On Friday, May 13, our class boarded the ship Passions of Paradise, joining about 55 other tourists with the single purpose of seeing the coral reef, up close and personal. There were other tour groups aboard. In particular, a group of adults roughly my age were doing a six-week tour of Australia; they started in Adelaide. They were fascinated by two things: Charlie’s underwater goggles/camera and our role in the lives of our 17 students.
Our preparations for the trip started the previous evening. We attended a two hour lecture, Reef Teach. In the first hour, the instructor identified the fish and coral we would most likely see and gave us the outstanding characteristics of each. In the second hour, he discussed the less likely viewings, especially for the snorkelers: sharks, Moray eels, sea snakes, manta rays. He talked about the threats to the reef. Compared to Charlie, he has a radically different viewpoint. Perhaps Charlie will discuss this in his blog. Our students, I’m proud to say, took the dangers to the reef seriously and were very careful.
By mid-morning, we were at Michaelmas Cay. Every one of our students either did a dive or a snorkel here. Some were able to do both. The divers went in right off the ship. Most of the snorkelers took the glass bottomed boat to the cay and walked into the water. When I had difficulty managing the flippers, Charlie indicated I should walk backwards. He also warned me when I was about to step on coral; to me it looked like small rocks in the sand. After a few minutes of trying to find a backwards path through it all, I gave up and did what I should have done earlier – flop in on my belly.
It took me another several minutes to calm down and figure out the breathing process. My nose stayed dry, my mouth was in the water, and yet I was supposed to breathe in and out through my mouth? Of course I couldn’t breathe through my nose because that was under the goggles, and I did have a breathing tube in my mouth. Still, I wasn’t comfortable for a while. The coral close to the shore was also close to the surface, so I was very nervous about knocking pieces off. But I was finally far enough from shore to be able to drift on my belly for long periods of time and just look at the wonders below me.
I did see corals; I did see fish, bright and dull, large and small. I tried to stay still long enough so that I could identify fish and coral, but I gave up and decided to simply enjoy the view. I saw what might have been plate coral; I saw long strands of yellow spaghetti waving in the current. Charlie signaled me to follow him, and we watched a clam with blue lips snap shut when we waved our hand over it. I was getting cold – I guess the stinger suit I was wearing is not designed to keep the snorkeler warm – so I told Charlie I was going to swim to the ship. His glasses were on the beach, so he went back to the cay and on his way saw a Christmas tree worm. I continued to look at the fish and coral as I pushed my way to the ship. Once at the ladder. I removed the flippers so that I could climb up and was immediately surrounded by sci-fi fish: very round and very flat batfish. If you could squeeze the air out of a yellow-green beach ball, you’d have a model of what I saw.
Everyone was so cold back on the ship! All the sunshiny places were in the wind. The warmest place was in the cabin shoved up against a viewing window; several of our students squeezed in there, shivering. The sights they saw were marvelous enough that a few skipped the afternoon session at Paradise Reef.
The crew served a very nice lunch with about 6 salads, a bowl of chilled prawns, and makings for sandwiches. That warmed us up. Tying the stinger suits onto the railing in the sun helped, too: mine was mostly dry and sun-warmed. At Paradise Reef, we had to go off the boat, so it was full immersion immediately. This reef is not near an island, and we were rocked by ocean waves the entire time. That actually helped to keep me warm; when I tried just drifting over the coral, I was swept away to a different outcropping. I had to swim back to the others. In fact I swam much further so that drifting would keep me in range of the ship. I had to keep my arms and legs moving, and so I was never cold.
The coral here was a bit different, and the water was deeper. I didn’t have to worry about kicking off a piece of coral. When my head was above water, it looked as if I was swimming over sand blossoms, that is, it seemed as if there was a very large crab down there digging up a lot of sand. But when I put my face into the water, the multitudes of coral and fish sprang up so clear and well-defined, it was as if I was looking at a photograph in a book. Head up, sand blossom. Head down, a coral garden populated by fish, not birds. By keeping my arms and legs moving, I was able to stay in one place for a while, hovering over brain coral. I saw four fish fighting, and I saw a parrot fish munching on coral. The fish bit off so much that parts tumbled down the sides of the coral and out of sight.
Once back on the ship, I thought about what I would do differently if I ever had this chance again. I don’t know if I could handle a dive, but the reports of the dozen or so students who did dive tempt me. I don’t think I will walk in from an island or cay if the possibility of going in off the boat exists. I’d be less worried about damaging coral and I’d be at the coral sooner. I’d also bring bigger towels or a very long beach robe for warmth after the snorkel.
Once we were back on land, students talked about the dream world they had just left, some laughingly fearful they would wake up and discover it was in fact a dream. For most of our scheduled outings, we stay in a group, struggling to be close to the guide in order to hear and see everything. Exploring the coral reef was a personal adventure for each of us; no two people saw the exact same things. I hope you will have the chance to read their stories.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
On our first free day in Cairns some of the girls and I went bungy jumping I was fine all the way up the somewhere around 200 stairs to the top of the tower but once I stepped onto the edge 106 ft high, it is so frightening. I still cant believe that I jumped off that tower. But it was SUPER fun if I had the money to do it again I would.