Downunder Downunder

The Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

I think about this a lot. Wednesday morning at 5:55 a.m., for example, as I was scraping a layer of ice off my windshield. Or yesterday, hearing the snow crunch beneath my feet, feeling my legs freeze and wishing my scarf was just a little bit longer to cover the exposed skin.

I’m not sure why, but I don’t think of the beaches of Thailand – although they cross the mind in an exasperated chilly sigh – I think of looking up, 27 metres deep, watching bubbles escape my mouth and gently float to greet the rising sun.

The scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t necessarily the best of our trip, but it still was an adventure. Indeed, visiting this landmark had long been on my bucket list and I am glad to check it off.

We flew overnight from Bali to Cairns via Darwin and slept off the majority of the first day. After spending so long in Asia, Australia was a shock. Not only were prices dramatically higher ($3.50 for a coffee?! $30 for a bed in a hostel?!), but it almost felt like we were home again.

It seemed surreal that first day as I walked along a wide, smooth sidewalk next to a large, clean, well-paved road. Part of me missed dodging the giant holes and watching out for flying motos. After all, this return to “normal” meant I would soon be going home.

We hiked these sidewalks on day two to find our dive trip agency, then took a cruise along the coast in search of salties (or saltwater crocodiles). These beasts live along the waterways of Northern Queensland and are extremely deadly. Signs can be found along Cairns’ coast warning swimmers to stay away.

It’s not that salties have a particular taste for human, it’s just that these creatures have a taste for pretty much anything. Days after we left Queensland, a spearfisher would fall victim.

Nevertheless, they are pretty amazing animals. The saltwater crocodile is a patient killer. It only needs to eat a few times a year, so the rest of the time it can spend planning an assault. Consider this: A saltie notices an animal comes to a certain place to drink water. Every day it will quietly wait and watch the animal come back to drink. The animal becomes confident in its routine and this is when the croc strikes with a pressure greater than that of great white shark. Amazing. Below is a photo of a friendly little fellow sunning itself in the wild about a half hour from the city of Cairns.

A saltwater crocodile lies in the sun just south of Cairns, Australia.

Of course, crocs aren’t the only crazy animals in this area. Walking along Cairns, one sees trees packed with giant, screeching bats the size of seagulls and thousands of chattering, cheeky rainbow lorikeets. And then there’s the crazy, yet awesome cassowary. But more on this later.

On days three and four we would be off exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Overall, the reef was amazing for its sheer size. You could see waves breaking over it well into the horizon. Below, are seemingly endless walls of coral taking a jagged path far beyond what many a tank of compressed air can allow.

We would take a total of seven dives. Of these a few stand out:

On our third dive something seemed off. I must have forget to wash my mask. It seemed as soon as I hit the bottom, it filled with fog. I took it off, gave it a wipe, but it still didn’t really work and I could only see through a small corner. Sara, meanwhile, was having trouble with hers filling with water. Eventually we fixed things up underwater and went upon our way. We followed the coral to an open sand clearing. There, laying flat in the white sand was a huge cowtail stingray. I know they say things are bigger underwater, but we both agree he was about two metres wide and nearly three metres from head to tail.

Instantly, I thought of poor Aussie hero Steve Irwin who was randomly killed by such a fish. I hoped the ray would swim away so I could see it soar through the water, but instead, it just sat there and stared us down, turning to face us as we cautiously swam away. Stingray 1, divers 0.

As we puttered away with our tail between our legs, we came across a reef shark hanging out in the sand. We then followed the coral wall a little further and came back across a strong current. Just before we headed to surface, a large, bright green maori wrasse just appeared alongside, gave us a dirty look and disappeared.

After that dive we had a big, hearty dinner of chicken. The leftover bones were then thrown in the water where they were gobbled up by a dozen or so reef sharks who were now very much awake and circling the bottom of the ship.

We watched the sharks for a bit and then we were called to the deck. Twas time to prepare for a night dive.

I must admit, night dives kind of terrify me. It’s dark, you don’t really know where you are and there are random creatures swimming about. Watching the sharks hovering around below, I was a tad nervous.

But in we jumped. And it was dark, darker than previous night dives we had done before. The visibility in front of my flashlight was less than five metres. Sara and I went down maybe 12 metres and we both agreed in scattered hand signals that we would soon be disoriented. In our flashlight beams, sharks would swim past and disappear in the murky, black deep.

So with zero viz, we gave up and returned to the surface. Sara got on the boat and I briefly stood on the ladder and watched the sharks under the water. I had my fins up on the boat and I stood there rather mesmerized as these fish circled round. They didn’t seem big enough to be threatening, but the section of my brain reserved for panic kicked in. “My  toes are almost the same size as the chicken. Get out of the water!” And displaying the courage of a startled fish, I quickly scuttled back into the boat.

The next day we returned to a vastly different dive site in that the sharks were asleep and we could actually tell where we were vis-a-vis the boat. It was around six in the morning and such a relaxing way to start the day. The visibility was great and we pleasantly toured the coral walls. It was quiet, peaceful, beautiful and blue.

A perfect escape from a cold winter day.