When Finding Nemo came out in 2003, I think everyone, including yours truly, got hit with wanderlust to see the Great Barrier Reef. And with more and more news reports coming out about coral bleaching and how the GBR's days are numbered, it seemed that a trip there was pretty pressing. So at the tail end of our camper van trip around New Zealand (more on that to come in a future post), we packed our dingoes*, watched Finding Nemo in preparation, and got ready to see a sea anemonemone. Amnemonemomne.
*No dingoes were harmed in the making of this post
Like any good Brousi trip, we did our research long in advance and booked a day on the reef with Ocean Freedom cruises, a family-run company that got great reviews online. Our day on the reef was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but when we got to Cairns that Monday, there was a cyclone hitting a few hundred kilometers north. A CYCLONE. In a place whose motto is "beautiful one day, perfect the next"! We had a few things working in our favor though: 1) the cyclone was pretty far north of Cairns, so we were really only hit with rain and not disastrous winds and 2) it didn't stop us from doing things while we were there. That being said, El still switched our diving day to Thursday, which was forecasted to have better reef conditions, just to be on the safe side.
When Thursday morning came, we checked in for our day trip at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal. It said on the Ocean Freedom website that underwater cameras were optional extras, but the staff said that was referring to those crappy disposable cameras. They directed us to a store around the corner that hires waterproof digital cameras for the day, so we went there before it was time to board. Because the lady was really thorough with her explanation of how to use the camera (a good thing), we got to the boat at 7:45 when boarding had started at 7:30 (not a good thing). I get really anxious if I'm late for anything, but El was all Aussie chill like "The boat doesn't leave until 8, so we're good." Well, turns out everyone else decided to board on time, so we got to be those assholes everyone else was waiting on. Not a good first impression.
As we set off for the Upolu Cay, the first of our two reef destinations that day, the crew talked us through standard safety stuff, basic logistics for the day, and an introduction to scuba diving for everyone planning to (literally) take the plunge. Even though there had been a cyclone earlier that week, the waves were pretty small and our choice to move our trip to Thursday was validated when the captain had said that the seas were pretty rough earlier in the week.
We enjoyed the hour ride to Upolu Cay sitting on the upper deck of the catamaran so we could feel the ocean mist hit our faces. The group of guests wasn't actually that big, and one thing that was really nice about the Ocean Freedom was the crew to guest ratio: 4:1 for the whole group, and 2:1, or even 1:1 if requested, for scuba diving. Most of the crew was in their early 20s, and you could tell they grew up on or near the water. The guy who later went diving with Elliot said that his mom took him scuba diving for the first time when he was three, and he's practically lived on a boat ever since. I guess you could say the crew was more than just a little qualified. Everyone was also super nice and really did their best to make sure everyone had an incredible time. For most people a trip to the Great Barrier Reef is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and to have that personalized attention was a really nice touch.
We were the only boat anchored at Upolu Cay, which was awesome considering how some of the other popular reef locations, like Fitzroy Island, already had several day cruises anchored there. But for us, it was all deep turquoise water with spots of navy blue that marked where the reef was. The captain gathered everyone interested in snorkeling on the top deck and let us know what to expect while out in the water. While he was talking, crew members handed out wetsuits that were a little more forgiving than the ones we sausage-squeezed ourselves into in South Africa and flippers. If there was one thing I took away from the captain's talk, it was the importance of using flippers. He kept stressing how it would make it so much easier to swim the reef and how he didn't understand why people didn't use them. Sure enough, some young guys still refused to use them and he was like, "Seriously, I don't know why you wouldn't." C'mon dudes, the captain has a freaking sea turtle tattooed on his calf; I think he's the authority on this shit.
On the lower deck, we lined up flippers in hand, pulled on a life vest, and had our goggles sprayed with an anti-fogging solution before strapping them to our heads. The first group of scuba divers was finishing being tanked up and started jumping into the ocean with the crew members. El and I squeezed on our flippers and did the short jump from the boat into the bright green ocean. Expecting water that was butt cheek clenching cold, I was surprised and frankly relieved at how pleasant the water was. We bobbed around for a minute while we waited for one of the crew members to take our group on a snorkel tour around the reef. Eager to see what was swimming below me, I dunked my head underwater....and saw more water. I felt a twinge of disappointment, thinking that visibility was going to be shit because of the cyclone. That quickly faded when the world around me suddenly cleared up, and I had all these different types of coral six feet below me and electric blue and yellow fish surrounding me. It was kind of like a Disney movie where a curtain of bubbles suddenly parts, and you've got bass playing bass and the fluke is the duke of soul (yeah).
It was high tide at this point of the day, and we weren't going to get too close to the coral, so at our first stop we had to admire from a distance. One of the crew members swam us around the reef, which surrounded our boat like a horseshoe, and explained the two types of coral (hard vs. soft) and their different sub-categories (elephant ear, brain, spaghetti, and some others that I stopped listening to because I was distracted by what was below me). The waves were picking up, constantly bumping me into my fellow snorkelers, and I suddenly knew what a school of fish must feel like. Although I really hadn't snorkeled before, it felt really natural and I was able to keep horizontal and glide through the water pretty effortlessly.
Not that I was expecting it to be, but the coral wasn't as brightly colored as you see in digitally enhanced tourism photos. Okay that's a lie, I was totally expecting it to be like a Disney movie. The reality is, the majority of the coral around us was a muted orange, yellow, or pink with occasional splashes of electric blue, light greens, and deep reds. But honestly, the reality was more awesome than any picture I had seen or what I had imagined. The fact that all the colors around me represented an entire ecosystem with thousands of living things depending on it blew my mind more than any Disney movie ever could.
Not only did we have the colors and varieties of coral to admire, but we also had hundreds of brightly colored fish swimming all around us. At this first stop alone, we saw bright orange fish, bat fish, and more blue-lined surgeon fish than we could count. Time seemed to stop for me out there, and I stopped listening to our guide and wanted to live with my head under water for just a little while. After about thirty minutes, the rain started picking up and the waves were becoming a little choppier, so people started making their way back to the boat.
Almost right after we were back on, a huge barracuda started swimming around the back of our boat, prompting El to jump back in to get some underwater photos. He wasn't out of the water long before it was his group's turn to scuba. He had dived before and was excited to see the reef a little closer than just snorkeling would allow. In fortunate timing for me, one of the crew members called for anyone interested in taking a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. I found a seat on the boat with about 15 other people, and my eyes were immediately glued to the floor. Although we weren't above the reef just yet, we still had plenty of fish swimming below us to keep us entertained.
The glass bottomed boat tour gave everyone, regardless of physical ability, the chance to enjoy the reef while learning about the different types of living things that called it home. The crew member gave a talk similar to the one we got from our snorkeling guide, but also went into more specifics about coral bleaching and how, in his opinion, it's not as apocalyptic a situation as everyone makes it seem. So coral is naturally a stark white; it gets its colors from the different types of algae that live on it. When the water gets too warm, the algae find another place to live. Just because the algae leaves though doesn't mean the coral is dead, but it does make it more vulnerable. The crew member was pretty adamant that climate change is definitely a threat to the GBR, but coral bleaching is a natural event that's part of a reef's lifecycle and something that it can rebound from. I thought for sure I'd get a lecture about the dangers of coral bleaching, so I was pretty surprised (and honestly relieved) to hear someone who makes their living off the reef pretty casual about it. Not only was the boat tour informative, but we also saw a white-tipped shark that was no bigger than a large fish swim by, and people sitting in the middle of the boat saw a sea turtle right below them. Damn me for being too eager and the first person on!
By the time we got back, El was finishing up his scuba dive and excitedly showed me the pictures he had taken. He saw a bright blue clam snap itself shut when someone waved a hand over it and a sting ray burying itself into the sand. It was lunchtime at this point, and the crew had set up platters filled with rotisserie chicken, bread, shrimp, salads, and much more. We ate on the top deck, with our wetsuits keeping us warm, while the crew weighed anchor and set off for our next stop: the outer reef. While we ate, we talked to some of the people around us, all of whom were North American. We chatted with a family from Minneapolis, some young guys who went to Iowa State, and an older couple from outside of Calgary. Given the amount of time it takes to get from NorthAm to this part of the world, people were unsurprisingly on extended vacations around Australia.
After a short ride, we were at our second and final stop for the day: the "Wonder Wall" on the outer edge of the reef. At this point it was low tide, and you could practically see the sand below us. In fact, a sandbar was starting to form right by us. Unlike Upolu Cay, we had to take the glass bottomed boat to our snorkeling spot due to the current. While people boarded, a crew member tossed some of the leftover shrimp into the water, and we all watched in amazement as the fish JUMPED out of the water to catch it. El's scuba group was the first to go at this second location, so he stayed on the boat while I went for my second snorkel.
Let me tell ya, having a low tide on the reef makes all the difference in the world. I thought I saw a lot at the first location, but it was nothing compared to the Wonder Wall. I was floating inches above the coral, and the colors and the activity of the reef were so much more vibrant because of my proximity. We once again had a snorkel guide taking us around the reef to point out all the cool spots, and the waves once again made sure we all constantly crashed into each another. Not even five minutes after we started snorkeling, our guide yelled out that there was a turtle right below her. I quickly dunked my head under water, and sure enough a big green turtle was kicking it on the coral. Almost sensing an audience, it then immediately swam up to the surface to get a breath of air. It was so cool to see something like that right up close, BUT I FREAKING FORGOT TO ASK IT HOW OLD IT WAS.
We continued snorkeling, and I glanced down and saw a sting ray right below me. Kinda psyched that I was the first to find something, I yelled for the group to come closer, and we all gathered around as three sting rays camouflaged themselves against the sand. A young guy from Minnesota then shouted that there were "Nemos" in the anemone right below him. I was too far to see them with everyone else, but the kid was so nice and pointed out exactly where it was so I didn't miss out. Sure enough there was a little clownfish just rolling around on top of an anemone, and despite me being a grown ass woman, I let out a squeal of excitement. Seeing "Nemo" is cool no matter what age you are.
El rejoined me after his second dive, and we swam around the reef checking out the star fish, different varieties of coral, and the dozens more types of colorful fish. It really was a surreal experience and definite not one either of us will soon forget. We could've stayed out there probably hours more, but our snorkel group made their way back to the boat. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the upper deck, talking to people around us, and stuffing ourselves with the platters of crackers, cheese, and cakes the crew kept bringing up to us. On the ride back to the dock, most of us sat in silence, enjoying the experience we just had and the peace of the ocean around us. As a nice final touch, the crew lined up and everyone shook every guest's hand and thanked us as we disembarked. If you're planning a reef tour in Cairns, I 1000% recommend Ocean Freedom.
Writing this post was a challenge for me because it's really hard to put our reef experience into words. The things we saw, and how we felt when we saw them, aren't really done justice with just adjectives. So to sum it up, we were like, "woaaaah.", and I was like, "woaaaah." and you were like, "woaaahh"...
Coming soon: Our camper van adventures across New Zealand's South Island! No, the shitter was NOT full.
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