Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Northern Queensland Part 1: A parallel universe in the Great Barrier Reef

Sharon's parents were brave enough to suffer through the 20+ hours of traveling it takes to get from Tampa, Florida to Sydney, Australia, and spent a couple weeks visiting us here. On her mom's bucket list was the Great Barrier Reef, so we planned a short excursion up to northern Queensland. Since her parents were coming from a Florida summer (read: very hot and humid), Sydney's rainy winter was a bit of a shock. And since apartments here don't have central heating, they were huddled up in front of our space heater. The warmth of the tropics was going to be a welcome escape.

But as we sat in the Sydney airport, delayed hour after hour thanks to some fog that perched itself on top of the runway, it looked like we might not be going anywhere. We used the time to book some excursions and I tried out my new iPad by sketching Australian animals. It's been a long time since I doodled and I enjoyed it. And finally the fog lifted and we left.
One of my drawings.

The descent into Cairns (pronounced more like "Cannes" -- the French city -- than "Kairns"), the biggest city (and I use that term loosely) in northern Queensland, was amazing. As we passed over the ocean, patches of light turquoise blue-- indicating where reefs were -- stood out from the azure water. Lush mountains sloped down to the sea. While I knew that Australia boasted a varied landscape, if you had shown me a picture I would have thought this place was in tropical southeast Asia.
A lot of blue from the window...

We picked up our rental car, a small hatchback that was a bit snug for four people, and turned north on the main road (ahem, the only road) to Port Douglas, the jumping off point for exploring the reef in the area. For the first few miles outside of Cairns we were subjected to roundabout hell. In lieu of traffic lights, the traffic authority left all the motorists to luck and fate and installed huge roundabouts at every intersection. It might have been a better experience in a sports car, but the hatchback didn't exactly hug the curves. But after a while the roundabouts gave way to smooth, uninterrupted road.

We passed sugar cane fields and banana plantations, the mountains always a short distance behind, and occasionally were treated to spectacular views of the ocean and coastline ahead. It's Australia's answer to the Pacific Coast Highway in California. About an hour and a half later we rolled in to Port Douglas. Port Dougie, as it's called, is a charming town, flanked on one side by Four Mile Beach and on the other by the ocean and wharf where all the fishing, snorkeling, diving, and leisure cruise boats depart. Four Mile Beach, I learned, often hosts saltwater crocodiles, but we didn't see any when we went for a walk after checking in to our hotel.

Because of the delay in Sydney, the day was mostly over. We got some dinner and went to bed.

The next morning, on Thursday, Sharon had booked a snorkel tour of the outer reefs (which is apparently better than the reefs closer to shore). It was warm and sunny and promised to be a great day. Some of the snorkel and dive operators have enormous boats that hold over 100 people. We didn't want to have such a commercial experience or share the water with so many people, so we'd found a catamaran that held about 35 people. As we cruised towards the outer reefs on a calm sea I picked up the accents of the other guests -- most were American. Two dolphins passed us by and a short time later we caught up with a few humpback whales.
View of the coast as we headed out towards the reef

The boat had three planned snorkel stops, all offering something a bit different. When arrived at our first location Sharon and I dove in sans wetsuits. After all, we were in the tropics. However, it was still winter and the water was cold. We retreated back to the boat, donned some wetsuits, and --  appropriately clothed -- jumped back in.

From deck of the boat you could see where the reefs were because of the colorations of the water, but its secrets were still hidden. But as soon as we ducked our eyes below the surface of the water, a parallel universe was revealed: thousands of multicolor fish, forests of coral, giant clams, sea cucumbers (and yes, we saw the Little Nemo fish: quite plain compared to some of the other species). It was unlike anything we'd ever seen. With the buoyancy from our wetsuits, we spent a lot of time just floating in place, watching the fish swim around, and wondering at the incredible variety of life on this planet.
Brain coral.
Sharon waving.

The second reef we stopped at had the best coral. Tentacles of dark purple coral rose from the ground and spread for yards in all directions. Giant brain coral that was hundreds of years old  We even saw a reef shark, which I tried to follow for a while as it lazily moved through the water.

Our third snorkel spot was difference once again: two massive pillars of coral rising from the sea floor. This spot had the most vibrant collection of fish. I also saw a large octopus gliding along the surface of the coral. We were mesmerized by the beauty. If the cold hadn't finally gotten to us, we could have just floated there for a long time.
If our camera didn't suck, this is what our photos would look like. Image courtesy.

Our boat returned to Port Dougie in the late afternoon. There was some excitement on the boat when the captain received a radio call the an albino humpback, the only one in the world, was in the area after disappearing for a couple years, but we unfortunately couldn't find him. After cleaning up at the hotel, we hit the town for some dinner and ice cream and prepared to head further north, to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest on Friday.

1 comment:

  1. accurate description of our trip.It was very good.