Friday, February 27, 2009

Reef Dreams: Cairns, 2

Usually when I have to get up early it's a struggle, a mental argument with myself, but the next day it wasn't hard at all. All I had to do was remember where I was headed, and out the door I went.

I had signed up for two days and a night aboard the Rum Runner, a little yacht with room for 15 passengers. There were 10 of us on the trip, all English speaking (which, given the number of German girls traveling Australia, was pretty remarkable), including two other American girls who had just graduated from Cornell. The Skipper was Jason, a seasoned sailor who started life as a druggie from Brisbane and came up to Cairns to try to make something of himself. He worked at the Woolshed as a dishwasher, did an intro dive once with a friend, and said "That's it, I'm going to be a professional diver."

The Woolshed staff said "Yeah right, see you in two weeks," but he got his PADI (open water license), worked himself up to a Dive Master, and then bought into Rum Runner. He was completely comfortable on her, jumping in the rigging and below deck like a monkey, barefoot and barechested, singing along loudly with the speaker systems hooked up to his iPod.

The other crew included Masa, a Japanese dive guide who'd been in Australia 13 years but had been guiding only for other Japanese for 12 so his English was still pretty poor (but he was very, very knowledgable); Beverly, a British "hostie" who did the cooking and cleaning and made amazing food for us out of tiny kitchen; and Matt, a dive master in training. The boat was not a big boat at all, with just room for some beds, two little bathrooms, and the kitchen below deck and then a sitting area open to the water upstairs. Note that I made the mistake of not buying an underwater camera, so there will unfortunately be no cool snorkeling pictures here.

Our schedule

The Rum Runner herself

The big disappointment of the day came at me fast, as soon as I boarded. I had hoped to scuba dive for the first time on the Rum Runner: you can do introductory dives with an instructor even if you haven't completed a course. But I'd made the mistake (or, some would say, the smart choice) of divulging that I have mildish asthma to one of the crew. Jason informed me that I needed an AU$55 medical appointment to okay me for diving, as Queensland has the most stringent diving regulations in the world. I was very disappointed at first but after about an hour I got over it. There was still snorkeling (which is one of my favorite things to do in the world), and, I reasoned, I was saving money this way.

The water was very, very choppy on way out. We were all a bit sick, but some more than others--I narrowly avoided vomiting, although a couple of the others weren't so lucky. In particular I felt bad for Chantal, a five-months-pregnant Brit who was very ill and couldn't take any motion sickness medicine. She and her husband had been traveling for 5 months already and only found out in India that she was pregnant, which drastically altered their plans, as you might imagine.

Things flattened out once we get to the reef. It wasn't very nice weather, overcast, but as I said I was lucky not to have been caught in the deluges to come. Our first snorkel wasn't wonderful, as I wasn't used to open water snorkeling, the current/waves were pretty intense, my mask kept filling up, and my snorkel came apart a couple times.

But things improved dramatically from there. At our second location, I found a mask that fit, which helped tremendously. The coral was gorgeous, all sorts, all sizes, and extending in either direction as far as I could see. I saw every kind of tropical fish I could think of-- clownfish, angelfish, parrotfish, so many more--in amazing colors. Just as I was about to go in for a rest, I heard Matt, an Aussie also on the boat, raise his head above the water and yell "Oi! Turtle!"

It was like a moment out of Lord of the Rings, or some similarly epic movie: everything slowed down and I could just hear the water moving around me, pounding dully against the coral heads. I could see the turtle almost directly below me, lit as if from below by the reflection of the pearly, cloudy-day light off the bottom. It was barely moving its flippers, just flying smoothly through the water. I couldn't tell how far away it was from me, as perspective in the water is so skewed. Slowly slowly I recognized that it was getting bigger, coming up to the surface to breathe. I saw it come to take a breath at the surface several feet away and took my head out of the water. By the time I'd put my head back in the water it had dived back into the deep and was almost out of sight. Magical.

The third snorkel that night was one of the best of my life. Everything came together. I found flippers that fit better and didn't give me blisters; my masked stopped leaking altogether; the reef was gorgeous. I saw a huge school of navy blue fish with yellow strips along their tails, and couldn't stop watching then flit from coral head to coral head. Three electric purple squid the size of sneakers looked like nothing so much as aliens as they swam around and around me and I realized they were just as curious about me as I was about them. A reef shark swam by and I was temporarily afraid until it became clear it wasn't at all interested in me. I relished hovering a few feet above the fish as they went about their business. If you think about it, it's really the only time you can get that close to wild animals and peek into their world.

As the light faded we had dinner, then later ate biscuits and drank wine as the sun went down over the reef. The cloudy weather meant no sunset, but it' was still lovely and serene. The wind died down, and the dark came surprisingly quickly. The clouds parted for a brief hour and I went out to lie on deck and look at an amazing display of stars. When it started to sprinkle, I braved my tiny, hot bunk. It was very, very sticky and I couldn't use the air conditioner because the boat was not on and the generator thus not working, but I reminded myself every time I woke up soaked that the first thing I'd do in the morning would be jump into the ocean. It was the right decision: a huge rain squall came in the night, and those brave souls who had tried to sleep on deck were soaked.

It is a wonderful thing to get up, put on your bathing suit, and jump into coral reefs before you've even eaten breakfast. Besides a digestive biscuit, the first thing in my mouth was salt water. It was beautiful again, of course. I saw a huge parrotfish school and lots of fish waking up to a watery world. After a refreshing breakfast, we went to our last dive/snorkel location, what they call "the lagoon." The sun came out there for the first time, illuminating everything into a brilliant, deep emerald . This snorkel site boasted violently purple starfish and enormous giant clams. Watching carefully, I could see them breathe, move minutely in their shells. I swam through a school of tiny jellyfish, feeling little stings against my hands (I was wearing a wetsuit, which protected most of me) that didn't last for long, although the discoloration continued for a few days; I watched clownfish fight to protect their anemone homes. For an hour and a half I swam and explored, relishing this endless aquatic fairy world, this last part of my dream.

You can't tell, but underneath this is "the lagoon"

Dry land brought a shower at Tessha's and Australian Mexican food, which wasn't bad but wasn't anything to get excited about. Then it was back to the Woolshed for a post-boat celebration with the rest of the Rum Runner occupants. Jason treated us all to pizza and beer (although I was pretty full already) and we socialized, played pool. But I was exhausted, feeling pretty pessimistic about the fleeting nature of connections during travel, and preoccupied with my return to Sydney the next day. I got a taxi back to Tessha's for the night, and the next day a different taxi came to take me away from the reef and on to my last chance for Australian adventure.

The Rum Runner 10, trying to eat our weight in pizza

No comments: