I’m in Cairns now. You pronounce the s. It’s a funny tropical seaside town, most well known for its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. Did you think the reef was one long winding stripe of gorgeous coral and fish and other trippers in the life aquatic? I did too. We’re wrong. There are hundreds of little reefs or bunches of corals and sea creatures running along the Gold Coast that all together form the Great Barrier Reef. All the big reefs have names and some are more like islands during low tide when their sandy bits are exposed. They tell you to visit the outer parts of the reef as those parts are less frequented and therefore in more pristine condition. I did as told, and today took a trip out to Milln, Thetford, and Moore reefs.
It rained much of the night and into this morning. When I was walking to the docks from my hotel at 7am, it alternately poured and dribbled from the sky. I crossed my fingers that the sun would come out at some point, and my fingers did the trick, but not until later in the afternoon.
Due to the rain and the wind, the seas were rough. The 1.5-hour trip out on a high-speed catamaran was really choppy. Many, many people were sick. I played fairy godmother and passed out a few spare seasickness pills to help a brother out, because it was just sad to watch people curled up in the fetal position on the deck of the boat wasting their $200 trip to snorkel in what can only be described as a real live aquarium. Seriously. They drive the boat for an hour and a half out to what looks like the middle of the ocean, drop anchor, give a brief safety lecture, and then encourage you to swim off the back of the boat and look around the ocean. In the middle of nowhere. With nothing but the boat to guide you. It is so fucking cool—once you get over the middle-of-nowhere-did-someone-say-sharks? part.
At the first reef I was just getting my feet wet, so to speak. I went out for almost the whole time and just stared in disbelief at the reef. Have you ever seen a Parrot Fish? They’re named well. They look like a bright, multi-colored fish with a short parrot beak that they use to chomp on coral so they can eat the animals inside. They just nomnom their way along the coral, crunching and swimming and looking beautiful. We got so caught up in the sights that my swimming buddy Cecile and I swam out about 100 meters, which was 50 meters farther than they wanted us to go. Oops. Sorry, not sorry.
At the second reef I’d gotten the swing of things, so I went in search of turtles. I ended up finding positively gigantic fish there, hiding in the shadows under the lips of the large corals. And giant, colorful clams. When I say giant, I mean enormous. Like the size of love seat. My favorite one was dark purple with bright blue and green freckles along its lips. It didn’t move much, just a whisper along the edges of the shell, where it made holes to let in water. There were four of them parked there on the bottom of the ocean, just chillin’ like villains all royal in their purple hue.
At the third reef, I was an “expert.” Cecile and I swam out together as part of the tour, saw Nemo (a clown fish that hides in sea anemones to protect its young), and then we swam off once again in search of turtles. At some point we separated, and I realized once again I’d swam out quite far. This time I knew to look up at the boat to check in for my own good, so I recalibrated and headed over to another part of the reef that they recommended. Finally I was alone.
It was nearing the end of our time out, I could feel it. And while I’d seen so many wonderful creatures, the big two had eluded me. I’d finally seen a stingray wind and wiggle it’s way along the bottom of the sand. But no turtles and no sharks. Then, there she was. A gorgeous sea turtle appeared out of nowhere and swam up to the surface to breathe. I clapped my hands underwater in excitement. She bobbed and breathed, taking in the scenery, totally unbothered by my presence. She didn’t surface for long, maybe 30 seconds to a minute at most, and then she dove down to the coral again to continue to age gracefully, as turtles do. I watched her glide down so elegantly, full of enough air to last her another 30 minutes below the surface. Satisfied and exhausted, I headed back to the boat to tell Charles, our snorkeling guide, of my discovery.
I’m heading out tomorrow to Frankland Islands, an uninhabited coral-fringed island with white sand beaches. We will snorkel some more, lounge on the white sand, and I will try my best to turn brown instead of red. So far, I’m winning the battle against the sun—but barely. I have so many freckles, it’s too bad they can’t all just merge into a nice brown tan. Dare to dream.