Cairns: All About the Reef

September 30 – October 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Day 10

Choosing a dive shop

Back to the coast.

My main objective, to dive the Great Barrier Reef, was finally within sight. That said, I had tempered my expectation for this dive trip. With the exception of Cod Hole (min. $1,500 per person), the Great Barrier Reef around Cairns is not particular well rated. Mass coral bleaching due to rising sea temperature and human activities is well documented.

There are dozens of better dive sites in the world, but probably none that can match its fame. My mindset was that I might not be in awe of the Great Barrier Reef, but this was a place I had to see for myself.

Cairns offers a vast array of dive operators for visitors. Too many choices in fact. I limited my options by these three criteria:

  1. Cost per person has to be less than $500
  2. Go to the outer reef to avoid the day trippers
  3. 1 night liveaboard because my wife doesn’t dive nor snorkel

At the end I went with Cairns Dive Centre because it was the cheapest I found online ($400 per person; tax and surcharge not included).

Kangaroo Explorer, Milln Reef

Out to Milln Reef

As the name would suggest, it does require some effort to reach the outer reef. Two hours on a fast boat brought us to Milln Reef and the Kangaroo Explorer, a 16-cabin catamaran that’s our home for the coming two days.

Just as Becky and I and the rest of passengers were about to dive into the turquoise water, it also marked the beginning of a day of detention for my wife. For me, the damp cabins and high-school-cafeteria quality food are part of the package – I don’t mind as long as I have a place to sleep and food that won’t give me diarrhea. Thankfully my wife has always been a good sport who takes in stride the occasional discomforts when traveling with me. (See: Washington, D.C.)

I was feeling a little jittery; for the first time I would be diving without the guidance of a divemaster. My PADI Advance Open Water certificate doesn’t matter much – it is the number of dives that counts and I only had ten under my belt. We did still remember the most important thing of all and that’s the pre-dive safety check:

  • B – Buoyancy/BCD (Check Inflation/Deflation )
  • W – Weight (Orientate To Quick Release System)
  • R – Releases (Orientate To Equipment Releases)
  • A – Air (Confirm Air Is Switched On & Sufficient Supply For The Dive)
  • F – Final Check

Then came the challenging part – designing our dive route. We kept in mind the basic rules like swimming against the current with full tank and starting at a deeper depth then slowly ascend. One of the divemasters said we might see mantas at the edge of a terrace at about 18 m, so we would head there first. We knew once in water we probably wouldn’t be able to stay on course, but the uncertainty only heightened my anticipation.

Great Barrier Reef

Once in water all the others went their own way. The visibility, at around 10 m, was poorer than what I expected. Becky and I headed east, just as planned. Almost immediately we noticed a major deviation from the planed route – we had sunk to 27 m when the seabed was expected to be at 18 m. We maintained our depth and swam against the current. We saw the terrace but there was nothing of interest. By the time we reached a patch of colorless coral only 80 bar of gas remained in my tank.

I felt slightly discouraged to get back on the boat so soon. Implausibly I had consumed 160 bar of gas in only 18 min. – the same amount of gas that lasted me 40 min. (33 m max depth; 21 m avg. depth) in Cebu. Our critical error was going that deep in the first place; most of the coral reef resides at a depth between 2 – 8 ft, and swimming against the current must had made me more agitated than I realized.

The night dive was another fiasco. The passengers’ collective lack of night diving experience meant most of us ended up clustering close to the boat and constantly getting into the way of each other. There were at least a dozen divers around us during the entire dive, flash lights swirling randomly in all directions. My attention was drawn not by whatever marine life that could be lurking in the dark but rather trying to avoid crashing into another person. If I knew better I would definitely swim farther out.

Day 11

Moore Reef

We had a good start to the day. At 6 am we were already in the water at Moore Reef, taking advantage of the gentle light and the clear water (visibility ~20 m). Better still, we invited an off-duty divemaster to tag along, and he took the liberty of planning our dive route after seeing how clueless the two of us were. I wholeheartedly welcomed this free tutorial.

We descended to 20 m depth and swan against a current along a slope and gradually ascended to 8 m. Among some dead coral reefs stood many more colorful ones, and a school of fish whirled around us before dashing off. I concentrated on breathing in slowly and the result was immediately discernible; my tank gave me 30 minutes with 50 bar to spare. Becky did even better with 70 bar left in her tank.

Briggs Reef

Briggs Reef

My Olympus underwater camera (up to 5 m) had been sitting idle in my backpack. Five meters is too shallow for diving, but I decided to take a chance and bring it with me for this second-to-last dive at Briggs Reef. The Kangaroo Explorer was anchored right next to the reef, allowing us to swim there without going deep.

My plan worked this time – though I should put off the self-congratulation for merely completing a three-minute swim. There was no current but the water had become murkier (~10 m). We continued swimming for half an hour west on top of colonies of coral reef. The reef seemed to stretch on forever, but what’s below us was less than spectacular. Bleached coral was everywhere and marine life was confined to only a few small pouches. We did fortunately see a sea turtle.

80 bar of gas remained after this 45 min. dive, which felt more like snorkeling with dive gear. My camera survived the ordeal, even though I did go down to 8 meters a few times for photos. Two hours later it was back in the water with me snorkeling – the best way to enjoy these reefs.

I have now seen the Great Barrier Reef. Microscopic in scope, yes, but with my own eyes I have seen it nonetheless. It failed to meet my expectation, already quite restrained coming in. I am not oblivious to the many associating factors, like the quality of our dive shop, our diving ability, or we have seen just a tiny bit of the Great Barrier Reef. But from our own experiences (Becky didn’t feel compelled enough to do the last dive/snorkel) and talking to several other fellow divers (all of them agreed the three locations we visited were better suited for snorkel than dive), there is really no reason to dive deep when most of the marine life resides in shallow water, in diminished state no less. Put aside the quality of the reef, if you can better enjoy a place wearing only your swimsuit and snorkel, why bother with all the heavy dive gear?

I paid the price of a one-star Michelin meal; the food on the table resembled an effort from a replacement level chain restaurant (e.g. Ruby Tuesday in Hong Kong). My humdrum experience as a visitor aside, as a human I am disheartened to see how much destruction human activities and changing climate have wrought on this natural wonder.

Day 12 & 13

Atherton Tableland and Daintree National Park

Focusing on the Great Barrier Reef, day trips to Atherton Tableland and Daintree National Park are covered here and here, respectively.

Day 14

Helicopter Ride over the Great Barrier Reef

Helipad, Cairns

All of us were in the air this morning. Becky headed south to Sydney, while my wife and I decided to take a short helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef.

There is no sugarcoating this: Riding a helicopter is outrageously expensive. My heart sank for a moment when I got home and saw my credit card statement. $399 x 2 for a 25-minute flight with GBR Helicopters – that’s about $224 HKD per minute. I spend around $180 HKD for lunch per week (weekday only), so that’s 31 weeks worth of lunch money right there. But you got to do what you got to do. A trip to the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t feel complete for me unless I can marvel at its massiveness from above.

Helicopter Ride over the Great Barrier Reef

And the aerial view didn’t let us down. The scenery was so beautiful my wife, a little hesitate about the height before the flight, couldn’t keep her eyes off the windows. Even though the 25-minute flight only allowed us to fly slightly beyond the Green Island before returning to Cairns, we got a glimpse of this largest collection of living organisms on earth, visible even from outer space. From this vantage point the Great Barrier Reef captivated us with its overwhelming size while shielded its less-than-pristine reef under the turquoise water.

I took all my photos with this setting: Exposure Time 1/1000 s; Aperture 9.0; ISO 400. I maintained the shutter speed at 1/1000 s because we were moving rapidly on a helicopter.

Cairns Tropical Zoo

Cassowary, Cairns Tropical Zoo

For someone who has repeatedly proclaimed his distaste for confined animals, stopping at a zoo for the third time on this trip sure didn’t lend credit to my words. But without a car we didn’t have many choices; the cheapest option was a half-day trip to the Cairns Tropical Zoo.

With hindsight, lazing by our hotel pool might have been a better idea. Except for seeing a cassowary and a dozen crocodiles, we had seen all the native fauna in a healthier and more energetic state at Healesville Sanctuary already. The difference is stark between Cairns Tropical Zoo, a conventional zoo where most of the animals are kept in cage, and Healesville Sanctuary where the fauna lives in a local bushland environment.

Despite the blah ending of our trip, we will always have the helicopter ride to look back on.

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