Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sydney in Pictures

Here are a few pictures of my trip to Sydney a few weeks ago. I'm home now and I'll try to post a final entry within the next few days.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Look what we found!!

Opera house :)

"Look! A sailboat! can't you see it?"

Bronte beach

Coolest pool ever! (in Bondi)

Walkway along Bondi beach

Nice overlook at Bondi

Walking from Bronte to Bondi

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

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tropical Paradise . . . the Whitsundays

okay, okay, so it's been a month and a half since my last update. Classes/finals/college sort of took over my life. Here's a bit of an update from my recent trip to the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland...

Travel Bucket List (abridged):
cSing in Notre Dame
cFloat down the Amazon
cBackpack across Southeast Asia
cHave a snowball fight in Antarctica
gSnorkel and scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef

Last week I spent a serene, sunsoaked four days in the Whitsunday Islands-- a tropical beach paradise in Queensland known for its sugar-white beaches, beautiful snorkeling, and hedonistic lifestyle. It was exactly what I needed: to get away from gray, gloomy Melbourne for a while and forget about all the studying I should have been doing. So my friend Julie and I packed our bags and set off for a 9am flight to Proserpine airport.

We arrived in Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsundays, just after 3:30pm on Wednesday. Walking down the main street, I couldn't help but marvel at the palm trees and warm weather (around 80F). When we arrived at our hostel (Magnum's Backpackers), we had to search a bit for reception . . . then we found it at the back of a tree-lined boardwalk full of bars, cafes, and backpackers. Getting to our room was like hiking through a jungle, as the 8-bed "rooms" turned out to be small freestanding cottages along a winding path through the rainforest; ourrs had a small fountain in front of it, and was full of occupants from England, Denmark, and Spain.

We dropped our heavy backpacks (and bags of textbooks) off at the hostel and set off for a walk along the beach, noting the long posted lists of "hazardous marine creatures" (note: there are many, many things that can kill you in Australia). However, we resigned ourselves to a few hours of study before dinner, as we both had exams coming up quickly.

As I got to know Julie (we'd met only a week previously, through a mutual friend), we discovered that we had quite a lot in common, including a passion for music, a strong academic drive, and similar tastes in just about everything-- including food. Both of us were perfectly content to take a loaf of bread, a hunk of Brie, some grapes, and a bottle of wine out to the beach for an idyllic picnic supper, complete with an angsty teenage guitarist serenading the birds a few meters away.

We returned to the boardwalk outside Magnum's just in time to catch one of the "State-of-Origin" rugby games, in which the various professional players play for their home states rather than independent teams. Since it was Queensland vs. New South Wales, the game was on every television and even projected onto a large screen that had been hung between two bars, over the now jam-packed boardwalk. Most people (including, unintentionally, myself) were decked out in Queensland maroon, but there were a few NSW supporters as well.

While watching the game, we met another pair of Americans: Brad, from the University of Arkansas, and John, from the University of Kansas (?). They had both recently completed tours in Iraq and were in Australia for a break between their second and third years of school. As we talked, I discovered that John and I had almost exactly the same taste in reading; with each favorite book we revealed, the other inevitably echoed "me too!" Brad and Julie, meanwhile (who claim that they "don't read"), rolled their eyes at our dorkiness. Our woodland cottage called, however, as we had to depart early the next morning for our cruise.

Checkin was scheduled for 9:30am, so we paid our remaining balance and signed a few liability forms at the downtown office before heading over to the marina. When we arrived, there were hundreds of boats moored; sailing the Whitsundays is very popular and a huge source of tourist revenue. Our boat, the Powerplay, was a streamlined catamaran that looked built for speed. We looked around the dock at the 17 other passengers with whom we would share the voyage, and the three-person crew ushered us onto our temporary home.

The boat was not enormous, but had more than enough room for its 22 passengers. The back of the boat had an open-air saloon and galley, where we ate, and a covered area where you could sit and talk and watch the water; the front was comprised of a deck and two nets, in which you could suspend yourself just above the rushing water. Below it all were the bathrooms and sleeping quarters; above us was a small flybridge from which our skipper, Cookie, steered the boat; you were always welcome to go upstairs to soak up the sun or even just to chat. The other members of the crew were CJ, the hostess/photographer/cook, and Alycia, the dive instructor.

Oddly, when all was said and done, there were no Australians on the boat. The two female members of the crew hailed from Canada; Cookie, who took no nonsense, cracked sarcastic jokes, and had a mouth (not unexpectedly) like a sailor, came from New Zealand. Of the passengers, one couple was from Denmark, of course Julie and I from the States, and a whopping 15 passengers from England. There were at least five separate parties, but the British invasion had definitely arrived! I got to know several of these people over the next few days, and it was a very interesting cast of characters. There was Dan, a long-haired, tatooed jokester from London; Rob, Alex, and Bobby, a trio of clowns from Manchester (side note: the Manchester accent is one of the most difficult I've ever had to understand, and it's still technically English!); Donna and Stevie, traveling around Australia together; Ed and Jemima, who moved from London to Sydney a few months ago, just because they felt like it; Neirin and his trio of girlfriends, who became known collectively as "Team Nemo" as they attempted to get their scuba certifications; Matt, a recent graduate in marine biology who hoped to work in conservation; and Liz, Matt's girlfriend with whom he was traveling for a year.

We spent a fantastic few days swimming, sunning, and watching fish and turtles and the like. The first afternoon, I decided I would try scuba diving for the first time . . . it was amazing. Seeing the fish and coral up that close was unbelievable and strange; it was, as cliche as it sounds, like being part of another world. We spent that afternoon diving and snorkeling in Blue Pearl Bay, the "aquarium" of the Whitsundays and purportedly the fishiest spot.

Afternoon tea and snacks were served back onboard the Powerplay, giving us a chance to relax and socialize with the other passengers as the boat cruised swiftly south towards our next destination. We watched the sun set over the water, the orange rays reflecting magnificently over the tropical sea and filling the swiftly darkening sky with brilliant reds and pinks.

As soon as we dropped anchor for the night, the crew started the barbecue that was attached to the back of the boat (?!??? . . . typical australia) and grilled chicken for dinner (that is, for everyone else; I got pasta). The always-blunt Cookie thanked me profusely, because whenever he has "vegemeterribles" on board, he gets a break from the monotonous set menu, which apparently repeats every two days. The food was definitely much better than I had expected for such a small and limited kitchen.

After dinner, the crew rolled down a screen and a projector and proceeded to show a slideshow of photos from the afternoon, including some great underwater shots. Apparently CJ and Alycia would be armed with cameras for the duration of the trip. The slideshow was followed by a showing of a documentary called Sharkwater-- a really fascinating film, and one I'd highly recommend. The first half gives some great information about sharks and does some mythbusting: sharks are nothing like the vicious monsters society paints them to be. In fact, vending machines kill more people every year than sharks do. Sharks will only very rarely attack people, and even then they quickly realize their mistake and swim away. The second half of the film contains some shocking footage and also quite a few dirty secrets about illegal shark fishing, mostly fueled by the high demand for shark fin soup in China. Because of the enormous profitability of the fin trade (shark fin soup costs upwards of $100 per bowl), many corrupt governments ignore illegal fishing.

The result has been devastating to the world's shark population, and is wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. The wasteful and usually illegal process of shark finning consists of cutting the fins (up to $300/pound) off of a shark (almost worthless), often while it is still alive, and discarding the rest. The sharks, unable to swim, sink to the bottom and either suffocate or bleed to death, as they need to swim to breathe. Since the fin constitutes only 2-5% of the shark's body weight, this is incredibly wasteful and environmentally damaging on many levels. Shark poaching also may be a huge contributor to global warming: by removing the sharks, smaller fish may overpopulate and feed on the phytoplankton that convert much of the world's carbon dioxide supply to oxygen. The problem is, we don't really know what removing sharks will do to our own existence, but we're killing them by the millions, decimating most shark populations by 50% or more. In short: we've got a problem.

After the documentary, I had a pretty deep conversation with the crew about the issues presented in the film, and conversation in general, agreeing to talk to PULP (Princeton U. Language Project) about maybe finding some way to help with the filmmaker's current project, which is translating the documentary into Chinese to try to lessen the demand for shark fin soup. Conversations gradually died all around the boat, and we headed to bed. The younger set of passengers, including Julie and myself, slept in the saloon area (which somehow converted into a bedroom large enough for eight people). The rocking of the boat, despite my head full of interesting and disturbing thoughts, lulled me into a deep sleep.

(in the middle of finals guys, can't spare that much time!)

Airlie beach . . . or Tuscan villa?

Sunset over the harbor

Our hostel??!

Julie on board the Powerplay

Snorkeling: Me, Bobby, Dan, Rob, Alex, and Julie

Getting ready to scuba dive! Liz, me, and Julie.

a diver with Priscilla, the giant wrasse of Blue Pearl Bay
(note: she was preceded by Elvis, who died . . . this one is assumed to be his offspring)

Giant clam

Sunset over the water


Trailer for Sharkwater-- check it out!