Cairns, Australia & The Great Barrier Reef

Cairns is a small coastal city on the far north edge of the east coast of Australia.  Our flight was delayed a little so we didn’t get in until after midnight.   We arrived too late to see The Great Barrier Reef from the plane.  And, we were both pretty tired.  So, we went right to bed.

The next day, we had our complimentary breakfast at the hotel in an empty restaurant.  We then walked around and explored the city a bit on foot.  Despite it’s relative lack of beaches (there are some, but they’re not the kinds of white sand beaches you want to spend the day at), it’s a total beach town.  It’s a very laid back quality of life.  As we walked around, we were kind of surprised at how few people were out and about in town. It seemed kind of dead.  Later that evening, when we went back out to get some dinner, we realized that it was dead during the day because nearly everyone in town goes out on boats during the day.   We had a good pizza and some good beers and called it a night so that we would get rested up before our big boat trip the next day.

We had to get up really early (by vacation standards) to get to our boat for our 2 day/1 night private charter to see the Great Barrier Reef.  We made it to the restaurant at 7am for breakfast.  This time, it wasn’t empty at all.  In fact, it was quite full!  Everyone was getting fueled up for a day of boating.  So, we grabbed some fruit and headed to the pier.  On the way, we saw several HUGE boats with dozens and dozens of people waiting to board.  Thankfully, we had saved enough money by booking our airline tickets with miles and our hotel rooms with points that we were able to splurge on a private charter for our trip to the reef.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Chantelle, who would be our snorkeling guide and first mate (and girlfriend) of our captain, Matt.  They called each other Channy and Matty.  They were both very nice and made our trip a lot of fun.  The boat ordinarily sleeps up to 12 passengers and 3 crew members.  So the boat was large for just the two of us and our two crew members.  But, I also can’t imagine that it would have been very comfortable with 12 people aboard.  It would have been quite cramped and uncomfortable.  I believe the boat to have been about 40′ long.  It was a sail boat.  But, it also had a quite capable engine to get us to the reef as quickly as possible.

Leaving the city in our wake. Headed out to sea.

One of very few pictures we took that actually features the boat.

Krystal takes over the controls!

It took about 3 hours to get to the inner reef.  The sea was fairly rough.  But, it was a nice ride with the wind blowing and cooling us off from the hot sun.  On the way out, Chantelle suggested that we should at least consider diving since we had already paid for the boat and it was stocked up with plenty of air tanks and gear that we could use for no additional charge.  We told her that we’d consider it.

The scuba gear

When we got to the reef, we wanted to get right in snorkeling.  We got suited up in “stinger suits,” which are funny looking blue suits that basically cover you from head to toe and protect you against jellyfish stings.  Chantelle took us to a great spot to see some beautiful parts of the reef and some exiting marine life.  The reef was beautiful.  It was quite similar to the “Japanese garden” reef that we had seen in Thailand except that it went on and on for what seemed like forever.  After a while, Chantelle went back to the boat to prepare lunch while Krystal and I got in a few more minutes of snorkeling.  Just as we were headed back to the boat, we saw a big beautiful sea turtle and followed him for a few minutes.  Turtles are so awkward on land.  But, in the sea, they’re graceful and really fun to watch.

We got back on board the boat to have lunch.  Chantelle prepared a lot of great food for us on this trip.  And, when we sat down to eat, she asked if we had made up our minds about diving.  Honestly, after seeing what we saw snorkeling, the decision to dive was a complete no-brainer.  So, we suited back up after lunch and got a quick refresher from Chantelle on SCUBA diving basics.  These would basically be “exploratory dives” with Chantelle, no deeper than 12 meters.  So, no certification was necessary.  As she was covering the basics of breathing, taking care of your ears, and clearing water from the mask, it all came back.  I remembered everything from our first diving experience in Thailand.  It’s actually quite simple.

With that, we were in the water and doing basic skills just below water, holding onto a rope, to demonstrate to Chantelle that we were ready to dive.  Krystal had a little trouble with getting water in her mask when clearing her ears.  But, after a few minutes, we were all fixed up and descending intro a beautiful undersea world that I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

We had mostly only ever snorkeled.  We did one discovery dive in Thailand.  But, it was short and we didn’t venture much deeper than snorkeling allows.  So, I had mostly only seen reefs from directly above and never in very deep water.  These reefs were like gorgeous underwater mountains!  There were “caves” and pass-throughs that were awe inspiring.  We swam through them and around every corner was another amazing surprise.  It was breathtaking.  I can only imagine that the only more exciting sensation might be floating in space!  We saw lots of interesting fish.  But, really, the star of the show is the reef itself.

We ended up doing two dives that afternoon.  By this point, I was more than hooked and already considering where we might go to complete our SCUBA certification.  We had a great dinner on the boat and were completely worn out and ready for bed by around 9:30.  Sleeping on the boat was easier than I assumed it would be.  The complete exhaustion probably helped.  The boat rocked around a bit.  But, it was actually kind of comforting to be rocked to sleep.

This little guy flew onto the boat that afternoon looking quite exhausted, or possibly wounded. Matt put him in a box with a couple of towels. I honestly didn't think he would survive the night. But, this pic was taken just before he was released the next morning. He flew away with no problem. I guess he just needed a rest!

Sunset on the Great Barrier Reef

The next morning, we got up and around pretty early.  We had some breakfast before getting into our dives for the day.  We had time to do two dives before stopping for lunch.  As we were finishing our second dive, two other divers surfaced at the back of our boat.  They were tired and out of air.  They were also lost and a pretty good distance from their boat.  It’s very lucky for them that we were there.  It would have been an emergency situation had they surfaced anywhere else.  Matt helped them aboard and got them out of their gear.  Then, he loaded them and their gear into our dinghy and took them back to their boat.  While he was gone and Chantelle was cooking lunch, Krystal and I saw some large grey flashes swim by under the boat.  Krystal grabbed a mask and jumped right in to investigate.  She surfaced and said that they were some big fish, similar to some that we had seen earlier.  I thought it would be interesting to see.  So, I grabbed a mask and jumped in.  As I surfaced, I saw that Krystal was swimming really fast for the ladder at the back of the boat.  I took a quick look and realized that I had jumped in directly on a decent sized jellyfish.  This was the first time I had been in the water without the stinger suit and I just happened to jump directly on a jellyfish.  Ooof.  I swam quickly for the boat.  I thought I had made it out without being stung.  But, after being on the boat for a few minutes, I realized that I had indeed been stung on my ankle.  It was a very small irritation.  The pain was tolerable and it healed fairly quickly in a few days.

I had been pretty terrified of sharks.  But, after realizing that there were no Great White sharks around the reef and that the only sharks we were likely to see were reef sharks, I ended up being actually a little disappointed that we didn’t see any.  But, knowing my luck (as proven by mr. jellyfish), if we had seen any, I would have probably lost some fingers or toes.  So, it’s probably better that we didn’t.

One of the only photos that exist of Chris scuba diving

Krystal waving for the camera

Krystal getting comfortable in the water before being released to swim on her own

underwater bonzai

One of the more sunny spots where the reef photos came in a little more clearly

Heading back to Cairns, we were able to turn the engine off and just sail on wind power most of the way.  I’m fascinated by sailing.  I love the mechanics of it all.   So, it was a fun and interesting trip home.  I got just a tiny bit of sunburn on the way back.  But, it was only in a small area on the top of my arm, and it healed up in a few days.

On the boat, headed back to Cairns

Krystal tans while Chris burns.

Returning to Cairns on wind power.

This was an amazing adventure, and a real highlight of the trip for me.  And, I’m absolutely hooked on diving.  I’m not gonna become one of “those guys”.  You won’t find the red SCUBA flag sticker on my van or anything.  And, honestly, it does a number on my ears.  It takes a day or two for my hearing to feel “normal” again.  So, I could only do it a couple of times a year.  But, since we often travel to the Caribbean for our anniversary trip, I can see a lot of cool dives in our future!



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