Monday, July 28, 2008

swimming with the fishes (port douglas day 4 of 5)

The life under the water of the outermost edge of the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. We went snorkelling thirty + k’s (20ish miles) northeast off the coast of Port Douglas today, a highspeed catamaran ferry our steed and a floating pontoon our home base for the day. I’m a very strong swimmer, but it had been years since I donned a mask and flippers, and I found them rather disconcerting at first—the flippers made it especially hard for me to move around in the water the way I’m used to, and I kept tangling myself up. Luckily, I remembered my mom’s snorkelling tips from her recent Galapagos Islands trip (thanks, Ma!), and got my bearings quickly enough.

When I could focus on the water beneath me instead of not drowning—what a sight! The most over-the-top cheesy phrases of praise would not be enough to describe the emerald water itself, the panoply of fish bizarrely constructed of unimaginably bright colors, modern and deco designs, tamely meandering and darting all around us. I was shocked to realize I could hear them nibbling on the coral, swishing their little fins and tails through the water, blowing bubbles, all a sense I had never realized was missing through the thick glass of aquariums. Seen in immediate proximity, with no thick azure glass mediating the view, they seemed ten times sharper than I’d ever seen before. And the coral! Thousands of varieties, themselves of every conceivable color and shape, from antlers to boulders to brains to flowers to spaghetti, all growing on one another. Whole mountains and canyons and cliffs of coral. I was shocked at how 3-dimensional the submarine seascape was: all the pictures in the world can’t capture its depth and complexity. One of our fellow passengers was on to something when he devoutly said that it could only be the work of the creator.

Exploring this underwater world was like being a kid again, exploring a largely-unknown area at will, going any which way just to wonder at the beauty of it all, diving down into the slightly-scary depths and braving the shadowy places, floating in the warm upper water and watching it all unfold below. One disconcerting moment was when the photographer hired by the snorkelling company emerged up from a crevasse of coral beneath us, in full scuba gear, to snap a photo of us swimming on the surface. That was certainly the last thing we expected, but I love the resulting photo (scanned version forthcoming). We swam until Petra got practically hypothermic (it is the ocean, after all) and had to be warmed with hugs, tea, and towels, at which point we took the nicely heated submarine tour of the deeper areas. While previous tours of the day had spotted sting rays and sea turtles, we had to be content with a little shark and the (ho hum) gorgeous array of deep cliffs of more coral.

We loved it so much that we actually tried to book a second day of snorkelling for tomorrow, but found that it was just too expensive. I desperately want to buy an underwater film camera (digital just doesn’t cut it for these colours and lighting) and maybe learn to scuba dive. But I loved the flexibility of the snorkelling, and with my good French-horn trained lung capacity, I could dive down pretty deep with just one breath. Anyone have experience with scuba diving, and could share your thoughts on it?

(Note on the photos: some of the underwater shots are with my digital camera through the window of the submarine, some are with a disposable waterproof Kodak film camera whose negatives were scanned in at the processing shop. And if you’re trying to tell me and Petra apart in the pictures, my bathing suit has a racer back, hers is halter top.)

splish splash, I took time to relax (port douglas days 3 and 5 of 5)

I read an article in the paper the other day about a study indicating that your average adult will only start to relax mid-afternoon on the third day of her vacation. Perhaps that’s why we found ourselves sleeping to progressively later hours as the week went on. Perhaps that’s also why day 3 found us still keyed up enough to wake just before dawn to go jogging on the beach. On the other hand, the sun rises around 7:30 when you’re practically on the equator. In that context, getting up “just before dawn” isn’t actually saying much.

Regardless, there we were, jogging along the sand while waves crashed beside us and the sun rose into a cobalt sky. It felt like most of the town was out on the beach that morning with us: jogging, walking the dog, participating in the daily “Yoga on the Beach” class, or just starting the morning with a beachside stroll. One guy had collected coconut husks with which he and his dog were playing: he would toss the coconut husks into the surf, and his dog would ecstatically retrieve them.

The beach had a delightful feeling of community. I would have expected all the people to make the beach feel crowded, but it didn't. This is partly because the beach is four miles long and it would probably take most of the residents of the state of Queensland to actually crowd it, but I think it has more to do with people's friendly attitude. Back on the beach another day with my parents, we asked this lady walking by to take a picture of the four of us and ended up chatting with her and her husband for a pleasant half an hour.

We spent days 2 and 5 of our vacation just bumming around the Port Douglas. The beach is a four-minute walk from our flat, and the flat itself comes with access to two swimming pools. Needless to say we were in the water quite a bit. When we weren't in the water, we were on the town. There's nothing like shopping in holiday towns in the off season. On the beach itself, Erika carved an opulent lounge-seat out of sand, complete with a screen of palm fronds that blocked the wind without obscuring the view of the mountains. I helped, though mostly by sitting in the chair. When we didn't eat out, I introduce my parents to Mojitos and we put the barbecue to good use. With that and our books and card games, we definitely relaxed.