Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I Understand Why Rich People Buy Yachts

Soon after arriving in Australia, I realized that four months here is just not very much time, especially when I wanted to do some working in addition to sightseeing. But I narrowed my list down to include just a few "can't miss" things, one of those being sailing on the Whitsunday Islands. And now I can check that off my list.

The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands right on the Great Barrier Reef. They are about 2/3 of the way up the east coast (give or take). I have to say, my sailing trip did not disappoint.

At first I was slightly afraid that it would disappoint me. About five minutes before we got to the marina, it started pouring rain, and didn't stop that first night. Luckily, the first night was just sailing, so no swimming or sunbathing was ruined. The boat I was on held 24 passengers and 4 crewmembers, all in pretty close quarters. I don't know where I got the idea that there would be rooms on the boat (I swear the brochure said you could book private rooms), but the bunks were basically just holes in the wall. The boat was a racing maxi--I don't really know what that is, but they said that it won the Sydney to Hobart yacht race back in the day, so basically it's really fast.

On Tuesday morning, we left the area we were docked at and sailed over to Whitehaven Beach, which is supposed to be one of the top beaches in the world. The weather was still rainy, but it cleared up about the time we finished our hike over to the beach. The white sand there is silica, so when you look at it up close, it actually looks clear. It was absolutely beautiful. We spent the morning there, swimming and looking around. The water was extremely clear, and even though we weren't out on the reef, we still saw rays swimming around.

Check out the picture on the right--the little black dots are people frolicking in the water, but they're all wearing full body suits. It's "stinger" season still--stingers (aka box jellyfish) are deadly little guys who you can't see in the water, but their stings affect your nervous system and you become paralyzed within minutes. It's a little weird being on the beach decked out in a stinger suit, but I'd rather not take my chances.

That afternoon we headed over to some cove where we could snorkel. It was still raining some, but it didn't matter when you were in the water. Now, I have a bit of a confession to make. When I was in Australia in 1997, we took a trip to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling, and although I told everyone it was awesome, I was actually pretty disappointed. On that trip, I only saw a couple fish, and they were so far away that it would have been better in an aquarium. I told everyone it was awesome because everyone else I was with seemed impressed, but I was rather let down. Now, after this sailing trip, I understand why everyone is in awe of the reef. Just 10 feet from the shore, there was a whole underwater world with zillions of fish, brightly colored coral, etc. It looked just like Finding Nemo. The coral was actually had places that were neon blue and purple--colors you don't expect to find in nature. The fish ranged from very tiny, to great huge parrotfish, and none were scared of humans. If you just swam slowly and quietly, they came up right next to you. Perhaps the coolest thing was that if you were quiet, you could actually hear the fish eating.

The sailing trip came with a free scuba dive. I thought this would mean nothing to me since I don't have a scuba license, but it turned out that the free dive could also be an intro dive. I figured I might as well try. They dropped us out in the middle of the water, and the first thing they did was hand us a belt with about 10-15 pounds of extra weight. Hmmm... Treading water in the middle of the ocean and strapping heavy metal objects to myself? Then the vest with the oxygen tank was another 20 pounds or so. Luckily, it also acted as a flotation device. After practicing breathing and all that, we dove for about 10 minutes. It was amazing. I thought I had seen a lot snorkeling, but to actually go farther down and see the sides of the coral berths was like nothing I'd ever seen.

The next morning we got a bright and early start--about 5:30am, so we could sail out to the outer reef. Although I wasn't thrilled to wake up so early, it was worth it to see the sunrise. It wasn't just the sunrise that was great, but the fact that the sun was actually out. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef has two parts to it: the inner reef, which is younger, and the older outer reef. Most sailing trips don't go out to the outer reef, so I was pretty excited that ours did. I decided to try scuba diving again, because the groups that went saw sharks and things. When it was my group's turn, the waves were pretty choppy, and it took us awhile to get out to where we wanted to start. Then when we started our descent, the pressure in my ears built up much worse than the day before, and I couldn't get them to clear. A scuba diving failure, the dinghy had to come back for me and I sulked on the boat.

Luckily, my ears were clear enough that I was able to go out with another group in the afternoon. I was still a little bitter because what was supposed to be my group had not only seen a shark, they had gotten to pet a sea turtle! Still, round two of diving did not disappoint. In the area we were in, the current had cut holes in the coral berths, so we got to swim through them, like swimming through caves. Not too bad for my second scuba dive. In the end, I'm not sure I liked diving too much, and I'm not sure I'd try it again, but what better place than the Great Barrier Reef to have my only diving experience?

Thursday morning was our last day, and we headed back toward the islands for one last snorkel. Again, tons of fish, coral, etc. I just can't get over how close the coral comes to the beach. Just sitting on the beach you'd never know that there was a reef so close to you.

I highly recommend a sailing trip to anyone who gets a chance. It definitely surpassed my expectations. Now the remaining thing on my list is seeing Uluru (Ayers Rock). I have the feeling that it may surpass my expectations as well.

1 comment:

jen said...

This sounds like an amazing trip. I've always wanted to snorkel around that area. I don't like diving, either. It feels kind of claustrophobic to me.