Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Whitsunday Islands-- Part II

Update: I'm DONE with finals! currently packing to leave Australia, although I'm not going to go into how I feel about that right now. Picking up where I left off in my last entry about the fabulously tropical Whitsunday Islands . . .

We awoke at 6:30am on the second day of our cruise (at least, those of us sleeping in the saloon area did, since it was time to set the table for breakfast). Apparently this is the best time of day to see turtles because it's when they come up for their first breath of the day after spending the night sleeping on the bottom of the ocean. An audible puff of air can be heard carrying across the water as they exhale the stale air, take in a deep breath or two, and then dive once more. I saw at least three turtles within fifteen minutes or so . . . incredible.

After breakfast, we headed to the famous Whitehaven beach. The sand is sugar-white, 98% silica, and so fine that there's an urban legend that NASA stole a bit of it to use for the Hubble Telescope. Whatever happened in the past, it's now illegal to take sand from Whitehaven beach. However, we spent a fun morning there lying in the sun, playing soccer, and wading in the surf looking for stingrays. CJ spent the entire morning posing people and taking pictures like the ones below; apparently the sand is so uniform in color and texture that you can manipulate depth perception easily. We had the beach almost to ourselves, save one or two other boats of tourists; our boys (and Julie, who plays for Brandeis) challenged another boat to a game of soccer and won handily :) As we had lunch and motored to our next snorkel spot, I stretched out on the nets in the front of the boat and finished C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters (fantastic book!) and started on F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, which I haven't yet read and supposed that I should.

We soon arrived at Luncheon Bay, another snorkeling spot popular with overnight dive boats. I think I saw more marine life here than I saw in any other spot over the trip. Not only were there tons of interesting coral formations (it's a relatively shallow area, and completely protected), but I saw anemones with clownfish (Nemo!), a colorful nudibranch, tons of graceful angelfish, many seemingly-smiling parrotfish, opening and shutting giant clams, a long, thin, silver flutefish, and best of all: a school of cuttlefish. Cuttlefish, if you don't know, look kind of like mini squid; however, they're amazingly intelligent, can change color rapidly, and are fast. I caught a glimpse of a school of about twenty cuttlefish moving together, perfectly camouflaged againsed the dusky brown of the sea floor, moving rapidly across my field of vision. I immediately poked my head above water to inform my fellow snorkelers, quickly calling them over and eagerly submerging again . . . but they had disappeared, in the space of about three seconds. Luckily, I saw the same school again about ten minutes later, and this time called Julie over to see in time. These magnificent animals were definitely my favorite thing to see over the course of the trip.

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent lazing about on the boat (and/or plunging into the onboard jacuzzi after snorkeling in the freezing late-afternoon water). We moved to a nearby spot for another dive before the sun set; although Cookie wanted to anchor in the popular Wrasse Bay, the moorings were all occupied and we went for nearby Manta Ray bay. Apparently they can't normally moor here because of the winds and pounding surf, but the sea was calm and so we set up shop a few dozen meters from a forbidding rocky outcrop. This was the most isolated of our dive spots, but one of my favorites; although the fish here were pretty much the same as the other places; the proximity to the open ocean led to the formation of some pretty amazing coral structures. I was one of the only snorkelers who took the initiative to put on the wetsuit one more time that day, stepping straight off the back of the boat. It was a bit spooky because the water was very deep here and at times you couldn't see the bottom or any coral directly beneath you. However, close to the rocky outcrop was very shallow, claustrophobically so-- I swam on the surface of the water with coral almost touching my belly, and I think my body reacted as if I were crawling through a very small space (since of course the upward direction is no longer an option), and I almost started to hyperventilate from nerves because I couldn't find a way out of the shallow area. It seems to me that claustrophobia is a very unpleasant feeling.

I returned to the boat to find a lovely surprise-- a giant Maori wrasse had tailed us from Wrasse Bay and was hanging around the back of the boat, hoping for tidbits (they have unfortunately been conditioned to expect food from boats). We cruised out of the bay just in time to see the sunset, which was as beautiful (if not more so) as the preceding evening. Another dinner on the barbecue, another cool underwater film, and another heated discussion (this time about U.S. policy and politics-- not my forte, but sometimes you just can't let stereotypes/misconceptions lie). I also got to have another good talk with Cookie, the skipper. He basically lives on the flybridge, the highest part of the boat; he steers the boat from there, and every night he sets up a swag (sleeping bag/tarp) and sleeps under the stars, and sits up and plays his guitar (which he very kindly let me borrow whenever I wanted, once he found out that I was decently good). He'd lived all his life near the ocean and nature, hunting and fishing and sailing. He told me that he believed that there was something about human nature that was intricately tied to the sea; that no one could be happy unless they lived near water, that it was part of us. I told him that I lived in a landlocked state and had done so for twenty years, and he looked at me with such great pity in his eyes that I thought I might crumble under its weight. It's an interesting thought to ponder; certainly we are intrigued by the sea, and we fear it. Perhaps it's simply an extension of the age-old fear of and fascination with the unknown, which manifests itself in darkness or death or the future. Strange the way common threads run through all these things.

Our last morning we once again got up early to see turtles, and this time swim with them. By 7am I had donned my wetsuit and mask and was in the water searching for turtles, but after half an hour or so with no luck (not even interesting fish!) I was becoming discouraged. We had only a few more minutes to snorkel, since we had to be back at the marina by 11am and it was a good 2.5 hours of hard motoring back to Airlie Beach. I was cold and disappointed and thought to myself "God, please? I just want to see a turtle. That's all I want, that would just make this trip." Moments later, I heard a shriek from Julie and immediately swam over to find-- you guessed it, a turtle! They're really hard to find, and are loved even by those like Cookie, CJ, and Alycia, who dive with them all the time. As we slowly followed a few meters above the turtle, a bit of the bottom of the ocean started to move . . . and we had found another turtle, about three times larger than the first. It rose slowly and majestically off of the sea floor and swam parallel to the shore. We followed, awestruck, and swam with the turtle for about five minutes. It began to rise, very slowly, towards the surface; I got the feeling that it was trying to come up for air and we were in its way. However, it soon had no choice but to surface right beside us--only a few meters away!!!!-- to take a breath. Words can't describe how incredible the experience was.

The turtle dove, and we returned to the boat to strip off our gear and start packing our things as the boat headed back to Airlie beach. The divers reported that they had seen a reef shark, which was pretty cool; we had been swimming only a few hundred meters away from a 9-foot shark! We arrived at the marina, and in a somewhat anticlimactic twist, said our goodbyes and went on our way. Julie and I still had a few hours before our flight, so we walked along the beach and visited a festival that was set up there, with various booths of craftspeople and a live band that reminded me quite a lot of the Phyrst Phamily. I called my family only to find out that my sister had gotten engaged (!!!!), which put a perfect final touch on an amazing holiday. We departed from Proserpine Airport and made our way back to gloomy Melbourne, ridden with rain and final exams-- but with some very sunny memories to keep us warm :)

P.S. I will (hopefully) post one more entry about my recent trip to Sydney before I leave Australia in less than 36 hours :(

note: I took almost none of these pictures.

Julie playing soccer on Whitehaven Beach

A turtle surfacing to breathe



a nudibranch; the one I saw was prettier

Fan coral

Maori wrasse, so called for the patterns on its face


The ubiquitous parrot fish; you can hear its beak scrape the coral as it eats when you're underwater with it :)

Jacuzzi on board the Powerplay

Julie and I at Whitehaven

Matt and Liz

Neirin and company

a diver-- not sure who it is?

looking into the sunset

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