MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “snorkel”

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.

Right to the Golden Circle

Sometimes you have a dream and it remains that way, never materialising into reality, and sometimes that dream just takes a long time to reach fruition. This was Iceland for me. Back when I lived in Scotland, long before the thought of moving to New Zealand had ever entered my head, I dreamed of visiting the land of fire and ice to the north. There seemed to be neither the time nor the money to make it work, and so it remained only a wish until finally in June of this year, it became real. In fact I booked my flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik several months before I’d even booked my flights from New Zealand to Scotland. This trip was happening, come hell or high water, and my plan was to spend the longest day of the year in the land of the midnight sun.

There was just enough time to watch a movie on the Icelandair flight, the credits rolling as the plane hit the tarmac, and as often happens, a large grin crossed my face as I stepped out and into the airport. I was excited and also rather nervous, as I had booked a hire car to allow me to circumnavigate the country, and for the first time in my life I would be driving on the opposite side of the road, and doing so from the opposite side of the car. I’ve driven in 5 countries, all ‘lefties’ and this was my first time on the right. I made the short walk to the rental office, packed up my car and prepared myself to get out on the road. Despite 11 years of driving manual, I have since spent over 4 years driving an automatic. Thankfully my rental car for my Scottish road trip had been a manual, allowing me to get used to changing gears again because now I found myself with a gear stick and an arm that wasn’t used to moving one.

After a few deep breaths, I eased out of the parking lot, set off on the road, and hit a roundabout. That was just cruel. In fact there were 3 roundabouts just to leave Keflavik, the small town where Iceland’s main airport is situated, behind but finally I was on the open road and surrounded by barrenness. I knew the island was volcanic, but I wasn’t prepared for the lumps of lava rock that sat either side of the road, and there was little vegetation to see for miles. Arriving in the evening, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I was in no hurry to get to my hostel, so when the turn-off came, I turned off the main road and followed the signs through the blackened landscape until I reached the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal spa.

I’d pre-booked a ticket which was recommended, and having done so it was an easy process to get in, receiving my wrist band and pointed in the direction of the locker room. I had to be helped to get my locker to lock as it was a little confusing, but I was eager to get into the pool. A requirement at all geothermal spas in Iceland is to shower naked prior to entering, and private cubicles were available for this. Following the signs, I headed downstairs and out the double doors, and there I found myself walking into the lagoon, a place I’d heard so much about for many years. It was absolutely packed, with GoPro toting tourists everywhere. I briefly regretted not bringing mine in purely for some water-based photos, but I quickly put that aside and got on with enjoying myself.

Priority number one was finding the silica mud that is free to apply to your skin for a facial. I located the booth and lathered it on, then duly spent my time wandering around the different parts of the lagoon, testing what temperature I preferred and allowing myself to unwind after the mild stress of getting used to the car and the road. One of my favourite things about the place was the in-lagoon bar. Using the electronic wrist band as currency, food, drinks and treatments can be purchased with a swipe, and these are then paid for at the end of the visit. I had heard about Skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, so I got hold of a Skyr smoothie and sipped it whilst walking around the lagoon. It was one of those marvellously surreal experiences that you have when travelling.

 

I tried the sauna and steam rooms but found them so hot it felt like my throat and nostrils were on fire, so most of my time was spent in the very large lagoon. Eventually though, I grew hungry, and headed into the cafe for some expensive food and another Skyr smoothie. Ever aware that I still had a bit of driving to do to reach my hostel, I finally got changed and did a bit of exploring of the facilities before leaving. Even the walk back to the car park takes you past silica lakes and large lava rocks, and whilst the cloudy skies detracted from it slightly, it felt other-worldly. I took my time, watching some birds flit between the rocks, but then it was time to get back on the road and retrace my route back to the highway.

 

I was exceedingly grateful for the GPS routing on my phone as although Reykjavik is deemed a small city by worldwide standards, it was big enough to feel that I would have got lost without it. I’d picked a hostel away from the city centre as I was heading east early the next morning. It was in a very residential part of the city, and whilst the route took me to the correct street, it had me pull in at a block of houses. Thankfully one of the residents was able to point me in the right direction, and I was soon to discover how the nation as a whole is exceptionally friendly and welcoming and eager to help. The hostel room numbering was a little confusing so I couldn’t find my room very easily, but then it was lights out to get some sleep, only to appreciate that it was still daylight outside until well after midnight.

I had an early rise to set off on my circumnavigation around the island. I was driving anti-clockwise, and my first port of call was the Þingvellir National Park to the north-east of Reykjavik. I discovered early on that driving in Iceland was actually really enjoyable and my previous worries about driving on the right side of the road were unfounded. Although I had my GPS navigating me, the signage on the open road was easy to follow, and although it is a stunning country, I managed to find the scenery not too much of a distraction. The traffic at that time of the day was light and I had large sections of the road to myself, despite being part of the renowned Golden Circle.

I hadn’t bothered to buy food having read that the visitor’s centre near my destination of Silfra had a cafe, but I was dismayed to find it closed when I got there, and it wasn’t opening for hours. I found throughout my whole trip that Iceland eateries are late openers, and dining out for breakfast was a very difficult thing to do. I knew I’d end up starving but there wasn’t much choice, and I silently kicked myself for not seeking out a supermarket the night before. Whilst the businesses were closed, nature was open, and I made my way to the meeting spot where my morning tour was due to start. Being part of the national park, the car park had a charge, and the machines only accepted card payments.

To one side lay a large lake, Þingvallavatn visible down a river where geese and their young waddled about on the banks. Up river from the car park, a pretty little church adorned the riverside, and climbing up over some lava rocks, I found a track that led me up the wall of a chasm and down into a large rift valley. This whole region has been created by tectonic plate movements as the North American and Eurasian plates move apart from each other, and the whole area is riddled with fissures and valleys as a result. I followed the path up to the top of the rock and from the viewing platform I could see out over the landscape, both dramatic and at times barren. I tried to guess where I’d be going for my tour, but as the clock ticked on, the crowds of people that would become a constant accompaniment to this part of Iceland started to appear, and I made my way back down into the fissure, and up over the lava wall to meet my tour guide.

 

I don’t remember how or where I found out about this tour, but when I read that it was possible to snorkel between the two tectonic plates, I knew I had to do it whilst I was here. The company that runs snorkelling trips also offers diving trips too, and there were regular tour times running each day. So regular in fact, that there was a constant flow of people kitting up and heading to and from the entry point, and it was a busy place to be. Whilst pick-ups are available in Reykjavik, a few of us had driven ourselves there, and in the end we had to wait quite a while for our guide to arrive from the city. Then the long process of preparation began.

Despite being the height of summer, the water temperature was just 3oC, so there was a lot of layers to get geared up in. I already had a base layer on under my clothes, but on top of this went a thermal body suit, a dry suit, a head mask and gloves. A few of us were of a build where our dry suits weren’t water tight enough around our necks, and so we had to have the indignity of a collar put on. For all intents and purposes, this was like a broad cable tie around your neck that was ratcheted up until water tightness was achieved. About half of our group needed this and it was not pleasant at all. I immediately felt lightheaded, but one of my tour companions was feeling immensely claustrophobic with his on and he was struggling to hide his agitation. With all the checks that needed to be done, the kitting up process felt like it took forever, and even after we made our way to the entry point, the amount of tours taking place meant there was quite a queue to get in the water. My lightheadedness had eased but a couple of my tour mates pointed out that my lips and skin were turning a shade of blue, so our guide was called over and he had to loosen up my collar a notch. It still felt unpleasantly tight, but my colour was pink again within a matter of minutes, just in time to get in the frigid water.

 

It really is the clearest water I have ever swam in. I was a little disappointed to discover that there was no aquatic life, but the crystal clarity and the changing depths of the rocky chasm still made for an interesting snorkel, and although my face which was uncovered was freezing, I was more than content ploughing my way through the snorkel route. Half an hour passed in no time at all, and having first headed near the lake then veering off to another channel, we reached the exit point, and I didn’t want to get out. Waiting till every one else had hauled themselves up, I pulled myself out about 34 minutes after getting in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a much needed hot chocolate and cookies waiting for us back at the van where we got out of our gear and were then left to our own devices. I took a wander back down the path to where we’d come out at the end of the snorkel, and then watched some geese for a while as they nibbled at the vegetation. By now into the early afternoon, the place was packed and the car park was full. Aside from the snorkelling and scuba diving, there are various walks in the area to explore the geology as well as viewing one of the country’s many waterfalls. An Icelandic flag flies near here to mark the location of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD, with sessions being held there until 1798. One of the downsides about being so close to the waterway was the incessant swirling flies that flitted around your face. They never landed nor bit but their constant dancing close by became very annoying.

 

It became clear upon reaching my car that people were fighting over parking spaces, so I made somebody very happy when I signalled I was leaving and gave them my spot. I still had a lot of ground to cover in the Golden Circle and I’d really only just started.

Life in Slow Motion, Part 3

It was my friend’s last day, and we awoke from our exceedingly late night with plans to chill out in Puerto Ayora. From the pier we jumped on a panga (water taxi) to cross to Angermeyer Point, an upmarket part of the island which has no road access. There is a well-marked path to Las Grietas, one of the island’s recommended tourist spots. On route, we passed a lagoon where a great egret and heron were perched, then we skirted past the already busy Playa Aleman and on past a salt lagoon. At the top of the canyon, we first followed the path along the cliff top which gave us a view down into the canyon as well as back towards Puerto Ayora and out to sea. Retracing our steps, we then took the short branch down the steps to Las Grietas. A canyon in the rocks has trapped a deep saltwater basin with no apparent connection to the sea. There are a chain of pools to explore which are divided by previous rock falls which need to be scrambled over with no dignity at all. The entrance though was swarming with paper wasps, large creatures that don’t leave you alone. It meant getting in the water fast, and once in, it was incredible. Whilst not containing a lot of sea life, they are surprisingly deep, so it is worth snorkelling purely for that reason alone. The final chamber does have a shoal of a reasonably sized fish, and whilst it’s not a good snorkel in terms of seeing marine life, I was really glad I had done it. Unfortunately my friend got stung by one of the wasps whilst we were negotiating one of the rock barriers, and with them flying around everywhere at the exit, we didn’t hang around long before leaving. Playa Aleman was busy with locals and tourists, but it was a great spot to relax and sunbathe the afternoon away, before catching a panga back to Puerto Ayora.

 

Suddenly, it was my final week and it hit me that I was going to have to leave. Outside of work I was intent on seeing and doing everything that I could. Who knows if I’ll ever be back? I spent a few evenings playing tourist, wandering around the many tourist shops looking for memorable souvenirs, and on one of my lunch breaks, I made a last (and all too brief) return to Tortuga Bay, my absolute favourite part of Santa Cruz. It was in the blistering heat of the middle of the day, and I had to power walk to make it there and back in time as well as be able to take some photos. Every time I’d been before I had not had a camera, and I just wanted to see it one last time. Normally an hour walk, I got there in 40mins, and then had nearly an hour to wander between Tortuga Bay and Playa Mansa, the sheltered beach through the mangroves. There were lots of marine iguanas on the spit of land that demarcates the divide between the two beaches, and even a couple negotiating the surf. Even though it was a week day, both beaches were busy, and I tried to soak it all up before I had to leave to get back to work. I was unbelievably sad leaving, having wanted to just kick back and enjoy it, but now I was just a few days away from leaving the islands behind.

 

My last day volunteering came and went and before I knew it, I had only a weekend before the start of my long journey home. I’d decided to head back to San Cristobal, the island that I started on, to try and snorkel with sea lions again. It had by now been over a month since my last visit there, and it was strange how unfamiliar it seemed at times. Getting up early to catch the boat, I was pleased to look at the sea and see utter calmness, the sure sign of a smooth ride. And for the first 45 mins it was, whilst we were in the shadow of Santa Fe. But when we hit open, unprotected water, the crests started and we became airborne again. For over an hour I had to grip onto whatever I could as we slammed onto the ocean surface from a free-fall again, and I fought hard to keep relaxed to prevent the shockwave damaging my spine. But inevitably my back had had enough, and about half an hour away from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a shooting pain shot up my neck. It was jarring and repetitive, and my heart sank at the thought of having a flare up of my chronic back issues on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I arrived to sunshine and went in search of somewhere to stay. It was third time lucky before I got a room, and despite a slight Spanish misunderstanding, I got a really good deal without even knowing it. Following some refreshments near the waterfront, I followed the waterfront round past sleeping sea lions and Playa Mann, and up towards the interpretation centre and out the other side. I took the direct path up to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill), and caught my breath for a while before deciding to follow the track onwards to the north. Very quickly it became obvious that not many people came this way as it was rough going and quite overgrown. I had only jandals (flip-flops) on my feet, and despite finding it uncomfortable, I pressed on down the far side of the hill and on across the lava landscape. On the way down I nearly stood on a Galapagos snake which thankfully disappeared into the bush before my foot hit the ground. I followed the track for about 40mins for little reward. The going was rough, and in places the path was not obvious or involved rock hopping. There was little to see and I never reached the promised beach at the end of it. Sweating in the heat of the day, I turned back and headed straight for Darwin Bay.

 

Darwin Bay is the place where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos in 1835, and the water is crystal clear. Notably though the sea was also very cold and despite the sun shining directly on it, I had to keep moving to generate some heat, snorkelling with an increasingly foggy mask clouding my view. It was an awesome spot to snorkel. There were fish everywhere in varying sizes and colours; I watched a marine turtle feed for a while; and a sea lion swam up to me then past me. I saw something floating on the water and realised there was a large chunk of blubber on the surface. I’d seen this once before near a dead whale, but I didn’t want to get too near as rotten blubber usually stinks, and I couldn’t see where it came from. Nothing was feeding on it, and it moved on the surface with the wind and the tide.

 

After a while, I found some sea lions playing. They weren’t really interested in me, so they didn’t come particularly close but they circled and dived in front of me, and then suddenly one of them grabbed the tail of a marine iguana that was swimming to the surface. It would grab the tail then let it go before grabbing it again just to release it again. It did this repeatedly until the iguana finally got itself out the water and up on a rock. I’d heard about this behaviour before. The sea lions don’t eat the iguana, they just seem to like to play with it like a toy. I’m sure the iguana didn’t like it, but I felt lucky to witness such behaviour. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last good snorkel I would have on the trip. I sat on the shore for a long time just soaking up the view and watching the sea lions leaping out of the water, whilst another one slept next to me on the rocks.

 

Eventually I headed up towards the large statue of Charles Darwin that overlooks the bay. From here the path follows the coastline round and down to Punta Carola beach. I hadn’t walked this section before, and from the viewpoint I could see sea lions fishing below me and had an uninterrupted sea view. It was just stunning. Further round there was an old armament from the war, and finally I came out at Punta Carola and nearly stumbled over some sea lions that were right at the end of the path. I loved this beach. There were sea lions everywhere, and they were noisy but it was amazing to sit and watch them going about their lives. Early on I got in the water to snorkel with them, but the swell here meant I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and I couldn’t see them coming. I gave up and went back to the beach to relax.

 

I spent several hours drifting between sleeping and watching the nearby goings on. At one point I was woken with a start to something tickling my bare foot and sat up quickly to find a sea lion staring at me from past my feet. It must have sniffed me and touched me with its whiskers. It ambled past me as if nothing was the matter. Later on a group of tourists and a guide appeared. They were noisy and insisted on posing for photo after photo with every single sea lion they could find. There was a group of sleeping sea lions in a bush not far from me and that was where most of the tourists were standing. I tried to fall asleep again to block them all out when suddenly I got covered in sand. Again I sat up with a start to discover that one of the sea lions had run away from the group of tourists towards me. It looked as surprised as me with my sudden movement and then hobbled past me just inches from my head, kicking up sand as it went. I was immensely glad when the group finally left and peace and quiet returned.

 

I had nowhere else to be, so watched the sun set over the beach, during which time a mother and juvenile sea lion ignored the 2m rule that is advertised across the islands, by coming right up to where I was lying, sniffed my stuff then promptly lay down for a suckle. It was an amazing experience and I waited there as long as I could until the light level was dropping too low.

 

I walked back to town in the darkness where local girls were performing dances on the promenade. It was a lovely atmosphere and the evening was warm and welcoming. I had a lovely dinner before doing some last minute souvenir shopping in the local stores, and finally it was time for my second last night in the islands. I crashed out when my head hit the pillow only to be woken ridiculously early by the irritating chirrup of a cricket or locust nearby. The night before, the shops had been over-run with locusts, and the shopkeepers were killing them as quick as they saw them. At 4am, I couldn’t locate it, but I had to put the fan on just to drown the sound out in order to get back to sleep.

It was my last full day in the islands and I woke with a sore back, no doubt the result of the previous day’s boat trip. It was really windy and the sea was choppy, and I started worrying about the return leg and what further damage it might do to my spine. I tried to shake off the feeling and make the most of my last day, so I headed first to a local cafe and enjoyed some delicious fresh fruits and granola. It was a grey day, and following the same well-travelled route I followed the shoreline and headed back to the Interpretation centre. We had visited here as part of my tour on my first day in the islands, but we had skipped sections and our guide had summarised sections, so now I wanted to read it all for myself. It is a really good place to learn about the geological history of the islands and the human history from its first discovery. Human habitation has a lot to answer for with regards to species eradication and introduction of pests and diseases. One of the most sobering sections was the future predictions for the island group, and the things I read there as well as things I had been privy to witness and learn about during my volunteering stint has left me sad for what may occur in these most wonderful islands. I can only hope that positive steps for conservation outweigh the negative steps being made to promote tourism.

 

The last hours on the island were spent on Playa Mann. I again tried to snorkel but again the visibility was poor, and with a heavy heart, I drew my snorkelling excursions to a close. With fewer sea lions than Punta Carola, it was possible to get a bit more space to yourself here but there was still plenty of sea lions rolling around in the shallows to keep me entertained. I was daydreaming when someone broke my reverie and I ended up chatting for a while with an Ecuadorian man who was there on a research trip. It was interesting to get his opinion and views on what was going on in the country and the islands, as well as a fantastic opportunity to speak Spanish. I came to realise that whilst my speech hadn’t improved much, my understanding of the language was much better and I found myself a lot more aware of what was being said to me, which was quietly satisfying. I didn’t always know how to reply, but at least I knew what was being said. We walked together back to the pier, from where he was heading to the far side of town to go surfing. By now though, it was time for me to bid San Cristobal adios for the final time. There was the usual organised chaos waiting to board the boat, and on the steps at the side of the pier, a group of sea lions were piled up for a sleep. They were the last sea lions I would see on this trip, and I boarded the boat satisfied yet sad.

 

Despite the apparently choppy sea, the return leg was surprisingly smooth, and to top it off, we slowed down on the way to watch some bottlenose dolphins cavorting around the boat. Back on Santa Cruz, I had my final dinner with one of the volunteers, and then it was time to check my luggage for the last time and try and get to sleep. When I woke the next morning it was torrential rain, the worst rain I’d seen the whole trip which was perfect timing given that I had to wander the streets to hail a taxi. Thankfully it only took about 5 mins to find one, and it drove me to the bus station on the edge of town, where there was only a short wait till the bus left for the port on the north side of town. It was packed, full of both locals and tourists, and most of us got off and piled straight on the cross channel ferry. In fact all the transport ran so smoothly that I ended up catching the bus on Baltra straight away which got me to the airport with 4 hours to spare. I couldn’t even check in yet. There was nowhere to sit apart from a couple of stools in a corner, and I sat here daydreaming for as long as I could. I was hungry but there was nowhere to eat, and nowhere to leave my bag, so I was forced to ride it out. Finally after getting my boarding card, I walked through to the boarding area to discover a food court that I could have accessed pre-check in. I was gutted, because by then I had no time to order a cooked meal and eat it, so I was forced to go through to my departure gate and buy the only food I could find: potato chips and cookies.

But now it was over. I boarded the plane and took my window seat, and after 5 incredible weeks, I watched as first Baltra then Santa Cruz disappeared below us, and I settled in to the flight to Guayaquil that signalled being homeward bound. There really is nowhere on Earth like the Galapagos Islands: a magical place full of wildlife and adventure. I will probably never return, but having managed 10 out of the 17 islands, I think I did good. I definitely have my favourite islands, but it’s hard to fault a place where the wildlife appears to be literally everywhere. I only hope the magic continues for generations to come.

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