Reef-lecting upon the Great Barrier Reef: Part 1

We’ve just returned from our trip to ‘Reef World’ in the Whitsundays on the 14th and 15th Nov and it was such an incredible experience; 2 days snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef and a night on the pontoon under the stars.

In the sea
In the sea

When we first arrived at the Cruise Whitsundays terminal, just like before everything was very organised and once we told people we were doing the Reef Sleep, they all looked very excited so it looked like it was going to be good! Apart from the fact that they only had one wristband left instead of two (I got it hehe), everything went to plan and we were soon waiting to board the ferry once again. After sitting on the deck on the last cruise, we decided that we would prefer to sit inside on this trip, partially because we were too hot and it was too windy as well.When we were all called to start getting on the ferry, we were taken to one side to meet Nicola, our Reef sleep guide and the rest of the people who’d be joining us. Initially we’d been told that there would be 12 of us but this actually turned into 5 so that was nice although we only met the 2 of them to begin with.  The first people we met were a couple from Birmingham but as they’d checked in they’d had their tickets taken away which meant they had to join the now huge queue again to try to get them back. Rather than making us wait, Nicola told us to just get on the boat and she’d come and find us once we were on it. I felt quite sorry for the other two as they had to go through it all again but I was glad we had our tickets still! 

I was a bit worried about not getting decent seats as we wandered down the dock as at this stage, pretty much everybody else was on and sat down. I needn’t have been though as there was a table seat right by the window left which was perfect if not a little bit roasting hot with the sun shining through, even at 8 in the morning. A couple of old men sat next to us but we still had plenty of space as there was 2 rows of 3 which mean we didn’t overheat luckily! Soon we set off back towards Hamilton Island and after filling in the medical forms we needed to stay on the pontoon for the night, we settled in for the long trip out there. Of course Codie got up to make some of the complimentary tea, that goes without saying :), you have to make the most of these things when you’re trying not to spend too much! I had some water and then we made the most of the slices of fruit for morning tea. In the past I would have been quite disappointed in having fruit but I’m really craving juicy oranges now and the pineapple was very tasty too. Upon reaching Hamilton Island, a lot of people got off which surprised me as I had presumed most people were going to Reef World and we were collecting more on the way as opposed to dropping people off. Even though people were going on about golf the whole way there, it still didn’t click that’s what they were off to do on neighbouring Dent Island. Oh dear. I suppose my mind was fish-orientated at this stage.

Once more people had rushed onto the boat, we departed once again but this time heading straight for the reef which was very exciting. As much as I like the Whitsunday Islands, I was really looking forward to travelling across the open ocean as there was more chance of spotting wildlife and it was just a lot more interesting. It was a little bit rough once we were away from the shelter of Hook island and were travelling through the shipping passage but to me it was very enjoyable. I don’t know what it is but being thrown around a bit on a boat is one of my favourite things. I think it’s perhaps from travelling from Portsmouth to Bilbao on a bit cruise ship when it was really, really rough and racing my sister up and down the cabin corridors. Very very fun. A lot of the passengers were struggling with sea sickness and so the crew were walking around with little cups of ice to suck on. Neither of us were struggling with it but we had a cup anyway to cool us down as it was so hot still. At one stage I thought Codie was feeling ill but it turned out he was just having a nap. Lazy bones. Even when they announced that we had arrived at the Great Barrier Reef national park, he carried on with his nap. I was a bit jealous as I was shattered too but I really wanted to look out the window and so had to opt for that instead. At one stage we had a few little presentation type things on the boat about how to put the snorkel gear on correctly and what signals to do if we were in trouble. If you raised two arms out of the water and waved frantically whilst shouting “help” then you were obviously in trouble, if you raised one fist out of the water you required a pick up and by putting the ok symbol on your head it meant you were ok. We all had to demonstrate that we understood what we were doing but I still managed to get the ok one wrong but I blame the person stood in front of the demonstration! It definitely wasn’t my terrible eyesight….

The Reef World looked really good as we pulled up to it with it’s sundeck shades looking like the sails of a ship run aground on the reef. Of course there wasn’t too much time to soak it all in as there was a rush to get on board and get the best snorkelling gear (nobody wants to suit with holes in!). We quickly made our way upstairs to find somewhere to put our things and claim a table but then realised we had to find Nicola again to give her our cameras to keep safe. This was very frustrating as people were streaming down to the snorkelling platform and I was so on edge (rats down a pipe!). Eventually, after Codie had been given a nice pink ribbon to tie around his snorkel so the guards knew to keep an eye on him because of his asthma, we made it downstairs. The flipper and wetsuit debacle I was expecting didn’t actually happen as I just opted for the 5-7 ones which seemed to fit fine and I was handed a suit which was helpful. I didn’t think the masks were a problem either until it came to putting it on. Hair was tangled and being torn out, I nipped my face skin tightening it and then my fringe managed to wedge itself in there too and that was just making sure it fitted and was the right size! I then had to take it off to have it sprayed with the defog spray to ensure it didn’t steam up when I was underwater and join the queue to get to the platform.

The Reef
The Reef

Once we finally made it to the water, it was definitely worth the queuing and the stress. Right next to the platform were schools of hundreds of brightly coloured fish which didn’t even seem to flinch when you swam through them. Underneath the pontoon was quite a hefty drop so looking down to the depths was both eerie and really exciting at the same time. Big fish swam underneath us and smaller fish circled us. Making our way over to reef wall was even more interesting as it was swarming with life. Made up of hundreds of tiny animals, the coral’s intricate design also provides homes to different species of fish and it was amazing to see so many species in such a short space. My favourite was definitely the parrotfish, not only due to it’s beautiful colours but also because I’d had to draw one for my Australia project when I was about 10 and it’s the one fish that stood out to me. It was nice to see it just going about doing what it does and not really caring about all the spectators. It was a little bit too busy to stay in one place as more and more people made it into the water so we had to constantly be on the move to try and avoid being booted in the head, although that happened quite a few times. We swam or flippered, our way to the outskirts of the roped of snorkel area and found ourselves so much closer to the coral, it was incredible. You have to be really careful not to touch the sand or coral at all as any damage could be devastating to the health of the reef so for quite a while, I was quite paranoid but not for too long. I loved being able to hear the sound of the different fish biting off chunks of coral which was surprising as I normally hate getting me ears wet due to past infections. I suppose risking being temporarily uncomfortable is a lot easier to do when there’s such interesting things to watch rather than a shower screen.

After swimming around for a while,  at 12:30 we got out for a rest and a spot of lunch. I say a spot but it was an all-you-can-eat buffet so we had a fair bit! Lunch was served on the boat docked on the side of the pontoon but you weren’t allowed wet suits and so we had to peel ourselves out of them and tuck them under our seats before we could get food. The amount of people I saw who couldn’t seem to grasp this was amazing though even more so when they were told to leave the boat and get changed first. If you haven’t seen the signs and haven’t listened to the instructions, don’t get annoyed with the staff when it’s your own fault! The buffet itself was really very tasty and had been put together by Fish D’Vine, a restaurant based at Airlie Beach. As you can imagine, fish was the best bit and I made sure I stocked up on the delicious looking tiger prawns. The only thing that put me off them was they still had their tiny little legs on but I thought I’d have a go anyway. Once we’d stocked up on snacks we went back across the pontoon to sit in the shade on the sun deck and tuck in. Codie had some ham sandwiches and pasta whilst I was a little pig and had a chicken drumstick, ham, sweetcorn, chickpeas, pasta and of course the prawns. I’m not a huge fan of taking the head of a prawn and taking the nasty bits off it as I’m always worried I’ll miss bits and it would taste weird. It turns out I was right to be as I managed to leave the horrible brown line in and they didn’t taste very nice. It was a lot of fun putting the prawn heads on Codie’s plate though and showing him the lovely things inside it.

Once lunch was over, it was time for the semi-submersible ride while we waited for the food to settle. This always annoys me as  I hate waiting but I know the pain of eating loads and swimming so I wasn’t going to make that mistake! The sub was already on a trip when we were ready so instead we went back to have a look at the underwater viewing chamber again. It was so much busier this time both inside and outside with fish right up against the glass and people clamouring to have a look outside. We waited for a little while and watched the divers go past before deciding it was a bit too stuffy and headed back to the deck just as the sub was arriving. I’d seen it out a few times already but it hadn’t even occurred to me that’s what it was; I thought it was just another boat as they have so many drifting about! We climbed onboard and headed downstairs to take our seats in the lovely air conditioned room. Codie hadn’t a top on so was freezing but for me it was a lovely temperature and I appreciated the cool breeze. Leanne, the marine biologist who accompanied the sub, informed us all that on the way out one side would see the reef and the other wouldn’t but this would be the other way around on the way back. Of course we were the side not to see it to begin with but it was still enjoyable to see fish looming up every now and again and some of the species that live just off the reef wall. I’d heard (and read) a lot of people complaining about the fact that the coral was brown and not the bright colours you see on documentaries. Leanne explained to everyone that this is because the coral is very healthy and is that colour because of the tiny little animals it houses. Even I knew that and I think people expect far too much sometimes! Soon it was our time to face the reef and it was interesting to get a perspective of it lower down in the water nearer to their level without bobbing away. I can’t get over how many different types of fish are about there though as everywhere you looked, there seemed to be another. Suddenly someone shouted “turtle” and Leanne confirmed it was but on the other side. Normally I’d have been more annoyed as I really wanted to see a turtle but the reef itself was so mesmerising, it was impossible to be. 

DCIM101GOPROFollowing our little break, we decided to go back into the water to see what else we could see snorkelling. Not only were there parrotfish and tiny little pretty orange fish, there were also some pearlescent looking ones which seemed to enjoy swimming up to the camera or goggles and then turning away at the last moment. I think these are the thugs of the fish world as they enjoyed getting up in your face. Time seemed to fly by so quickly as we drifted around gazing at all the life underneath us that soon it was time to get out at 14:30 for the ship to leave.  We decided to just keep the wetsuits on this time as we were planning on getting straight back in once everybody had left to really make the most of our time there. It was really quite awkward standing on the sundeck waiting for the ship to depart as it felt as though we came across as smug, which we were a bit, when they were all watching. In a way it felt like they were all off together and we were being left out which really wasn’t the case at all, it just seemed like it to begin with. To be honest, by the time they finally did leave at 15:00 I was glad I wasn’t on the boat as they kept peering underneath it as if there was a problem. It wasn’t even the boat we arrived on, that was the funny thing, as that one seemed to have packed in at some point too! Eventually they both left only for the smaller original one to come back, leave again, come back again and then finally leave for good. I really hoped that one wasn’t going to come back tomorrow, partly because the bigger one seemed much more comfortable and perhaps even a little bit more reliable.

Nicola summoned us all to the bottom deck and informed us about times and things and we also finally met the 5th and final person on the Reef Sleep with us, Cath, a primary school teacher from Blackburn. She seemed really nice and we were glad that we had ended up with nice people otherwise it could have been really awkward. One of the Reef World crew came over and told us that the best time to snorkel would be this time as it was high tide so there would be less disturbance and less currents. We needed no convincing and hopped back into the sea looking for more fishy wonders, now joined by guests from the Hamilton Island resort who had flown in by helicopter. It was a bit annoying that this hadn’t been mentioned to us earlier as we had the impression that just the staff and the Reef Sleep people would be left but there weren’t many people so it wasn’t too bad. It surprised me how rough the sea was though; although it wasn’t enough to push you about, it came as quite a shock when a wave crept into my snorkel. With it being so quiet, visibility was amazing though as the fish were everywhere once again and came right up to your face. I also enjoyed the people in the rescue boats not circling as I didn’t like the pressure of them asking me if I was alright and then forgetting how to say ‘ok’ and being pulled into the boat instead.

DCIM101GOPROBy about 17:00 we were tired and ready for a rest so it was nice to climb out and find that afternoon tea had been served. There was cheese! Lots of cheese! And crackers too! I’ve been missing cheese still as it’s expensive here so I made sure I had quite a bit along with the tasty ritz style crackers and I also had some lovely, juicy fruit. It goes without saying that Codie had tea with his snacks before everyone had a chat and had a reading rest on the sun loungers. I’m not exactly sure what it was but I just couldn’t concentrate on reading at all, it must have been the thought that we were surrounded by so many marine things that I didn’t want to miss anything at all or be distracted. Watching the swags being put up was also really exciting as they looked so cosy and far more interesting than a normal, boring room. Not long after, the showers were opened and I decided to have a quick one before the sunset. It was occupied to begin with so I had to wait my turn, getting increasingly concerned we’d miss the sun going down as it was said to be incredible. Once I made it in, I slathered on the conditioner on to my poor salty and frizzy hair then quickly got out and rushed upstairs. Unfortunately, Codie couldn’t have a shower in time but the other couple risked it and almost didn’t make it. I’m glad we saw it though, it was like a more dramatic version of the one we saw in Corfu and we got to see it sink behind the Whitsunday Islands which was so pretty. On the other side of the pontoon, thick, dark clouds were building and rolling over us until we felt tiny spots of rain. As much as I wanted to see the stars clearly, I think it would have been exciting to see a thunderstorm out there but they soon fizzled out and the clear sky returned once more.

IMG_6132Just after 19:00, it was time for tea and we all wandered downstairs to sit down at the bench draped in a table cloth. This meal had also been prepared by Fish D’Vine and yet again it was very very tasty. There was an option of 2  starters to begin with; Spinach and Feta parcels of a creamy, seafood chowder. Codie had the spinach one and I had the chowder which wasn’t what I was expecting at all but was really, really nice. I thought it’d be just a soup so it was a lovely surprise to find calamari rings hiding at the bottom of it, especially so many of them! I was full after this course with all the garlic bread as well but it was then time for the main which was a BBQ cooked in front of us. We each had to take our plate up and say what we didn’t want, collect our food and sit back down. Me and Codie went first and we both had everything although Codie didn’t have the mackerel. Such little pigs but you have to make the most of it! Just like the starter if was very tasty and I even surprised myself by liking the rare looking beef steak thing. I caught Codie giving it a bit of a look but I think he like it too. We were all stuffed from this so Nicola gave us a little break before bringing out the dessert, a flourless chocolate cake or a warm date pudding. I initially went for the chocolate one as I don’t really like dates but we decided to halve them and try each one. It was actually quite nice but I definitely preferred the cake even though I felt like I was dying from a chocolate overdose! Whilst we were eating we heard and saw massive splashes behind us and everyone ran over to see what it was. They were obviously made by a big fish but we couldn’t see what which was quite exciting. I wanted to wait and see if they popped up again but Nicola said they were going to turn the big generator off at 21:30 so if we wanted to get ready and see the fish in the underwater viewing chamber lit up by the floodlight we’d better do it soon.

In the swag
In the swag

It was really creepy seeing the fish in the water illuminated with the light but the big trevally were throwing themselves about so I had no doubt that that’s what made the huge splashes. Down in the chamber, we also saw a huge grouper called George who was at least 3 metres long and had accompanying wrasse alongside him. According to the information board, a smaller one was about 30 years old at half George’s size so he was probably around 60 himself. I thought that was old for him but then it said that the last time he was measured at 3 metres was 2001 so he’s grown a bit since then and is possibly a lot older. Poor old George. He seemed quite sad drifting past the glass but he visits all the time so it can’t be that bad. I tried getting a photo of him and the tiny fish shoal flickering about but it was so dark, it was just too grainy.

It was getting nearer to 21:30 so we thought we’d better start getting ready for bed before we couldn’t see anything anymore. We’d been provided with torches but they weren’t the strongest so it was best we got everything ready beforehand! I was a bit worried that everything we’d put out to dry on the chairs was going to blow away with the breeze that had picked up so decided to just pile everything up and deal with it in the morning. The swag itself was really cosy and annoyingly it made you want to sleep straight away but when the lights flicked off and the stars were visible, you could easily stay awake to watch them a while. It was like a carpet of glitter, everywhere you looked there was a star from horizon to horizon and occasionally a shooting star would flicker past. We were just setting up the cameras to try and capture the starry scene when we were told that there were some weird luminescent things in the water if we wanted to see them. We did. To start with, it didn’t look like much but all of a sudden these swirly, yellow and glowing snake like things appeared and seemed to be spinning around. When you shone a torch on them there was nothing there though so we’re hoping it was the start of the coral spawning thought it could have been an interesting type of fish.

2.1416158198.me-on-the-swagWe stayed there a while watching for them but in the end it got just a bit too cold and we headed back up to the swags to get tucked in. The sky was so pretty you just wanted to stare at it for as long as you could but fighting the tiredness was just getting harder and harder and harder. There was a flashing in the sky every now and again which didn’t seem to be a plane and I really wanted it to be some sort of space signal. Wishful thinking though I wonder how much we miss with so much of the sky drowned out by lights. A few minutes later and we were too tired to stay awake so snuggled down on to the pillows, which were a luxury now, and went to sleep.

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