On December 27th we arrived in Cairns and it was immediately my favorite place in Australia. Humid and drizzly, surrounded by turquoise water and purple hills, a low fog hanging over sailboats moored in the small harbor. It brought back so many memories of my life on South. The town was smaller than I'd expected, so fewer hordes of people than Sydney or Melbourne (yay!). We walked around town and got Chinese on a porch restaurant overlooking the harbor, a heavy tropical rain pouring down just a few feet away. It was hot, with outdoor ceiling fans providing a slight cool. Then us girls swam in the pool and we all figured out a game plan for the next few days. Tiera, Kendra, and I were off for a three and a half day dive trip while Mom, Dad, and Kyla were going to snorkel closer to shore and head back to Sydney a day earlier. It wasn't fun splitting up on our vacation but I was beyond excited to be diving the biggest reef on earth. It's been on my life to-do list for years, so it was surreal to finally be there.
The reef is huge (2,300 km long - visible from outer space) and while the Inner Reef hugs the coastline, the Outer Reef is a full day offshore. Since the Inner is so much easier to get it, it is heavily frequented by tourists so much so that much of the biodiversity has been degraded. Divers all say that to really experience the Barrier Reef, you have to dive the Outer. Hence the need to spend three days on a boat. So Monday morning, the three of us packed up our gear and headed to port to board our floating home for the next few days.
The first few hours we toured the boat, settled into our cabins, and did various dive and safety orientations while we steamed to our first dive site. We stopped on the Inner reef to do an introductory/check-out dive and after coming aboard afterwards, I began to not feel very good. I had taken motion sickness medicine too late in the afternoon and within thirty minutes I really did not feel well. I went back to our cabin - luckily Tiera, Kendra, and I had a quad-share but no one in the fourth bunk - and tried to ignore the fact that I was on a steadily rocking boat. I wanted to just get sick and get it over with or get off the boat, anything to make me feel better. I was literally contemplating how I could get a helicopter to come out to get me -- I would have paid a lot of money to get off the boat. But we were too far offshore to go back and there was no landing pad ... so I was stuck. I skipped dinner and the second dive, afraid I would throw up while gearing up, and just laid in my bunk. At some point I fell asleep and when I woke up fourteen hours later, I had adjusted to the rocking and felt much better. Also, I learned to constantly take medicine whether I felt bad or not. (And now, I am so thankful that I couldn't get off the boat.)
Thus began our days of diving. One of the crew would come downstairs and knock on our cabins at 6:30 AM as a wake up call, a light breakfast was set out and then we dove at 6:45 AM. We'd come back to the boat to ravenously scarf down a hot "second brekkie" at 8:30 AM, sit around for a bit and dive again at 9:45 AM. Then lunch, another dive, snack, another dive, dinner, and a night dive. Diving every 2-3 hours was actually kind of tiring, plus the quandary of whether to change in and out of dry clothes or just sit on the sundeck in a swimsuit. But wearing a wet swimsuit in the air conditioned dining hall was a bit cold - especially after being 70 ft under for an hour. The downtime we had was spent reading (or sleeping) on the sundeck, chatting with our fellow divers, downloading the most recent dive's photos on the GoPro, napping in our bunks, reapplying sunscreen, or watching the unending horizon.
That trip I crossed off two items from my bucket list: diving the Great Barrier Reef, and being so far out in the ocean that you can't see land. At first it was a little unnerving, but then it was just peaceful to be so far removed from city lights and pavement, telephone wires and smog.
Main street in Cairns
Our dive boat - sun deck in the back for warming up after diving or enjoying a few hours of sun, the "tender" in the water ready to pick you up if you surface too far from the boat. When I took this picture, we were just finishing up a dive and getting ready to move to the next dive site - the tender is still waiting in case the last ones out of the water need a pick up.
The dive deck. We are just getting ready to go out again so Kendra is putting on her dive booties and fins. Tiera, Kendra, and I's dive gear are the 3 BCDs behind Kendra - we would dive and then strap them back in here so the crew could refill the tanks before our next dive. Everything on this deck had to be strapped in when we steamed to our next dive site - loose gear could fly off the back of the boat (to the right).
Another view of the dive deck from the back, and Tiera getting ready for a dive. Because we had to walk down the narrow staircase with our tanks on, the crew would have our fins for us at the bottom of the stairs. This was taken at the dive site Cod Hole, and you can already see the cod circling when the camera goes underwater!
All set for another dive!
We watched this guy napping on the bommie and then wake up and start swimming to the surface
Trip of a lifetime ... diving with my sisters
Cod Hole, the infamous dive site. The cod get quite rowdy since they know there is food around -- it was actually a bit intimidating just because they are so BIG. We were warned not to gesture with our hands because they will think we are food.
Evidence of sharks! These lemon sharks were swimming off the back of the boat the first night of our trip (when I didn't feel so hot). We saw others while we were diving but there were about 5 of them this night all together.
One night the winds and waves were getting strong right as they served dinner, which happened to be lamb, quinoa, roasted vegetables, and naan. I was doing okay eating my lamb while the boat was rocking, but it was taking a lot of willpower to tell myself that. Since the storm was getting closer, the captain said we better move up our night dive so we could at least go before it got worse. At that point, my stomach said I needed much more time to digest before I would be ready to get in the water. But somehow, 30 minutes later I found myself jumping into the dark ocean with a tank on my back and dive light on my wrist.
Our dinner that night was actually quite amusing: dinner was always a plated affair, served by the crew, who also poured sodas and drinks besides the typical water. When you are warm and dry and eating a delicious dinner, going diving again does not always sound so fun. When the crew came in to tell us about the storm and that the dive entrance/exit would be challenging, but still possible, most everyone said they would pass. One serious diver said he wanted to go. As dishes were cleared and people headed in different directions for the evening, there was the typical chatter over the incoming storm and the dive and who was going to go. Tiera, Kendra, and I really just wanted to stay in our sweatshirts but were feeling tugged that this might be something we would regret. Then a high-energy thirty-something from California said he would go if someone else would. On the other side of the boat, a mid-sixties dad and his two adult children, had their own conversation and decided that they would go but didn't want to make the crew stop if they were the only ones. We finally said "Why not?! We'll go". And a Canadian downstairs convinced his fourteen year old daughter to go with him so he could go as well. Suddenly there was a whole group of us willing to brave the night waters for whatever might be down there.
We donned our gear with high winds outside, the boat rocking so hard it was near impossible to stay balanced. We strapped fluorescent tubes to our tanks so we could see each other underwater, and passed out yellow dive lights. Walking down the stairs of the dive deck, waiting to jump in, the sky was black black and endless, the waves angry and white-capped. A slew of crows sat gripping our mooring line, which seemed ominous and a little eerie. It was a high-adrenaline, high-excitement night for those of us going.
Once we jumped in, signaled OK, and sank beneath the surface it was another world - silent, dark, still. At first glance. When we reached the bottom and began swimming through the coral heads, there was all sorts of activity. Reef fish sleeping in their mucus-lined bubbles, other fish awake and prowling, giant eels peering out of crevices, sea cucumbers inching across the sand, a two-foot-long lobster seeing us and backing away with speed you wouldn't imagine. And the coral, beautiful and still as always. When we got back to the boat, we stayed below the turbulent surface until the last possible minute, swimming up to the ladder and trying to grab it while still under. When back on the boat, the wonderful crew had hot water for us to rinse and warm up in, and within the hour we pretty much all collapsed into bed.
On several of our dives I had been feeling little pinches which I assumed was nothing, or just fish. Later, I saw some red bumps on my legs and I figured I must have gotten a few bug bites. It got progressively worse until at one dive site, I felt something sting my face and realized I wasn't making this up anymore. I inspected the water close to me and saw tens of tiny jellyfish, the size of golf balls, rippling around me. It was not the conclusion I was hoping for, especially since I was holding onto the mooring line with a few minutes left on my safety stop! I turned around and tried to shield my face but felt more stings as I waited out my time and then surfaced. The evidence appeared on my face soon after - a half moon shape of stings from my lip on down, and a nice patchwork around my knee. It was enough to get me to wear a wetsuit for the next dive, but then I gave up again because I strongly dislike wetsuits, especially when the water is warm enough not to need one. The stings were worth it. Kendra got a few, Tiera wore her wetsuit so really didn't get any, but my legs emerged quite battered by the fourth day.
Other forever memories from the trip: That time Kendra and I *almost* got lost underwater, diving with cod as big as we are, seeing turtles and sharks and barracuda and Nemo fish, making friends with our fellow divers who were amusing characters of all sorts, talking in our bunks before bed, rationing the hot water in our shower between dives, living on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
The third day we came upon Lizard Island, where we docked for the night and went ashore Thursday morning (New Years Eve). We had some time to explore the beach and we hiked over the ridge to the "airport". On Lizard Island, there is an exclusive resort, a research station, and not much else. Half of the divers on our boat (including us) were getting off to fly back to Cairns, while a new group flew to Lizard to join the boat that was going to continue another few days. When our 10-passenger plane arrived, we were amused to see the many responsibilities of the pilot: fly the plane, unload baggage, give the safety briefing, pass out refreshments (before we left, don't worry), and give historic/cultural commentary during flight. Since we had just been diving, it was a low-level flight back - just above the water. It was gorgeous and a highlight of the entire dive experience.
Land sighting! Lizard Island, just ahead.
Coming ashore on the beautiful Lizard Island.
From the beach above we trekked over the hill (currently atop) to the other side of the island.
Where we met our plane. No airport, just waited under the trees until the pilot told us we could get on.
We had to wear life jackets strapped around our waists in case we went down over the ocean. Also, notice my lips -- no I am not wearing lipstick, they are just dark because of the jellyfish sting on my lip and down the side of my chin.
Unbelievable views flying back to Cairns with the reef below us the whole way.
A few of my jellyfish stings ... as I am writing this, 3 weeks later, you can
still see these marks on my knee, just less red.
When we arrived back in Cairns, we had a few hours to kill at the airport before we flew back to Sydney for New Years Eve fireworks with the family. As our (much bigger) plane took off for Sydney, the three of us laughed and said wholeheartedly there were no regrets. There were so many unexpected experiences, ups and downs, hilarity and nervousness and sunburns and salt, but it was undoubtedly worth it. I do not get these moments with my sisters very often, so they are all the sweeter.
I'm a twenty-something from the Pacific NW making home in new places as I follow where God leads.
My intent is to show Christ's love to the world and use business to solve some of the social problems we face: hunger, illiteracy, healthcare, economic hardship. For now, I'm in a stage of learning. A little adventuring, a few books, some good friends, and a whole lot of prayer and life runs on.