Sunday, May 2, 2010

Finding Nemo!

Last weekend, April 23-27, I finally had the chance to get up to the Great Barrier Reef. Ever since I took the scuba class and got certified I have been looking forward to getting up to the Reef.

My friend Courtney and I decided to go up to the reef together. I met her during my scuba class so we were both excited to get back underwater. We started off by going to the travel agent on campus. We looked through brochure after brochure with everything there is to do in Cairns. Cairns (pronounced: “cans,” Australians never pronounce “Rs” if they are at the end of a word) is the big tourist city in North Queensland that is close to the Reef. After deciding what we were going to do we let the travel agent do her thing. When she was done scribbling and jotting things down she looked up at us and said, “That will be $1150.” Courtney and I almost fell off of our chairs. We told the agent that we needed some time to talk about the trip before we booked anything. Courtney and I decided that there has to be a cheaper way to do everything we wanted. After doing some searching we found a way that we could do everything we wanted for only $800, it is still a lot but it was cheaper than the agents plan. We booked our own flights and then went back to the travel agent to have her book the rest of the trip the way we planned it.

On April 23 we started our adventure up to Cairns. Our bus departed from Lismore at 11:00 am headed for Brisbane. After about 200 pages of Harry Potter and 5 hours we finally made it. The ride to Brisbane is normally only about 2 hours but with all of the stops the bus had to make it took 5 hours. By coincidence Courtney’s Aunt and Uncle were in Brisy on business at the same time we were. They picked us up from the transit center and we headed to South Bank for dinner. South Bank is located along the river and is loaded with shops, restaurants, markets, and street performers. It is a really nice part of the city; most of the people walking around were really dressed up. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant and had a couple of hours to chat before heading to the airport. We made it to the airport about an hour and a half before our flight. As with all domestic Australia flights there is almost no security to go through but we wanted to be there early anyways. On domestic flights here you are even allowed to bring liquids. When going through the metal detectors you don’t even have to take your shoes off. The security is still there but it is nowhere near as strict as it is in the States. Our plane departed Brisbane at 10:00 pm and arrived in Cairns at midnight. Choosing this late flight was the first step we took in saving money on our trip. By taking this flight we decided that we could just sleep in the airport until morning, thus avoiding having to pay for a hostel. When we were getting off of the plane we immediately got a little bit nervous; the Cairns airport was completely empty. We assumed it would be kind of busy as airports normally are and that we could sleep without being noticed. We followed the group of people over to the baggage claim even though we had no luggage to claim. We took a seat in the baggage claim area and watched as everyone except for us slowly left. At this point every alternative to sleeping in the airport was running through my head but none of them were very good alternatives. There were two security guards who were looking at Courtney and I as if wondering what we were doing still sitting there. They turned and walked outside, thinking that we were in the clear we laid down in the now completely empty building. As soon as we laid down the two guards walked back in accompanied by three more guards; all five of them looking at us. We decided that we would just go up to the guards and ask them if it was ok to sleep here or not. I walked up to the group of guards, who by this time were all giving us interesting looks, and asked them if it was ok. The guard said, “You want to sleep here?” followed by a little chuckle. My heart sank and my mind was racing for an alternative place to sleep, the idea of sleeping in the rain on the streets of Cairns even ran through my head. (Side note: I think the rain follows me all around Australia seriously). The guard looked at my worried face and says, “Well you can sleep here if you really want, but I would really suggest the international terminal. It is much more comfortable and they have benches to sleep on.” I was so relieved I think I could have hugged him. We wouldn’t be sleeping outside after all. We walked down to the international terminal and found the cushioned benches the guard was talking about. Unfortunately so did a few other people. There was only room on the benches for one more person. I gave the spot to Courtney and I made myself as comfortable on the floor as I could. By this time it was about 1:00 am, we had to be at Deep Sea Divers Den at 7:00 am. The first international departure was not until 6:00 am which worked out perfect as that is when we had to get up anyways.

I woke up about ten minutes before my alarm to the early morning hustle and bustle of the airport. I woke Courtney up and we freshened up a bit in the bathroom before we headed outside to find a taxi. We took the taxi to Divers Den and arrived at about 6:40. It was still raining but the sun was starting to poke out from behind the clouds and it looked promising. The doors to Divers Den were still locked and the sign said closed. We waited on the chairs outside the shop thinking we were a just a little bit early. At about 7:20 am we started to get nervous because there was still no sign of anyone. I double and triple checked the address and I knew we were in the right place so we decided we would just have to wait longer. At about 7:30 am someone showed up at the shop and told us that he was just showing up to open. He said that check in was not until 8:00 am. So instead of being 20 minutes yearly we were an hour and 20 minutes early. We decided to walk down to the American Embassy (aka McDonald’s) to get some breaky. We headed back to the shop and got our dive adventure started. The package we decided to do is a 2 day, 1 night live aboard trip that includes 7 dives, all gear, all food, and accommodation. We took a shuttle from the shop to the marina to board the boat. Once on the boat we had a quick safety briefing and then we departed headed for the Great Barrier Reef. It was about an hour and a half ride out to the Reef. During this time we got assigned scuba gear and wetsuits. We also had dive site briefing so that we would not get lost underwater. By this time the clouds were mostly cleared up and the sun was shining so we sat out on the sun deck the rest of the trip. We finally arrived and it was time for the first dive. Courtney and I were both a little scared as this would be our first dives by ourselves without an instructor. Once in the water all fear was forgotten as everything I learned in my scuba class came like second nature. The fist dive was pretty cool. We got to see a bunch of fish and we even seen a White Tipped Reef Shark. While underwater I led and Courtney followed as she is, well, um… let’s call it directionally challenged. As the leader I had to make sure that we would surface relatively close to the boat and when we surfaced on the first dive I was happy to see the boat nearby. After we were back on the boat with our gear off we jumped back in to have a quick snorkel before lunch. Once back on the boat we had an excellent lunch that was followed by another dive site briefing. The boat had moved during lunch to the second dive site. As soon as we arrived we got geared up and we were back in the water. This site was on the edge of the reef. There was a massive 30 meter coral and rock cliff that we got to investigate. It was full of interesting coral and thousands of small fish. Back on the boat we were on the move once again. This time we were heading to meet with the live aboard boat. Once we linked up those of us who were spending the night on the Reef transferred boats. The live aboard boat was better than anything I had imagined. For the price we paid I was expecting it to be nice but not over the top, but this boat was way over the top. It was like a floating hotel. We had afternoon tea and the best carrot cake in the world during the ships safety briefing. Soon after that we had a dive orientation and we were back in the water. This dive site was one of the best sites of the trip. It was extremely colorful and there were thousands and thousands of fish. It was at this site that I seen my first sea turtle. Watching turtles swim in the ocean is the coolest thing ever. The turtles are my favorite thing to watch underwater. We also seen another shark on this dive, we actually seen a shark on every dive from here on. On this dive when we seen the shark we swam parallel with it until we were pretty far in front of it. The shark was not a huge one but it was still about 1.5 or 2 meters. Nothing that will take your arm off but it would leave a mark. I kept checking over my shoulder to keep an eye on him as we were swimming away. When I looked over my shoulder the third time my heart skipped a beat—the shark was following us! Noticing that I was looking over my shoulder Courtney turned to look. She stayed calm but the look on her face was anything but calm. The shark was swimming right at us. When it was about 15 meters away it took a right turn and casually swam away as if knowing he just scared the shit out of us. When we were back on the boat we had a little bit of time to rest before dinner. When the announcement for dinner came we headed down the dining room. As soon as we sat down the staff set down our plate of food in front of us. We had steak and mashed potatoes drizzled in a sweet gravy, cooked peas and carrots, and unlimited salad bar. It was defiantly better than the food I am used to eating in my apartment. After dinner it was time for the night dive. Courtney was kind of freaking out about the night dive but I was really excited. We geared up and grabbed a flashlight and jumped into the dark water. Because we had never done a night dive Courtney and I had to go with a guide. The reef at night looks like a totally different place than during the day. The first thing I noticed is that the fish at night are a lot bigger. All of the predators come out at night for a hunt. All of the little fish are hiding in the coral and not swimming around. The big fish are surprisingly fast and their movement is quick. Because there is no sun to light up the water surrounding us we could only see the small area where we pointed our light. The fish darted back and forth in our beam of light. The big fish would follow our lights just waiting for them to light up a small fish that would become its dinner. I felt Courtney poke my arm and shine her light off into the distance. I looked in that direction and could see the green eyes and a silhouette of the shark she was pointing at. This was the biggest shark that we seen on the trip. It was also the most eerie because after is swam into the darkness we could not see it to keep an eye on it. After the night dive we were back on the boat just in time for dessert, sticky chocolate gram cracker bars and ice cream. After, we headed up to the third floor to the bar. In the bar they had a big screen and heaps of big comfy couches and chairs. Here we filled in our dive log book for the day. By the time we were done filling it in we were falling asleep in the chairs. We went back to the second floor, put our name on the 6:00am wakeup call list and then headed to bed.

I woke up when someone was knocking on our door telling us it was time to get up. I woke Courtney up and we headed out the dive deck for dive orientation. Then we were back in the water by 6:30am. The morning dive was really busy. The night fish where heading out and the day fish where making their way out of their hiding spots. Once again we saw turtles and heaps of other fish. When we were back onboard it was time for breaky. Toast, bacon, sausage, fruit, cereal, yogurt, and just about anything else you could want for breakfast was in the buffet. During breaky the boat moved to a new dive site. After breaky it was right back into the water. This new dive site was my favorite; it was the most colorful site with the best coral. On the first dive here is when I found Nemo! There were two Clownfish in an anemone swimming in and out of it as it was waving back and forth in the currant. We also found a stingray swimming along the bottom. I was getting pretty close to the ray until I remembered that a ray is what killed the Crocodile Hunter. I don’t think the one I seen was big enough to kill but I wasn’t taking any chances. We had a little bit of a break before our last dive of the trip. We decided to rent an underwater digital camera for our last dive. It was only $25 for one dive and we could take as many pictures as we wanted to and they would put them all onto discs for us to take home. We got a lot of really cool pictures with the camera. We took pictures of us with clownfish and us just swimming around the coral and of all the different fish. We probably took over 100 pictures on the one dive. Back on the boat we finally had a chance to relax for a little bit before we transferred back to the day boat to ride back to Cairns. When we were on the boat heading back in there was a girl with a laptop looking at her pictures so we asked if we could look at ours on her computer. We put the disk and but we could not open the files. The person who put the files on the disk accidentally created shortcuts to the files instead of copy and pasting the file onto the disc. We immediately went the staff and told them what happened. They said not to worry and that they would call the other boat and they would get a new disk with the files on it. We sat back down but about ten minutes later a staff member came over and told us that they had already deleted all of our pictures and they were sorry. I was trying my hardest to stay calm but I was furious and they could tell. I told them that if they deleted the files that the files would still be in the computers recycle bin and they could restore them and put them on a disk. She told me she would phone the boat and tell them to try that. Long story short we never got our pictures. They gave us the $25 back but it was not about the $25 it was about having the memories. I am over the fact that we didn’t get the pictures, there is no need to stay mad about it, but what still irritates me is that the staff just didn’t seem to care at all. I almost wonder if they even tried to check the recycle bin because every time you delete a file it always goes there and if you cannot figure out how to restore I file from the recycle bin you should not be employed anyone—ever. When we got back Courtney talked to the travel agent and told her about what happened and the agent was pretty mad about it and she said she would look into it but chances of ever getting those pictures are pretty small. The way I am looking at it is that this is just an excuse to have the need to go back some day. Once we were back in Cairns we checked into our hostel. A girl from Holland who was on our dive boat was also staying at our hostel so we met up to head out for dinner. On our way out we ran into a guy from our boat who is from Ireland he joined us for dinner as well. The town was very busy for a Sunday night because it was ANZAC Day. ANZAC day stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. This is like Australia’s version of Memorial Day except it is a much bigger deal here. After dinner we headed back to the hostel. It was only about 9:30pm but we were exhausted and we were looking forward to sleeping.

We woke up at 6:00am, we got ready were waiting outside the hostel by 6:45am. At 7:00am we were picked up by the tour bus. We were going on a day trip to Cape Tribulation. It was about an hour and a half drive to Cape Trib but it was a very scenic and pretty drive along the ocean. Included in the trip we stopped at a small zoo. Having already been to 2 Australian zoos this was not super excited but it was still fun. After that we headed to the Daintree rainforest. We crossed the fairy across the Daintree River into the National Park. There were Cassowary crossing signs and speed bumps everywhere around the park. A Cassowary is a large flightless bird like an emu but with a really colorful head and a large horn on its head. There reason for the speed bumps and signs is that there are only about 1500 left in the world and this is the most populated forest in the world. The Cassowary is considered to be the most dangerous bird in the world. It can use its long neck and horned head to head butt people. There have been over 400 attacks and 2 deaths by Cassowaries. We stopped at the Cape Tribulation Beach to go for a walk and have lunch at the Beach House restaurant. The rainforest comes right up to the beach and looks as if it’s a scene out of Jurassic Park. I was just waiting for a T-Rex to come out of the forest. No swimming was aloud at the beach even though it was a nice day. There is no swimming because there are too many salt water crocodiles in the area. After lunch we went on a walk through the rain forest. The forest was so unique and is like nothing I have ever seen before. There were vines everywhere, root systems that have snorkels and leaves bigger than me. After the walk we went on a Daintree riverboat ride to look for crocodiles. We didn’t get a chance to see the dominant male croc but we did see quite a few young crocs and the large female croc. The large female was about 2.5 meters long and we could see blood on her teeth from whatever she had eaten for lunch. Back in the bus we headed back to Cairns along the same scenic road. Once back in Cairns we met up with the girl from Holland who was with a staff member from the boat. All of us went out to get Thai food. That was my first experience with Thai food but I am in love with it. We went back to our hostel after dinner and packed up all of our stuff as we were leaving in the morning.

Our hostel offered a continental breaky so we got up at about 8:00am to eat and then head to the airport. We got to the airport about 45 minutes before our flight left. We landed in Brisbane two hours later. We took the train from the airport to the transit center to catch our bus. The only problem was we did not have a clue what stop on the train was our stop. We just kept looking out the window for something what looked familiar. We almost missed our stop but we made it off at the last second. After waiting around the bus station for a couple hours we were back on a bus heading for Lismore.

My trip up the Great Barrier Reef was one of the best experiences of my life. It is hard to decide if I liked the Outback or the Reef better but I do know that I want to go back to both of them. I only have one month to go here in Australia. I cannot believe how fast the time has gone. I miss everyone and I will see you all soon!

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