Late last year I decided to complete my SCUBA certification in preparation to dive one of the world’s premier diving destinations – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The final certification dives took us to the chilly waters of Monterey Bay, CA on a cold November weekend. The winds caused tremendous under water surges spitting me around like a ping pong ball and the 7 mil wetsuits barely kept my body warm from the 59-degree water. But I was just happy to be swimming around in a new world despite our 6 feet of visibility. I immediately knew the warm waters of the South Pacific would be exquisite.
Months after that initial dive, I was in 81 degrees, surgeless water with cloudless skies and 20 feet of visibility. We took a 90-minute boat ride out to the Great Barrier Reef then suited up for our first of three dives that day. The Parrot fish, Angel fish and Clown fish (a.k.a. Nemo) caused an array of colors that brought this underworld alive. I’m hooked and was ready to go again. However, trouble loomed on the horizon.
Cyclone Ingrid was spinning at 170 mph less then 150 miles off our coastal town. It was the leading news story on all channels causing warnings up and down the northern eastern coast. There are two main differences between a cyclone and a hurricane. First, cyclones are in the southern hemisphere with hurricanes in the north. And second, they, like water down the drain, spin in opposite directions. Even the categorization is similar so when I heard “Category 5” I knew it was time to batten down the hatches or leave town. Dive trips were being cancelled and travelers were being evacuated so we felt it was best to update our family of our situation. We were scheduled to leave town about 12 hours before trouble was expected to hit so were never in harms way. Therefore, knowing our families were watching the news of the region and not wanting them to worry, we wrote home and told them we were safe. Suffice it to say, they hadn’t heard a lick of the storm and were now worried. Looks like that plan did go so well.
We headed south to what we hoped would be finer weather and decided to go for a three-day sailing excursion through the Whit Sunday Islands. The Whit Sundays were named by Captain Cook as he sailed through on Whit Sunday which is the fifth Sunday after Easter. You may be thinking “Cyclone….Sailing, not that smart”, but we were a long way away. Apparently not far enough. We envisioned a romantic weekend on our 60 foot, 1952, wood paneled, triple-masted schooner christened Ileola. Not so.
We chose one of the smaller boats so as to avoid the twenty-something, beer guzzling crowds more common on the larger, modern crafts. But truth be told, it was the Italian-themed menu that swayed our decision for the Ileola.
Leaving the harbor under a darkened sky, I could not get the theme song from ‘Gilligan’s Island” out of my head. Audrey requested another song. I’m sure many on board the ship were questioning their decision to go as the rain would occasionally drop buckets on us then disappear. It would then reappear after things just began to dry. I’m fairly sure three passengers aboard, if given the option, would have turned back as they were turning a shade of blue not seen by healthy, happy, land-loving humans. Fortunately, no lunches were lost that day, but it was close.
The first night we slept very little as the boat, anchored in a ‘protected’ lagoon, tossed about and the wind whistled through our six by six cabin. And we had the largest room! I kept thinking “two more days…two more days…we can do it” and knew Audrey had the same thoughts. The weather improved slightly and the next night was much calmer allowing us a much needed full nights’ sleep. That night we sat up top peering at the stars and watching the hundreds of squid dart around our boat. We’d shine the flashlight down on the water to see their orange bodies when, CHOMP, they were attacked by a three-foot shark-like creature. Apparently our light shining on the squid lit them up for easy prey. Many squid became another link in the food chain that night as we kept the light on the water enticing the beast up for a little more calamari and our entertainment Then came a group of baby turtles flailing around the ocean not knowing what to do or where to go. This was probably the first night after climbing out of their eggs for these two-inch babies. It was just like I’d seen on the Discovery Channels years ago.
Because of the cyclone and bad weather, the waters were churned up so while the skin diving wasn’t optimal, it was still good to be swimming and seeing all sorts of creatures below. As I swam back to the boat on one of our many snorkeling trips, I was escorted back by a one-and-one-half foot angel fish. I could reach out and touch him as we swam together for about 10 minutes. That, and being surround by hundreds of Yellow-tailed Fusilier swimming so close that I could feel them slide against me, made the whole experience worthwhile. While the weather could have been better, we are glad for the experience. Early on I predicted the sun would appear as we sailed back into the harbor. And, like clockwork it did. It’s good to be back on terra firma.
As we get ready to depart Australia for two weeks in Bali, we can only think that we must come back. Thirty days on this glorious continent and only begun to see its vastness. I didn’t see a kangaroo or a koala (zoos don’t count), venture to the less-touristy west coast or set foot into the outback. People go to the U.S. thinking they can “see it’ in three or four weeks. People do the same in Australia and how wrong they are. We’ll be back.
Next Stop: Bali, Singapore then SE Asia.
Bryan and Audrey