Great Barrier Reef: Chance of a lifetime
No visit to Cairns would be complete without a trip to the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef A large chunk of Cairn’s tourist industry is dedicated to this natural wonder. On my sister’s recommendation I booked with the company she had used for a trip that would take us further out along the reef to less crowded locations. According to her, the snorkelling was the best she’d experienced in Australia. So I booked us in for a day trip on the SilverSwift catamaran to experience it for ourselves. We’d get to visit 3 different sites and spend up to 5 hours exploring them with the option of snorkelling or diving.
Up until the day itself we’d intended doing a dive at one of the sites, but decided as we checked in that snorkelling would be enough for us. As we stepped on board we passed a queue of personnel handing out forms and papers to sign, and unexpectedly hauling us over to a corner to pose for a photograph. We were pretty sure we weren’t going to be forking out for a shot of us with wind blowing everything into our faces as we tried to keep hold of sheets of paper while the sun rose right behind us. However we were going to be encountering the ‘professional photographer’ for the day and had better get used to it as he wasn’t about to take no from any passengers, no matter how disgruntled some of them got.
The boat was nice and spacious, only half full with about 30 passengers spread about it. They immediately provided tea and muffins which was a good start. As the engine roared into life and we made our way out of Cairns, we were informed the sea was a little rough. That probably would have been good to know before we ate a second muffin. There was quite a bit of nausea as we moved out into the open unprotected sea, although it really was nothing compared to the excesses of the Whitehaven Xpress. It was still quite a long journey taking about 2 hours to get out to the first reef site we were going to visit. On the way we passed one of the floating bases other companies used for viewing the reefs. Something that looks quite out of place – a manufactured structure sitting alone out in the wide open seas.
As the anchor went down at the first site you could clearly see the reefs in the surrounding blue waters. Sandy stretches showed up as light colours at the surface while the coral reef shaded the water dark elsewhere. Ironically, a birds eye view would give you a clearer view of how vast an area the different reefs cover. We had a quick briefing at each site while the divers made their way into the water, laden down with tanks and equipment plus the photographer doggedly following their every move. When they were safely below, we pulled on stinger suits to protect against the sun and donned flippers and masks. The first site was relatively small and basic, but snorkelling out in the open seas was a new experience for us. The ebb and flow of the current took some getting used to. It was difficult to simply hover in one spot as the waves constantly pulled you in different directions. Getting too close to the coral put you in danger of inadvertently getting sucked on top of it with the next wave. While the boat provided a fixed location to move around, the water always deceptively took you in a different direction to where you thought you were going. Spot checks at the surface every couple of minutes were the only way to ensure you didn’t drift completely off course.
The advantage to snorkelling out in the open sea was the sheer variety of sights below the water. At the first site we didn’t spot much of the wildlife that we were told were around somewhere, but got accustomed to moving around and finding good locations to search. At the second site I finally spotted a sea turtle under the shadow of some coral, busy feeding. The mottled turtles are less swift than the fish as they swim through the water, but are very graceful nonetheless. Along with the turtles there were the usual Maori Wrasse lurking about and various shoals of smaller fish. A large group of white coloured fish moved as one in an impressive display of synchronised swimming, randomly darting here and there as one big swarm with no fish ever out of formation. The coordination at that speed was freakishly perfect. Some of the other types of fish we saw included the zebra-striped Bannerfish and the easily recognisable red and white anemone or clown fish (think Finding Nemo). Clams were scattered here and there on the ocean floor, easier to spot when their open coloured maw was in view.
At the last site, our friendly Japanese snorkelling instructor suited up and proceeded to make his way around on the lookout for anything of interest. He located another sea turtle, this time missing one of its legs. Once he pointed out a few clown fish in hiding, it was a lot easier to spot them again elsewhere. For his last stunt he dove down to retrieve a sea cucumber and bring it to the surface for people to have a feel before he let it drift back down to the sea bed. As he returned to the ship we did another circle back around the site, pointing out any new species we glimpsed and getting our fill of the unusual underwater world. It was a fascinating glimpse into a vast underwater ecology completely different to the world we’re used to living in.
By now we were tired out with our water exertions and more than ready to call it a day. We returned to the ship for the final time and hosed ourselves down. We still had to stop off at Green Island to pick up some passengers so we got a look at the little huts out on the water that indicated where people could don large helmets and walk out along the sea bed, hoping some interesting sea creatures would cross their path. The photographer had been busy ensnaring groups of people all day and for the entire voyage back we were treated to the results of his efforts on endless loop on the tv screens. All the arrival shots were strangely lit with the sun in the background. They actually looked like blue screen shots with washed out figures in front of a fake background. The underwater shots were a little hit and miss. Thankfully we’d only been caught once. He seemed to be doing ok with sales though, despite the astronomical prices.
As the day ended we went to pick up our bags from the Travellers Oasis and relocate to their sister hostel, Tropic Days, for the next couple of nights.