Just as the clever designers of Travel UI had worked in different ways to ensure proper structure (the trip up the Sydney Harbor Bridge at twilight, the train assent and gondola return of yesterday, the plane return from Milford Fiord after the coach arrival all being fine examples), so I designed the trip as a whole to finish big – and there is nothing bigger or more spectacular than the Great Barrier Reef!
But this wasn’t a small dive off a small fishing boat in Kona – no, no! This was a massive, almost science-fictional, staged procession to (and from) “Marine World”, a massive tented reef platform hub (one of three within our sightlines). We took a large Catamaran out, and it remained docked throughout, serving as a sort of cabana (with crucial and unduplicated restrooms). The ride was choppy through the channel as the ship dealt with the fierce tidal pull. Given Venetia’s rather… difficult… bus trip to Milford Sound, we deemed it best for her to take the motion-sickness pills as we boarded. The multitude of seasick passengers who later joined us at the back deck suggests that this may have been the wisest decision we made all day.
The trip out was stunning/sick-making, and the platform held plenty of other craft which would be the same. A deep-prowed boat they called a Semi-Submersible allowed us to sit below the waterline and go for a spin about the platform and over nearby reefs. The animatronic owl on the prow amused us greatly.
A small glass-bottomed boat was bobbing next to the emergency Zodiac, a 40 passenger ferry boat and a helipad floated nearby. Apparently there was a “wear a bubble helmet and walk on the bottom of the sea” option, but it was never really clear to us amid the countless other choices.
When we arrived (and after some instructions for our eventual departure), we set out immediately into the nearby (roped-off and lifeguarded) reef area. The snorkeling was stupendous – parades of parrotfish, wrasses, angelfish, all the usual suspects and an extremely gregarious 5′ long Humphead Maori Wrasse called “Wally” who was friendlier than most cats I’ve known, happy to be patted and adored.
But it seems that a proper seal for one’s snorkel is darned tricky when sporting facial hair. And it speaks to the long years since last I snorkeled that this common-sense fact had utterly eluded me.
Happily, the crew were a jolly and helpful lot. After their slightly disbelieving “You mean you’d be willing to just… shave it off?”, I undertook the worst shave ever in a cold water sink in a tiny rocking lavatory with a disposable Bic Shaver – all to make me look more like an Amish Abe Lincoln. But it wasn’t about looks, it was about utility. The mustache will grow back – my time at the reef would not.
A tour in the semi-submersible followed, and while Venetia was in good form, I was feeling a bit green at the gills from our time below.
I ate a tiny bit of the vasty buffet and hung out a little bit in the sun before it was time for the “Adventure Dive”.
It was there that we spoke to the first American we’d seen all day. A fellow Portlander named Heather who works as a Psychiatrist with children at Kaiser.
We hopped in the ferry and headed to the far corner of the big reef were we walked off the side and splashed down – it felt like a kinder version of walking the plank. Immediately, there were large schools of small fish below us – one of several types of local Banana Fish. Then the big schools of bigger fish – Red Bass. Then just a little group of two – Grey Reef Sharks. Later we saw a couple Whitetip Reef Sharks, a young green turtle, a jellyfish (that our guide brought up for our delectation), loads of Spotted Sweetlips, insane posses of Clownfish, incredible Boulder and Brain Corals, and most every kind of Wrasse and Sergeant Major one could imagine. The trip was a little tricky for the tidal swells and the very low tide, but ever so worth the effort. Toward the end (amid a sudden rain shower, and amid my fussing with a recalcitrant mask amid kicking-up waves), it was my great joy to spot a very old and well-camouflaged sea turtle. Everyone in our group got to see the old fella nipping at corals and being quietly fearsome, some 4 meters below us. But Venetia, swimming alone at the back, got to see rather more:
“This day was the ultimate day of wonder and magic. I have always admired Ophelia for the serenity and beauty of her final pose; if only she’d had a snorkel! After our long hour of drifting along the edge of the coral, I wasn’t at all ready to leave. I could have spent hours more out in the ocean but I’d learned that when fins started clumping together, there was always something worth seeing, and I sped up accordingly. He was enormous, at least for a turtle, which is to say he was my size (though undoubtedly weighed a great deal more!). I followed him as he moved along the ocean floor until, much to my amazement, he started to rise up until he was directly beneath me. As he rose toward me, I couldn’t resist and put out a hand to stroke his shell. It was surprisingly soft, not at all rough or slimy but soft like short clean fur. I brushed his back left flipper as well, amazed that he allowed me to get so close. Then I put my head above water at the exact moment he poked his own head out for air. It was extremely brief but the difference in his coloration from underwater was astonishing. Then the spell was broken. I saw Lee waving at me and when I looked back underwater again, the turtle was gone.”
I swam back to watch the encounter (note to self: must start calling Venetia “Dances With Turtles”), but realized we were delaying the party and headed to the dock as swiftly as my blue swim fins would propel me. And when I arrived, I was surprised to hear my name. It seems our tour leader had been asked whether we were on his tour, and he’d said no. This caused alarm among the staff for two reasons. 1. Losing passengers to the briny is bad form and terrible for tourism. 2. We were scheduled to take a helicopter trip back to the mainland, and we cocking up departure times. But miscommunication is everywhere, and in our case it had a cascade effect. I got Venetia to swim in pronto but she didn’t know why. As she was pulling my wetsuit off in haste, I accidentally elbowed her in the face, and as I changed out of my wet swimsuit in the open and hastily donned real clothes without really drying off first (towels were apparently some thing we should have carried from home. Who knew?), Venetia found an actual changing room. I hurried to pay up, sign us out, and get Venetia some ice for her face. Then we met up and raced for the glass-bottomed boat which in turn sped to the helicopter, which then… sat still for several minutes.
I never imagined getting seasick on a helicopter, but the longer it sat in the rain, rocking to and fro, the more that possibility loomed.
Finally, and without fuss, we rose off the platform and up out of the small rainstorm and over the glory of the Great Barrier Reef in the quietest but most dramatic way possible.
We’d never ridden in a helicopter before, but it was thoroughly lovable. Where the tiny plane out of Milford Fiord had seemed to have all the strength and maneuverability of a paper airplane, the helicopter ride seemed like a magic carpet. The young Aussie pilot was great, and our knowledge of the reef (the size of Japan and teeming with life) allowed him to take it easy on the narration.
When I mentioned a blue hole in the reef ahead, he swiveled and dove in its direction, without producing the slightest pang of discomfiture or worry in his passengers (including the 3 non-English speaking Asians in e back seat). I felt a little like Eli Cross on his crooked crane, ascending into the heavens above. A bigger finish I could not have imagined.
PS: Venetia’s face is fine. :)