Diving into Oz. Cairns, Australia

April 28, 2010 at 6:08 am 1 comment

Cairns was, predictabley, a bit of a shock after Timor Leste and much of Asia – clean streets, nice cars, trimmed lawns, quiet pedestrian-only squares, a shiny shopping centre and so many swimming pools. It’s a nice town full of mostly two storey buildings with a conscious small town feel. The centre of everything is the esplanade – a beautiful manicured stretch of boardwalk flanked on one side by the sea and on the other by grass and a street full of Billabong shops, Baskin Robbins icecream stores, restaurants and beauty salons. The jewel in the crown, as in so many other Aussie towns from our limited experience, is a small pool-cum-lagoon where children splash as their parents watch them from beach towels on the grassy verge. Here is where all the action happens in Cairns (well, during the daytime anyway. Nighttime is a whole other kettle of fish.) Here the young, toned, tanned and beautiful stretch out under the sun, serruptitiously checking everyone else out and discussing plans for the night as a guy a few feet away strums away on his guitar.

But we weren’t in Cairns to sunbathe. It’s a nice town but not exactly a calling in its own right. The real star of the show is of course the Great Barrier Reef. After all our training in Thailand and Timor Leste we reckoned we were ready to bring out the big guns. The Great Barrier Reef would be amazing, it would be mind-blowing, it would be…. Well what would it be? We had heard so much about this great natural wonder without ever learning anything. Everyone who talks about diving here just assumes that you know what fish are there and what the coral looks like and just proceeds to repeat over and over again how great it is with out divulging any details. Yet the tour agent wanted us to part with AUS$250 each for three dives on the outer reef. We didn’t pay much more than that for the whole course in Thailand! But we had come this far and we could hardly go home without diving the Great Barrier Reef, when would we ever be here again? Plus the price was pretty much in line with absolutely everything else in Oz – cheap my ass. It would have to be the expensive outer reef too. Word on the street is that the inner reef is destroyed by tourists who punch and kick their way through, bringing home samples of the coral with them.

So with absolutely no idea what to expect we boarded the Silver Swift, lamenting the stormy weather which would inevitably stir up the tides and reduce underwater visibility. Once onboard we met the rest of our dive group – the effervescent Pearla and Hillary from Oregon, Napoleon the friendly and hilarious pilot from New York and Ulrika, the smiley Swede.

We weren’t under the water long before we decided that the Great Barrier Reef was worth every penny. Huge towers of freestanding reef mushroomed up from the ground offering a fantastic mix of detailed hard coral and colourful soft coral swaying in the tide. There were loads of anenomes, crowded with anenome fish – most notably a group of beautiful clown fish who were doing their little Nemo thing, swimming out of the anenome and then reversing back in repeatedly in an almost obsessive compulsive attempt to bond with their home. Nearby Dory flicked her yellow tail and zipped past in a blur of electic blue.

The best however, was yet to come. Since our first underwater outing we had been promised turtles but they had never materialised. “They’re very shy but this is the first time we haven’t seen at least one,” was the common refrain. Not on the Great Barrier Reef though. Making up for its failings in the visibility stakes, the reef produced not one but four turtles. And what’s more, they were stoned turtles so they were on their most chilled, sociable behaviour – letting us pet their shells, eating out of my hand and hanging around until we were done with our photos and became distracted by something colourful in the distance. DUDE! Apparently turtles eat a lot of this purple/red weed they find in the reef and it has a narcotic effect on them so the later in the day that you encounter them, the more wasted they are going to be.

As if that wasn’t enough we got to hold a pineapple sea cucumber (not actually found in the fruit and veg section of Tesco), we saw two sting rays and we even got up close and personal with a giant clam. And when I say giant, I mean giant – the thing was around two foot long! Bet it would taste great in garlic butter….

On our third dive as our awe at the towering coral and milling fish was starting to wear off we finally caught a glimpse of the main act. We were just pottering about, playing with some soft coral and making it close over our hands when we heard this muffled yell, like someone being suffocated with a pillow. Panicked we spun around expecting to see our guide Jun with a manta ray’s barb through his chest á la Steve Irwin.

What we saw instead was a huge grey shadow circling around us 5ft or 6ft away. It was a shark! A real life black tipped reef shark. Awe-struck we stopped dead, afraid even to breath. Suddenly none of us could remember – did black tipped reef sharks eat people? Could one eat six people? I shuffled behing Gary just in case. After having his sniff about and figuring out that we weren’t the small fish that usually made up his diet the shark swam off, leaving us all to do our best mime impressions of utter exhileration and dying for the dive to be done so we could get to the surface and cheer. A real life shark! Mad.

Note: It has to be said that we just can’t reccomend the Silver Swift enough. The food was incredible, the staff just the right mix of fun and responsibility, the gear up to scratch, the boat beautiful and the sites well-judged. They were definately by far the best outfit we have dived with and Jun and the crew made what could have been a dissappointing day ruined by lousy weather conditions, something to remember. And while we’re gushing, The Northern Greenhouse Hostel in Cairns is one of the best we have ever stayed in, if a tad expensive.

More pictures from Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are available in the gallery


Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences Pitching a tent in Muff Creek. Mission Beach, Australia

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ceebag  |  April 28, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Really enjoyed the Top 10 yadda yadda yadda…

    more importantly, FLA WAS RIGHT, Gary’s hair DOES look good!



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