Thursday 17 February 2011

Whitsunday Islands and The Great Barrier Reef

Only 1 day at sea and we had arrived and dropped anchor off the coast of these beautiful islands. There are several places along this part of the coast where the great barrier reef is accessible by boat of helicopter, and we'd booked an excursion on a catamaran to take us to a floating pontoon about 50 miles off shore. The catamaran picked us up off Arcadia, coming alongside to dock in the same place as the normal ships tenders do. It was about a 90 minute ride at full speed of 21 knots to reach the pontoon so we took up a position at the back under some cover from the sun, and watched Arcadia disappear into the distance. It got a bit choppy as we ventured further from the protection of the islands and the shore and you could see a few people looking a bit green, we were both OK though, I had the kwells with me, but didn't need them.

We arrived at the pontoon as the second and last boat to dock alongside. There were already another 150 or so people from Arcadia who had caught the first catamaran but it wasn't as crowded as we had been expecting, it was quite a big pontoon on 2 levels. Although there was a semi-submersible boat ride on offer for those who wanted to see the reef from dry air conditioned comfort, we were really only interested in getting into the water with our snorkels. But it wasn't quite as simple as that. The time of year meant that we would be sharing the water with jellyfish, some of the potentially nasty types. A sting from one particular type would mean a fairly prompt trip to hospital, so we were advised to wear "stinger suits". These were like all in one wet suits, brightly coloured, and skin tight. They covered you from head to toe, including gloves and a hood and once fitted, made you look like a telly tubby. Still, everyone else looked equally fetching, so we grabbed some fins too and stepped into the water. The only part of your body that wasn't covered was the part of your face below the mask, and I hoped that I would see any jellyfish that ventured that close. The water was warm, but choppy with a bit of a current which pulled you away from the pontoon so it required some effort to stay in the same place. Nevertheless we felt quite safe. There was a lifeguard looking out over the entire area, and 2 small boats in the water zipping around making sure everyone was ok. The universal signal of waving ones hands above ones head whilst shouting, had been drilled into us in case of problems. Unfortunately the same signal was often used to draw the attention to something interesting below the surface!

And there was plenty of interesting stuff below the surface. Each time we have been snorkeling, it has provided a very different experience. Sometimes the water is shallow and the fish are very close, sometimes, the water is deep and you might see a turtle or bigger fish. Snorkeling off the beach is always good because you can usually go in when you're tired, but in the open water it can be more tiring, especially with waves bobbing you up and down. This time, there was so much to see that everything else became irrelevant. The fish were everywhere, some tiny, the biggest we saw were the size of a decent flat screen tv. The coral itself was diverse but not as plentiful as we had seen previously. It was shallow for the most part, then dropped off a shelf into deeper water. Seeing the fish was one thing, but with your head in the water, the feeling of propelling oneself over the edge of the coral and looking down into the deeper water, is as close to flying as I can imagine. It put a smile on my face every time.

There were indeed plenty of jellyfish in the water, only the size of your fist, and opaque, so spotting them wasn't easy, but the confidence of wearing the LaLa suit meant that it didn't concern is too much. We stayed in the water for over an hour before hunger got the better of us and we got out to eat back on the catamaran. We managed to get another 30 minutes of time in the water (which felt like 10) before having to get ready to leave again.

As it turns out, the outbound sea journey was plain sailing compared to the return journey. The wind and the swell had increased and combined with another good tropical downpour, we were truly rocking and rolling! Twice I stuck my head out along the side to see what was happening up front, and timed it perfectly to coincide with a good spray from the bow. Refreshing.

Eventually we arrived back at Arcadia, and decided we hadn't had enough time in the water already and headed straight to the pool. For the first time since we've been aboard we just lounged around the side of the pool, chatting and relaxing in the late afternoon sun. Quite a few other younger types (there are quite a few now) joined in, and we monopolised one corner of the pool. A great way to finish up the day before getting ready for dinner.

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