Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the Great Barrier Reef

We made it out to the reef yesterday morning and have loved just about every minute so far. In fact, we're loving it out here so much that we have decided to stay out on the live-aboard ship, Ocean Quest, for an additional night. It's been so cool living and sleeping right on the Great Barrier Reef and getting to dive more than I thought was physically possible.

Yesterday morning we left the van at the dive shop and got carted over to the huge marina in Cairns. The smaller boat, Reef Quest, loaded everyone on and left around 8:30 for the outer reef. It takes about 90 minutes to get all the way out to our diving destination at which land can just barely be seen on the horizon. The first dive we did yesterday was a little stressful, for me anyway. When we anchored at the dive site on Saxon Reef, the crew kept commenting about a ridiculously strong current. They announced this to the divers with a warning that if you screw up your navigation, you will be popping back up miles from the boat. Instantly I was freaked about that idea. Then they go on to talk about all of the deadly things and what to look out for, which didn't lessen my anxiety any further.

When we did jump in, it was struggle to move anywhere against the strong current. Erich, Mr aqua-lung and swim team captain, just cruised on ahead while I struggled (and sucked down loads of air) trying to keep up. We approached a coral head and Erich motioned for me to come have a look. When I got to where he was, I was right over a Giant Moray Eel (up to 220cm long) which was, in fact, giant. It was a good 10 inches in diameter, and like all eels, looked mean as could be. I kicked upwards to get some distance between us, and once again began fighting the current.

We continued on another minute or two and then came to the (awful) Titan Triggerfish. We had been warned about these guys on deck and what to do it you crossed their path. Apparently they nest on the reef this time of year and the couple does what's needed to protect the eggs. These guys are not little, they are about 2 feet long with about a 1 inch mouth and big teeth. When you get anywhere near the nest, they charge right at you, hoping to take a chunk of flesh and get you away from the nest. Of course I got charged at, but remembered the divemaster saying to roll on your back and kick towards them as they approach with your fins. This worked really well, as it retreated, and we moved as quickly as possible away from them.

Next we saw two massive sea turtles, one munching on the reef and just hanging out down there. Unfortunately, my air was about gone at this point and we had to return to the boat. It was a fast trip back with the current pushing us along.

Back on the smaller boat, we enjoyed lunch up on the sunny deck and waited for them to move to the next dive site. This area was much better, and I felt much more relaxed without the crazy current to worry about. The dive was along a coral wall which was just gorgeous. Like much of the reef here, it is full of colorful coral, tons of bright fish, and nudibranch. We didn't encounter anything threatening and it made me remember why diving is so great.

Once we returned to the boat, we had to pull alongside the large live-aboard ship, Ocean Quest, and transfer over for the rest of our time. The boat is huge and spacious with three levels and super organized. Our room is really nice, with three massive windows overlooking the reef, a private bath and tons of storage space. It was certainly not the cramped musty interior I had expected. After we were told about the boat and shown to our rooms (complete with apple muffins), we headed out to the sun deck to get briefed on the next dive.

This spot was another beautiful reef, but so much more relaxed to get into the water on the bigger boat. The small boat had a bit of a frenzied feel to it, with people everywhere and fighting to get in the water as fast as possible. Here, everyone has an assigned seat with their tank, weights etc and takes their time getting ready to jump in the water. On this dive we got to see a glimpse of a white-tipped reef shark before it swam away over the reef. I thought sharks would certainly hang around more, but once you see them, they pretty much want to get away from you.

On the boat we got ready for dinner and watched the sunset colors off the back deck. The dining room here is sit-down and you have to wear clothes to eat (no bikinis or topless guys) with amazing food. I couldn't get over the dinner last night with marinated chicken breast with carmelized onions, roasted squash, potatoes, salad, green beans and bread. I was so stuffed but we still had one more dive to do that day, the night dive.

This was a totally new experience for me and one I can't say I was not nervous about. Erich had done a few night dives already, but since I hadn't I was required to go with one of the on-board guides. This turned out to be a really good idea since it just made it so much easier and enjoyable. All we had to do was follow her (she had a yellow glow-stick on her tank) and we knew we wouldn't get lost or disoriented. We each got a torch (flashlight in American english) which was cinched onto our right wrist. When we jumped in I was very uncomfortable for about the first 5 minutes trying to acclimate, and then it was amazing.

We didn't see any of the massive sharks I had expected, but did see a turtle swimming around and quite a few insomniac fish. The guide took a nudibranch off the coral and released it into her light. It was really cool to watch it swim back to the coral with it's fluttering wing-like sides floating in the dark. The whole dive really felt as close as I will ever get to going up into outer space. You could really imagine how an astronaut would feel, weightless in the dark and breathing precious artificial air. Since the water is pretty warm here (about 80-81) it feels like body temperature in the wetsuit, which adds to the sense of space. It was a really cool dive once I felt comfortable down there in the dark.

When we got back on board after the 30 minutes, they were serving ice cream, cake and pudding for dessert. The food just never stops around here. We went up to the lounge on the third level where the large plasma was on and they have a small bar with a few kinds of beer and wine. We relaxed on the couches there with a beer and copied all of the dive information into our log books. After being in the sun and water all day, we were exhausted and headed to bed around 10. After all, the next dive brief was scheduled for 6:15am.

Sleeping on a boat was a new and weird experience for me. Initially it felt relaxing, but through the night I kept waking up when a little swell would roll through and change the rythem of the boat. It was definitely much better than the sweaty van, so I'm not complaining, I just wasn't as used to it as Erich, who slept soundly through the night from all his boat experience.

I was awake before the wake-up knock on the door at 5:45am (to ensure I could get a sip of coffee in me) and then we headed out to the sun deck. The dive was great and it was interesting to see what the fish were up to in the early morning. There was a lot of cleaning going on by the hard-working wrasse (cleaner fish) busy giving everyone a scrub before they start their big fishy day. There was some feeding as well on the reef and everything seemed very active. We were back on the boat by 7:15 for breakfast, which was huge like every other meal.

While we ate breakfast, they moved the boat from the "Reef Encounter" site we were on over to "Blue Lagoon" for the next series of dives. This dive featured (obviously) a blue sandy lagoon with the reef wall extending from there in either direction. On the first dive at 9:00am we headed right along the wall and saw tons of bright fish and the famous nemo fish hanging out in the anemones. We surfaced and had the second dive at 11am. This time we went left and again had a great dive.

12:30 was lunch (I kind of like being on a schedule like this) which was extensive. Following lunch is the longest break of the day from about 1:30 till 3:15 when we hung out and read on the sun deck. Everyone on that leg of the boat was really cool, a handful of Americans, a group of Koreans, some Germans (?) and one girl from Indo. During the post lunch break they swapped out divers when they joined with the smaller boat, as they did for us the day before. The Koreans all left and a bunch of new divers (or maybe snorkelers but we we can't figure out why anyone would live out here just to snorkel) got on for the night.

They decided against moving the boat for the late afternoon/night dive as the winds were a bit unusual coming out of the north, and we have to stay on the leeward side of the reef (south) in case the mooring breaks. Otherwise, if it did break the wind would push us right onto the reef before they could react. Because of this, Oli the supervisor offered to take us out further up on the reef so we could do a new dive site. We agreed, although I was leery of being taken out in the ocean and left there.

They got the dinghy ready and we geared up and jumped in. It was just the two of us on that run and we went up reef and had to roll out of the boat backwards which I have not done before. Once we were in, the dinghy took off and we were told to follow the reef on the right side back to the boat, going with the current. At first it seemed like just a big coral flat, but we soon realized that there was plenty to see over there. We saw a green turtle when we dropped down, and then started heading towards the boat. There was the weirdest fish fight that broke out when some bigger fish went after a parrot fish and debris from the bottom of the reef was getting stirred up as the fish tried to escape. The big fish won, and had the parrot fish half in his mouth with just the 5 inches or so of the back tail hanging out. It was going to eat it for dinner, but then saw us coming and decided to drop it and take off. I guess it thought we were bigger fish coming to snag his meal. I felt badly seeing this ripped up dead parrot fish laying on the reef, and then wondered if a bloody fish fight would attract sharks. We did see sharks, but not until a bit later. A small white-tipped reef shark circled us for a minute and then slowly swam away. Later, there was a large gray reef shark laying on the sand at the bottom for a nap when we came along and it decided to move. This one was significantly larger, but wanted nothing to do with us.

Further along, we spotted a huge spiny lobster hiding in a small cave in the reef. Next there was a massive Giant Clam with purple and blue lips. These things are so huge I literally could have just about laid sideways inside it's shell. It was easily 5 feet across and rose about 3 feet off the sandy bottom. There were two big holes in the top fleshy part which we tried to peek into, but it closed them up when we got too close. There were some bright cleaner fish that tried to help Erich tidy up his fins. They just started picking at them thinking it was a big black fish.

We made it back to the boat just fine, although we had to pop up once or twice to navigate. We're having a break now before dinner, and then it will be time for another night dive!

On the Reef, Part 2

After another good meal on the boat, it was off to the night dive right away. We were briefed for the dive and I chose to go with a guide again. It is obviously very easy to get lost down there in the dark but with the guide (which does cost an extra $15) all you have to do is follow behind them and you are almost guaranteed to get back to the boat. This time I opted for the smaller light and we jumped in. This dive was trickier than the night before due to the increased depth on the reef. Once you dive to a certain depth, every following dive that day must be shallower. So by the fifth dive of the day, you have to make sure you stay above 12 meters (36 feet) in order to avoid getting blackballed to dive the next dive.

We saw a cool Ornate Spiny Lobster tucked into a little overhang on the wall and Erich saw some shrimp with glowing red eyes. At one point I did get really disoriented trying to keep my depth above the requirement. It's very hard to visually reference anything in the dark, so you have to look at your depth gauge constantly. Erich said it was just like flying in the dark. Back on the boat, it was time for dessert and to fill in our dive logs from all of the diving that day.

At night it was hard for me to sleep since they seemed to be working on the engine, or maybe warming it up, at around 2:15am. Erich somehow slept right through it, but it was loud. We had some little wind swell come through in the morning which made the boat rock more than it had been as well.

In the morning, they pushed back the dive time by 20 minutes or so in order to move the boat to a new location (hence the engine noise the night before.) We got in the water around 6:45 and the dive site was really nice. There was so much to see on all three of the dives we did at that reef today; sea turtles, shrimp, lobster, nudibranch, huge fish, little schools of fish, cleaner fish, cod, unicorn fish and on and on. The conditions were good and it was a great way to end our three days on the boat. They kick you out of your rooms around 12:30 so they can clean, and we headed down to lunch and out on the deck to play cards.

The same small boat that had dropped us off had to come pick us up and take us the hour and a half back to Cairns. They switched over a lot of the crew as well, and many of the passengers had swapped out today and yesterday as well. There was a nice couple from Poland, two cougars from Atlanta (who must have been recently divorced and subsequently bitter), and a whole bunch of Swiss, Brits and Euros.

With all of the dives on our trip, both here and in New Zealand, I've more than doubled my dive count and bottom time. All you do out there is dive and end up getting in 12 dives in the three days. They have a tight schedule, but essentially it's dive, eat, dive, dive eat, dive, eat, dive, eat. The nice thing was that they kept the number of divers small, we only had around 30 people on board not counting the crew, so it wasn't like some of the huge companies that pack on 100+ people and take them out to an over-dived, dead spot on the reef. We were really happily surprised with the whole experience.

It was a great way to (basically) end our trip and certainly one of the main goals of the Australian portion. Ever since my elementary school report on coral reefs, I have always wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef, and it feels like a huge dream has been accomplished. I don't think it was ever a question of if I would do it, more just of when, and it feels good to have experienced the reef in such an intimate way and for several consecutive days and nights. I certainly could have stayed on board one more night and day, but we had to get back to the mainland.

From here it's back to Cairns, back down to Brisbane and then eventually back to reality. We are not looking forward to making the tough transition after our charmed life of traveling in this area of the world. What an experience. It has certainly been the trip of a lifetime.