The Great Barrier Reef
When you think of Australia, a few “must do’s” immediately spring to mind- see kangaroos and koalas in the wild, witness the splendor of Uluru at sunrise, take a road trip along the Great Ocean Road, and swim in the Great Barrier Reef. Located in Cape Tribulation in Tropical North Queensland, our trip to Ocean Safari was to make a bucket-list dream come true!
Extending north and south roughly 2000 kilometers in length, in terms of size, the Great Barrier Reef is enormous. This means that technically we have been able to check the Reef off our bucket list when we were in Queensland our first time. Back in February, before COVID-19 had altered our travel plans, we took a snorkeling trip to the Whitsundays*, as well as an unforgettable day trip to Fraser Island* and Lady Elliot Island. Both places were amazing but are in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. So, after the long covid lockdown, we decided to return north to the warmth and safety of Queensland. And we were determined to swim in the “real” Great Barrier Reef!
A Sleepless Night
After a long but beautiful drive up to Tropical North Queensland, we arrived at Cape Tribulation, or Cape Trib as it’s known. We checked in to the Ocean Safari lodge and quickly booked our trip to the Reef* for the following day. Afterwards, we walked down to the beach, following the afternoon Great Barrier Reef tour group. We strolled along and jealousy watched as a group boarded the boat and speed off towards the horizon. But we took comfort knowing that tomorrow would be our day to board that jetboat!
Tossing and turning, neither of us could sleep that night. All I could think about was that tomorrow- tomorrow we would go to the Great Barrier Reef! And, as I lay there with my eyes wide open, I assumed that is why Menekse wasn’t able to sleep.
Mornings come early when you live and travel in a campervan full time, and I was in desperate need of our first morning addiction- coffee! As the caffeine began to kick in, I realized that Menekse was in pain. She wasn’t able to move her head. A few days prior, she had either twisted her neck, or slept wrong, and today it was hurting more than normal. Unsure if a boat trip was the best idea for her neck, we decided to finish our coffees and to see how her day progressed.
A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity
As noon approached, her neck felt no better than it did earlier in the day. In fact, it seemed worse she worried. As we checked in for the tour, Menekse said that her neck was very stiff. The staff member looked concerned and mentioned the 20-knot winds that were blowing offshore meant that the seas were going to be rough. It had become clear that today wasn’t the right day for our tour.
“Why don’t you go without me,” Menekse asked. Absolutely not was my immediate reply. We do everything together and swimming the Great Barrier Reef was something on both our lists and nothing that I would ever consider doing without her. As we weighed our options, we realized that we didn’t have many other opportunities. We wanted to get to the Northern Territory before it got too hot. Ok, so it is always hot there- but we wanted to get there before the wet season arrived. And we were already almost a month behind our original intended plan of crossing the border in early September. “We are already here, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you should go without me” she continued to plead.
Feeling reluctant and guilty, I surrendered to her pleas. Zipping up my swimsuit, I tried to convince myself that I would do this for the both of us. Do this for Menekse I thought to myself, do this for Menekse.
Off We Go
At check-in, I was greeted by our guide Federico, and the other tour takers. He outlined our journey and told us what we could expect. As the group put on our stinger suits, he reviewed the safety features of the boat and of snorkeling in general. And before we knew it, it was time to go.
Menekse joined me as I walked across the street, then waved goodbye as we walked the short path through the jungle down to the beach, the same path we had walked yesterday together. Do this for Menekse I thought as I turned and waved one final time.
We arrived at the beach and I spotted the sleek bright yellow boat out at sea, a stark contrast to the dark and threatening sky. Federico said that the rough seas meant that it could be difficult boarding. The boat was bobbing up and down as I struggled to get my footing and climb on. I often joke that I am not the most graceful of creatures, but with luck, I was able to get on board without falling into the water. Others in the group weren’t so fortunate.
Climbing aboard, we were welcomed by Brett, our captain. With the booming voice of a confident Aussie, he said that we were going to be in for a rough ride. He slowly positioned the boat so that it pointed out to sea, cranked up AC/DC, and put the hammer down. The boat climbed the first giant wave with a thunderous thud, then slammed back down with an ear-shattering bam! My heart raced with each climbing thud, and my head rocked with each descending bam. Thud, bam, thud, bam! 15 seconds out to sea, I knew that Menekse had made the right decision.
The Only Place in the World
With the boat rocking up and down, twisting this way and that, I reminded myself that the best advice against seasickness is to look towards the horizon. But the horizon was moving so fast up and down, it almost gave me whiplash!
As we continued without hesitation, the waves that were crashing through the side of the boat felt like needles as they stung my face. I was completely drenched before I even got in the water! The sounds of the boat crashing through the waves were deafening. Surveying my fellow passengers, I could tell that I wasn’t alone in my attempts to occupy my mind. Do this for Menekse I kept repeating to myself. As I twisted my head long enough to get a glance at Brett, I could see his confidence and experience, and I felt safe with him behind the wheel.
The skies blued the further from shore we went. While the boat was still thudding and bamming up and down, I was gaining confidence and was able to enjoy myself. I eagerly glanced ahead out to sea, hoping to spot our destination, but couldn’t see anything. Then back towards the land that was now shrouded in misty clouds. It was then that I realized that I was in one of the only places in the world where 2 UNESCO areas meet. I was where the Daintree Rainforest National Park plunges into the Great Barrier Reef!
Swimming in the Great Barrier Reef
I spotted the tiny island on the horizon growing as we came closer. It looked like the size of a tiny golf green! But I just couldn’t see the flag ? However, the small green looked like hope and I felt that we were finally going to make it. A couple of final turns over the waves and Brett brought the engine down to a slow, and then to a stop. Everyone was excited that our 25-minute ride, which felt much longer, had come to its end!
By this time, everyone was excited and the jarring journey to get there was quickly forgotten. Brett provided us with some instructions, most importantly to NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. He emphasized the fact that it was low tide. I clumsily put on my fins, lowed my mask, and with a slash into the water I went! There I was, I was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef!
Now, I must admit that I am not the most confident of snorkelers. Though I have done it many times before, put a snorkel and fins on me and I am like a fish out of water! I guess it would be comparable to Nemo carrying a golf bag. It is probably also fair to admit that I am not the greatest swimmer on the planet. But I was swimming the Great Barrier Reef, and I kept reminding myself to do this for Menekse!
In a Sea of Color
Immediately, I emerged into a world that exploded with colors! I could see largish blue fish swimming effortlessly through colorful coral. I was surrounded by browns and greens, blues and oranges, and every shade of yellow imaginable.
As I made my way slowly away from the boat, I immediately noticed the low tide and felt like I was too close to the reef. I was so concerned that I might accidentally touch something that I couldn’t enjoy what I was seeing and experiencing. But I could see others around me, and it seemed as though they were a couple of meters above the reef. Perhaps the water was so clear that it only appeared that I was so close to the reef!
After a few minutes, I started to get my bearings. My breathing slowed, and my confidence slowly grew. I did my best to capture everything with our GoPro.
A Turtle Sighting
A little while later, I spotted Federico and noticed that he had his hands clasped together with his thumbs sticking out. It was the sign that he had said that he would use if he found a turtle. I paddled my way there, happy that he wasn’t far. It was much deeper water, and he said that he had spotted a Green Turtle just below us. He then took a massive breath and dove down.
I so wanted to follow his lead, but I have yet to figure out how to dive. It seems my legs just don’t want to work that way! I could see the Green Turtle well below me, but I couldn’t get a close look, unfortunately. As I was admiring him from a distance above, I knew that seeing a turtle in the wild is one of Menekse’s dreams, and I couldn’t help but wish that she was there with me to witness this moment.
What Was That
By this time, I noticed that the water noodle on the boat was up, which meant that it was time to make my way back. Brett moved us to the other side of the island. He also told us that it was ok to go ashore onto the tiny island. Still tired from the first swim, I jumped in and spent the next couple of minutes getting my bearings again
I started swimming and filming when I noticed something move quickly out of the corner of my mask. I turned my head just as a small familiar-looking fish glided by! Unsure of what exactly it was, I followed it for a couple of seconds, but it was too fast for my ability as it darted ahead.
Somewhat uneasy of my discovery, I made my way back to the ship to show Federico the video and to ask what it was. A Whitetip Reef Shark, harmless he added, which eased my concern. So back into the water I went.
With a little more confidence, I made my way out to where Brett had said would be the best chance to find a clownfish, better known as Nemo. While swimming, I saw thousands of blue and black Angelfish, black and yellow Angelfish, orange Angelfish, and some Butterflyfish, There was also a ton more blue Parrotfish, a Masked Triggerfish, and even a black and white striped Dadcyllus. But unfortunately, no Nemo.
Out of shape, tired, and having drunk too much seawater, I decided to go ashore on the island. The tide was strong, and the current that pushed me ashore pulled me back out again with the same strength just 2 seconds later.
After more than one attempt, I eventually made it ashore, not the most graciously I will admit. With my GoPro, mask, and snorkel in my hands, and flippers still on my feet, I got close enough to basically scoot my butt on shore! Exhausted, I set down my stuff and tried to catch my breath. I was on a tiny island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef!
After a few minutes of rest, I wanted to explore this deserted island. But the sand sunk under my feet so deeply, that I could hardly walk.
The island is only maybe 2 or 3 meters high, and perhaps 70 meters long. The pure white sand was made of big coarse kernels, not anywhere as soft as I was expecting. There was absolutely nothing on the island except 1 coconut. Perhaps this is how trees start growing in the reef!
After having taken a few photos, and feeling rested, I thought it was time to go back out. Easier said than done of course, and I left the island just as clumsily as I had arrived.
A Bucket List Experience
I spent my last few moments swimming around the reef that swayed in the ocean current searching for Nemo. I saw a ray, millions more colorful fish, but swam back to the boat without finding Nemo. The late afternoon air felt cold, so I put my light jacket on after drying off. I was exhausted, and an overwhelming feeling of humbleness fell over me. I had swum in the Great Barrier Reef. But at the same time, there was a huge sadness because I couldn’t help but think of what Menekse had missed.
Our 4-hour tour was coming to an end, and everyone climbed aboard wide-eyed at what they had just experienced. Brett turned up the music, turned the boat towards the mainland, and the engines roared back to life.
With the island quickly disappearing behind us, and the rainforest fully engulfed in clouds ahead, the boat ride back was just as rough as earlier. The waves were pouring over the side, and again I got wetter on the boat ride than I did while I was in the ocean!
It was another rough landing, and I was again thankful that I didn’t fall into the ocean when exiting the boat.
Safely ashore, Menekse immediately greeted me with her wonderful smile! I was so excited to tell her everything! To tell her about all the colors. About the ray, and the shark! And especially to tell her about the turtle! To share this bucket list experience of swimming in the Great Barrier Reef with her!
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