Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 4 – Great Barrier Reef

Day 4 – Great Barrier Reef

I've become a bit stir crazy with regards to lack of exercise since I arrived in Oz. Although I've been trying to stay somewhat active here during my trip, there is no way in hell I would go for a jog here in Queensland given the 90% humidity – I prefer to save my energy for activities that would take place later that day

We drove to the marina in Cairns, and parked in a public lot with a singular parking meter. We needed enough change for 8 hours of parking, but realized that between Uncle Gerry, Mum and I, we only had enough for 5.5 hours. Since the car rental company slaps an extra $50 "handling" charge for any and all parking citations (on top of the citation itself! Shady, I know), we were reluctant to leave our car parked here in spite of the scant amount of public parking. However, a meter maid happened to be nearby, and Mum asked him if there was a place we could get change. He said not really, but asked where we were from. She told him, in her Americanized Aussie accent, "Los Angeles." The officer then inquired which car was ours, and we pointed to our periwinkle blue Hyundai Getz. He looked at the 5.5 hours on the meter and then replied, much to our amazement, "Oh don't worry, this is my area, and you guys will be fine." Mum and I beamed at each other, shrugged, and thanked the gentleman profusely, still not completely certain if he would regale us with a citation once we were gone.

We arrived at the Great Barrier Reef cruise office, and Mum pulled out her travel agent card. We would then be entitled to save a collective $50 on three passes, including my first scuba diving adventure that I will certainly never forget.

The catamaran whisked us out to sea about 20-25 miles off the Cairns coast. The ship was comprised of three levels, and the conditions (clear weather and still water) could not have been better. Since it was a Wednesday, the boat wasn't particularly crowded - only about 70% full. The water was reminiscent of what one would envision when s/he looks at a postcard: warm, aqua, and inviting.

A collection of tourists gathered on the boat: Half of them were mostly non-English-speaking Asians from Japan, China, Korea and Singapore. I also met tourists from Australia, Sweden, Germany, and the US. The ship's crew was mostly Australian and Kiwi, but a few were also Asian, as a significant portion of the clientele required staff that spoke languages of the Orient.

I was impressed with the setup on the boat: There was free tea, coffee and water available before the boat left the port, and if you wanted soda, juice, snacks, candy, sunscreen, soueveneirs, wine or beer, these items were also for sale. I also spotted three photographers on the boat discreetly running around taking people's pictures. For the most part, the crew on the cruise ship was both friendly and knowledgeable.

I was to report for scuba training at 11:30am. Although I had snorkeled a few times, I had never strapped on an air tank as this requires certification and a grip of $$$ in the States. However, they had a relatively simple crash course available for scuba newbies like me who know fuck-all about the nuances of diving. First, I learned how to breathe through the mouthpiece, and how to clear it out if it came dislodged from my mouth. Second they made sure we could swing our arm in a particular way so if our mouthpiece came dislodged underwater, it would be readily available to put back in our mouth in a pinch. The last two things we learned were: how to clear our mask if it got flooded underwater, and to pinch our nose and exhale to relieve pressure repeatedly during our descent. It may seem like a lot to learn in a short time, but Dawn, the scuba instructor, made it seem really simple. The butterflies in my stomach would soon transform into eager anticipation, as I couldn't wait for 1:30pm, my dive time.

Lunch was served at 12:15pm, and they laid out an impressive buffet: Prawns, salad, chicken, beef, fruit, bread, noodles, and vegetarian lasagna plus more that I can't remember off the top of my head. It seemed as though the boat had something to eat for everyone with a picky palate. I made sure I was one of the first at the buffet, as I had to make sure I ate before 12:30pm. Mum always said not to swim until an hour after I ate…otherwise, I'd get cramps and drown – however, that was when I was six years old.

When I saw her on the boat, I reiterated what Mum had told me about getting cramps in the water. She dismissively waved that notion off as an old wives' tale, and said I could do whatever I bloody well pleased. With that in mind, I decided to go on a preliminary snorkel run since I made sure I hadn't stuffed myself full of prawns and chicken.

I was unsuccessful in finding flippers in my size, and asked Dawn what was the biggest size the boat had. She looked at my feet, walked to a less-traveled corner of the ship, and produced a giant pair that read, "15-17" on them. As she handed them to me, she jokingly told me I probably wouldn't need flippers with feet as gargantuan as mine. I love these guys! They're knowledgeable, AND they have a sense of humour!

When I was snorkeling, I made sure not to exert myself too much so that I would save energy for the scuba dive. I saw some amazing coral, and a colorful array of fish and sea anemones I had never even known existed, let alone seen before. Snorkeling in the GB Reef made the time I went snorkeling in Catalina look like the grimy lobster tank inside a Chinese restaurant by comparison. As I swam back to the boat to return the snorkel for my air tank, I could feel a palpable giddiness starting to creep up inside.

Unfortunately, Dawn took the 12:30pm scuba group out, so our group would be led by a friendly Aussie named Brian. After I squeezed into my size 7 wetsuit and donned my weight belt, Brian taught us the international underwater scuba language. Since we're not Navy SEALS, and don't have underwater radio communication, we would communicate with a short set of logical hand gestures: "I'm okay" (Thumbs up), "everything okay?" (forefinger pressed to thumb with other three fingers raised), "Wait" (hand raised), and the dreaded "out of air" (wave hand across throat). Since we were all supplied with an hour's worth of air for a 30-minute dive, the last signal wouldn't be necessary.

When everyone was ready, we descended about eight feet underwater. The pressure was mildly irritating, but I made sure to keep pinching my nose and blowing. This relieved almost all of the sinus pressure, and I was fine thereafter. We eventually swam to the ocean floor, which was probably 20 feet from the surface, and suddenly, a sea turtle (we would later learn her name was Emily) appeared along with one of the ship's photographers. When Emily swam up next to me, and the photographer snapped the photo, I instinctively flashed thumbs up. We would then play with live starfish, and when Brian whipped out some giblets, we were suddenly accosted by several schools of tropical fish. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but made for a great "Kodak moment."

After we finished our diving session, Brian said how impressed he was with our swimming abilities, and that he usually keeps beginner groups closer together. He then looked at my air gauge, and was flabbergasted to learn that I only had five minutes of air left - my friends don't call me "vacuum lungs" for nothing! I thanked Brian for his help, and was a bit lightheaded after I took the heavy scuba gear off. I would recommend this experience to everyone and everyone that is physically capable of handling it. If it wasn't so damned expensive, I'd go diving more in the future, even though the water in Southern California is colder, and the selection of underwater sea creatures pale in comparison.

I rested for an hour, and made a point of going snorkeling one more time before we headed back to port. They even had showers on the boat to wash off the sea water so I didn't feel icky when we docked.

As we headed back to Cairns, the staff began to lay out pages of photo thumbnails the photographers had amassed during our cruise. Unofrtunately, they charge $20 per photo, which is a bit rich for my blood. However, my benevolent Uncle Gerry paid for four photos, and I was able to finagle a fifth for free by saying my Mum accidentally chose the wrong photo I had wanted. Brian came up to me afterward, I thanked him for an unforgettable experience, and Mum took our picture together. The ship's crew, in general, seemed to genuinely enjoy their job, and had a legitimate sense of camaraderie about them. I think this rubbed off on the tourists, which made the experience all the more fun. Again, if you have an opportunity to visit this Natural Wonder of the World (one of only seven), do it!

After we left the boat, we were apprehensive about whether the parking enforcement officer was pulling our leg. Lo and behold, there was no ticket on our windshield eight hours later! J

We visited Coles supermarket afterward, picked up some steaks, salad, cheese, crackers, and cookies-er-biscuits. Back at The Lakes resort, Mum and Gerry wanted to go for a quick swim and lounge at the pool. As they have a poolside grill, a group of young Asians were having a jolly good time drinking and cooking up a storm across the pool. They looked like they were drinking beer and sake, so I took them for Japanese (most Asians in Oz are Japanese). Mum wanted to know what time it was, so I walked up to one of them wearing a watch, ascertained that they didn't speak a lick of English, and pointed to his wrist. Another one of their crew removed a chunk of steak from the grill and held it to my mouth. I gladly obliged by eating it, and another one handed me a shot of sake. My feeble attempt at a Japanese toast ("kanpai!") drew subdued laughter as one of them pointed to the lot of them and exclaimed "hho-ho - Korean". I immediately slapped my hand to my forehead in mortification and apologized as best I could, and responded with "Consameeda" (Korean for 'Thank You') – one of the girls laughed and retorted with "I rove you!". We all shared a drink, a bite to eat, and a good laugh. A bit later, Mum and Uncle Gerry were done swimming, and were ready to commence dinner preparations, so we dried off, and went back to our room. I bid the Koreans goodnight, and we retired to our suite to cook our supper.

All in all, this was the most memorable day from the trip thus far, but hopefully, there will be many more days as enjoyable as this to come.

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