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Archive for the tag “Great Barrier Reef”

The Great Barrier Reef

Below the waves of the sparkling Coral Sea, stretching for 2300 km (1400 miles), the submarine landscape of the World’s largest coral reef system lies steadfast yet ever changing, off the coast of Australia’s Queensland. Over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands make it the biggest structure made out of living organisms, and unsurprisingly it is visible from space. For many visitors to Australia, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a given, but for me, it had taken 5 years and multiple visits to this vast country to come even close. I love being by the sea, and I love the creatures that dwell in the oceans, but getting into the open water and exploring them in person is not a natural activity for me. So suffice to say, I’ve never really been fussed about going to the GBR, but now, working my way as I had up the Queensland coast, it seemed only sensible to reach Cairns and see what all the fuss was about.

The health of the GBR has been a hot topic of late, with reports of invading species such as the Crown of Thorns starfish decimating reefs, pollution changing the fragile water quality and of most note, the devastation of climate-induced coral bleaching. Like many ecosystems, those of coral reefs are a fragile sort, with many creatures and plant life living in symbiosis with each other. In other words, the presence of one organism is crucial to the presence of another. Coral by nature is colourless. It is the algae that colonise their tissues that give coral their fabulous and ranging colours. But rather than being a parasite, these algae are the life source for the coral. Without the algae, the coral fade to white, and eventually they starve and die. As sea temperatures rise, or pollution alters the water quality, the algae are the first to suffer, the coral following suit. My first experience of the GBR was in its southern reefs off the Whitsundays. The snorkelling conditions had been magical, but the coral bleaching was very much in evidence across the whole reef. The reef floor was littered with a graveyard of white coral, and there was more white coral than coloured coral in large sections of the reef. It was sobering and a little disheartening to see. I was intrigued to see how the northern reefs were coping.

After an enjoyable day up in Kuranda, the next morning I had an early rise to meet my pick-up to drive me to the Cairns marina where I was to board my transport for the day. There is an unbelievable amount of choice when it comes to getting out to the reef, from day trips to overnighters, helicopters to boats, diving to snorkelling. It is almost overwhelming. I had booked myself on an overnight reef experience, involving a boat trip out to a moored mini-cruiser which would take me around a selection of reefs over the course of about 30 hours. Most of the people on the boat were just going out for the day, but those of us with a special ticket, got sent up to the wheelhouse where a bacon & egg roll and a platter of fresh fruit awaited us for breakfast. I love spending boat journeys out on deck watching the world go by as the wind whips my hair into the biggest tangle of knotted curls, so I was a little irked that we were confined to the cabin for a while as introductions, formalities, paperwork and liability forms were sorted: an inconvenient necessity that I was glad to get over with. It was a sunny day, and the loungers on the top deck were the perfect spot to soak up the rays as Cairns disappeared behind us, eventually disappearing out of view.

 

It took some time for the Reef Experience boat to finally reach the Reef Encounter, the floating ‘hotel’ that was to be my base till the following afternoon. The small group of us changed vessels, whilst the many day trippers moored a little way away. For my first experience of a floating ‘hotel’, the Reef Encounter was easy to like. Stepping into the lounge area which appeared both dated but yet retro, the crew were welcoming, smiling and eager to get us settled and into the water. We were shown to our rooms and I was delighted to discover that my twin-share cabin was all mine, and after living in backpacker dorms since I’d left Noosa behind, this was the most amazing news I could have been given. Better still, unlike some of the others, my room was upstairs so I had a sea view and looking out the large windows, I spied the Saxon Reef.

 

The days were divided around a schedule: early morning snorkel or dive, then breakfast; morning snorkel or dive; mid-morning snorkel then lunch; afternoon snorkel or dive; mid-afternoon snorkel or dive then afternoon tea; night-time dive then dinner; and amongst all this water activity, the boat would move between reefs offering 3 separate locations over two days and the opportunity to learn to dive or gain further dive certification. I’ve done a lot of adrenalin activities in my time but diving has never been something I’ve been interested in. I have a fear of drowning and so the thought of being deep under the water and having to rely on a breathing apparatus doesn’t fill me with much excitement. I was one of only 3 people on the boat who wouldn’t be diving, and as the water activities went on over the 2 days, I began to realise that perhaps the experience was lost on me a little. Undeterred, I was aware that I would likely only visit the GBR once, and I was determined to make the most of it.

Briefings and welcomes over, I got kitted up in a wetsuit and got into the water for the morning snorkel session. Straight away the difference between Saxon Reef and Hardy Reef in the Whitsundays was obvious: there was next to no coral bleaching to be seen. The fish life was incredible and plentiful and excitedly on my first trip out I saw an eel. The water may have been calmer at Hardy Reef, but here the ecosystem seemed so much healthier. I stayed in the Coral Sea for about an hour, bobbing around watching life go on below me before coming out for lunch. The chef on board was incredible and I tucked into the first of many incredibly delicious meals. By the time of the afternoon snorkel, I was surprised to see a swell had appeared and the sea conditions were suddenly quite different to the morning. Still at Saxon Reef, I made a point of exploring different areas than I had on the morning snorkel and I found massive shoals at the fringes of the reef. In fact I got so distracted by them that I got whistled at for having strayed out of the snorkelling zone.

 

The top deck of the Reef Encounter offered the perfect sunbathing zone, and armed with a book from the library in the lounge, I pretended to read in between getting to know my fellow passengers and soaking up the sun. The boat had a bit of a rigmarole to go through to leave its anchorage and move on to a new spot. We anchored at Norman Reef offering a change of scene for the next water session. Here though, things were very different. The reef was not right next to the boat but a bit of a swim away, and the sea was quite choppy now. The sun was still shining but the sea did not look in the least bit inviting. I was nervous before even getting in the water, and one of my companions on the boat who was also a little nervous asked to buddy with me so that we could keep an eye out for each other. Unfortunately for her, I turned out to be the worst snorkelling buddy ever.

 

As fine as I am in the swimming pool, being in the open ocean can be a bit hit and miss for me. If conditions are calm and there is something to grab my attention, I can overcome any fear I have and push it to one side. A couple of years prior I had a panic attack whilst snorkelling in the open ocean off the Galapagos Islands. The sea conditions there had also been choppy and my guide at the time had thought the sensible thing for me to do to stop panicking was to stick my head under water and look below me. Little did he know that the sight of a deep oceanic abyss with no bottom in sight would be the catalyst for my fight or flight mechanism kicking in. It had taken all the resilience I could muster to stay in the water that day and complete the snorkel.

So now in the Coral Sea, I wasn’t far from the boat when I started to have water splash into my snorkel, sending me into a bit of a choking fit. My buddy suggested I alter my swimming technique which worked for her but didn’t work for me, and as she swam ahead of me oblivious, the choppy water repeatedly splashed into my snorkel, and as I failed miserably to clear it, I began to swallow water which sent me into a blind panic. Now, part of our welcome briefing had included a run down of emergency signals to give if you get into trouble, but it is incredible how even when I was struggling to clear my throat and breathe properly without taking on more water, the underlying thought process going through my head at the time was that I didn’t want the embarrassment of being a bother to the crew and so I stubbornly didn’t call attention to myself and just allowed myself an attempt at drowning in silence. Wearing large flippers generally makes treading water a relatively easy experience, but in full blown panic mode they weren’t quite enough and for one brief moment, I felt myself slipping under the surface and it finally dawned on me that I would actually drown if I didn’t get my act together. It was a terrifying experience, and my heart was thudding up into my mouth by the time I reached the steps at the back of the boat. When I signed myself back on board, I’d been out in the water for just 5 minutes and when asked why I’d come back in so soon, I was still too embarrassed to admit what had actually happened.

Sheepishly I hung around the lower deck for a while watching the others in the water, before grabbing myself a calming cup of tea and retreating to the sundeck to take stock of what had just happened. Afternoon tea came and went, and as the evening wore on, a few of us headed to the hot tub at the bow of the boat. What more could you ask for on a floating ‘hotel’ but a hot tub. It was a little cramped with us all in it, but it was just what I needed at the end of the day, and it was a great place to get to know the others on board. Dinner was a social affair with crew and passengers eating together. Everyone had such incredible stories to share and even the Captain who was a Kiwi, joined our table, and once again the food was delicious. By the time bedtime came around, there was a gentle rocking and rolling to send me off to sleep.

 

It felt amazing waking up in the morning after a blissful night’s sleep on an exceptionally comfortable bed. I’d requested a wake-up call for the early morning snorkel but decided to skip it, moored as we were still at Norman Reef. During breakfast, we raised anchor once more and moved on to another reef, known as Fingers. It was actually still part of the large Norman Reef but not only was the reef right next to the boat here, the positioning of our mooring relative to the wind direction meant the sea wasn’t looking quite so unappealing. We spotted two turtles at the surface as we anchored and this was encouragement enough to get back in the water. The conditions were not how I would have liked them to be, but I did my very best to quell the fear of drowning, and focused on the amazing reef below me.

 

From a snorkellers perspective, as amazing as the reef life was, I had been surprised at how drab a lot of the reef looked. A lot of the coral is a range of browns with the odd splash of purple or pink for good measure. I know that with depth, the colour spectrum becomes limited, so I wasn’t sure if this depth was dulling the colours, in which case diving the reef would be a much better visual experience, or if the reef actually was just this dull and every photo I’ve ever seen is heavily photoshopped. Perhaps the change in sea conditions favours the more drab-coloured algae. Either way, the fish life was probably the best of any snorkel experience I’ve ever had, but I felt that perhaps the coral wasn’t. Maybe my memory was tricking me, but I felt that the coral in Fiji had been rather more colourful than what I was looking at here.

 

Following a spot of sunbathing and more turtle spotting at the surface, I was surprised to see that a tidal change by the time of the mid-morning snorkel meant that the coral was suddenly much closer to look at, and in places I had to try very hard not to be bashed against it in the choppy surface waves. I was finally relaxing into the snorkel again, and I spotted a cuttlefish which I watched for some time until the strong current made me aware that I had a bit of work to do to get back to the boat. It was easy to dry off between snorkels by heading to the top deck to sunbathe for a bit, and I was quite dry by the time lunchtime came around. By now I’d got to know the other passengers reasonably well. Some of them would be leaving with me that afternoon, whereas a few others were working on their diving certification so were staying another night. One guy had been on board for a week and had dived at every single dive site that the boat was allowed to visit.

 

Finally it was time for the last snorkel, and the wind had picked up once more creating the undesired surface chop. I sought out the cuttlefish again, watching it dart around the seabed, then I watched the divers exploring below me before being mesmerised by some large fish that were hanging out under the boat. I was both sad to get out of the water and glad all at the same time. Snorkelling the GBR had been a mental challenge, one that nearly got the better of me. I think had the water been as calm as it had been at Hardy Reef, the experience would have been utterly amazing, but there was part of me that was always fighting off the fear, and so the experience was a little tainted.

 

I showered, gathered my stuff together and transferred back to the Reef Experience which had by now berthed right next to the Reef Encounter. We were again ushered into the wheelhouse where we were plied with wine, cheese and crackers, and feeling like I was at a VIP party with those that I had gotten to know over the previous day, I was quick to get just a little bit tipsy. The trip back to Cairns was a very different experience than the one out had been. The wind and chop meant that we were buffeted the whole way with a cross wind and waves that pushed us from the side, such that we rocked and rolled and dropped over rising crests. I thanked my trusty stomach for holding firm, and embraced the experience, knowing that I had experienced the roughest boat trip of my life between Isabella Island and Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, and therefore nothing could ever be as bad as that.

 

Twenty-one days prior I had landed in Queensland, and now I was on my last night in the state. I marked the end of the first stage of my great Australian adventure with some ice cream on the esplanade. The next day I was to head to the airport, leaving Queensland behind, and flying deeper into the tropics.

Exploring the Whitsundays

It had been difficult to get comfortable enough to get much sleep on the 12hr bus ride north from Hervey Bay. I had planned a lot for my 5.5 week Australian adventure with the location for each night planned in advance. Originally I was supposed to be breaking up the journey with a day in Mackay to catch up with someone I knew, however when that fell through, I was left with a day to spare and a conundrum: go to Mackay anyway, or find a new destination. In the end, I cut my losses and opted to have an extra day in Airlie Beach by the Whitsundays. As the bus neared its destination, I knew I’d made the right choice. Airlie Beach was stunning and with the sun shining in a near-cloudless sky, it was the perfect weather too.

 

I was finally on a high after a fantastic day at sea the day before, and despite the lack of sleep, I took no time in checking in, freshening up and getting straight out again. I booked a day trip for the next day and bought myself a return ticket to Hamilton Island, one of the main islands in the Whitsundays archipelago. Sailing amongst the islands of the group was stunning and we passed two humpback whales. I was being spoilt with all the cetacean sightings I’d had by this point and there would be more to come. It turned out I’d arrived during the Audi Hamilton Race Week, a sailing event that drew crowds of sailors, their support crews and the corporate sponsors that came with them. There were are a lot of well dressed people milling around. But despite the heat, I was here to hike and explore the island. The main resorts are linked by a free shuttle bus and most people get themselves around on golfing buggies: they were everywhere. In fact the only cars appeared to be Audi vehicles, all plastered with advertisement for the race week.

 

Nipping first to the resort for a trail map, I then sweated my way up through the bush to Passage Point, passing some skinks and a legless lizard on route. Up on the ridge, the views to the neighbouring islands and over the coastline below were beautiful. Parts of the trail and bush were under maintenance and I wondered how the workmen could cope with the heat which was exceptionally hot that day. Ever aware of being in Australia, I kept a close eye out for snakes as I trudged through the bush to the lookout at the far end of Hamilton Island, but saw none. I had the place to myself for the most part and from here I could see over several of the nearby islands, and aside from the buzzing insects and the occasional sound of a nearby workman clearing away vegetation, it was still and peaceful. It was the perfect spot for some lunch and I was in no hurry to leave.

 

I took a detour on the way back to go to another lookout that overlooked the resort. It really was too hot to hike, and I’ve suffered mild heatstroke in the past from overexerting myself in a tropical climate, so I really shouldn’t have been out there, exposed on the ridge under the relentless sun. But I was intent on making the most of my time there and it was nice to look down on those below me, knowing that I was one of a mere handful of people that wasn’t in the resort right then. The thought of an iced coffee drew me back to society though and I headed first back to the resort, finding it crammed with socialites at a Heineken-sponsored pool party. Catching the bus back over the hill, I meandered around the waterfront, admiring the boats in the marina, sipping on a much anticipated cold drink.

 

The crowd for the return ferry was like a mob and it became obvious that there wasn’t space for everybody on board. We were divided between two different boats, but the one that I ended up on was too big to berth at Airlie Beach now that the tide was low. Halfway back to the mainland we had to do a boat to boat transfer whilst bobbing on the ocean. For me this was all part of the adventure, but I could see some others were a little less pleased about it. But as we got on our way in the second boat, the sun was setting and I indulged in what was becoming a regular occurrence, watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I had little energy left by the end of the day, and settled on convenience food for dinner and flaking out at the hostel.

 

Thankfully I slept very well but had an early rise for that day’s excursion. My last day in the Whitsundays was to be spent on Whitehaven Beach, a much-photographed part of the region. This was supposed to include snorkelling but the tour company had emailed me a week prior to inform of a change to inclusion and this would no longer be part of the trip. With a spare day following Mackay not coming to fruition, and with a snorkelling deficit on my agenda, I had decided to take a day trip out to a floating pontoon that sits over a coral reef. The reef here belongs to the southern aspect of the Great Barrier Reef and this would be my first experience of the World’s most famous reef. I’d heard a lot about coral bleaching and ecosystem disruption so was intrigued to see what I’d find there.

The boat was packed and with the pontoon being far out past the outer reaches of the Whitsunday island chain, it was another beautiful sail through the archipelago on route. Unbelievably after such incredible sightings in Queensland so far, we saw 13 humpback whales on route to the pontoon. This was truly turning out to be the most successful cetacean spotting holiday I’d ever had. Not only that, but one of the whales breached repeatedly for us, giving us a display and then without warning it appeared right beside the boat and launched itself out of the water, breaching right next to us. The boat was so packed that everyone was jostling for a viewing point, and I nearly missed it, turning round just as it was halfway out of the water and catching the splash and the excitement from those that had witnessed it. It was shaping up to be another incredible day.

 

Eventually though, with the islands disappearing behind us, and with the sea being calm ahead of us, the pontoon became visible and the reef was evident below the surface as we pulled up and berthed next to it. Although it wasn’t the season for them, we were advised to don stinger suits before getting in the water. Snorkelling for me is a mental challenge. I have a fear of drowning and whilst I’m more than happy swimming in a pool, my fear is at its height in the open water. A couple of years ago I had a panic attack snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean whilst in the Galapagos Islands, and although I’m always eager to snorkel to see the wildlife, there is always a varying degree of trepidation when I get into the ocean. But not only was the sea exceptionally calm, the reef was not far from the entry point and I never really felt threatened in the water or uneasy. In fact I was so comfortable, I had a boat chase after me to tell me I’d swum too far away and had to turn back.

 

Surprisingly, the water out here was relatively cold and after an hour of snorkelling I was feeling it. There were plenty of fish around with a steep drop-off at the edge of the reef drawing large and small fish alike. A giant wrasse was hanging around and inquisitive, a trait that is common in this species, and the in-water photographer was giving me commands that I couldn’t understand when one came near, resulting in me looking a little idiotic. But I didn’t care because it was the closest I’d ever been to such a big fish. What was extensively apparent however, was the widespread coral bleaching. I had heard it was bad, but this was a reef that seemed in a poor state of health. The seabed was littered with white and decapitated coral and it was evident throughout the full length of the reef as far as I could see.

 

Following a much-needed lunch enjoyed basking in the sunshine on deck, I headed back into the water for another hour long snorkel. There was plenty of fish activity no matter where I looked and I was even able to find some ‘Nemos’ or clown fish which I hovered above and watched for a while. Again I grew cold, and although it had been the easiest and most relaxed snorkelling trip I’d ever experienced, the temperature and the expansive bleaching made me feel a tinge of disappointment. But after coming out the water, the most incredible thing occurred. I remember watching the movie The Life of Pi in which there is a scene when the main character is floating on the ocean and the sea is so calm it’s like glass. I’ve always believed such a thing impossible, but after drying off and changing out of my clothes, I looked out at the ocean and was astounded to see the sea was so incredibly calm as to look like a glass surface, and with an unusual haze on the horizon it was almost impossible to tell where the sea stopped and the sky began, the two appearing as one. I have never before seen such a phenomenon and I couldn’t stop looking at it. Unfortunately the effect was such that my camera wouldn’t focus properly to take a photo of it, and even when it did, it didn’t represent the effect that the my eyes saw. The vision more than made up for any disappointment I might have felt about the coral.

 

After many hours bobbing around on the ocean, it was time to head back to the mainland. The glass-like surface made for as beautiful a return sailing as the outward trip had been. The whole Whitsundays experience was turning out to be one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. It is a part of the world that I never really thought much about visiting, and here I was feeling like it was the most beautiful place in the world. We even came across another humpback whale on the way back as we negotiated the passages between the various islands. Stopping first at Hamilton Island to drop people off, we continued on to Airlie Beach, where once again the sun was dipping towards the horizon as we sailed. I couldn’t get enough of the sunsets in Queensland and was happy to watch them day after day after day. The fresh air was certainly helping me sleep too, which was just as well with another day in the islands ahead of me.

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