Friday, August 04, 2006

Snorkling at the Great Barrier Reef (Low Isles)

30th July 2006:

Well, I somehow managed to survive the night without any unwanted visitors (although, I do have a mysterious bruise on my arm: I wonder will something hatch in a couple of weeks? Something to watch for I guess :)

Today's activity was to visit the Coral Sea, and in particular, the Great Barrier Reef.
I spent the morning at the nearby, nearly deserted Four Mile Beach with its flat, white, stoneless beach and waveless sea. It seems that during the summer months (November - February), swimming in the Coral Sea is a bit of a gamble with the sharks and stinging jellyfish. Apparently though, the risks are reduced at this time of the year, so with not a lifeguard or any fellow swimmer's anywhere in sight for four miles, I decided I'd go in for a quick swim... in what turned out to be the chilly, murky sea water. Still, the lack of waves made for a relaxed, albeit uneventful swim.

So, looking for a more interesting swim, I phoned up a local tour operator and booked a snorkeling trip for the afternoon. Most operator's claim that you need a day to get to the reef, do the swimming and get back, but this operator in Port Douglas claimed that two and a half hours was more than enough.

I had my doubts but this afternoon I made my way to the marina area and joined six others on the docks which was full of big yachts and ferries. And then their was our boat(!) If you've ever seen Baywatch, you would be familiar with the Scarab speedboats that they used on the show: I no longer wonder what it would be like to get a ride on one as within minutes of arriving we were sailing at a relaxed pace out of the harbor on a sleek white Scarab. The skipper (sadly not a Baywatch cast member(!)) told us that due to choppy sea conditions away from the shore he'd have to go slower than normal and restrict our speed to a mere 60kmph, but in reality that speed is still fast for a boat. Having been on boats before, I moved straight to the front as it is the best to experience the bow leaping high out of the water after cresting a wave, and then slamming back down again. Sure enough, as we quickly picked up speed we all had to hang on tight and as the boat jumped over the top of the rolling waves, there was a feeling of weightlessness before coming crashing back down to the water below.

Within 20 minutes we had arrived at the reef. We berthed off a vegetated coral cay (its coral which has grown out of the water to form an island and trees and other vegetation have grown on top) and once the gear was on we jumped in and started swimming around the coral below. The view was, unsurprisingly, unforgettable with shoals of exotic fish swimming amongst the colorful coral formations. All of the coral formations were there with Brain coral, Cabbage Coral and Mushroom Coral were easily visible with schools of Angel Fish darting about and I even swam for a bit with a sea-turtle(!).

I would advise that you do your homework before visiting a coral reef: it becomes even more enjoyable when you're down there and you spot a fish/coral that you had read about before (as opposed to "oh look, a colourful fish" and moments later "and another colourful fish", etc.) You can also purchase from dive shops a laminated colourful chart that you can bring down with you of all of the fish/coral that can be seen.

Swimming time allocated on our trip was 1 1/2 hours, but in reality we were all finished before the allocated time expired. During the summer months, the sea can reach an incredible 30C, but today the temperature was 22C which eventually sucked away all body warmth. Only other downer was that the sea wasn't as clear today as it had been at Koh Tao due to the choppy sea conditions. I had brought an underwater camera with me but I suspect the pics will turn out to be murky as the visibility down below was nowhere near as clear as the sheltered Koh Tao dive sites.

Speaking of underwater cameras, if you own a digital camera you can get an underwater enclosure for your camera so that it will work underwater. However, these enclosures cost a couple of hundred dollars and there is a minor risk of leaking... If you don't go swimming/snorkeling/scuba diving often, a much cheaper and risk free alternative is a disposable underwater camera and it seems that you can even get it developed straight to digital CD: sweet!

So, seeing the Great Barrier Reef is another box I can tick in the things-to-do list. So far, the Koh Tao reefs are winning due to the better visibility and warmer water, but I hope to go back to the Great Barrier Reef again for scuba diving in a couple of days for another great experience.