There’s a huge difference between knowing about something and experiencing it, isn’t there?
Even high resolution images shot by the world’s greatest photographers cannot capture the enormity, profound beauty, and emotional impact of a place. When I have had the chance to visit places like the Grand Canyon, Swiss Alps, Milford Sound, Cape Breton (Nova Scotia), the real thing has always exceeded my expectations no matter how anticipatory they were.
The Great Barrier Reef, which James and I visited for three days last week, exceeded all of my hopes.
Having been obsessed with marine life as a little girl, I knew a lot about the Great Barrier Reef:
- It’s huge. Comprised of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands, the reef stretches more than 2,600 kilometers. It’s roughly half the size of Texas in area.
- It’s gorgously vivid. The Great Barrier Reef is the only lifeform visible from space.
- Animals and plants thrive here. Six of the world’s seven sea turtle species live in the Reef; thirty species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises have been spotted in the Reef ecosystem; and more than 1,500 species of fish make their home here.
- It’s fragile. The corals that comprise this amazing place and provide shelter and food to so many species are endangered. Climate change has already increased incidents of coral “bleaching,” as the acidification (due to higher levels of CO2 in the ocean) and rising water temperatures negatively impact this marine ecosystem.
Knowing information and facts, even important ones, about where we were going was cool, but it was nothing compared to actually encountering the reef.
We landed from Sydney in Cairns late on Monday night and found the air to be muggy and still. It reminded me of Florida. I was surprised to find the city of Cairns to be comprised largely of multi-floor backpackers and hostels, with smatterings of bars and souvenir shops. You could instantly tell that young backpackers and 20-something Aussies on holiday keep the beach town busy until the early morning hours.
James had booked us a night at a quieter backpacker hostel just a few blocks from the wharf where we’d catch our boat in the morning. After our long day of travel (starting at 2:45am in Christchurch) and tourist-time in Sydney, we fell into (our lumpy) bed soon after arriving, but only after setting our alarms for 6am.
The next morning we walked down to the Cairns Esplanade (where a man-made lagoon reflected a group yoga and pilates class and mangrove trees towered above us) and on to the Cairns Wharf. There we located the boat that would take us about 30 nautical miles off the coast, to Reef Encounter.
On the way out to the live-aboard boat, we got a briefing from some of the crew, including information about the scuba and snorkel gear we’d be using; safety and evacuation information; and general details about our upcoming voyage.
The boat we would be staying on for the next two nights and three days, Reef Encounter, rarely comes into harbor. Instead, passengers are ferried in and out daily (the vessel that goes in and out also carried day-trippers), and that is also how crew and supplies get in and out. The boat does, however, visit three different dive sites: Norman, Hastings, and Saxon; the boat moves one or two times per day and then is stationary for water sessions.
Upon arriving at Reef Encounter, we slipped off our shoes and a crewmember carried our bags to our cabin. We then collected our snorkeling equipment, including wetsuit, snorkel, and mask, before changing into swim gear for our first swim.
How to describe the first glimpse of the underwater reef?
My eyes were sending signals to my brain that my brain was trying to take in, but there was so much to see! A few things that appealed to me were that the view reminded me of those old fishtank screensavers. Or a real fishtank like you see in an aquarium, seafood restaurant, or fancy dentist office.
Except that this was the real thing. The original, if you will.
Over the next three days, we had at least six water sessions per day where we could just suit up and swim off the back of the boat out over the reef.
The early morning sessions (at 6:30am) were my favorite: the sun had just risen and the fish were at their most active. I found that I quite enjoyed rolling out of bed and straight into the warm water!
Among the thousands of corals we saw, there were a few stand-out sightings:
- sea turtles: both of us got close enough to them that we could have reached out and touched them!
- sharks: James and I saw two different grey sharks (not sure of the species) and also spotted sand sharks.
- tightly packed schools of fish roiling in a silver ball
- Nemos! (clown fish) James found a few anemones with clown fish in residence, but I didn’t see any until the very last swim, when he located a family for me and called me over. So exciting!
- bright and florescent parrotfish
- HUGE clams that opened and closed
- a violet seastar I saw moseying across the coral
- small fish cleaning out the teeth of a larger fish (dental hygiene on the reef!)
On the boat I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my body acclimated to the sway of the ground beneath my feet (although perhaps my daily preventive consumption of SeaLegs tablets has something to do with it…), and going to sleep at night to the rocking made for easy slumber.
One disappointment I had was that I was ultimately not able to complete a scuba dive. Neither James nor I had any experience diving, but the package we bought had an optional “resort dive,” meaning it would be guided and down to maximum depth of about 13 meters.
I’ve always been a bit dubious about scubadiving. While I know that it can be a very safe activity, I felt claustrophobic and anxious when I imagined doing it myself. So when it actually came time for the “lesson” and dive, I was really nervous.
James and I got into our gear (the tank was surprisingly heavy!) and met up with our guide, Nick. I got into the Pacific water and made my way over to a long mooring line that we would follow down under.
As long as I knew I could pull my head back up to the surface, I felt fine with my face in the water, breathing the compressed air through the mouthpiece. But as Nick changed my flotation and we started sinking further below the water, I felt a tightness in my chest. And then I started hyperventilating.
Nick made the “you’re okay” gesture and looked calm, but I felt anything but calm.
He brought me back up to the top and talked to me a bit before we tried two more times, never getting more than a meter or so under the surface.
Ultimately I was just too nervous to continue, which was a pretty big disappointment. I am glad that James proceeded with the dive anyway, though! About 30 minutes later I watched him emerge with Nick.
James went on to do two more dives (including a night dive!), so I guess one of us really took to scuba!
Back onboard, the food was pretty good, although it was a bit inconvenient to have to answer the question “any dietary restrictions?” at every blasted meal (James is dairy-free and I don’t eat beef or pork). This was particularly frustrating because we had already filled that information in on our booking form as well as reported it upon arrival. Otherwise, dining on the ship was tasty–and such a treat to not have to think about, plan, prepare, or clean up meals!
Between water sessions I napped or read or sunbathed (sometimes all three!).
I also really enjoyed getting to talk with other travelers on board, including a solo-traveler from England; a family (from Pensacola, where I was born!) with 3 boys; a kiwi/Irish couple; two Swedish women enjoying the sun and warmth; and many others.
On Thursday morning I awoke aware that it was our last day aboard the boat. While I had really enjoyed our stay, I also wanted to see the kids again. I had received one email from Evelyn, a text message update from a friend who had them over on Monday afternoon, and also an email or two from the babysitter who spent each night at our house, but I wanted to feel those grubby hands and hear their voices in person.
We crossed the gangway back onto the transport boat in the late afternoon and a short (though choppy, nausea-inducing, wine-sloshing) 90 minutes later we were back on land.
I had a hard time believing only three days had passed since we left Cairns. We had seen and done so much, and I had checked a huge experience off my lifelong to-do list!
And now, because the photos are so beautiful, here are a few more.
Thanks to James for the underwater photography and photo-editing! [And a fun video collage!]