given that is was almost 30C outside, we decided to leave our wetsuits behind against the recommendations of the crew. We were too far out to sea for box jellyfish to be a threat and they were several months out of season. Without the buoyancy of the wetsuit, we were able to dive to the bottom to get a much closer look at the fish and our movements were much less restricted.

Harrison and Nemo
A closer look
Giant clam
Purple stick coral and butterflyfish
Abandoned anchor
Back in Cairns, after a shower and a short rest, we headed out for a birthday dinner at the Raw Prawn on the Esplanade. We started with an assortment of Australian bush meats. Kangaroo steak was delicious, closely resembling venison. We had less stellar reviews of the emu which tasted like a gamey turkey and the crocodile was described alternatively as 'disgusting' and 'never again'.

Harrison with his mud crab fresh from the tank
For the main dish, I treated myself to a steamed mud crab. With all of the entitlement that a 10 year old can muster, Harrison decided to treat himself as well. Unlike abandoning the wetsuits, this was not a good idea. They were delicious, but the shell on these monsters was so hard that the standard lobster tools just didn't do the job. At the end of 2 hours, my bleeding and battered hands were barely able to lift the lukewarm crab meat to my mouth. Harrison was much more sensible. At the 45 minute mark, he sent his back to the kitchen to receive a few blows from a large hammer.

By the end of the ordeal, Mackenzie and Cassandra were asleep on the table, but despite the lengthy wait, the meal was great and a fitting close to an outstanding birthday.

The next morning, we were off to spend the weekend with our old friends Sophie and Will and their family in Melbourne.

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