Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef
Sunday, 18 October 2009
Hayman Island, Australia
(In point of technical fact, I am writing this on Monday morning, but as the Aussies say, I was too knackered last night…the story is still the same!)
Today was our day to visit the Great Barrier Reef, and we certainly did it in style! We were picked up about 9:10 am by this huge catamaran from a company called Cruise WhitSundays (the island chain of which Hayman is a part) for the 1 ½ - 1 ¾ hour ride to Knuckle Reef, a portion of the Great Barrier Reef. There were snacks and drinks available on the trip, including a lovely Australian dessert I had yet to try, called a Lamington. It’s basically a finger of sponge cake dunked in chocolate and rolled in chopped coconut (I know, I know, but I bore up in the interests of cultural investigation.). It was quite tasty, even taking the coconut into account.
We were given a safety orientation by the dive master, an absolutely riotous Scottish man named Stuart. I am sad to report that, although Stuart claimed to be an engineer, I have my doubts, as he maintained that the ocean temperature was 25 Celsius, or a balmy 84 Fahrenheit. I begged to differ with Stuart, as everyone with a calculator knows that 25 Celsius is a not-so-balmy 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps things are different in the United Kingdom, but in American engineering schools, the rule was, is, and always will be 1.8 times the Celsius degrees and add 32. Poor misguided Stuart. Perhaps this is why Stuart is a dive master on a pleasure cruiser and not a practicing engineer.
Our destination was a three-story pontoon anchored at Knuckle Reef. Imagine, if you will, that you are cruising through open ocean then, BAM! You come upon this three story party boat just simply floating peacefully over the reef! It was amazing: they had a semi-submersible boat, a glass-bottomed boat, a platform for scuba diving, a huge snorkeling area marked off with buoys, and even a three-story water slide! When we arrived at the pontoon, we immediately rode the semi-submersible, the first trip of which had been reserved for our tour group. It was a boat with a really deep hull (I think that’s what it’s called--it was the functional equivalent of going to the basement of the boat), and there were windows all the way around it, with little seats beside them. It shoved off and took us around some of the coral bommies, as they are called here (coral tufts or growths). We saw lots of fish, many of which I had seen in aquariums before, but few of which I could actually identify. The coral was also amazing--it’s so weird to look at it and know that it’s real! The colors are not as vibrant as you see on TV and in the movies, though. Turns out that footage is “assisted” with underwater UV lights to counteract the wavelength-filtering effect of the water. Even three or four feet of water washes out a lot of the color, which I didn’t realize.
After the semi submersible ride, it was time for lunch, a very nice buffet served on board the catamaran, which remained docked with the pontoon all day. (I would show you pictures, of which I took a couple, but they are not very illustrative.) Then it was time to get geared up for the big adventure of the day: the snorkeling. Robbie, the marine biologist on board, had previously advised us that stinger (jellyfish) season officially started in this part of Australia October 1, and bearing in mind poor misguided Stuart’s water temperature report, David and I decided stinger suits (aka wet suits), provided by the cruise company at no charge, were the order of the day. How best to describe donning a wet suit? It is like putting panty hose on over your entire body. It was, however, warm and protected us from sun burn at the same time. (Consequently, I remain butt white pale still.)
Before the snorkel swim, we decided to have a go at the water slide. That was awesome! It was one of those enclosed twisty-type slides, and you hopped in from the top level of the pontoon, so by the time you hit the ocean three stories below, you were moving! Some people inhaled a little water, but I just held my nose…no worries mate! It was so much fun that we shoved a few kids out of the way and went down again!
The aforementioned Robbie kicked off his guided snorkeling tour at 1:30, but this being Australia and their loosey-goosey relationship with time, it was more like 1:45 before he got it together. There were five of us interested in going, so he hauled this big PVC donut (big! Like five feet across) out into the ocean for us to hold onto while we swam around and he told us about stuff. It really needed to be bigger, though, because we all kept swimming into each other, and I kept getting a faceful of another lady’s pool noodle.
The tour was very cool, because he was able to tell us all about what we were looking at. He also went down the bottom (maybe 20 feet?) and brought up stuff for us to see, including a mushroom coral and a sea cucumber that we got to touch! He even swam down and tapped a giant clam so we could see it closing. Wonder if there were any pearls in that bad body? We saw angel fish, parrotfish, some yellow and black stripey fish, something called a poncilier?, and the best find of all: we saw Nemo! Technically, we saw what Robbie called an emo Nemo. It was a black-and-white striped clownfish (apparently there are several varieties), which apparently are somewhat nasty-tempered: they bite! That wasn’t in the movie!
Now, I must confess something at this point. I know snorkeling is supposed to be this transcendent experience where you are communing with nature and being transported by the beauty of the fish you are seeing, but frankly y’all, I just don’t feel it. First of all, I am not a huge fan of ocean swimming because of the wave action and the untreated water. Second of all, they have many, many lovely aquariums where I can see the same things while standing bone dry on the other side of a piece of glass. Third, the ocean is their turf. I view it as part of the unspoken compact I have with nature: I don’t go into your turf, and you stay out of mine. Fourth, I was cold and I had to pee. Item number four was resolved in a time-honored fashion, however (read between the lines), but that was only a temporary fix for being cold. I was quite delighted when Robbie pronounced himself knackered (undoubtedly from towing our fat butts around with his PVC doughnut, poor guy) and I could get back on the pontoon, out of that blasted stinger suit, into dry clothes, and get an ice cream cone. A girl’s gotta have her priorities, and it turns out snorkeling is not so much one of mine!
Even after drying off, I was still a little cold (perhaps I shouldn’t have had the ice cream?), so I went in search of hot chocolate. What I found was something I had never heard of, a drink called Milo. It was warm and chocolately, but not quite hot chocolate. The crew man mentioned something about whole grains, so I may have to research this to find out exactly what I consumed. We arrived safely back at Hayman around 4:45 pm, despite the extremely rough trip home--people were knocking into each other like bowling pins. I kept my butt in the seat and quietly read my book. I observed no puking, which was good. I did detect one slight after-effect though: sitting at dinner last night, I felt like the table was rolling under me! I guess I had to get my land legs back under me!
We had a lovely dinner at the Italian restaurant here at the resort, La Trattoria. Caprese salad, fried polenta sticks, seafood risotto, and the most innovative pizza. It had pumpkin, sliced almonds, roasted garlic, and mascarpone cheese on it. It doesn’t sound good at first, but it was delicious! After dinner we flipped on the TV and discovered a mother lode of American shows: the “Bones” season premier was on (the one with Cyndi Lauper as the psychic…it’s just as good the second time around), we’d just missed “The Big Bang Theory”, and after “Bones” was “Castle”. We also caught a portion of that “Wipeout” show. I am not sure that all parts of American culture are worth disseminating, quite frankly!
Australian observations for the day: Australians do not use pennies--all prices end in 5 cent increments. This works out because they also do not have sales tax. They have something called GST, or goods and services tax, which is already included in the price of an item, so the price you see is the price you pay.
Tomorrow (Monday) we depart Hayman <sniff,sniff> for our flight to Sydney. We get there about 5:30 then go directly to dinner, before a trip to the koala sanctuary and the Opera House, and a harbor cruise on Tuesday. Lots more left to see before we head home, so I’ll say G’day!
This just in…I snagged a piece of bread from the breakfast buffet this morning (excellent French toast, not so much on the little chocolate doughnuts) to feed Dame Elizabeth, the swan. I did the same thing yesterday morning and had to throw it to her in her pool, but this morning she was right beside the steps and ate it out of my hand! That’s my kind of wildlife encounter.