Out of all the wonderful things I’d seen and done in Australia, I was most looking forward to experiencing the Great Barrier Reef. Technically, I had already done this in the Whitsunday Islands as this is where the reef began. However, I didn’t really feel like it was the same unless I took a boat out of Cairns or Port Douglas.
After spending a week in Mission Beach, I was short on time and couldn’t do a cruise that spent a night or two on the reef or join a crew out of Port Douglas, where I hear it is a shorter distance to the reef. Instead, I looked for a budget-friendly option and went with Passions of Paradise because they were running a special on tickets. The girl at my hostel also recommended them as the best boat for snorkeling (versus a scuba dive boat).
On the day of my trip, the weather was a bit dreary as it had been since I arrived in Cairns the day before. Unfortunately, the forecast didn’t look any better for the rest of the time I had in Australia so it was now or never. Upon boarding the boat, we were given mini chocolate muffins, coffee and tea. The vessel was larger than I anticipated and held more than 50 people. We left the harbor just quick enough to miss most of the rain and find a rainbow.
|Slide Album: Cairns|
As we set off, the water was extremely rough and choppy. The initial excitement of sailing gave way to an inkling of seasickness. This surprised me because I never get motion sickness. Luckily after about two hours of cruising, we reached our first snorkeling site. Michaelmas Cay was a wild bird sanctuary. From Passions of Paradise, you could see hundreds of birds flying into the wind above the small island. The sand was alive with black bodies undulating and moving, screeching and calling out into the wind.
We suited up with snorkels, masks, fins and optional wet suits and floatation devices and hopped into a transport boat that took us to the island. They instructed us to stay within the roped-off section of the beach. Because the Cay is a wildlife sanctuary, the sand was just as protected as some of the birds. This, of course, didn’t keep them from swooping down at us in mock dive bomber fashion.
Snorkeling at Michaelmas Cay was like stepping into another world as we clumsily made our way into the water. Outside, the birds were flapping and squawking noisily. Under the water, all you could hear was the ocean sloshing around you (and maybe your own uneven breath as you became accustomed to breathing through a snorkel). Incredibly, as soon as you dunked your head into the water, there were fish everywhere. They weren’t afraid of you and swam around as if you weren’t even there. A few times I reached out and could almost touch them with my fingertips. Even the coral looked interesting and different from the ones I’d seen at home.
|Slide Album: Great Barrier Reef|
When we returned to the boat, we ate lunch, which includd pesto pasta salad, potato salad, pickled veggies, green salad, fruit, prawns and pork or veggie curry with rice. It was a really nice spread and gave us the chance to fuel up for the next site. With all the swimming and the sun, everyone was definitely in need of a good feed.
The second site was Paradise Reef and was in the middle of the ocean. This meant that you had to get your gear on, waddle down some steps, jump into open water and swim to the reef. At this point, the swells were quite big and were really rocking the boat around. The water was a deep blue and looked cold, especially with the wind blowing briskly. But, without much thought about sharks and their other toothy friends, I took the plunge into the ocean.
Swimming against the current to the reef was difficult because I was so worried about being covered by a swell. Somehow, even with the floatation belt, I thought a wave might swallow me up. After several frantic breaths, I realized that I would be fine and that my body would move with the rise and fall of the water around me. Even when the wave looked a couple of feet higher than me, I learned that it would pick me up and put me back down in nearly the same place.
As my confidence lifted, I explored more of the reef. This section housed fish that were a lot more colorful than Michaelmas Cay. I saw many uhu (parrot fish) swimming around, and they seemed larger and more brightly featured than our Hawaiian version. The coral out here looked different as well. But it was difficult to really get a close look at anything because I couldn’t dive while wearing my floatation belt. Diving contradicted the purpose of the belt and fought me every time I tried to get closer.
The Great Barrier Reef was amazing! I can’t even imagine how much life it supports. Even though I’ve been in Australia for a while, today could be the best day ever, even with a bit of seasickness thrown in. And if I wasn’t sure about it on the way out, it became more clear to me on the way back in that I was definitely suffering from the symptoms of seasickness. Once I was on land though, everything was fine. All I could think of as I walked to my hostel was, “What a day!”