Day 4: The Reef

Where Else But Queensland?

Day 4: A Day On The Great Barrier Reef

Words by Andy. Photos by Chris (creolumen.photograohy)

Today has had mixed emotions of excitement and pre-traumatic stress syndrome mixed together. I’ve wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef since I was in primary school, Chris was worried the prospect of rough seas on the way to the outer reef and being stuck in the middle of the water with nowhere to go. As it turns out, he had no cause for concern. I should have.

The day started much like any other perfect holiday escape. We woke early and made our way down to Port Douglas to meet the cruise boat, a large catamaran, which sat at jetty number four down at the wharf. I don[t know why I chose to book a holiday during school holidays, but it wasn’t too much a problem. Just a higher number of holidaying families than we we’re used to.

People were dressed for a fun day on the reef. One woman was dressed rather elegantly in her best red day suit, makeup and styled hair. We booked with Quicksilver tours and again, cannot fault the experience interacting with the crew. Super friendly and experienced in all the right areas.

Checking in at the desk, the young lady may have been homesick, her eyes lighting up when she misheard me, thinking I said we were from LA, not Adelaide. “It’s going to be a bit rough out there today, so if you don’t have sea-sickness pills, don’t worry because they’ve got plenty on board.”

Noted. Chris had bought himself some Travelcalm in the lead up to today, so he’d be set. I wasn’t so worried.

Queuing up at the wharf, the day trippers were greeted by one of the crew before the rope barricade was unhooked. A quick reminder for anyone who hadn’t collected their pass to do so now and by the way, we’re expecting it to be a little bit rough on the way out, so we recommend taking travel sickness pills.

Point taken. As we moved through the bottom deck to the bar area, we were in search of the magic pills. They had a natural pills as well as medicated ones, which they didn’t recommend for people managing their blood pressure. Chris took the meds, I took the ginger, and we found a nice lounge area on the upper deck. Before long, we were exiting Port Douglas and headed for the reef!

That person’s face isn’t something you’ll see in the travel brochures. If you want to retain the the glossy mental images of a day on the Great Barrier Reef, please skip this section.

We kind of sensed we might be in for an interesting ride when the captain greeted us and said “there are a few white caps out there, so it’s going to get a bit rough.” He didn’t mince his words, and neither did crew members doing their best to convince the stoic to take some seasickness pills with calming words like “we do this every day and we’ve all taken the pills today, so you’ll probably want to take them” and “once you get seasick, you can’t work it back, take the pills now”.

I checked in with Chris to make sure he was OK. Poor bugger had been quite nervous about the trip, but he was doing just fine! We were both dosed up, so didn’t expect to get sick, and I’m OK with a bit of pitching and rolling. Nowhere near the nervous Nellie I used to be on the Manly ferry as a kid.

There were a few bumps as we left port, but nothing too bad. We moved fairly smoothly in our north-easterly direction towards Agincourt Reef. OK, it’s starting to get a little bit rocky, so we moved to nearby seats at a table next to the windows for a bit of added stability. There was a nice couple from Victoria opposite us. We struck up a conversation and learned they were from Mitcham in Victoria. Holiday hilarity ensued as we explained we were from Mitcham Council area in South Australia. I started to feel a bit clammy. Must be the aircon.

For those familiar with the Manly ferry ride in Sydney, you’ll know there’s a part of the journey that isn’t as smooth as the rest of the trip: the bit where you cross the heads. It doesn’t last long, maybe five or ten minutes at most, but can deliver some thrills depending on how choppy the sea is. Imagine a day when the trip across the heads is quite choppy, causing the boat to sway from side to side with the occasional dive forwards, spraying water down the length of the ferry. Now imagine that movement for close to ninety minutes. Somewhere between forty five and sixty minutes into the trip I knew I needed fresh air, and decided a precautionary white bag might be a good idea.

To my left as I entered the outdoor seating area was a man who looked like death warmed up. Poor fella. Glad I’m not him, I remember thinking as the sea air perked me up. The funny thing about sea sickness is you don’t feel the familiar onslaught of the urge to revisit your last meal in reverse, yet ten minutes later, there we were, yelling our most intimate discomfort into oversized lolly bags nobody wants to touch. Chris told me to focus on the horizon at the centre astern (he didn’t use sea-faring language, that’s just me being fancy). There was no sign of land, but this seemed to work. Several more whispers of discomfort, a sip of water and just like that we were sidling up to the outer-reef pontoon.

For those who have skipped forward, our gorgeous sail across the sea only took ninety minutes, and you can bet we were all looking forward to the return trip, but we had some activities to get into!

The pontoon is very well appointed with everyone’s comfort and hankering for fun in mind. They’ve got everything down to a fine art, as you’d expect for an operator who has been doing this for decades. I was really impressed with the guy issuing the latex skins who just knew what size to give everyone who approached. No long stare, just a quick glance and he knew to give me the biggest one on the rack.

There was an odd fishy marine smell I noticed when we first disembarked, but the breeze… the heavy breeze… made sure you didn’t focus on it for too long.

Flippers, goggles and snorkel in hand, we headed for the platform to dip in and check out the reef below. Hayley, a marine biologist on board had given a handy hint onboard the boat coming across: swim out to the right and the current will carry you back to the platform. Did I mention it was windy? The current did bring me back to the original spot, via the back ropes, bu still safely in the confines of the snorkeling zone.

The reef is like a world of its own under the sea. Just like on Sponge Bob Square Pants. Throngs of people dressed like seal ( I really don’t blame the sharks for getting confused) splashed around the designated area on the watchful eye of the life guards. Mounds of coral emerged beneath me like I was swimming in a postcard, or in one of my old Vue Master discs. Fish swam around us, obviously accustomed to regular human visitors, darting around us with the blue or black and white striped bodies, and their yellow tails. A large school of little blue fish manoeuvred right in front of me as I headed for the ledge.

I haven’t breathed through a snorkel since the late 70’s, and that was in our little round pool at home, which is a slightly different experience to being in the open waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Panic set in briefly a couple of times, but I managed to have a good look around at the corals beneath. Some shaped like brains (brain coral) some shaped like boulders (boulder coral) and some shaped like plates (plate coral) amongst the hypnotic coral fingers waving around in the water, small fish darting around and through them. In one section there was a trail of sand, like someone had laid a path through the coral as their own front garden feature.

Did you coral is the same species as jellyfish? Where a jelly fish will swim about, their tentacles trailing behind or below, coral affix themselves to rocks or other hard surfaces, tentacles waving in the water.

Another activity they offer from the pontoon is the glass-bottom boat tour, which is is a submarine shaped boat that takes you on a twenty minute circuit around the reef. Someone was exiting quicker than she had boarded saying it too claustrophobic for her, but we found it quite comfortable. There were emergency sick bags in holders along the walls, but surely they wouldn’t be needed on a short trip!

Curious fish peered at us through the windows and soon enough the windows completely clouded over with tiny bubbles as the engines started and we reversed away from the jetty before turning towards the reef. Ti wasn’t as clear a day as we would have liked, but visibility was still at about eight metres, and we saw some beautiful colours amongst the corals. Some small patches of coral bleaching were evident, and the marine biologist on board reassured us this is not a death sentence for the reef, as they will recover once the water cools down again, allowing them to regrow. Not ideal, but not the end.

There’s also an under-water viewing area on the pontoon where you can check out the coral and fishes without getting wet. On the opposite side of the snorkeling area is where other people scuba dive, and for some reason the fish LOVE hanging around in that space.

The buffet lunch was a nice spread of salads and cold cuts or curries for those after something warm, and there was a call out for ice cream at about two o’clock, but we didn’t venture there. We watched one of the life guards feeding a school of fish from just the other side of the snorkeling ledge. They were fairly big and a dark golden/copper colour with pretty big teeth, which prompted the guard to warn people to mind their fingers and don’t touch them, because they’ll take a bite.

It was almost time for the horn to sound to get back on board the boat, so we went across and found our seat. It looked like some rain coming in and the wind hadn’t really let up the whole time we were there, so it was nice to get on board, sheltered away from the elements.

For those who’d like to retain the magic of the picture-postcard images of the reef, skip to the next photos now!

Still with me? OK!

The horn sounded and the rest of the travelling party hopped on board ready for our return voyage. A quick head count, then another quick head count because the numbers didn’t add up, and we cast away back towards the mainland. It was pretty smooth sailing as we pushed through the safety of the reef, and we’d both topped up our sea sickness meds besides, we heard a nearby crew member assuring someone nearby that people often don’t get sick on the way back, even if they’ve yawned rainbows on the way out. This was reassuring, even as we heard several announcements cautioning us to stay seated for the trip because it was going to get quite rough.

We’d sat ourselves back on the original lounge type chair that offered less stability than the other seats, but as the catamaran started to sway, I found a place beneath the seat cushion as well as between the cushions on the back of the seat. My fingers efficiently dug in and anchored me in each direction as the boat sway. They call it a wave piercer. Wave slapper, although not as grandiose might actually be more apt.

Quite rough became very rough as Chris’ pre-voyage fears had forecast and we started to pitch and roll on what might be the equivalent to a pretty rough trip across the heads on the Manly ferry, and we hadn’t left the outer reef yet. Things got really rough when we entered the shipping channel (oh, look! A container ship!)  and my fingers worked overtime, fot stretched out into the aisle to anchor my body as we had the ride of our lives, and I didn’t feel sick!

The boat rose, kind of feeling like it was sailing through the air and slapped heavily back onto the water, causing a bunch of people in the area behind us to scream, kind of like they were on a roller coaster, but kind of not. The continued for a good ten minutes, and I still didn’t feel sick! Yet.

I’m swaying in the kitchen chair now as I type this.

Like I said, earlier, it creeps up on you, like that last shot at the bar you knew you shouldn’t have had. I knew I was in for it when I became the focus point of two of the crew members, one of the them “walking” over to me to ask if I was OK.

“Actually, I feel a bit off,” I told her, as she passed me the empty lolly bag, in case I felt inclined to fill it, which I did.

Then another.

One of them gave me a towelette dipped in ice water to put around my neck and some ice to suck on post vom. I needed fresh air, so wobbled outside to the aft deck amongst the sea spray and sea of bag fillers, but managed to hold off any further, yacking urge.

Before long I could see land. I still felt like that guy looked on the way across, and the smartly dressed woman’s red day suit now looked rather dishevelled, her makeup patchy from a lovely day on the reef, her hair plastered to her face like she’d just walked through a storm. She might as well have.

For those joining us without the boring details of a ridgey didge sea voyage (where we saw a commercial vessel nearby!) we got safely back to Port Douglas after about ninety minutes on the water. With our feet firmly back on the mainland, we headed to N17, a burger bar in the main street for some food, tummies empty from our big adventure 😉

We’re off to Kuranda tomorrow, so we’ll be up in the air above the treetops instead of under the sea.


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