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Great Barrier Reef (Part I of II)

Captain Ron made the Great Barrier Reef famous when Ron Rico said, “We hit a reef. Huge SOB. Ran the whole coast” after sinking his boss’ ship prior to his illustrious days in the Caribbean. Ever since, the world’s largest reef stretching over 1,600 miles along Australia’s East Coast is one of Earth’s most recognizable natural features. Perhaps I am giving too much credit to Kurt Russell who magnificently portrays a witty skipper with one eye, but his underrated performance is the primary reason I wanted to check out this natural wonder of the world. Ashley’s interest was piqued by more obvious reasons such as the ability to see it from the International Space Station and its status as the world’s biggest structure produced by living organisms.

Storm BrewingWiping cobwebs from our eyes after yet another overnight bus ride, we meandered into Airlie Beach in the intermittent rain. Rather than heading straight to our hostel outside town, we opted to check out liveaboard boat trips to the Great Barrier Reef. The first tour agency lit a fire beneath us offering a deal on the 102 foot Anaconda III departing that evening. Having compared trips and prices with two other agencies, we recognized an opportunity and ate the cost of our hostel for the night. We were to set sail among the Whitsunday Island’s that night! Mother Nature did all she could to dampen our spirits, but the lightning show only added to the excitement.

Lookout Over Whitehaven BeachSeeking overnight refuge from the wind in Hook Passage, we awoke hoping the weather had shifted. No luck. Regardless, we were going to make the best of it. After all, Anaconda III’s tender was ferrying us to Whitehaven Beach, a place some folks claim to be the prettiest beach anywhere. Imagine a shore so pure and white created from Great Barrier Reef coral that the sand was used in the construction of NASA’s Hubble Telescope. Despite the rain, we joined Ben and Helen (British couple) for a barefoot hike to a lookout point where thick rain clouds surrounded the vista. Back on the sand, Helen and I created the Whitsunday’s toughest obstacle course including a driftwood log flip, agaility course, ten spins with a palm limb, and finally a coconut toss. Just as our team of competitive men was wrapping up our convincing victory over the hapless ladies, a crew member dropped off a cricket paddle and tennis ball. Amy instructed everyone on the rules of beach and this surprisingly fun game kept us thoroughly entertained until it was time to raise the sails for Border Island. Of course, just as we left Whitehaven Beach, the sun broke through, this time for good.

Building the Log Flip Beach Cricket Whitehaven Beach

En route, Captain Steve informed us that a journey to the Great Barrier Reef was unlikely the next day due to inclement weather in the open seas. Disappointment was evident on everyone’s forlorn face. During lunch however, rumors began to spread amongst the paying customers that Captain Steve was just filling in and he usually pays the bills as a ferry captain in Sydney Harbour, an altogether different assignment. Even the crew quietly started to question his ability to navigate in open seas, which shifted our disappointment to anger. Why did we pay all this money to get a bogus skipper? But we were hamstrung, utterly powerless. Helpless and desperate, we needed some serious assistance. Enter the Australian Coast Guard. Turns out our Sydney Harbour Captain lacked the proper license to operate a sail boat and had to be replaced. Hooray! I can’t say we shed a tear when he disembarked Anaconda III. His replacement was the regular skipper, Captain Spike. Like children gathering in front of the Christmas Tree waiting impatiently to unwrap their first gift, we cheered the veteran mariner’s announcement that in fact we would sail to the Great Barrier Reef!

Anaconda III Mast Aussie Coast Guard Sunset Over Boarder Island

The trolling motor fired up around 4:30am and I sprang from our bed, hitting my head on the small cabin ceiling. The main sail stiff and its tassels blowing horizontally, Anaconda III pierced the ocean surface as it raced for Bait Reef. After setting the vessel on auto pilot, it was just myself and Captain Spike for the next two hours. He reaffirmed my idea that a grizzled sailor is full of unique insights on life and spoke almost poetically. Sunrise was unlike any other previously seen. The waves danced from trough to crest, the horizon came to life with a multitude of colors, and the vastness made me feel immensely small. As the ball of fire rose further over the dark ocean, a golden hue dominated the panorama. Then, the deep blue sea was relieved by a submerged rainbow of colors. We had arrived… the Great Barrier Reef!

Anaconda III At Sunrise Sunrise Over the Coral Sea Golden

A light breakfast was housed and before we knew it we were face down in just a sliver of the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling was pure exhilaration: fish of varying sizes, coral ablaze in color, and reef sharks (Ash did not like these). Anxious for an intimate experience, we exercised our free scuba dive (part of our upfront negotiation) coupon and spent forty minutes exploring the three bommies of Bait Reef. The underwater formation of The Key Hole and Cathedral was peculiar as huge islands of coral gave way to sand bottoms only to be confronted with another mountain of underwater organic life. The tight swimming tunnels with shafts of daylight slicing through were incredible. After lunch, the tender took us across the massive Long Reef to its vertical wall. It was our first drift snorkeling experience and one we soon won’t forget. With our heads above water, it seemed we were barely moving, but with our masks submerged the reef raced past. When positioned correctly, over our right shoulder was an abyss of blue and on the left majestic coral. The current’s strength was a bit alarming, so after twenty minutes we signaled the dingy for a rescue of sorts.

Ready for Our NIGHT Dive! Boarding the Tender Off Into the Blackness

Sunset brought with it an once in a lifetime opportunity: our first night scuba dive. Ash was on the fence for this experience considering her complete fright of sharks. After consolations with the boat crew, she reluctantly requested her glowstick and underwater torch. Miles away from shore, it was pitch black as the tender motored over the calm water. On cue, we fired up our torches and rolled off the rubber dingy backwards into our black surroundings. We are no scuba experts considering we have done less than ten dives. So being submerged forty feet enveloped by the Great Barrier Reef was exhilarating. With only light being emitted from our flashlights and the glowsticks attached to our oxygen cylinders for guidance purposes, a spectacular underwater world was illuminated. Batfish cramped our shoulders and gobbled up smaller fish that happened to be frozen by our flashlight’s beam. It was strange playing God knowing that if you trained your light on an unsuspecting fish, it was dinner. Certainly the highlight of my Great Barrier Reef adventure was when a giant green turtle came swimming right at me. At the very last instant, it swam directly over me and I stroked its belly from the neck to tail. I couldn’t believe it. Towards the surface we shuttered the torches and waved our hands and fins furiously to expose the glowing phosphorescence. To be certain, Ashley had made the right decision

Though snubbed by the Academy Awards, we would like to thank Captain Ron Rico for turning the world on to the Great Barrier Reef.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Pre-booking expensive excursions can save money, sometimes. In other cases, being a late entrant on a trip can prove to be a windfall of sorts. Anaconda III had one twin berth open eight hours prior to its voyage. The operator wanted it to sail at capacity and we negotiated a rate that yielded $300 in savings.
  2. There are two primary spots in Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef: Cairns and Airlie Beach. The former is closer to a section of the reef and while you can make it an easy day trip, this proximity has led to hundreds of divers per day causing bleaching of the corals and loss of aquatic life. Airlie Beach is located further away making day trips quite difficult. If time and budget permit, opt for the pristine experience of the reef from an overnight dive boat.

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