A Day on the Great Barrier Reef

After my conference in Brisbane, I’d booked to head up to Cairns to check out the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Glen vowed never to go on a boat again (he gets bad seasickness) so considering how “close” I was, it seemed like the best opportunity.

I arrived in Cairns on Monday afternoon and had a day on the outer reef booked through Tusa Dive T6 for Tuesday. I walked to the marina just after 7am for a 7:40am departure with about 20 other people.

After setting off we had a 1.5–2-hour journey to Norman Reef. While the sky didn’t look too foreboding or the seas all that rough, the swell was significant and after about an hour I was out the back of the boat hurling up my breakfast.

Much embarrassed, I wasn’t the only one to be feeling ill (this is despite taking the seasickness pills that were being sold – perhaps I needed something stronger). Others joined me, were handed white paper bags and looked green as until we reached the reef and the rocking of the boat eased. I did feel much better after throwing up a few times though.

Dressed in a wetsuit and carrying a pool noodle, I went snorkelling through the reef. The highlight was seeing a medium-sized Hawksbill Turtle (so cute) and a rather large fish, the name of which I’ve forgotten, who kept following the photographer around.

We swam around for about 1.5–2 hours. Saw loads of fish and coral. It wasn’t as bright as I was expecting (or hoping) but I was staggered at the size of some of the coral (they look more like giant boulders). Plenty of colourful fish as well.

After snorkelling, the boat moved to another location, we had lunch (I didn’t eat much, worried about the return journey to Cairns) but it was good food, and then fell asleep during the nature talk (probably due to the seasickness pill).

Next stop was Saxon Reef for another snorkel, this time 1.5 hours. Giant reef shelves here with also a lot that were shallow and close to the surface (had to be careful not to kick the coral).

Highlights here were the giant clams. The largest ones were too far for me to reach but still easy to see. They’re huge. Also saw two dead ones with the halves sitting there being picked at by fish. The other bonus was seeing a long white-tipped reef shark in the distance. I wasn’t fast enough to get closer but was impressive to see from afar.

No seahorses. No Nemo or Dory (though I think someone else saw Dory). Nevertheless, I was glad I got to see it, experience a small part of this amazing and large reef, and sad that so much of it has been destroyed. (Being a tourist probably doesn’t help much either.)

Back on the boat and about 1.5 hours back to shore. While on the journey, I realised how sunburnt the backs of my legs had gotten because I stupidly went without putting sunscreen on. Tomorrow they’re going to be worse.

No seasickness this time (unlike the poor guy who didn’t get a bag in time) and I slept for part of it. We arrived back at the marina at 4pm and went our separate ways.

Need a Hand with that Flat Tyre?

I’d wanted to check out Coral Bay while we were up in Exmouth but there wasn’t enough time to do it without getting stressed and being rushed. Instead, I’ve filed it away as something to do on the next trip up here. So, in exchange, we slept in and decided to take it easy, eventually choosing to go for a snorkel at Lakeside.

We packed up the cabin, put everything in the car, and then I went to the campers next door and asked if they wanted our leftover food (carrots, weetbix, garlic etc). The guy gratefully accepted it and then said, ‘Do you need a hand with that flat tyre?’

Excuse me? What? Flat what?

I popped me head out and looked at the car. Sure enough, the back right wheel was completely flat.

Oh.

The guy was happy to lend a hand. In fact, he changed the whole thing and saved us having to get our hands too dirty. Thank god we didn’t have our hearts set on going to Coral Bay early or else we would have been in a flap. He changed the tyre as if he’d been doing such a thing for years, said thanks again for the food, and we were on our way.

We drove around to Cape Range National Park again and then to Lakeside to go drift snorkelling. Glen stayed on the beach as he was extremely worried about jellyfish. Meanwhile I went in with nothing but speedos and flippers.

It was fun to drift on the current while looking at the fish. The water was warm. The experience pleasant. Although when I drifted down the current picked up a bit and made it harder to go back into shore. Luckily it wasn’t that deep and I could simply stand and walk back in. Snorkel and swim complete, we returned to the car and to town.

We stopped for lunch in Exmouth, where I ordered something revolted that I couldn’t finish. We filled up the tank and headed for the airport. Two emus sat beside a floodway sign so we stopped and looked at them. Strangely, an empty 4WD was parked near them, its occupants nowhere to be seen. Glen surmised that they had probably stopped to take photos of the emus and had subsequently been eaten by them. Sounds plausible enough.

Got to the airport, discovering that I was missing one beach towel. Very annoying as it was one of our favourites from Canada. I hope someone finds it and makes use of it. I then dropped off the keys…in the wrong rental car hire box. I’m sure they’ll get it in the end.

Short flight home, landing in much colder weather than we’d experienced in Exmouth. Time to rug up. And the cat looks like she wants cuddles too.

Whale Sharks of Exmouth

The bus picked us up at 7:20am and took us, along with 16 other excited passengers, to the jetty where we’d board the boat for our day of swimming with whale sharks. Despite having heard positive reports about a currently good run of sightings, I was a little worried we’d spend a day on the boat without much to show for it.

While we waited for the inflatable to take us to the boat, a sea turtle intermittently popped its head out of the water in the bay next to us. Kind of like an aquatic version of whack-a-mole. If nothing else, we’d seen a turtle’s head.

Once on the boat, we were given a safety briefing and provided with full body stingy suits, attractive things that make you look like a human condom. They also smelled of human sweat so it was a relief to get moving so the breeze could blow the smell away.

We went for a snorkel in the bay first, drifting down a ways as we floated above coral and a bunch of fish. I saw many of the same species I’d seen the day before including a large starfish and a cat fish. The water was warm and it was a nice way to, well, get our feet wet.

Back on the boat we were soon zooming out to see as a whale shark had been spotted nearby. The captain was happy we wouldn’t have to travel for 45 minutes to reach it, as they’d had to do the day before. Glen and I were in group two, each group consisting of nine people plus a spotter.

Group one hopped in and we got ready, slipping on snorkel and mask and flippers. Once we received the go ahead we jumped in and lined up with the spotter, waiting for the shark to come in line with us and then it was on for young and old as we swam hard to try to keep up.

The shark we saw was a juvenile male, about 4-5 metres long. He was so beautiful. The spots on his side are so well defined and the strange shape of its head and mouth is captivating. I swam as fast as I could, which admittedly isn’t very fast, but this shark, with a few flicks of its powerful tail, steamed ahead and left me behind. Others were much better at keeping up.

We had seen a whale shark. Mission accomplished!

Poor Glen didn’t have such a good time of it though. He often gets seasick so to be on a boat and then to have to snorkel through choppy seas made him feel decidedly green. Up came his breakfast and after two dives with the shark, he decided to call it quits and have a lie-down.

The rest of us went in and out of the water with this juvenile male over the next hour or so before he finally had enough and disappeared. We then saw a much younger and smaller whale shark who was double the adorable level and was quite happy to hang around and have a look at us for a while.

Even though we didn’t see one of the giant ones, I’m really glad we saw what we did. I couldn’t get over how beautiful they look.

After the swims we had lunch on board and then were taken to a part of the reef for a snorkel. That is until they spotted a tiger shark near the boat. It didn’t come to the surface but based on how big it looked from above, it was likely to be a bit of a monster. After that sighting, the skipper wasn’t keen for us to go snorkelling so instead we drifted along spotting more sharks.

Apparently we saw different types but one tiger shark was enough for me.

We got back to land at about four, Glen very happy to no longer be swaying left and right. Despite the seasickness, I think we can claim that trip as a success.

I’d like to come back and see the humpback whales and the manta rays but I think Glen will abstain from them. Anyone else want to join me?

Mini-break in Exmouth

This weekend we’re continuing our exploration of Australia by heading up to Exmouth to swim with whale sharks (much to Glen’s horror). We saw so much of Canada that it seemed ridiculous to not see more of Australia.

We left drizzly and grey Perth at 11am, boarding an almost full flight up to Learmonth. We landed an hour and a half later, flying up the coast and seeing the pointy bit you see on the map. I think it’s Shark Bay, but don’t quote me.

After collecting our luggage and picking up the hire car, we drove into Exmouth and had a late lunch. Based on a recommendation we then drove around the tip to Cape Range National Park to reach Oyster Stacks.

High tide was at 4:20 and we got there about 3:30. It was windy and the water looked choppy. I was anxious about getting in the water, made worse by the signs warning of dangerous jellyfish. But FOMO won out in the end and I got in the warm water with my snorkel and mask.

Fish everywhere! Thousands of very small, silvery fish in a massive swarm coalesced around me. Large fish in a variety of colours, iridescent fish, tiny bright blue fish, yellow fish, zebra fish, a fish with a long snout that swam close to the surface, starfish, sea cucumbers and coral…all amazing.

I chose not to swim out to the actual oyster stacks (columns of rocks with oysters on them) purely out of fear of getting stuck out there and not being able to get back. Nevertheless, I saw a lot, and really happy about it.

Glen stayed on the beach, taking photos of sea snails and crabs in the rocks.

The sun was getting low in the sky on the drive back, casting a golden glow across the landscape. We soon saw an emu and later a kangaroo nearly jumped into the side of the car. We stopped and took photos of Sturt’s Desert Pea on the verge, then went up to the lighthouse. People were gathering with their chairs and bottles of beer to watch the approaching sunset.

Back in Exmouth we bought food at IGA, then checked into our accommodation, a caravan/camping/chalet place like the ones I used to stay at with my family in Albany. We cooked snapper with carrots, broccoli and sugar snap peas, and watched tv. It’s like being on holiday.

Postcards from Churchill: videos of Beluga whales, polar bears and splashing about

I’ve finally gotten around to compiling the videos from our trip to Churchill, Manitoba, in July/August this year. We went snorkelling with Beluga whales (I went twice), kayaking in the Churchill River (with Beluga whales), and helping to herd a swimming polar bear.

The second video of the Beluga whales is about 10 minutes but it’s worth it. This was one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve had with wild animals, and the video goes a little way to showing what that was like.

(And please excuse the funny noises I make)

Snorkelling, first go

Polar bear swimming in the river

Snorkelling, second go

Kayaking with seals and Beluga whales

Snorkelling and kayaking with Beluga whales (and more polar bears)

I decided to go snorkelling with Beluga whales again on Sunday. I had the thought the previous night, and as most thoughts that have anything to do with the possibility of missing out, it wouldn’t go away. In the morning, I asked the tour operator if there were any spaces still available, and there were. Glen declined to join me.

Snorkelling, take two

There was always going to be a risk that a second bite of the cherry wouldn’t be as sweet, but having already done it once, I didn’t have anything to lose, and everything to gain. Would there be more whales today? Would the visibility be better? Would they come closer and play? All questions that were at the front of my mind, though the most pressing question was, “Will my dry suit have a hole in it today?”

We left the Polar Inn at 11ish to get down to the launch and put on our drysuits. There were more people going snorkelling today, three zodiacs of between four and five people each (on Friday there were only eight people in total). I liked already knowing what to do when we arrived, and was soon given a dry suit.

I said that I’d had one with a hole in it the other day, and Lesley said it had been taken out of circulation. I put the new suit on, checked under my arms, and I kid you not, there was a hole. In exactly the same spot as on the previous suit I’d worn. Lucky I checked. I was soon outfitted with a new one, and a little while later my group jumped on the zodiac.

There were two couples on my boat, as well as Alex, the tour guide Glen and I had on Friday. One of the couples was from Boston, while the other was from Winnipeg/Chicago. Everyone had their cameras at the ready, and were very excited about the upcoming experience.

While heading out of the river, the guides spotted a polar bear swimming in the water. A gun had only just gone off on Cape Merry, encouraging the bear to swim to the opposite shore (and Fort Prince of Wales). The zodiacs were there to help shepherd it to the other shore and away from people, so we got to spent a while watching it eventually make its way to land.

Once there, it started heading towards the fort, where the archaeologists and a bunch of Parks Canada people were peering over the edge of the fort watching it (much like soldiers would have once watched for an approaching army). Something spooked the bear and sent it running away from the fort towards the point.

Alex had said on Friday about bears in the estuary and how the zodiacs are only allowed to get close to them (about 10 or 15 metres) when they’re being shepherded away from human settlements. It was such a surprise to be able to take part in it, and watch this giant bear float along to get away from us.

We then went around the point, and saw a mum and cub lounging in the grass. They might have been the same ones we saw on Friday. While everyone was watching the bears, I was listening to the chatter on the radio as the guides talked to each other, trying to find a good pod of whales. It wasn’t looking good. Still, I told myself, I got to see a swimming polar bear so that was well worth coming out again.

We headed out into the Hudson Bay and looked around for a while, but no whales were sighted. After a bit, we moved positions to find a few swimming around. We jumped into the water, this time was definitely much more comfortable as I didn’t have a hole in my suit. We looked, but visibility was poor and I only saw a couple of amorphous white blobs floating by at some distance. Time was ticking on, and I began to think today was not going to be a good day for Belugas.

We got back in the zodiac and headed to the same area we’d gone to on Friday. There were a number of pods hanging around, and so we thought we might have some luck. When we got in the water, the visibility was pretty good, so that was in our favour. We floated around for a little while, spotting a few whales swimming by below us. But it wasn’t until all five of us started huddling around in a group that the magic really happened.

A large pod of big, white males — I’d say at least ten of them — started to take an interest in us. We spotted them nearby, and then they’d dive, swimming below. They’d turn around and come back. Soon we realised they were playing with us.

They were so curious, spinning around to float on their backs, looking up at us, releasing air bubbles to shatter around our faces, on and on they swam, going passed us, under us, then turning and coming back. There were many times when I’d be following one, only to notice another two, three, floating beside me. I felt such joy. This is what I’d hoped the experience would be, and even then, it exceeded expectations.

We stayed playing with them for at least half an hour, going well over our allotted tour time. Alex had never seen anything like it, no pod in his two years here had shown that much interest in a group. It was truly something to behold. I took a tonne of footage, and reviewing it later showed just how wonderful it was. We didn’t want to get back in the boat, but we’d had such a good time.

Back in the zodiac and heading back to the launch, we travelled slowly and the pod continued to follow us. One hung at the back of the boat most of the time, while the others would crest next to us, then dive down and under and pop up the other side. They didn’t want to let us go. We couldn’t believe it.

A signal of distress back towards the mouth of the estuary drove us away. A boat had broken down but Parks Canada was there lending a hand. While we headed out to them, we also saw a seal swimming in the water. Another one to tick off the list.

We then went back to land, all of us so excited about what we’d seen and experienced. I dreaded telling Glen because I knew he’d be upset he’d missed out, but once back I couldn’t hold back my enjoyment. The second snorkelling experience was well worth the added expense.

We had three hours before we were going kayaking with the Belugas (we’d booked it before I booked the second snorkelling tour, and I was intrigued to see what this experience was like). We went for lunch, then back to the hotel while I downloaded Beluga whale videos.

Beluga whales

Kayaking

At six pm, we met out front of the Polar Inn for our final planned activity for this trip: kayaking. I’d been hearing from other people on tours who’d gone kayaking say what a great experience it was. The Beluga whales come up to the kayak, nudge it, play with the rudder or with the paddles. I was looking forward to it.

We got down to the launch, were given life jackets and paddles, and given a bit of a demonstration of how to operate our kayaks (these ones had rudders). Glen and I went in individual kayaks, though it was funny to hear the guide talk about how people in tandem kayaks should operate. Glen and I argued about this on the way to our singles, as I said he had done it wrong when we were in a tandem canoe on the Toronto Islands. He said I was doing it wrong, but of course Glen was mistaken.

I was the last to get out on the water as I had a bit of trouble getting my rudder pedals sorted. But eventually I was ready and I was pushed off. It took a little while to get the rhythm right but once I did, I was off.

We were meant to stay in a group, the reason being that the whales would be more likely to interact. It didn’t turn out that way. Nevertheless, there were plenty of whales out in the bay, and from time to time they’d come and play. And I really mean play. There is no doubt in my mind that these big whales were having some fun with us.

They’d follow along behind a kayak as the paddler went along. They’d blow big air bubbles right underneath the kayak as the passed below. They’d nudge the back of the kayak, or come up and play with the paddle. I had one hang around me for a while, as it investigated my paddle, then spun and swam away.

Poor Glen looked terrified half the time. He’d watched Jaws a couple of weeks ago, and to have all these air bubbles pop up around you, or to hear the whales breach the water behind you, was a little unsettling at times. I laughed at it, Glen grimaced. He was very cute.

There was also a seal swimming around in the water, and we hung around him for a while.

It was a beautiful summer’s night to do this, and a perfect way to wind up the trip. Kayaking was very peaceful and relaxed, the sun low in the sky casting a beautiful red glow…just heaven.

We spent plenty of time out there, finally getting back to shore about 8:30ish, then getting back into town at 9. We ran down to the Seaport for dinner (they close the kitchen at 9:30), and we had a big dinner. Service was much better tonight, and we chatted to the waitress about her upcoming trip across the Nullabor.

Sun set at about 10:30pm (we heard the air raid siren at 10pm again) and we’re going to set alarms for during the night in the hope that we’ll see the Northern Lights. Alex, my guide for snorkelling, said they’d put on a display the past couple of nights. If only I’d stayed awake until 1am. Fingers crossed we see them tonight as that would really round out the trip.

Snorkelling with Beluga whales

Friday was the day I’d been waiting for for the past year: snorkelling with Beluga whales. We left the Polar Inn at 10, getting down to the launch and pulling on our 7mm thick dry suits. They’re uncomfortable things, a bit claustrophobic, but designed to keep the cold out (although mine had a hole under one arm so I got a bit cold).

We were divided into two groups of four. We were with two women from Winnipeg. We jumped into the zodiac and headed out to Hudson Bay where the water was clearer.

Along the way saw another polar bear mum with her cub walking along the rocks. We spent a while watching them another bonus of this trip. This has really proved to be an excellent time of the year to come up here.

Having had our polar bear fix, we went off to find whales. We spotted a couple of pods but not that many. The guide thinks there might have been orcas somewhere out in the bay, which spooks the Belugas. But we found a spot and jumped in.

The suits take a while to get warm and you feel like you’re taking on water (plus the hole in mine was a bit of a problem). You also can’t swim in them as you’re so buoyant.

It took a while for the Belugas to come near us, and when they did they kept their distance, but it’s quite something to see these long, slender white animals soaring through the water below you. At times they released their held air and giant bubbles rise up. It was a sight to behold.

After a bit, we got back into the zodiac and headed out to find more whales. It took some time, and we had to head back towards Cape Merry, but we found them. We jumped in. So many whales swimming around. We ducked our heads under, called out to them, they swam underneath us, turning as they went to look back up at us. Amazing!

They didn’t come as close as I’d hoped or thought they would, but still the whole thing was worth it. After a while, I began to get cold and really had to pee (you’re not meant to pee in the suits), and we climbed back in the zodiac. It was then that the whales went into a feeding frenzy and we were right in the middle of it.

They swam underneath the zodiac. White and grey backs breaching everywhere we looked. An awe-inspiring sight. We were so lucky.

Back on land, the winds were rolling in and a bit of bad weather was on the way. I ripped off my suit as quickly as I could, went to pee (such a relief), got back into regular clothes and went back to town.

Lunch up next. We went to the Seaport again, had disgruntled service once more so we won’t be going back again this trip (despite the tastiness of their chocolate milkshakes). Back at the hotel, we fell asleep for three hours, woke up, went for dinner at Tundra Pub again, and then back to the Polar Inn to relax in the evening.

It doesn’t get dark until 10:30 or so, which can be a bit disconcerting. An air-raid siren goes off at 10pm to signal the unenforced curfew, letting people know what time it is.

Animals galore in the Galapagos

I had just nodded off when Glen woke me up, startled by a cockroach that had fallen out of his hair. It got flicked off the bed and I went back to sleep, only to be woken up shortly after because a cockroach was now on my pillow.

Glen leapt up to turn the lights off, at which point I flicked the cockroach onto the floor. This annoyed Glen because he wanted to catch it and put it outside. Luckily it hadn’t gone far and he could do as he wanted. I went back to sleep.

We had breakfast at the hotel. First we had strawberry yoghurt with cornflakes. Together. It reminded me of the icecream my grandfather used to eat and the wafers that came with it. Then we had eggs and bread and cheese.

We then walked into town and to the tour booking place to wait. This morning we went on the bay tour. A guide collected us at 9, took us to the dock, left us, brought over another guide who then left us for about ten minutes. Eventually we were ready to go.

There were seven other tourists on the boat, all of whom spoke Spanish. Luckily one of the guys spoke English and translated the important things for us. We went out across the bay, saw a masked cormorant bobbing around on the water, and then stopped next to a small rocky island to look a sunbathing sea lions.

After we’d gawped, we then went to another island (or perhaps it was all part of Santa Cruz). Here we saw just about everything. Marine iguanas, blue footed bobbies, sea lions, crabs – and then a whole lot more underwater as we went snorkeling.

I don’t think I’ve been snorkeling since I was 11 and went with my cousin to Penguin island on school holidays.

We saw so many fish, different colours, shapes and sizes. Giant schools of them too. A sea lion swam near me at one point and I screamed (I’m a little nervous about the ocean). Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) it didn’t come near me again.

The real highlight was the two sea turtles we saw. One of them was huge and white and looked so old. The other was smaller and younger. Both were a sight to behold.

We swam around for a while (it was here that Glen and I got really sunburnt on our backs) before getting back on the boat and going to Las Grietas.

We docked next to a building owned by Italy (looks like an embassy but an incredibly inconvenient location if you actually need them). A sea lion swam around the jetty and a marine iguana sunned itself on the dock.

We walked through a cactus forest up to Las Grietas which is a volcanic fissure. We went swimming in the little grotto. It was cooler than where we’d been but was a magical location.

After getting back on the boat, we then docked elsewhere. Three sea lions basked on the end of the dock, unperturbed by our presence. We then saw Sally Lightfoot Crabs (over the moon about this). We walked past the Tunnel of Love, then over to the Canal of Sharks (but didn’t see any). Then it wa through the cacti forest to the other side of whichever island we were on to see loads of Sally Lightfoot Crabs and scores of marine iguanas sunning themselves on the shore.

That’s what’s so amazing about this place, that the unique and marvelous wildlife are so unconcerned with your presence. While they’re not going to walk over you, they’re not running away either.

We then got back on the boat and headed back to Puero Ayora. I was over the moon with all we’d seen and in such a short space of time too. Galápagos tortoises are really the only must-see left. Everything else will be a bonus.

We had lunch in town then went back to the dock with our luggage. After a bit of a wait, we boarded a water taxi for 50c each, which took us to Gaby, the boat that would take us to Isabela.

The boat was full. We were sitting right inside it so air flow was limited. This was a bit worrying as the boat ride was two hours long across “rough” seas. The guide book had warned about the crossing and to be prepared if you get sea sick. I didn’t think it would be THAT bad.

Two hours of mind control! Thank god I passed out at one stage. It was so rocky and the panic didn’t help. The panic that there is nothing you can do to stop feeling that bad. It’s a miracle neither of us were sick. I’m highly tempted to book a flight back to Santa Cruz, rather than do that crossing again.

After landing and paying the $5 tourist landing fee, a guy picked us up and took us to our hotel, Coral Blanco. Puerto Veuyamil isn’t as developed as Puerto Ayora. There are also fewer people living on the island. Still, I think I prefer it. It’s a bit more like “island living”.

The woman at the hotel gave us the run down of our tours for tomorrow. Six hour hike to the volcano crater. Two hours of snorkeling (with sharks I think) in the afternoon. We’re also going to stay here an extra day to do a few more things and then take an afternoon ferry back (much more civilized than a 6am boat ride).

After dumping our stuff in our room, the woman took us for a drive to show us the paths to a couple of sights, and then stopped at a lagoon to look at flamingoes.

They’re such amazing birds. Sadly there are only about 350 on the whole archipelago and their numbers are going down. All due to the usual problems of course.

We rested in our rooms for a while, discovering just how sunburnt we are (very!). Then we walked to the restaurant (El Faro) where we have vouchers for dinner and breakfast (and dinner again).

Simple and tasty food. The night is on the cool side of warm and I am so ready for bed.

What an amazing day!

(Photos and videos once we’re back in Toronto.)