Australia Part Seven: Cape Tribulation

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 2:51 pm

We seemed to pass through the worst of the swells during dinner Wednesday night; by the time we collapsed in our bunk, the boat was merely rolling pleasantly, rather than leaping out of the water. The customary door-banging wake-up call rousted us from our bunks around 6:30am, and everyone began hustling to finish packing their junk and haul it to the back deck.

Goodbyes were necessarily a hurried affair, with the crew eager to get on with their day of cleanup before welcoming the next batch of guests that night. Of course, there was the obligatory group photo before we all disembarked:


After ditching the bulk of our wet and dripping gear at the Holiday Inn bell desk, we were picked up by Sugarland Car Rentals and taken to their office. I was feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the tourist possibilities between Cairns and Cape Tribulation (our destination for the evening), so I was thrilled to discover that Sugarland caters to tourists with lovely little maps showing all the cool places to stop.

Our first challenge, of course, was learning to drive on the left side of the road. Jeff had gamely volunteered to be the driver; I took the position of navigator, calling out helpful instructions like “Now you’ll turn left into the roundabout, and LOOK RIGHT, LOOK RIGHT.”

We’d heard that it’s surprisingly easy to get the hang of driving on the left side, and Jeff did seem to pick up the basics pretty quickly. But it’s the little things that kept tripping him up. For instance, in Australian cars, the blinkers are on the right-hand side of the steering wheel; on the left are the windshield wipers. Think for a minute about how ingrained the “blinker-on” motion is when you’re driving, and you’ll understand why I spent a lot of time saying “Now turn off the windshield wipers and signal.” Also, coming around a bend in the highway and seeing traffic flying towards you on your RIGHT side? Very startling. This led to a lot of (half-joking) yelling “We’re going to diiiiie!”


Our first stop, other than a few “scenic viewpoints,” was at Hartley’s Crocodile Farm. We might not have bothered with such an attraction, except for the fact that they advertised posed photos with crocodiles. Sign us up!

It was overcast and starting to drizzle when we parked at the Croc Farm, and there was no one around as we approached the photo booth, except for the croc handler and Mr. Wiggles, the freshwater crocodile. With no one waiting in line, we were able to chat up the handler for a little while, and get a look at the “spare” saltwater croc kept in a tub behind the counter (to be brought out when Mr. Wiggles started to get grumpy.)


We stuck around for a boat trip through the crocodile-infested lake, where the boat driver lured a big croc up to the boat with a chicken carcass. It was worth sitting through the humidity just to hear the famed “crack!” of crocodile jaws closing on their meal!

After lunch in Port Douglas, we headed on up the coast. The skies cleared up, and the sun lit up the fields of cane on either side, and rainforest-covered hills inland. Towns got smaller and looked more run-down, until we finally reached the ferry across the Daintree River.

There’s an interesting passage in our guidebook describing the Daintree River crossing. The writer mentioned a “strange sense of inertia” as the ferry starts to move, as well as a feeling that you’re crossing into something really different. I’d say he pretty much nailed it on both counts. The ferry creaked across the river on a cable, pulled by enormous wheels. It took a moment to realize we were moving, and that it wasn’t just the normal flow of water I was seeing. The far side is a wall of trees, broken by the landing and a few “Warning” signs about high voltage wires and crocodiles.

The sense of remoteness doubled as we started out along the “highway,” a narrow, windy road with the occasional stream of water flowing across it. Although not very far on the map, Cape Tribulation takes a while to get to when you’re dealing with all those twists and turns, trying to remain on the left side of the road, and watching out for cassowaries.


At length, we reached our destination: Cape Tribulation Beachhouse, on the far north side of “town.” I was a bit dismayed to discover that the “hotel” was basically a bunch of cabins. Like, the kind that you camp in. We hiked downhill to our room, which was quite nice on the inside, but still a cabin. See?


(You can also see how lovely I look, all sweaty and rumpled after a day of wandering around in the sun while slathered in bug spray and sunscreen.)

After making sure there were no insects in our room, we wandered down to the beach for a look at the famed meeting of ocean and rainforest. It was low tide, so we were able to stroll around a bit on the sand, watching little crabs roll sand boulders out of their homes.

We scarfed down an early dinner at the hotel restaurant (outdoor dining – thank goodness for bug spray), then walked back up to reception to meet our tour group for the night: a night walk in the rainforest. No, really. I agreed to go squelching through the rainforest, in the dark, and look for interesting insects. And by “interesting,” I mean “large.” Also, did I mention I still had a cold?

I’d held out some hope of seeing cute mammals, but it was not to be. There were about 7 of us tourists, led along a moderately tricky jungle track by a local nature guide. In daylight it probably would have been an easy walk – and I’m not saying it was HARD, exactly; just occasionally unnerving. Like when the “wait-a-while” vines would grab hold of someone with their little stickers. Or you’d “discover” a root in the track by tripping over it. Or the occasional stream to slog across.

Still, I have to admit the hike was pretty cool. (It would have been cooler if I wasn’t sick. And if there weren’t as many large bugs.) We saw an Eastern Water Dragon (cute lizard), some other kind of monitor lizard, toads, and… lots of bugs. Enormous grasshoppers; wolf and huntsman spiders; stick insects. Most of the critters stood still for inspection and photographs, but my trigger-happy husband did manage to provoke a grasshopper into leaping off into the distance. I was just glad the bug was facing the other direction when he went flying.


After two hours of tromping through the rainforest, I was dripping with sweat and thoroughly creeped out. It was a very happy Anna who crawled back into the air conditioned van. We made a brief stop close to the creek, to look for crocodiles, but there were none to be found.

At checkout the next morning, I mentioned to the clerk how pleased I’d been to not see a single bug in our room. It seemed impossible to me that the cabins could be insect-free given their location; whatever they did the keep the bugs out was clearly working. She seemed a little nonplussed, and protested that they didn’t spray or anything – just made sure to rotate all the rooms out so they never sat empty for long.

Walking back to the car, Jeff started cracking up. Apparently he’d spotted, killed and hidden no fewer than eight bugs in our room, of varying sizes (some large enough to more than freak me out). Gah.

We opted for a leisurely trip back down the coast, stopping at various points along the way for a walk. Up first were some of the boardwalks around Cape Tribulation, where we got a glimpse at the rainforest in daylight:


There was also the mildly-disappointing “Bat House,” where I expected to see, you know, bats. I figured the “Bat” in the name was generic; but in fact it really meant there was A Bat. In the house. There was a small room full of displays about bats, and a young intern sitting behind a desk, keeping an eye on a solitary bat dangling from a clothes-drying rack. I was bummed to learn you can’t hold or touch bats in Queensland; there’s too much threat of rabies in the area.


Continuing our creepy-critter tour, we checked out the Insect Museum on our way out of town. It’s a small, one-room museum, but houses dozens of cases packed with exotic (and not-so-exotic) insect specimens. I was most taken with the live Macleay’s Spectres hanging out on a eucalyptus branch near the entrance. These little guys are chunky enough to seem more like small reptiles than big bugs to me, so I had (almost) no problem letting them crawl around my arm.


After our visit to the insects, we said goodbye to Cape Tribulation and headed back towards civilization. We nabbed a late lunch in Port Douglas, and took a quick walk to the river at Mossman Gorge, but nothing was as interesting as the rainforest had been. (Well, one thing was interesting: after Port Douglas, I got to take a turn at the wheel. We’re gonna die!!!) We squeaked back into Cairns with just enough time left to check in and return our car.


Australia Part Six: The Last Dives

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 9:53 am

I woke up Tuesday morning hacking up a lung, but determined to dive (with Nitrox, no less). The skies were overcast, and the surface a little bit choppy, but hey – we’re tough California divers. There was no stopping us.

My mood improved immediately once we were underwater. The visibility at our first dive site – The Great Wall – was better than any we’d seen the day before. We enjoyed the extra time the Nitrox gave us at depth, and not constantly worrying about whether it was time to ascend. Once we found something worth photographing, we could just stay put and relax (well, except for worrying about our air consumption – but that’s rarely the limiting factor for us at this depth).


After finding a couple of nudibranchs, we spotted Shea waving us over to a coral head. In the dive briefing, he’d mentioned that another divemaster had reported a black frogfish at this dive site – common in Papua New Guinea, but rare in this neck of the woods. Amazingly enough, he’d managed to find it!


We surfaced to an unpleasant sound: silence. The compressors were off, and so was the air conditioning. Apparently, we’d lost one of our engines for good this time, and would be limited to nighttime AC and slow compressor use.


This meant there was no way to squeeze in more than 3 dives a day – but that kind of worked for me, since I was continuing to feel sick.

The next (and last) two dives were both at Lighthouse Bommie. It’s kind of a funny dive site; there’s a skinny pinnacle from about 70fsw to 20fsw, with a bit of a mound off to one side at depth. Only half the divers went in at any given time, to keep from overcrowding the bommie. After the boat moored, we were greeted by a turtle and a sea snake popping up at the surface to check us out. Well, probably just to breathe. But it was still a fun welcome.

They weren’t shy underwater, either. On both dives, we spotted multiple sea snakes at depth, even friendlier than the one at Snake Pit. There were also a handful of turtles, including one who was clearly very used to divers.


The visibility took a nosedive for the worst before our second dive at Lighthouse, as did both the current and the surface chop. Just hauling myself back the surface line to the boat took all my effort, and I was happy to sit out the night dive and drink some tea.

By Wednesday morning, I was done getting sick; I was sick. My cough had been joined by a stuffy nose and a sinus headache – really not a good combination for diving. (If you’re one of my instructors, stop reading now.) I could still clear my ears, and I didn’t want to miss out on our last day of diving, so I decided to start popping Sudafed. Since I’d just finished reading the Nitrox book, which had a big bold section about NOT TAKING SUDAFED especially if you’re on Nitrox, I had to ‘fess up to the divemasters that I was feeling ill so they’d switch me back to normal air. Although they’re supposed to care if you try to dive sick, they mostly seemed amused that I was worried – I guess when you’re a divemaster on a liveaboard, you spend most of your year diving sick, thanks to all the germs people bring in!

The first dive was in no way worth all that effort. We headed down the anchor line into a screaming current, lousy vis, and another dive site that might have been pretty in better conditions. I can usually find a redeeming feature of any dive, but this one just sucked.

Luckily, conditions improved at the next dive site, Gorgonia Wall. It still would have been nicer with sunshine, but hey – that’s what video lights are for. We saw tons of interesting little gobies and juvenile fish hiding in gorgonians or in soft coral, and spotted a handful of whip coral gobies.


I was looking at something tiny on a sea fan when I noticed a few bits of something drifting down, and Jeff grabbed my arm and pointed up. A huge school of humphead parrotfish was above us – and had just been pooing on Jeff’s head. (Thankfully, parrotfish poo is basically sand.)

The only downside of the dive was that the tender boats had dropped us off a little too far from the boat. (They consistently overestimated the distance that underwater photographers are able to cover in an hour-long dive!) We ran low on air and surfaced to find ourselves only halfway back to the boat… and heading in a straight line to the SpoilSport put us right over reef, in about 3 feet of water – too shallow to call over a tender boat. We made it eventually, though Jeff completely drained his tank, and my lungs were about done for.

Our last dive was at Flare Point, a nice shallow coral garden. I was delighted by a school of juvenile blue tangs in a small coral head, bopping in and out. Of course, as soon as I waved Jeff over to photograph them, they all disappeared down into their hidey hole!

My ears were still able to clear, but as I went up from my initial depth of 50′ or so, I started to have problems clearing my sinuses. Any time I headed back down – even just a foot or two – my head felt like it might explode. Since every time I went up a bit, I couldn’t go back down, it wasn’t long before I found myself in 20 feet of water, trapped. (Well, I could have gone up. But dammit if I wasn’t going to finish this dive!) Jeff continued to amuse himself beneath me, occasionally attempting to get me to come down and look at something. But if it was deeper than 20fsw, it just wasn’t worth the pain.


Despite being stuck in the shallows, I really liked this dive. I didn’t get much video or see anything too spectacular, but it was a pretty way to spend an hour. As we finished our safety stop, we could hear a hissing noise; we looked up to see that it was caused by a steady drizzle of rain on the surface.

We surfaced in rain and chop, and the tender boats quickly came to whisk us back to the boat. There had originally been talk of a fourth dive, but that idea went out the window thanks to the deteriorating weather and the slow return of divers. My sinuses couldn’t have handled it anyway!

The original plan was to have another barbecue while the boat was moored. But with the seas kicking up and only one engine to get us the 100km back to Cairns, the captain needed to get moving. Dinner was quite an adventure in the rising seas, and quite a few of us had to pop seasickness pills once it got dark and the horizon was no longer visible. (Seasickness pills weren’t the only ones being shared around the boat – two or three other divers were struck with the same cough and cold as me.)

It was too bad our last day of diving wasn’t a better send-off, but I think most of us felt like the weekend at Osprey Reef had been worth the price of admission by itself. Well, almost. And despite the murky water and strong currents of the last few days, we saw sea snakes! And… sea snakes!


Australia Part Five: Dry Land and Sea Snakes

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 4:30 pm

Monday morning, I woke up a few minutes before the daily door-pounding wakeup call. We were moored off Lizard Island, and looking forward to a morning exploring the place, hopefully with the same sunny conditions we’d had over the weekend at Osprey Reef.

Sadly, it was not to be – at least, not how we imagined it. A drizzle of rain was splattering against the cabin window, and the skies were gray with no hint that it would let up anytime soon. And I was feeling sicker.

Since our only alternative to hiking around the island was sitting in the lounge while the crew busied themselves cleaning up, swapping linens, and getting ready for the next batch of guests, we decided we’d still give it a shot. Hey, what’s a little rain? We’d been wet most of the trip anyway, right? About a dozen of us made the trip over to the island, most with various amounts of rain gear.



And then… we walked around. It would have been gorgeous on a sunny day; in the drizzle, it was just – uncomfortable. It didn’t help that my lungs weren’t up to even the slightest of uphill walks. Or that the mosquitoes were out. Or that Jeff and I nearly got ourselves lost trying to find the meet point after we split off from the rest of the group.

We did get to see a big lizard, though – some type of monitor or goana. And there were bats. And big burrowing crabs. There would have been lovely lookouts, if the sun was shining.


Back on board, the mood was a little down. Apparently one of the engines had died during the night, and the crew was waiting for a replacement part that would come along with the new guests. In the meantime, the divers were getting grumpy from sitting around (or from walking around in the rain), and were ready to get back to diving.

Jeff and I passed the time by signing up for a Nitrox classe, and zipped through most of the reading before lunch. It probably would have made more sense to take the class at the beginning of the trip, so we could dive Nitrox all week… but we figured better late than never.

At last, the new divers were aboard and briefed, and the engine was repaired – temporarily, as it turned out, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We ate lunch and headed out to a dive site called Snake Pit for the first of three Monday dives.

I’d assumed the name of the dive site was whimsical, or perhaps relating to some sort of feature in the rocks and coral. But no – it turns out the main attraction of this site is the friendly population of olive sea snakes. Yes, the highly venomous ones. No, they’re not aggressive.

We followed the anchor line down to the dive site, where there was a whopping current and crummy visibility. It would have been fairly crummy even by Southern California standards; I’d say 15′ or so. The water was a murky brown, and I was instantly NOT impressed with the dive site.

Until a snake swam over.

It turns out that sea snakes are extremely curious, cruising up to divers’ masks and cameras or between their legs. This one was immediately mobbed by photographers, so we continued on in search of our own snake.

Much like Lizard Island, it would have been a pretty dive if there was sun and clear water. Instead, it was just a frustrating fight against current, with the occasional pretty fish. Which was hard to photograph in the current.

We worked our way back over to where we’d first dropped down, and the camera-friendly snake was still puttering around. This time there were only two other photographers in the area, and the snake seemed quite happy to share his time between us. It moved so slowly and non-threateningly that I never felt at all scared; I was simply fascinated by the sinuous way in which it moved. And by how it looked just like a big snake on land; sort of cobra-like, but with a paddle-tail.

Our snake eventually tired of toying with photographers and retreated into a hole. I caught myself just short of waggling my fingers in front of him to try to draw him back out – that’s how quickly I’d forgotten they were venmous.


Our next dive was back at Cod Hole – or actually, around the corner at Cod Wall. The tender boats dropped us off up-current to ride back towards the main part of the dive site and rendezvous with the boat. At first, there wasn’t any current at all, and Jeff and I took our time looking at little fish along the wall. The visibility was much better than at Snake Pit, and we saw plenty of bannerfish hiding under ledges, pufferfish munching on algae, and the usual anthias, anemonefish, and juveniles of various species.


As we got closer to the corner of Cod Hole, the current picked up… and picked up… and picked up. Within 100 feet we went from a leisurely dive to an E-ticket ride. When Jeff decided to stop and photograph a puffer, I could barely hold myself in place by kicking, even if I ‘cheated’ with a hand on the rock – and since I was a little under the weather, I couldn’t keep it up for long. We finally gave up the effort and just let the current take us.

As we zipped around the bend into Cod Hole, the current dropped back to nothing. We were able to relax and enjoy the schools of anthias clustering out in the current, and I spotted a little lizardfish who posed for the camera. I thought we’d have a nice lazy safety stop before making our way over to the boat.

Nope. 50′ beyond the corner the current started dragging us along again. I no longer had the energy or desire to fight it, so we kept an eye on one of the divemasters and let him (and the current) lead us to the boat’s mooring line.

I marshaled the energy for a night dive; we rounded up one of the DMs to guide us, since we hadn’t had much luck on our own at night. I was still sort of unimpressed – aside from schools of jacks trying to hunt by our lights, there wasn’t anything video-friendly. Jeff, with his macro lens, had a slightly better time, as Shea pointed out all sorts of microscopic little crabs and shrimp, and even some pipefish.


Despite only doing three dives (again), I was WIPED. My cough had gone from being an itchy-throat sort of cough, to a phlegmy-lungs sort of cough. Diving Nitrox makes some people less tired than diving air; we’d be trying it out for the first time on Tuesday, and I wondered if maybe it would make me less sick!


Australia Part Four: Sharks!

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 7:05 pm

The shark attraction is one of the highlights of the Mike Ball trips. They’ve been doing it every week for years without incident, but since these are (obviously) wild and potentially dangerous animals, you have to sign away all liability before you suit up:



The dive happened at North Horn, where there’s a sort of natural ‘amphitheater’ formation. A big coral bommie comes up to about 40′; this is the ‘stage’ where the sharks are fed. The bommie is surrounded by coral-covered walls which go up to the surface, and this is the ‘seats’ where the divers are placed to watch the action.

Shea, the divemaster in charge of the event, headed down first. As each buddy team came down the mooring line, he directed them to their spot on the wall, trying to arrange divers so no one’s bubbles would be in the way of a person behind them. To me, the strangest part of the dive was being told to go ahead and sit on the coral, usually an enormous no-no. Considering how many dives have been held here, with divers wedging themselves in between coral heads to stay put during the shark feed, the coral is in surprisingly good shape.

As we settled into our spots, the sharks were already gathering.


When everyone was in place, a tender boat on the surface dropped the feeding apparatus into the water: an old metal trash bin with holes cut into it, which contained a length of chain with tuna heads attached. Shea ran one end of a rope attached to the trash can through some sort of pulley on the bommie (whether man-made and installed, or just a nook in the rock, I can’t say), and slowly hauled the trash can down to the ‘stage.’

Once he had it secured in place, he backed away from the feeding area and yanked on a quick-release cord to pop the top off the trash can. The tuna heads floated up into the water column on their chain, and the sharks went nuts!


And yes, those are potato cod getting in on the action – those guys were fearless, and got a pretty good share of the spoils!

Most of the sharks in the water were white-tipped reef sharks (4-5 feet long) and the more “sharky-looking” gray reef sharks (more in the 10 foot range). A few silvertips – even bigger – appeared in the distance, but didn’t come in for a snack.

Gray Reef Shark with Ramoras:


I tried to keep the camera rolling the whole time, but I was using one hand to keep myself in place on my “seat,” and my camera-hand required occasional breaks from supporting the camera’s weight. Still, I think I managed to capture plenty of action. Below are links to a few clips:

QuickTime (hi res download – 7.5MB)


YouTube (low res streaming)

Eventually the tuna heads were gone, and the action died down. Shea declared the shark-feed portion of the dive officially over, and we were able to leave our “seats” and go scour the bommie for shark teeth. (No luck.)

After a late lunch, we had time for one more dive at North Horn. The tender boats dropped us off in the other direction from the day before, so we could check out the wall on the other side of the amphitheater. With no current, it was a bit of a long swim, but a great way to end our time at Osprey. We saw the occasional leftover shark cruising the reef, and lots of interesting fish, including these little longnose filefish:



As we finally approached the amphitheater, I noticed pairs of parrotfish spawning in the water column up above. They’d twirl around each other and head towards the surface, then release clouds of spawn. Hm. Maybe that explains the chunky visibility.

We had the option to try and squeeze one more dive in, but it would have meant an awfully short surface interval, so we opted out. I had a little twinge in my throat that was making me cough a lot, and worried that I might be coming down with something, so I was perfectly content with a 3-dive day.

Instead of a night dive, Sunday was one of two barbecue nights. The 7-night SpoilSport itinerary is actually two shorter trips; you can do one or bothin a row. About 8 divers would be leaving Monday morning at Lizard Island, where they’d hop on a little plane back to Cairns, and be replaced on board by divers brought up that morning. After dinner we stayed awake just barely long enough to watch the official trip video and photos, and participate in the trip photo contest. With such a huge group of photographers on board, we hoped the contest would be quite an event – alas, very few people chose to join in. Jeff nabbed two of the four winning shots.



My cough started to morph into a sore throat, so I happily crashed in our bunk as soon as the video showing ended. The schedule for Monday would include a morning on Lizard Island, which I was looking forward to despite starting to feel crummy.


Australia Part Three: Osprey Reef

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 8:59 am


This was more like what I expected from the Great Barrier Reef! Our first dive at Osprey Reef was Admiralty Anchorage; one big bommie surrounded by little deeper ones. We dropped down into the sand and almost landed on a white-tipped reef shark. There were lionfish, lots more anemonefish-packed anemones, and a cool swimthrough in the main bommie.


I really fell in love with the little fish, though. We hung out at the top of the main bommie for a while, where there were schools of anthias swarming around over the reef. I especially loved these little purple anthias with their pointy noses:


Our second and third dives of the day were a little further north at False Entry, where the tender boats dropped us off a good ways from the boat, along a wall. This was our first tender entry of the trip (backrolls!) and we didn’t do so well. My snorkel – which I’ve had since I first got certified, and which we were required to have with us in Australia – immediately popped off and disappeared into the thousands of feet of water below us. Jeff made it through the backroll intact, but then lost a weight pocket while putting away his camera lens cover.

Luckily, neither one of those was a dive-stopper! We moseyed over to the wall and enjoyed the long swim back to the boat. As we approached the sandy area beneath the SpoilSport, we could see white-tipped reef sharks hanging out in 60 feet of water, and we noted their location for the next dive.

The second dive, just in the sandy patches and bommies under the boat, was even more fun than the first. Besides getting close to several whitetips being cleaned, we discovered two “families” of fire dartfish. In Hawaii, these guys are really a special find, so I was bouncing off the walls when Jeff first spotted one here. He even had the right lens on! Then we noticed another… and another… a whole family group of fire dartfish, all different sizes!


Turns out they’re a little more common in the GBR. Oh well – they’re still cool.

After another dive up north, we headed back to Admiralty Anchorage for the night dive, then crashed in exhaustion. Sunday was going to be a big day, with a shark feeding dive in the afternoon!

It didn’t start out so auspiciously. Our first dive Sunday morning was just kind of an okay site, nothing special. When we surfaced, the boat was eerily quiet. All the lights were off, the compressors weren’t compressing, and there was no air conditioning or water in the rooms.


The party line was that a generator overloaded, but the version I heard from a crewmember later was a bit more annoying. Some unnamed diver had “plugged in” their device without using a real plug – just bare wires stuck into either side of the outlet. This setup created a huge power drain on the first generator, and when it finally gave up all that drain killed the second generator as well!

It took several hours for the engineer to get us back up and running, during which most of us repaired to the top deck to stay out of the muggy interior of the boat.

When we finally got moving, the plan had changed – we’d do the shark dive before lunch instead of in the afternoon. Apparently the tuna heads for the shark feed were starting to spoil because of the power issue, and I think they also wanted to hurry up and get the big dive in before anything else went wrong…


Australia Part Two: Cairns and the Coral Sea

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 3:53 pm

After our first day in Sydney, we both kind of felt like we were done already: we were ready to get on the dive boat. But then we spent Sydney Day Two being shown all around the area on a bus… and we started to wish we had longer to explore! So it was a little bit sad to hop in a cab Wednesday morning and head to the airport, even though we were psyched about getting on with the diving portion of the trip.

The Sydney domestic terminal was a little bit trippy for two reasons. First, instead of a combined check-in where you get your boarding pass and leave your bags, it was two separate areas: check-in and “Luggage Drop.” They accepted our insanely heavy pile of backs without even flinching, and we breezed on through security – which is when we realized trippy thing #2. They never checked our IDs! Not at check-in, not at security, and not when you board. Quite a change from flying around the US.

We landed in Cairns to heat, humidity, and a steady drizzle from cloudy skies. The hotel we’d picked based on recommendations from other divers turned out to be a little crummier than expected – and there was NO ELEVATOR. We were only on the second floor, but hauling all our crapola up an outdoor staircase in the rain and humidity was not the best introduction to the facility. The room itself was stuffy and ant-infested, with a comforter that clearly had not been washed in years (as I discovered when I lay down on it – first I thought maybe I smelled that bad, but we quickly ascertained that the year-old-sweat smell was not coming from me).

We headed out to spend an evening exploring what Cairns had to offer. Turns out, an evening is plenty of time to check out the Esplanade and the Pier, with all the little tourist shops and restaurants. We also passed a lovely-looking Holiday Inn, and decided on the spot to change our reservations for the following week to that lovely, elevator-having hotel.

There was one very cool thing about Cairns at night: as soon as the sun sets, the bats come out. And I’m not talking about wussy little American bats: these are “flying foxes,” enormous fruit bats that squawk their way into the night.

We got a better look at the bats Thursday morning, on our way back to the hotel room after breakfast. Passing under some enormous trees, we suddenly realized the noises we were hearing were bat sounds – and the trees overhead were full of them:


We checked out of the “hotel,” dropped our bags off at the Mike Ball office… and then had about seven hours to kill until dinner and boarding the boat. And we’d already explored the Esplanade the night before. Doh. After wasting some time photographing the bats, we crashed for a few hours at a big backpacker’s resort – with a pool. And a bar.

Once we were sunburned enough, it was back to the Esplanade and Pier. We killed another hour just lounging around in a park; I snoozed on a bench in the shade while Jeff snapped macro photos of green-assed ants (yes, that is the scientific name).

Somehow, we passed the time until dinner, when we met up with the rest of the folks who’d signed up through California Digital Diving. And then – at last – it was time to board the boat! Everyone was exhausted and cranky from a day spent walking in circles around Cairns, so it was kind of funny as we were all herded onto the boat and they tried to get everyone’s picture. Sweaty, grumpy people – so photogenic.

It felt great to finally curl up in our bunks. I’m not sure what was more exciting: knowing that we’d spend the night steaming out to the Great Barrier Reef, or knowing that we wouldn’t have to pick up our damned luggage again for a week. Woohoo!


We woke up Saturday morning at Challenger Bay, at the end of one of the northern Ribbon Reefs. Everyone seemed to be bundling up in 3 or 5 mil wetsuits; so much so that I started to worry about our measly 1mils. But as soon as we dropped into the 84 degree water, I quit worrying – bathwater, baby!

Our first impression of the Great Barrier Reef was actually a little disappointing. Thanks to a lot of recent rain and wind chop, the vis was only about 40′ – not any better than it’s been in Southern California the last year. And Challenger Bay, while pretty, didn’t exactly blow our minds like we’d expected.

But hey – we finally got to see giant clams! And anemonefish!


After two dives at Challenger Bay, we motored up to Cod Hole, home of enormous potato cod. I was unimpressed by one diver who insisted on grabbing at the fish – although, it did make for some cool photo ops:


The vis still wasn’t great, but getting to see these enormous fish tooling around pretty much made up for it. Jeff saw one pounce on a fish and snap it up with an audible gulp.

We stayed at Cod Hole for the first night dive of the trip – and again, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. The night dives we’ve done in the Caribbean and Hawaii have always been so full of action, and packed with different critters. At Cod Hole, we saw another potato cod… a few jacks trying to hunt by our lights… and some fusiliers hiding under coral ledges. If you looked really close, you could also find some interesting little crabs and shrimps. But – eh.

Luckily, the next morning we woke up at Osprey Reef, another 70 km northeast of the Ribbon Reefs. There we had perfect weather, calm seas, and incredible vis….


Australia Part One: Sydney

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 3:59 pm

It turns out that a 14-hour flight with Qantas is a lot like wasting an entire day lying around on your couch watching movies. Except that an airplane seat isn’t nearly as comfortable as your couch.

Two movies, two meals, many snacks, and six episodes of Buffy (watched on our laptops) later, we arrived in Sydney shortly before midnight on Sunday. After collecting our gazillion pounds of luggage and waiting in several different lines, we emerged into a Sydney summer night: humid, but cool and breezy. We managed to flag down a cab with enough trunk space for all our dive and camera gear, and headed towards our hotel.

We were both immediately struck by all the large, expensive-looking billboards. For some reason, I imagined Australia (even Sydney) would be LESS commercial than the US. But the density and size of these things dwarfed any signage in Los Angeles; all the sleek billboards lining the sharp curves in the road actually reminded us of playing the game Grand Theft Auto.

Driving on the left side of the road wasn’t too weird – but having the driver be on the right side of the car WAS. Go figure.

After a (fairly) good night’s sleep at the Darling Harbour Holiday Inn, we nabbed a city map from the concierge and headed out to explore the area. Our first stop was a 20 minute walk northeast to Sydney Tower, in hopes of getting some pretty aerial views of the city. $15 buys you the right to stand inside a glassed-in observatory and look at the city. It was very pretty. Kind of hard to photograph in the stark morning light, though. We got bored quickly, and headed on towards the opera house.



We killed time waiting for the next Opera House tour by wandering around outside, photographing the House and some random birds (ibis) in the nearby park. You know, trying to get as sweaty and smelly as possible. (Did I mention the cloudless sky and 90 degree temperatures? Thank goodness for the breeze.)

The Opera House was pretty impressive, both inside and out, but the only real highlight of the tour for me was stepping inside the main concert hall to watch the Sydney Symphony practicing for a few minutes. The acoustics really were something else in there.

We opted to cross the harbor and check out Taronga Zoo for the afternoon. The ferry terminal is just a short walk from the Opera House, and then it was just a 10 minute ride across to Taronga’s little aerial cable cars that zip you up to the top of the zoo.

Of course our first stop, once we learned of it, had to be at the giraffe enclosure to get a picture of us feeding carrots to the creatures. Jeff was alarmingly uninterested in feeding giraffes, but videotaped me getting slobbered on and then joined me for a very un-flattering (if accurate) posed photo.



After that, we mostly wandered around aimlessly. We caught part of a seal show, which included quite a performance by a California sea lion. It was nice to see one of our “buddies” up there, but a little sad to see him doing such undignified things as balancing a ball on his nose. (Also, the trainer referred to him constantly as a “seal”, which is a big enough pet peeve of mine that my head just about exploded).

Across from the show was a series of tanks for the zoo’s seals and sea lions, which housed an enormous leopard seal. You know, the ones that cruise around Antarctica eating penguins? It was a beautiful creature, although I was disappointed we didn’t get a look at its gaping jaws.

The two saltwater crocodiles did put on a bit of a show. One was in the back of the enclosure, perfectly still but with its mouth wide open. The other was crammed up against the glass at the very front of the enclosure, where you could get within an inch of it (or however thick the glass is). He was snoozing in the sun with his eyes closed – mostly. Jeff got a bit of a scare when he looked up from taking a picture into a pair of now-wide-open crocodile eyes.


After all the walking we did on Monday, we decided to make Tuesday more of a sitting-around kind of day. We found a pair of hop-on/hop-off bus services, Sydney and Bondi Explorers, that make loops through the city and outlying beaches. We boarded right across the street from our hotel, and made a loop through the western part of the city before switching over to the Bondi Explorer to go find some beaches to lie around on.

The traffic in the city was pretty nightmarish, and we soon discovered why: the Queen Mary 2 was docked in Sydney for a couple of days, and would be joined tonight by the QE2. Apparently it was quite an event, and besides all the cruise ship tourists flooding the city, plenty of locals were driving in to check out the boats. I have to admit, the Queen Mary was impressive – the darn thing just goes up and up and UP.

We hopped off the bus at the stop we figured was closest to Shark Bay in Nielsen Park, and quickly discovered that it wasn’t, really. After a bit of a hot, sweaty hike through an upscale residential district (covered with enormous spiderwebs and matching spiders), we finally found the entrance to Nielsen Park, at least. We just kept following whatever road we were on, until at last we discovered what apparently only USED to be called Shark Bay. It’s a pretty little cove with cliffs at either end, shark nets to keep swimmers from getting munched, a lovely view of the harbor, and no surf to speak of. And, thank goodness, a shop that sold water. We were pretty dried out by this point.


I went for a quick swim, and then we decided to go find the next “hop-on” point for the bus. With a little help from various locals, we managed to find it after only a 10 minute walk. Guess we should have gotten OFF at that one.

I was just starting to feel cool and hydrated again when we hit our next stop: Bondi Beach. We nabbed lunch on the boardwalk, and then headed over to work on our tans and bodysurfing. The waves were just big enough to be fun without being too scary; the water, though shockingly cold at first, was comfortable once you started leaping and ducking under and over the waves! And if you got cold, it didn’t take long to warm up again lying out on the hot sand.

Several hours and a good case of sunburn later, we caught the bus again back into town. We didn’t want to spend another hour and a half on the Sydney Explorer part of the loop, even though it would drop us off back at the hotel, so instead we jumped off at the Bondi Explorer stop that was closest to our hotel – still a 20 minute walk, a little more since my sweaty, rubbing-together thighs were totally killing me by this time! Always reason #1 on my list for losing weight…

Our tour bus driver had mentioned that there would be fireworks that night over the opera house, to celebrate the two cruise ships being in town together, so we decided to brave the crowds and head back into Circular Quay for dinner. We found a restaurant close to the harbor bridge that was only MOSTLY booked, but still had room for us. Our leisurely (and delicious) dinner was broken up by occasional trips outside to watch and photograph the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth 2 into Circular Quay, with an escort of fire boats (spraying water), police boats, and about a dozen helicopters. We polished off dessert and paid our bill just in time to join the crowd outside to watch fireworks.


I’m not normally a big fireworks person, but I have to say: soundtrack-free Sydney fireworks over the Opera House are something else. The fireworks themselves were impressive and diverse, but I think the backdrop was a big part of the experience. It was only a five or ten minute show, but I enjoyed it more than any fireworks I’ve seen – and Jeff even got pictures!


We sneaked out the backside of the quay and up a hill back into the Rocks district in hopes of catching a cab away from all the crowds, and – luckily for my poor legs – succeeded. And so ended our Sydney visit – the next morning we were off to Cairns for the diving portion of the trip!