Sunday, July 29, 2012

Paradise lies below the surface... smooth sailing and rough seas at the Great Barrier Reef

After getting soaked for three days in the rainforests north of Cairns I returned to the city to change gear, check mails and sleep. Next morning I had to wake up early, yet again, for my last Australian adventure on this trip! I had managed to switch off my alarm in the morning but luckily I didn’t miss my boat, phef! I was off to a 2 day sailing trip on the Great Barrier Reef - I was so excited!! In stead of taking one of the big boats with 30 or 50 other tourists I had booked a trip on a sailboat... Oh yeah, less people and more time. We were a group of 11 people (Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, French and Canadian) with a crew of 3 on the fantastic Coral Sea Dreaming.

It had been terrible weather all week and lots of wind so I had postponed this trip to the last days, praying the forecast promising better conditions would hold. But not yet: it was sadly a cloudy day when we set out from the Cairns harbour early in the morning. The waves weren't terribly high but the boat was rocking quite heavily and a couple girls were feeling quite ill, one even did the traditional puke over the rail. I felt sad for them, and happy I had taken the motion sickness pill that was offered to everyone before we set off: I felt better than ever!

The gray weather and the gray water. Not the best day to go out on the sea..
But outside Cairns: Blue water!
Quite soon after we left Cairns the water turned from grey to clear blue (almost a straight line in the sea) and a group of dolphins appeared to escort us to our first spot in the outer reef. I had signed up for snorkeling only but I was also offered a free introductory dive. I wasn't sure if I would actually want to do it but put on the wetsuit in any case. I jumped in the water with the mask & the fins, not sure if I even knew how to snorkel anymore. It took a moment to get used to breathing through the tube again - as soon as I saw all the amazing corals and fish I was happy I was there!

After about 15 minutes of snorkeling it was the time to do the little dive. I got a quick briefing about the equipment and some communications signals. The guys strapped all the gear on me and then I was told to get up, test the regulator and jump in the water. It was raining a bit and I was hesitantly looking into the water where one of the guides (and our captain) was waiting for me... "I'm just supposed to jump in there, 1,5m, with all this stuff on me??? No way José." But had no choice. I stepped over the side... and no problems, I couldn't believe how easy it was! And funnily the jumping off the boat was the hardest part for me :D

We dove about 10-15 minutes into about 5-8m in depth. Breathing through the regulator was a lot easier than with the snorkeling equipment and moving under the surface was pretty cool and I didn’t find it hard at all. It helped that I had a chance to go do some snorkeling before the dive, I was happy for that. Also it was nice I got to do the dive alone with the instructor. He was really helpful in pointing out interesting things and when we reached the bottom the instructor asked if I was ok and let go of my hand so I could roam around freely. I could pass my fingers through the fuzzy corals and see closeup the big big clam that I was wondering about from the top. I will definitely try the diving again some time!

The diving group - took this picture while I was out snorkeling later
For the rest of the day I was just snorkeling. Even with the cloudy weather I could see all the colours very clearly. We stopped at a few different kinds of spots with underwater caves and cayons, lots of fish and various corals. There were hardly any other people out at the same spots which was quite nice. Ok, it was cloudy and we had even some light rain showers but you didn't mind that in the water. The water even felt maybe a bit warmer, about 24C, and I didn't use the wetsuit after the first try (jeezsh that was annoying to wear!), the bikini was quite enough. 

I enjoyed the colors the most –  the fish were stunning and must have seen 30 different species, at least. The corals were also a lot more fascinating than what I had thought. I came close to lots of small jellyfish (about the size of a fist), one ray and three huge clams. I didn’t manage to see turtles or sharks but most people on the boat did, I think I’m just really bad at spotting them – the cute little fish preoccupy all my attention! 

A massive clam, at least 0.5m in diameter
Pictures from both snorkeling days - about 6 times in the water :)

After a long day in the water our group of 11 was ready chill. The sea suddely started to calm and the rains disappeard. Even the clouds started to break and we could watch the sunset :) 

Captain Zouk, sailing into the sunset!

Some of the divers got ready for the night dive, the rest of us enjoyed the moonlight on the deck - the sea is so beautiful! After a fantastic dinner, desert and all the snacks we were all pretty tired. Some of the girls were still feeling quite sick and couldn't stay inside the cabin, there were four people sleeping out on the deck. So that meant I could switch to a bigger room and had a double bed all to myself, yay!

The night divers
Jumping into the darkness (or walking on air :D)!
The Frech guys

The next morning it was nice to wake up to a sunrise in the middle of the sea :) It was about 7 am when I got on my bikini and jumped in the sea for a morning snorkeling trip. Definitely the best way to wake up is a swim in the sea and snorkeling with the fish!

It felt so different compared to the rainy day and all the colours were shining even brighter! We went to a few more spots and I was staying out in the water longer and longer, going further out every time. I was starting to remember how much I love swimming, water, the fishes... and the sun :)  

You could see the corals even from above the surface (and the waves crashing to the end of the reef in the distance)

And corals from below the surface - looks a bit better than above :)
Hey, time to come back up!
The second day on the sea was coming to an end but we were still having fun, warming ourselves in the hot afternoon sun on the deck of the boat, on the Great Barrier Reef! Obviously I burned myself even though I put the sunscreen on (should have added more), but I was so happy I got the most out of my last day in Australia! And I couldn't believe that the next day I would leave all this behind and fly to Japan!!

Eating, suntanning, jumping around, taking pictures.. enjoying life on the sunny sea!
Our crew, taking it easy as well
On my last night in Cairns I went to check out the famous local nightlife, the bar called Wollshed. There were some competitions and of course I had to be drawn in. I danced like crazy all night and it was 3am when I came to sleep... And my alarm went off at 7am to finish my packing and catch my next flight. That wasn't all that fun, I pretty much felt like I had been run over by a truck.

When I said my goodbyes to Australia through the plane window I could see miles and miles of the Reef, that was amazing! I couldn't have planned it better - I actually hadn't thought about it at all but when you fly from Cairns to Tokyo you'll see the string of reefs for a long way (if it's not too cloudy)! You cannot grasp from the boat how beautiful it all looks like from above, you just see the different shades of blue and the reef sticking out in brownish spots, and the waves crashing on the outside… From above it’s gorgeous. It was a bit different from the reefs I’ve seen before – and just went on and on for hundreds of miles in beautiful shapes. Great way to finish the Australian leg of my journey.

Is it just me or does this reef look a little like the shape of Australia?!?

Diving and snorkeling trips to the Great Barrier Reefs

Cains is a pretty popular departure point for the Great Barrier Reef - Brisbane is another spot for exploring the Whitsundays. From Cairns you can get a liveaboard two-day trip for about 350 AUD and up. Mine was a special deal, 120 AUD off: 340 AUD, including food (excellent meals on this one with two big lunches, dinner, breakfast and loads of snacks), the accommodation on the boat, snorkeling gear and in the special I bought there was the free intro dive. There are pretty much any kind of trips available from a couple hours to a week or longer. The cheapest day trips to the reef were 99 AUD, week would be more than 1000 AUD. The big boats or catamarans are cheaper but you’ll be in a big group of 20-50 people. Dives are 50-80 AUD for one dive. PADI courses are about 400 AUD and up. The stinger season is November to May and there are even some species that can be lethal if they touch a big part of you skin though it is very rare to actually get stung by one - and there are protective suits you can wear. Make sure you include at least one Reef trip in your Australian journey!

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