September 7, 2012

The Great Barrier Reef

WARNING: this post contains a lot of BLUE.

From Hervey Bay we caught our first Australian night bus to Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. It went something like this…Greyhound pulls into Airlie Beach bus stop after 12.5 hours of driving; 15 seconds later a van arrives to shuttle us to the boat;
30 minutes later we are cruising the Whitsunday waters. We pack it all in!

The Whitsundays are made up of 74 dreamy islands in the southern Great Barrier Reef. Even though they look tropical, there are no palms…just pine trees.

 Only 7 of the islands are inhabited, and it’s sparse at that, so everything feels very natural. This also means that the islands are difficult to navigate. There is no such thing as a ferry here. You either need to have a buddy with a boat (which we don’t), or you’re forced into expensive sailing or speed rafting tours. It’s annoying, but once you’re in paradise with hardly anyone else around, I suppose that makes it worth it.

The largest island is Whitsunday, where exists the most beautiful beach we’ve ever seen – Whitehaven Beach. We caught Whitehaven at the perfect moment when the tide was half way out at Hill Inlet. It looked like a painter had swirled the sand into the water.

Whitehaven Beach consists of 98% pure silica, which gives it a bright white color.  It reflects so much sun that the sand never gets hot. We loved running through the inlets and lying in the shallow ponds of crystal clear sea water.

There was no one else around to witness my running-through-water Baywatch reenactments. It was just us, sea, fish, sting rays, and these bizarre piles of sand.

We had always planned to take a multi-day snorkeling trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef, but we were going to do it farther north from a city called Cairns. Then we kept hearing horror stories about how commercial / mass transit / “cattle herding” / impersonal the Cairns tours felt. So in a last minute audible we scrapped those plans and decided to see the outer Great Barrier Reef in a much more memorable way…by seaplane.

There was some sort of scheduling mix-up, so during the first half of our trip it was just Steve, myself, and the pilot. It felt too good to be true when we landed on the waters off Whitehaven Beach in our private plane.

Neither of us had ever ridden on a seaplane before. When we eventually had to go pick up 6 other passengers from Hayman Island, that allowed us to get a total of 5 take-offs and 5 landings. Pretty smooth and fun!

So there we were – us and 3 other young couples – flying out to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s never a good sign when the pilot of your 9-seater seaplane comes over the intercom and announces, “There’s been an emergency”. My heart sank for a moment before he explained that there was a boat sinking on the reef. We located it and then had to do laps over the reef for 20 minutes before the rescue helicopter could arrive. Bad luck for the dude on-board that boat, but awesome luck for us that we got fly-over after fly-over of this…

Once the whole shipwreck drama was over, our pilot landed the seaplane right in the middle of the reef where we snorkeled for an hour. Wow. I would trade this experience over a super-commercialized people-mover from Cairns any day. This is without a doubt, THE way to experience the Great Barrier Reef. We absolutely loved it.

Throughout our time in the Whitsundays, we snorkeled in the chilly waters of the volcanic reef of Hook Island and in the Coral Seas’s shelf reef of the outer Great Barrier Reef. Some reefs have more colorful coral while some are more rich in sea life. We saw all sorts of fish that we don’t know the names of. There were really small fish (one inch) and really big fish 
(4 feet).

We saw coral like we’ve never seen it before. It was humongous and vibrant. There were brilliant blues, purples, yellows, greens, pinks, and oranges. It’s an underwater forest…the original aquarium. That said, Steve and I both agree that while the snorkeling in the GBR is the best we’ve ever seen, it’s not the perfection that you would imagine. We definitely saw the effects of coral bleaching – which happens when the algae that gives the coral its color dies off when the coral becomes stressed due to climate change.

We had read reports from experienced divers that there is better snorkeling/diving elsewhere in the world. But, here’s why the Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. We flew over the reef for an entire hour and only saw portions of 2 sub-reefs from above. There are 2,898 more sub-reefs where that comes from. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism in the world. Apparently you can see it from space…but I imagine seaplane is second best.

Side note: do I look like a happy nerd or what? I don't even recognize myself in this picture.

After the Whitsundays, we kept making our way north up the coast…past kilometer after kilometer of sugarcane farms and into little stopovers like…

Magnetic Island, which is full of bays lined with huge boulders.

This is where we learned that there are people in the world who have never played Bingo before. I felt sorry for them. I also didn’t have the heart to tell the Australians that they were playing it wrong.

By the time we hit Mission Beach, Australia had gone completely tropical. Their rich lava soil and humid climate allows the farmers to grow the largest variety of ultra-tropical fruits in the world. We went on a “fruit safari” and got to taste about 20 different kinds of exotic fruits. There are fruits out there that taste like pumpkin, coffee, and vanilla rice pudding. What an amazing world we live in!

We also visited a wild animal rescue shelter and got to cuddle a baby wallaby hanging out in a makeshift pouch, hold a blue-tongued lizard, and ogle over this precious baby flying fox bat. Steve even got wrapped up in a python.

Our Greyhound bus passes ended in Cairns, so it was a mandatory stop for us. Not surprisingly we found it to be a vortex of tour operators trying to lure you into their dens of colorful pamphlets. Mayday! We needed to escape quickly. We thanked our lucky stars that we had decided to see the GBR out of the Whitsundays instead, and we moved on. This place was not for us.

Our final stop was Port Douglas, a charming seaside village with close access to Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park, and Cape Tribulation. This part of Australia hosts the oldest continuous surviving rainforest in the world (110 million years old) and reminded us a lot of Kauai. 

For every tree there seems to be 10 vines. On one hand this is Indiana Jones sort of territory.

On the other hand, there are loads of (kinda boring) baby stroller paths that guide you through the tangled forest from the comfort of a boardwalk. Cool Indiana Jones terrain deserves more than people traipsing around in flip flops. But then again, if you know Steve and flip flops, I need not say more.

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