Yesterday was our first full day in Australia and in typical fashion we felt compelled to utterly exhaust ourselves in dramatic fashion…and what better way to do that than an all-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef?
We were picked up by van early in the morning and driven into Port Douglas, which is the jumping-off point for a lot of the reef trips. The town itself is a pleasant-looking resort town reminiscent of any number of its American cousins, e.g. Laguna Beach CA or a subtropical non-Victorian version of Cape May NJ. It is however, blissfully free of chain restaurants and thus has a pleasantly authentic and lively feel. Its focus on tourism puts it in sharp contrast to its nearest neighbor up the road (and closest town to Silky Oaks), Mossman, which is a working town whose primary industry is sugar cane as I mentioned earlier. (It is the Mossman River that Silky Oaks overlooks.)
You are perhaps wondering who this Mossman guy was. (At least, I was.) Turns out there is no such person. The town was originally named Mosman, with one S, after a pair of brothers who became land and whaling magnates in Sydney around 1840. But the town fathers belatedly realized that a suburb of Sydney with that name already existed, so they added an S to avoid confusion. This seems rather unimaginative to me in light of the fact that the Aborigines had already been living here for 9,000 years, and the white settlers could simply have asked them what the name was. And perhaps they did, but decided that (say) Woolmangorangareenalunarangubungaree was too hard to spell.
As you would suppose, Port Douglas has a rather bustling marina that serves all the tour boats for the reef. There are dozens of them in a wide range of sizes serving a variety of tourist demographics. The largest look like small cruise ships and hold hundreds of people, and our van driver practically shuddered to behold them, describing them as cattle boats filled mostly with large groups. And to avoid bringing the wrath of political correctness down upon my own head, I shall now quote the driver: “They’re mostly huge groups of Asians who don’t know how to swim.”
Our vessel was the Poseidon, which looks pretty much as advertised on their website, i.e.:
The whole operation was extremely well run; even the food was good. There were about 15 crew members, which included a marine biologist and a team of dive instructors and dive masters. Every crew member except the captain was an insanely good-looking twenty-something with sun-streaked hair, washboard abs, and perfect white teeth. The captain was in early middle age, and we were told that this is a family operation, leading us to wonder darkly if we had just paid to be abducted by some kind of cult (“Father! We need another batch of 60 year olds to sacrifice to our Handsome God!”). Alternately, it may be that we were in the presence of the successful outcome of the Australian Surfer Eugenics Program. But either way, they were all cheerful, helpful, and knowledgable, so we suppressed our qualms.
We motored about an hour and a half over turquoise choppy waters to get to Agincourt Reef which is the section of the reef where we would be diving. Being an inveterate didact, I now feel compelled to tell you more about this.
The Great Barrier Reef is ginormous. It is about 1800 miles long — longer than the whole US Eastern Seaboard — and averages about 75 miles wide, for a total area of about 135,000 square miles, i.e. nearly the size of Pennsylvania and Maryland combined. It has 900 islands and is considered collectively to be a living organism (and thus the only living thing that can be seen from the Moon!). So in a sense, saying that we visited the Great Barrier Reef with a day of snorkeling and scuba diving is kind of like changing planes at O’Hare and later saying that you explored Chicago. (Footnote: this is true however for Newark and Dallas-Fort Worth.)
There were about 50 passengers on the Poseidon, whom the crew quickly segregated into three groups: certified divers, new divers, and snorkelers, the last being the largest group. Alice and I are both certified but she elected to snorkel. There were 10 certified divers including myself, and they divided us into two groups of five, each with a dive master. We made three dives at three different locations separated by about 10 minute boat rides (remember that we motored an hour and a half from shore) the three sites chosen for both their variety of sea life and the proximity of both deep water (for the divers) and shallows for the snorkelers. We dove at about 60′ depth; Alice snorkeled in perhaps 6′ – 10′ of water. And here we are:
In the upper picture, the gesture I am making means, “Help… there is a large hole in my air tank.” In the lower image, Alice is cursing me for forcing her to catch dinner with her bare hands, yet again.
So what was it like? You know, one of the wonderful things about travel (to me and Alice at least) is that it presents the opportunity to see things and have experiences that match the exotic mental images that you form about them over the years; in other words, it lets you find places that are as spectacular as you always hoped they would be. Lots of the most famous destinations fall into this category: Paris, African safaris, the Galapagos, Macchu Pichu, Angkor Wat, and so forth — places that make us feel really smart and lucky for going there. So I am happy to say that we can now add the Great Barrier Reef to the list of things that are as amazing as we thought they would be, a genuine bucket list destination that justifies all the anticipation and the effort and expense of getting there.
The water was crystalline, with a good 60′ of visibility and even a little more at the best times. (In the diving universe, this is practically infinite.) The entire seascape was an endless expanse of coral formations, from small fields of stag horn coral with swarms of multicolored wrasses darting among the branches, to towering formations ten or twenty feet tall hosting riots of clownfish and tangs, parrotfish up to 2′ long, brown spotted groupers that would swim up to investigate you, the occasional moray eel hiding in a crevasse, and on and on. It was, in other words, just like it was supposed to be, and our little group of six floated weightlessly through it pointing out the sights to each other — sea turtle, giant clams the size of auto tires, their rows of eyes peeking out from iridescent purple linings. It was genuinely otherworldly, more than worth the utter exhaustion that felled us by the end of the day.
We got back to Silky Oaks at about 5:00, had dinner, and stumbled back to our cabin. I zonked out at 7:30; Alice lasted about an hour longer. This was a great kickoff to retirement.
Today is a lot less ambitious, which is to say we are doing very little. Alice is getting a massage as I type this, and we will be attending a nature walk later today, but that’s about it. We’ll probably hike up the river tomorrow morning and try to catch some of the local wildlife — last night Alice saw a bandicoot crossing the footpath to our cabin — then catch a ride into town for lunch, but not much more in the way of ambitious outings until we head to Darwin in two days.
I’ve gotten a fair number of comments about how beautiful Silky Oaks looks. So to give you a better idea of the place, here’s a short (5 minute) video that I shot this morning: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wOmu1D1qHHo” (The video will play in a separate browser window.)
All for now…