Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Great Barrier Reef


Go to the Great Barrier Reef. I was told to do it and now I am telling you. They are right. It is amazing. You'll see more wildlife in an hour than you might see the rest of your life. I'm writing this over two months after I was there and I can still remember it like it was yesterday.

Under the sea is a mystery.

My experience at the reef almost didn't happen. I didn't have time. I didn't plan ahead. I had been told to dive instead of snorkel, but I wasn't certified. As I was sitting at Clem's place in Sydney, I was trying to find a liveaboard SCUBA course that would allow me to get up to the reef and back in six days. There was only one available for the days I could go. The trick was I had to get up at 4am to get my flight up to Cairns. From there, I would take a cab to the school where the SCUBA course would already be started. If I was less than an hour late, they would still let me sign up. Luckily, I made it without any hang ups, mostly thanks to Clem driving me to the airport.

Our first afternoon, we got out of the classroom and into the water. It was very uncomfortable for me to breathe underwater. I've been holding my breath underwater for thirty-three years and my mind wasn't make it easy to relax and do something different. Between that discomfort and my leaky mask all the skills training was hard for me. Luckily, my instructor finally told me that my mustache was causing the leak and let me go shave it quick. On my way to the bathroom to shave it, I also saw a sign about not flying 24 hours after diving. I had 10am flight the morning after our scuba trip ended. Uh-oh.

Typical reef scene (photo by professional).

After two long days in the classroom in Cairns, we were off to the reef and after two terrible nights in hostels, I couldn't be ready to go fast enough. My first night in the hostel I had accidentally been assigned to a girls room and when they came back from partying they complained and I had to be moved. It was hot. It was muggy. It was a party town and all I wanted to do was sleep. It wasn't a good combination. Luckily, being on the boat was the perfect combination for sleeping, diving, and having a great time. One guy made the spot on observation that almost all of our time on the boat was spent horizontally, either face up sleeping or face down diving. We were diving four times a day and after each dive we would eat and then a lot of us took naps. None of us figured out why the one hour dives where you are supposed to move slowly were exhausting us so much. It was a simple, good life.

Sunset our first night on the boat.

On the boat, we had to complete four more training dives before we were certified to go off on our own. Even though the first four dives were instructional, we still got to see a lot of great stuff. In fact, we may have seen more because our instructor knew where to look. For some reason, I never thought fish were territorial creatures. I figured they moved around more, but they don't. Our instructor said he could count on finding the same fish or turtle in a spot on all but a few dives over the summer.

James, my dive buddy, and I preparing to dive.

When we were finally certified James and I had a lot of luck diving. We saw all the regular fish, but we also saw sharks, turtles, rays, and more critters than I could ever name. We tried our hand at photography and pretty much failed. You have to be really still. You have to get close to the fish without scaring them which we don't move slow and relaxed enough to do yet. It was amazing to see the ease with which our instructor moved through the water compared to us as we chewed through our oxygen by working too hard. One of our most memorable dives was a guided night dive where we saw a turtle that must have been 4.5 feet across and two bull rays that were at least six feet across. Just amazing. When we were coming up from that dive, we could also see the smaller sharks swimming around us, but we would usually just catch the glint of their eyes before they turned away. It was a little bit exciting and a little bit unnerving. Unfortunately, I had to miss our final dive because of my early flight after the trip. I was bummed and moped about before I finally put on my big kid pants and went out for a solo snorkel. I still had an amazing time. It might have been one of my best times out. I didn't have to worry about my oxygen. I didn't need to keep track of my buddy. I just got to focus on the reef which kept offering up unexpected treats at every turn.

My underwater coral shot . . . after I scared the fish away.

James diving.

Sting ray.

One of the funniest things about the trip was the non-stop talk about Nemo, Dory, and all the other characters from Finding Nemo. The movie was so popular that a lot of people come to the reef asking to see those characters by name. I also enjoyed washing our dishes. We would rinse them with a hose over the side of the boat. This brought along quite a few fish who wanted a free meal. When our cook would wash the pots at night, she would often be visited by sharks. A couple people were able to touch them.

Rinsing dishes.

Almost all of the rest of these photos were taken underwater by a professional. They are just a small cross section of what we saw. These are the fish I could remember. I am forgetting more than I could ever remember. I can't imagine being a reef naturalist and needing to identify all the different fish. The more time you spend with them, the more familiar you become, but you can only go down for an hour at a time. It must take a long time to remember them all. I would look at pictures on the boat before and after every dive to try and identify more fish, but the volume and quantity just overwhelmed me.



Bi-color parrotfish.

Blue spotted lagoon ray.

Christmas tree worms.

Giant clam.

Clown Anemone fish - Nemo!

Coral rock cod.

Diagonally banded sweetlips.

Green turtle.


Maori Wrasse.

Moorish idol.

Plate coral.

Polyclad flatworm.

Reef Wall.

Scribbled pufferfish.

Scubapro at sunrise.



White tip reef shark.

Me at sunset.

In retrospect, I wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reed instead of snorkel it. I didn't need to. I would have seen 95% of the same stuff. However, some of those most amazing things that I did see were at the depths that only diving would let you visit. However, now I am certified so I can check out other dive sites around the world. My next one might be in September in the Red Sea, which I was turned onto by my instructor. My Pro Dive Cairns instructors, Al and Masao, especially Masao, were one of the biggest reasons my trip was great. I'll certainly remember the wildlife, the sunsets, and my fellow divers, but they took what was an unnatural and uncomfortable experience and eased us all in. Most of us struggled at some point (especially taking our masks off underwater) and Masao walked us through it and kept us calm. Absolutely brilliant and recommendable (this is not a paid endorsement).

First night's sunset.

My Scuba class, Team Masao, making the sign for a clown fish..

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


This blog is falling behind because I'm out living instead of writing about living, but I am slowly working on catching up. I am currently at my brother's house in Greensburg, PA (near Pittsburgh). I'll be heading for Detroit and Wisconsin next week and then west to Minneapolis and Colorado for June. Mean while about two months ago . . .

Multi use waterfront in Sydney Harbor.

I headed for Sydney after leaving New Zealand. The US Antarctic Program negotiated with the airlines to get us free stopovers in Sydney, Honolulu, and Los Angeles on the way home. I didn't really have the time because I extended my stay in New Zealand, but I couldn't possibly pass up a chance to explore someplace new and visit old friends on someone else's dollar. Sydney scored points with me as soon as I landed because I was able to dodge the expensive taxis and slow buses to take the train almost all the way to Clem's house in west Sydney.

Flying foxes or fruit bats in the Sydney Royal Botanical Gardens.

Clem, my high school friend, was being sworn in as an Australian citizen (congrats again, Clem!) the first night we were in town. After a quiet night of catch up, he went to work and I set off to explore Sydney on foot. My first stop was the Royal Botanical Gardens, but I wasn't chasing flowers this time. I was hunting down fruit bats, or flying foxes as they like to call them, on a recommendation from Loren. There are apparently 20,000 to 30,000 bats in the park. They sleep all day upside down from the trees and then fly out to hunt each night. Unfortunately, their claws are destroying the trees so they are looking at ways to force the population to move elsewhere. I can't say that watching them sleep was the most exciting, but a few of them were restless sleepers and moved around a little bit. I can't believe how big or furry they are compared to bats I've seen in the past.

For Dulabon, Pancake on the Rocks, Sydney's oldest neighborhood.

After the gardens, I wandered through Circular Quay (pronounced key for reasons I don't understand) along the waterfront on my way to the oldest part of the city, The Rocks, at the base of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was lunch time and a few weeks ago, I wrote about the Pancake Rocks in Punakaki, New Zealand. My old teammate, Dulabon, thought I was talking about a restaurant in Sydney called Pancake on the Rocks. He endorsed it so off I went to check it out. I second the endorsement. I didn't have any pancakes in New Zealand that were up to snuff. Pancake Rocks got the job done and they are open 24 hours for all your late night munchie needs.

Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House.

Close up of the opera house.

After filling up my belly on American breakfast goodness, I set out for the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Some people spend 3-4 hours learning how to climb to the top. I opted for immediate gratification and just walked up the pylon to the sidewalk and across to North Sydney. It was a pretty windy day and it wasn't very warm. The views were great, but to be honest I didn't have a clue what I was looking at. I saw the opera house and the rest was a mystery. It was a great walk though. That night, I got to head out to trivia with Clem and his work friends. We came in third place, by a single point. As usual, everyone bemoaned their single point mistakes. On the other hand, we won some cash because we got three bonus questions right at the end of the night. I haven't seen that at trivia, but I like it (at least when we get them right)!

Giraffe and its long tongue at the zoo

Penguins, but not in Antarctica.

Echidna feeding time.

Pelicans at the zoo.

A tiger eyes me up.

Goat attacking the fortress . . . at the zoo.

Favorite lizard at the zoo.

Koala and their amazing keeper!

After another late night, I set out early on bike for Manly Beach and the Torango zoo. I wasn't going to be able to find koalas or platapi in the wild, but I wanted to at least see them in Australia. The Manly Beach was a beach. It was nice, but I guess I just don't appreciate beaches enough to really love one more than the other. This was my first real look at how many people spend time on the water in Sydney. I don't think I saw a single empty beach near the city. People were sailing, kayaking, swimming, surfing, paddle boarding, and just about every other activity you can imagine. I'm just not used to the waterfront being used that much recreationally and that frequently. I suppose it helps that public transit can get you to any of the major beaches in thirty minutes or less.

Bondi Beach

Sydney waterfront

My last day in Sydney, I set out to explore the other great beach in Sydney, Bondi Beach. I had hoped to get my surf lesson there, but I was moving a little too slow that day and missed my chance. I'll just have to go back some day. I'm not going to weigh in on the Bondi vs. Manly beach debate. As I said, most beaches seem about the same to me. However, I definitely enjoyed the walk from Bondi to Coogee more than from Manly to the Spit Bridge. The Coogee walk was more of a path and biker friendly. The Manly walk wasn't bike friendly so I carried my bike over half the hike. Normally, I think I'd prefer the Manly walk, but carrying the bike put a damper on things by the end.

Sydney waterfront between Bondi Beach and Coogee Bay.

Sydney. I'm a fan as a tourist, but I'd never live there. It didn't have the grit or edge that I love so much about New York City, but the sunshine, friendliness, and cleanliness balance that out too. The public transit was great for where ever I was going too. I'm curious if it is just as good for locals going to work. I definitely hope to make another visit some day. Next up, a whirlwind visit to the GBR.