Friday, August 8, 2014

Australia Day 8--The Great Barrier Reef

Australia series

Australia Day 1--Qantas flight 8 DFW-BNE (Dallas to Brisbane)
Australia Day 2--Flight to Sydney, the Westin Sydney hotel & sightseeing
Australia Days 3/4--Hunter Valley & the Blue Mountains
Australia Day 5--Sydney sightseeing and Manly Beach
Australia Day 6--Paddy's Market, Bondi to Coogee Walk & Darling Harbour
Australia Day 7--Sydney to Cairns, Holiday Inn Cairns & the Cairns Esplanade
Australia Day 8--The Great Barrier Reef
Australia Day 9--Kuranda Koala Gardens, Skyrail & Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Australia Day 10--Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation 
Australia Day 11--Going home, Part 1, Cairns to Brisbane 
Australia Day 11--Going home, Part 2, Brisbane to Honolulu 

It was finally time for one of the activities I was most excited about! In my pre-trip planning, I found an inexpensive ($99 AUD), bare bones, snorkeling tour of the Great Barrier Reef. I would have been perfectly happy to do this tour, however, after talking it over with my cousin, we decided we were up for something more adventurous (and expensive).

I was tempted to try an introductory scuba dive as no certification is needed, but I was a little freaked out by the idea of the tank & concerned about my underwater swimming ability. Since my cousin is a non-swimmer and I'm not totally confident swimming in open water, ultimately, I thought one of the tours with something called a "helmet dive" would be a good activity that my cousin and I could do together.  

Basically with a helmet dive, they put a giant helmet on your head with tubes coming out the top that enable you to breathe normally. An added bonus is your hair doesn't get wet. No swimming skill is needed because you just walk on an underwater platform. I think the guide said we were 4 meters (about 13 feet) underwater.

I found a tour online going for $320 AUD, in addition to the helmet dive, it included snorkeling, glass bottom boat, semi-submersible boat and lunch. I thought it might be good to compare that with what the hotel tour desk had available. We went down and talked to the lady (wish I had written down her name), and she basically told us about the same tour with a different operator. She said it was normally $340, but they were offering a discount, making it $289

I noticed the tour desk had a 1.5% surcharge for paying with a credit card. I didn't have that much on me in cash, and I don't think my cousin did either, so I told her we'd have to come back later. She was probably afraid we wouldn't come back, so she said she'd drop the surcharge. Score! So we paid and booked our tour for the next day. And in case you're wondering about the conversion rate, $289 AUD worked out to be $270.97 USD on my credit card statement.
I was so excited I could hardly sleep the night before.

Awake to watch the sunrise

We had to be at the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal by 8:30 am. We woke up, got ready, had a quick breakfast at McDonald's and then walked over to a nearby camera store.

Mickey D's Australia prices
We had visited the camera store the night before to see what kind of options they had for underwater photography, but decided to think about it overnight. The digital cameras for rent (or hire, as the Aussies call it) were $45. A waterproof case for my Nikon camera was over $100. A waterproof iPhone case was around $35 and disposable cameras were $20-$25. Ultimately, we decided to each purchase a Kodak disposable camera at a cost of $20 each. 

Now we were ready to walk over to the the Reef Fleet Terminal to check in for our tour. After a brief wait, we were boarding the boat, which departed at 9:30 am. It was a large vessel, maybe the biggest I've ever been on, not having cruised before. I'm not sure how many people on were on board, maybe around 100. There were a lot of Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Inside the boat
The boat first made a stop at Fitzroy Island for the folks who were day-tripping there, then continued on to our final destination of Moore Reef.

Fitzroy Island
The company has a large pontoon at Moore Reef. A pontoon is a floating platform, which I think is basically their permanent spot out in the reef. All of the snorkeling, diving, glass bottom boat and semi-submersible rides are done from the pontoon. 

Before departing, I made sure to take the free ginger pills that were available. This was to ward off seasickness. Even if you're the type to never get seasick, I would suggest taking them anyways. There were some rough waters heading out to the reef and I felt very queasy, but luckily my breakfast stayed down. 

During the presentation by one of the staff members on the day's schedule, there was a young man nearby who tossed his cookies. The staff were very prepared for this type of thing, having barf bags on hand and ready to collect full bags from passengers. They also walked around with cups of ice, which they said helped with seasickness. 

Because we were doing the seawalker helmet dive, we had to go over the dive and learn some hand signals to tell the guide that we were okay. We also learned about equalizing our ears (basically what you do on an airplane when your ears pop). 

After about two hours, we arrived at Moore Reef. Our seawalker helmet dive was scheduled for the afternoon, so we had time to do a few other things first. We went on the glass bottom boat tour and the semi-submersible where we got to see the coral and fish, and learn more about the Great Barrier Reef.

Glass bottom boat at Moore Reef

Coral at the Great Barrier Reef

We went quite a distance from the vessel and pontoon
Guide explaining the different fish we saw underwater

After those two activities, we ate lunch.

Buffet lunch

Then it was time to get ready for our dive. We put on our (included) wetsuits, weight belts and swim shoes. We lined up for pictures, then headed down into the water. 

I will admit, I was very nervous. Even though I can swim and this didn't require swimming, the idea of being underwater and not being able to come up for air was nerve-wracking for me. The helmet was large and heavy. Basically, they put it on and just pushed you under. Then there was a staircase to walk down and a platform to stand on and see/touch the fish. We lined up for underwater pictures and then it was over.

We're underwater!
Big fish we could touch
As I was going under, I got some water in my helmet, which caused me to lose focus a bit. Also we were supposed to breathe normally, but it felt funny to me. I was just concentrating on walking and breathing and forgot about equalizing my ears until about 10 minutes had passed. But that also could be because I didn't really feel much pressure on my ears like I do on airplanes. 

Overall, it was a fun experience and I would do it again. Maybe I would even be brave enough to try scuba diving in the future. 

However, the day wasn't over yet. We still had another hour at the pontoon, which was good, since we hadn't snorkeled yet. They had a designated snorkeling enclosure area. Since the water was on the colder side, we decided wetsuits would be good, but had to rent them for $10 since they weren't included for snorkeling. So we put on our wetsuits, fins, mask and life jackets and hopped in. 

I really enjoyed it and time flew by. I got very close to the coral and fish. I swam out a bit from the boat and was just amazed at all of the cool-looking stuff living under the water.

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef
Soon it was time to get back on the boat and head back to Cairns. I decided to buy a souvenir photo for $25.

My souvenir photo
If I had to make one complaint, it would be about the staff member going around giving a hard sell on the guided snorkeling tour. He talked about all the cool stuff we would see with him that we wouldn't see just snorkeling at the pontoon. It sounded good, but it was an extra $40, and I felt like I had paid enough already. It wasn't just the hard sell, but later in the day after he finished his guided tour, he actually came back to me and said how it was so great and I missed it out on it. 

That negative aside, this tour was definitely a worthwhile splurge for me, but who knows when, or if, I'll ever go to the Great Barrier Reef again, and I didn't want to have any regrets.

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