Australia, 2009 – Day #9, Contiki, Great Barrier Reef
Sunday, October 18, 2009 –
Last night’s sleep was pretty short, since we had to be up early today for our Great Barrier Reef excursion – Travis, Kent and I grabbed breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then got our stuff together and boarded the bus. Turns out Fred has been on this Contiki tour a few times and has seen the Reef, so he wasn’t doing the excursion. I guess he was just going to hang out at the hotel or venture into Cairns for the day. Before we boarded the boat at the marina, we had to pose for this hokie picture on the dock. But it was cool to get a picture of almost the full Contiki group.
After the night of boozing, Shaun wasn’t feeling so hot, and actually looked like he could yak at any given second. I was pretty tired myself, but more nervous for the boat ride, so I popped a quick Gravol and had a bottle of water to drink, to calm me down a bit.
The 90-minute Reef Magic boat ride to the Reef proved to be quite the scenic trip – we passed a huge ocean liner and some smaller islands on the way to the Marine World pontoon boat which was moored on the outer reef, where we’d be docked for the day.
I spent most of the time sitting with Kent, Travis, Shaun & Sam. There was no shortage of time to get to know the fellow Contiki travelers, that’s for sure. It’s nice to be able to chat with people from around the world who share a love of travel and are laid back about life. No one has really asked about jobs or what it’s like at home, it’s mostly just questions about where else have you traveled to, places to see around the world, that kind of thing.
Here’s some info on the Reef:
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 sq miles). The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia.
The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms. This reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps. The Great Barrier Reef supports a wide diversity of life, and was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981.
More than 1,500 species of fish live on the reef, including the clownfish, red bass, red-throat emperor, and several species of snapper and coral trout. Four hundred species of corals, both hard corals and soft corals are found on the reef. The majority of these spawn gametes, breeding in mass spawning events that are controlled by the rising sea temperatures of spring and summer, the lunar cycle, and the diurnal cycle.
When the boat docked and we stepped on to the pontoon boat, you could really see how shallow the water was, which was absolutely crazy considering we were a 90-minute boat ride off the coast. We were briefed on the rules & given the safety talk, then lined up to get our stinger suits, flippers, mask & snorkel. Although we got the stinger suits as a precaution, they weren’t mandatory to wear while you were swimming in the water – and considering they were just a wetsuit, I’m not sure what kind of protection they could possibly provide against a
stingray (Meg was nice enough to correct me and say that they were protection from the jelly fish). Regardless, I wore mine to err on the side of caution. Last thing I’d want is to end the trip early from a stingray attack. I couldn’t wait to get in the water and do some exploring. It’s times like this where I wish I had my scuba certification so I could grab a tank and really go to town. Eventually…
I strapped on my flippers, had my mask ready and I made my way down the few steps to the submersed scuba station to ready myself for the water. I was amazed at how warm the water was, and how shallow everything looked. The snorkel session began, and within seconds I was blown away by the colours of the ocean – bright coloured fish were everywhere, the coral was all different colours, and the water was unbelievably clear.
Not knowing much about fish, I just swam around the roped in area of Marine World’s ‘pod’, so to speak and took everything in. There were clown fish (Nemo), white & black fish, bright blue fish, long & skinny fish, schools of fish that looked like synchronized swimmers – I could go on & on, but my descriptions don’t do the scenery justice.
I must have swam for a solid hour before I finally made my way back to the water to discuss the findings with the other Contiki swimmers. We were all really excited and amazed by what we were seeing. Since it must have been 35*C today, I made sure to reapply my sunscreen as often as I could, without taking away too much time from actually swimming.
One of the highlights of the morning had to have been ‘petting’ a fish called Wally. He’s a Maori Wrasse and was HUGE. This fish was somewhat trained by the marine biologists of Marine World, so he was able to swim over on command and posed for pictures.
We stopped swimming for our fully catered lunch – the menu rubbed me the wrong way. I found it particularly strange to be out on the Great Barrier Reef, taking in this beautiful underwater life, and Marine World serves up a seafood buffet. I don’t know, it just seemed weird to me. I’m not a seafood eater to begin with, but I stuck with sandwiches and some of the pasta they had. All of which was pretty tasty. We hit the sundeck on the pontoon after lunch to catch some sun before heading back into the water.
Before the afternoon snorkel session, I made sure to take off my stinger wetsuit, and just swam around with the flippers, mask and my surf shorts. This gave me a lot more flexibility and without the buoyancy of the wetsuit, I was able to dive down a little closer to the coral. At one point, as the tide was shifting, I was caught out in the far corner, unable to really make it back to the pontoon boot with the coral jutting out of the water at points.
I slowly made my way around and found a path back towards the main area. One thing I did find out, the hard way, was how sharp the coral was. During the safety & rules briefing, we were told not to touch the coral or stand on it, since a broken piece of coral could take up to 1,000 years to grow back.
During some of my underwater moments I saw a baby shark in the distance, a sea turtle (which some of the scuba divers saw up close) and A LOT of coral.
I took a break in the afternoon and did the submarine tour with a few people, which was pretty cool. It’s a quick tour outside of the swim area, and fully guided where you’re told of the different types of coral and their specific purposes – some fish use the coral to clean themselves or hide from other fish, some coral acts as cleaning agents for the sea floor, etc. Another quick swim to look at some more fish & coral and then we were back on the Reef Magic and on our way back to Cairns.
For dinner we took the coach into Cairns and ate at the Woolshed – I had a steak & baked potato, which was pretty delicious and reasonably priced. A bunch of us hung out and chatted, having some drinks in the restaurant/club while we figured out what we were going to do. Sam & I decided we were going to hit the casino, so we made our way there, lost our money and then stopped at Maccas (McDonald’s) for some late night food. Some of the other Contiki folk hit a pub for some drinks, so Sam & I met up with them after the casino and caught a cab back to the hotel. A bunch of people had an early morning white water rafting excursion, so they had left early. Back at the hotel, I caught up with Shaun, who is absolutely hilarious, and Debbie – while a bunch of others stopped by and chatted on their way back to their rooms.