Monday, September 11, 2006

11 - September 2006

(It's not yet September 11 in America, but our thoughts are with our home nation as we remember the happenings of five years ago today.)

Port Douglas is closer than any other Australian town to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a giant living organism that is home to thousands of species of fish, coral, mollusks, and sponges. So of course, we had to get up close and personal with it.

We were outside of our hotel by 7:45 AM to catch the tour bus for a day of snorkeling on the reef. We chose Poseidon Outer Reef Cruises from the countless snorkeling tour operators and packages because they go to the very edge of the Outer Barrier Reef (known to be the most spectacular), and every day they select the three best sites (from the forty-five they have access to on the Agincort Ribbon Reefs) for both the snorkelers and the introductory and certified divers on board. They also they offer a marine biologist guide and focus on educating passengers about the delicate reef ecosystems and how to protect and enjoy them

It was a beautiful, still, and warm morning, and our shuttle driver said we could expect the waters to be "flat as a pancake." Turns out Australian pancakes are entirely different from American ones, as there was nothing "flat" about the choppy seas we encountered for the 1-1/2-hour ride out to the very remote sites! Let's just say that many a paper chum bag was tossed overboard (Mike started to look green early on, so he took two doses of the sea sickness medication they sold on board, which thankfully and quickly did the trick; lucky for me, my morning sickness has settled, and I don't tend to get sea sick). The boat deck was completely soaked (we're talking constant torrents, not light sea spray!) while the passengers huddled under cover. (You know that advice about looking to the horizon to keep from getting sea sick? Pointless here--the boat was tossed around so much that the horizon was usually obscured from view by either waves or the vessel itself. All I could think about was that Mom would have just thrown herself to the sharks!).

But once we arrived at each site (quite literally in the middle of nowhere--the coast of Australia was so far away that the boat was really our only point of reference), the snorkeling was amazing. The reef was truly breathtaking in person (albeit not as colorful as we expected--it turns out that the healthiest, most vibrant reef is actually more brown than anything), the fish were plenty and colorful, and the water was as warm as bathwater (we didn't need the $5 wetsuits to stay warm in the ocean at all, but we did appreciate them for adjusting to the air temperature after getting out of that warm water and also for sun protection; several folks who didn't get them were burnt-backed by day's end!).

There were giant trigger fish, sea cucumbers (Mike got to hold one!), potato cod, parrot fish (if you listen carefully, you can hear them munching on the reef!), unicorn sturgeons, giant clams, and lots more unidentified beauties and gorgeous, swaying coral. Though they told us they were all around us, we didn't see any reef sharks (okay by us!) or sea turtles (shucks, we'd have loved that!).

I wasn't up for as much snorkeling as Mike, as the waters were too rough for my liking (it was nothing like the peaceful ocean I remember in Hawaii!), so I only went in twice (I don't recommend using a noodle, either--it makes you too bouyant and less able to get where you want to go). Mike, however, couldn't get enough--at the final site, he was literally the last guy (of 75 passengers) back in the boat and the one with the biggest grin on his face!

The package came with an incredible lunch spread as well as morning and afternoon tea, cookies, and fruit; several "classes" by the marine biologist on the history of the reef and the relationship between the coral and marine life; and guided snorkel tours for anyone interested.

After returning to the hotel all salty and worn out, we spent the early evening lounging by the beautiful tropical pool listening to amazing bird calls from the treetops and stopping in at the poolside bar. Then we showered up and hit their open-air, tiki-torch restaurant for dinner by the waterfall. Our hotel room is nothing to write home about, but the grounds are great!

--It's hard to get a seal on a snorkeling mask with facial hair. Two dedicated snorkelers with very respectable moustaches shaved theirs off before hopping into the water today!

--Queenslanders are relentless teasers of anyone who isn't from Queensland (and most notably the English, New Zealanders, and anyone from Darwin or Adelaide).

--New Zealand, we were told by a Kiwi on board with us, is known for excellent reggae music. We promised to find some when we visit the South Island.

--Australian TV programming gives us a giggle. Tonight we saw these shows advertised: "Two Men in a Tinny" (a reality series following two dorky blokes as they take a small metal boat around various waterways in Australia) and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugg Boot" (a documentary on the rise in worldwide popularity of the fuzzy Australian slipper--there's definite resentment among Aussies that the rest of the world "took" their boot).

--There's an obvious and widespread love for Al Gore here--in large part, it seems, because of his stance on global warming and the environment.


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