Monday, April 7, 2014

Great Barrier Reef

It rained almost constantly when I was in Cairns. I did have a little rain poncho thing (basically an expensive garbage bag with a hood that's in a pretty color). However, it never rained when I brought it with me. It always rained when I forgot it. I believe I successfully mastered the look of "Yes, I realize I'm completely soaked. I'm okay with it. I love the rain so much that I don't need a sissy little piece of plastic to protect me." Of course, in my mind I was really more like "I think I'm more soaked than I was when I took an actual shower this morning. What was the point of that? Why is every building air conditioned? I'm gonna go into hypothermia. Why doesn't anyone offer to share their massive umbrellas? I would offer. This walk is taking forever, but I don't feel like putting in the energy to run all the way there. Might as well take off my flip-flops. They aren't helping me get there any faster in a foot of water." And that is how it was on the day I saw the Great Barrier Reef.

I knew it would be rainy all day. I even booked the tour on the rainiest day so that it would be a smaller group going. I figured that the ocean is already filled with water; a bit of rain wouldn't make much of a difference. The tour I chose was the cheapest one I could find that offered snorkeling. Plus, they also gave a discount to hostel members. While I loved the idea of doing scuba in the Great Barrier Reef, I didn't want to spent the day learning how to dive. I wanted to spend it seeing the reef. Since I already knew how to snorkel my reef time would be maximized. 

The hostel was pretty close to where the tour would be leaving. I had already walked down the beach front pathways that I was told were beautiful, but the rain made them seem muddy and the super fit people running by made me feel lazy. Thankfully, due to wandering down there, I knew exactly where to go for the tour. I arrived in plenty of time, fully drenched. As I squeeze a flood of liquid from my hair, I exchanged a confirmation email for a tour ticket. I quickly dived into an overpriced gift shop since I didn't have a towel and had recently finished a bottle of sunscreen. Then I walked out to the boat. The passengers had to wait to get on board while the crew finished preparations for our trip. We all huddled under a little wooden covering. I didn't really fit underneath and continued to get wet while other people took up the space with umbrellas in hand. After a few long minutes, we were allowed to board. 

The boat was a good size. There were approximately thirty passengers, which was half the normal amount. Some people were only scuba diving, some were only snorkeling, and some were doing a mix of both. The boat was going to three different reef locations. The first location, the closest one, was just under an hour away. I loved the feeling of the waves swaying the boat back and forth for the first thirty minutes. There was a steady decline in my stomach for the rest of the journey. As we came to a stop, I was clutching my stomach in a feeble attempt to make it feel still. I never felt like I would actually throw up. It was just an uneasy nausea of ever increasing intensity. 

Before the boat came to a full stop, we all chose our masks, snorkels, flippers, life jackets, and full body "stinger suits". There was also a very short talk on where we were allowed to go, where the best places to see things were, and a little reassurance that the sharks at these particular parts of the reef were much to small to attack people. I was one of the first people to dive in. The rain made the water a little cloudy, but I could hardly tell. The life jacket was optional, though I wanted it so that I could save my energy while in the water and not have to worry about staying afloat. I couldn't judge the distance of the sandy sea floor deep below me. It was close enough to see and far enough to freak me out if I spent too much time considering it. The reefs were tall. In some places they were easily within arms reach. (Of course, I wouldn't touch them!) They were also diverse in color, shape, and movement. It was mesmorizing, yet impossible to accurately photograph.

Speaking of photographs, they are very difficult to take when the ocean is moving you in all directions. I used my phone at first. Eventually, the battery ran out, so I bought a cheap waterproof disposable camera. Haven't developed the pictures yet, so I have no idea how they turned out. Most of my phone's pictures were blurry from the waves. The colors also looked washed out in the pictures even though they were vibrant in real life.

The fish were all different colors and patterns. The plain looking ones schooled together, while the brilliantly colorful ones were alone. Angelfish were in pairs. I saw several parrotfish, a few reef sharks, some clownfish (Nemo), and a million other awesome fish that I didn't know the names of. There was one kind of very tiny striped fish that would come almost to the water surface to look at the snorkelers. I liked them. There was one fish that we were shown a picture of and warned that they were agressive this time of year. I swam away quickly when I saw it's large and colorful body. 

After swimming for quite a while, I realized there were only a couple of us left in the water. Everyone else had gone back to the boat already. I went up to the edge of the stairs and asked an employee how they determined when it was time to leave. He said that they stayed a set amount of time at each place, and we were free to swim until a horn sounded, at which point we would need to go back on the boat. I returned to swimming until the horn sounded.

We had a short buffet style lunch while traveling to the next reef destination. I got stir-fry and tuna sushi. I normally don't like sushi at all, but for some reason it sounded amazing. And it was delicious! I went back for seconds after everyone had gone through, but it was all gone by then. :(

As soon as we arrived to the second location, I was ready to jump back in the water! Other people were staying on the boat for a while to let their food digest. My nausea had passed and I wasn't willing to waste time anticipating it's return. Thankfully, the rain was completely gone. There was supposedly a very large and beautiful turtle. I spent my whole time in the water looking for the turtle. I swear, every other person saw it but me. There was also a giant clam, but it was too blended in with it's surrounding to make it out. 

I walked out onto the back of the boat while it sped to the last reef. I sit comfortably in a lounge chair and watched a man across from me kept getting viciously splashed by the spray of the boat hitting waves. He would move, the boat would change direction, and he would get sprayed even worse. He laughed about it, and so did everyone else who all somehow remained dry.

One of the employees decided to give us a tour at the third location. He must have done this a million times, but it was still horribly inefficient. He directed fifteen or so of us snorkelers to follow him in the water. Fifteen rookie snorkelers swimming together means a lot of people getting kicked in the face with flippers. To avoid the mess, I swam on the outside of the group. The guide did a free dive to the bottom and picked up a giant sea slug. The thing looked like a black pill bug twice the size of a loaf of bread. I wanted a closer look, but nobody in the group was willing to lose their spot and let me through to see. This annoyed me, so I decided that I would start swimming at the front of the group instead of the back. If I stayed just slightly ahead of the guide, I would be able to see and not get kicked by clumsy swimmers. The second time the guide stopped was to point out a group of clownfish swimming inside an anemone. I saw that one. As we kept swimming the guide suddenly did a hand motion for me to stop. I stopped and turned to look at him as he did a weird scooping movement with his hand in front of my face. As I stared at his hand, a tiny jellyfish came into focus. He surfaced to show everyone, and claimed the jellyfish was perfectly harmless. The guide also pointed out a large sting ray before ending the tour. I saw a few more rays and many more fish and corals before the horn blew to return to the boat. 

By the time the the last reef was done, my feet were covered in blisters from the flippers. I stayed in the water from the second we could go in until the second we had to get out at all locations. I was also worn out. I sat down in my chair and woke up an hour later as the boat returned to it's dock. There had been a photographer snorkeling with everyone the whole day. He got a few good picture of me, so I spent $15 to take one home. I returned to the hostel in the rain, ate a quick dinner, and fell asleep again as soon as I got into bed.

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