Tropical North Queensland
January 24th: Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef
As soon as we landed in North Queensland we instantly noticed the change of terrain and climate. We saw lush rainforest covered hills descend into the teal blue ocean littered with dark patches of reef and a small, yet robust city and port. Cairns was originally a sugar mill town overrun with sugar cane plantations and although sugar cane remains to be the regions top export, it is evermore a sought after gateway for those wanting to experience The Great Barrier Reef. We topped off our Australian tour by visiting the Reef and the rainforest for four days to dive, hike and learn all we could about the worlds largest structure of living organisms.
We were unimpressed by the dingy city of Cairns, although that could have been due to the hot humid weather, a long walk to get supplies and the high volume of homeless we passed. We quickly escaped to our hotel room to double check our gear for the three day live-aboard dive trip. Later we checked-in and got fitted at the Pro Dive shop which was a well organized process and re-assured our choice of dive operators. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner at Dundee’s Restaurant on the Waterfront before taking a walk along the pier and promenade to watch the rising full moon.
Diving The Reef
January 25th: Diving with the Pros
The van picked us up at 7am and we met some of our fellow divers on the way to the boat. Once onboard, we enjoyed breakfast and coffee followed by us and our 30 fellow divers being introduced to the five staff members and dive instructors. About half of the divers were onboard to complete their open water dive certifications, a handful were onboard to complete other advanced dive certifications and some (like us) were certified divers ready to see the reef and explore. As we rode out to the open ocean we got settled in our room and set up our gear; we organized our box with fins, stinger suit, mask, and wet suit. We then hooked up our BCD, regulator and oxygen tank. We went through the schedule for the next few days and got to know others. The dive master who gave us our daily dive locations was a funny and personable guy who we learned a great deal from.
Before lunch we were given underwater compass directions and a description of what we would see for our first dive at Round the Bend site. It was our first solo dive together so we reviewed the standard underwater hand signals and the routine safety check after suiting up. Two by two everyone walked off the back of the boat into the water for our first glimpse of the GBR. The sun was out which made the reef bright and the fish abundant.
A excerpt from Will’s dive journal: “Our first self-guided dive was a success! It was high tide with little current and the water was warm at 29 degrees celsius. We spotted large clams, a blue spotted stingray, some pendant banner fish, elephant sea slugs and christmas tree worms for the first time.”
January 26th: Diving Deeper and Darker
On our first full day of diving (3 dives) we woke at 6am to dive at 7:30am. This dive woke us up as we observed the underwater morning activity at the site ‘Around the Bend’. Every fish seemed to be up, hungry and getting ready for the day. It was a mellow 40 minutes underwater to about 18 meters.
Our second dive of the day was at 11am and we rented an underwater camera. We were in the water for about five minutes when we spotted a small white tipped reef shark! It’s a rare find as we watched the shark settle in the sand for a snooze — they are active and feed at night. After 40 minutes of photographing the underwater life we were amazed by the variety of polyps, fish and crustaceans along the cliffs edge.
Jenny’s journal excerpt: “We observed soft coral, less fish, lots of rocks to swim between. I found an anemone fish. My fav!
During our third dive at 3pm we were more skilled with the camera and were able to capture a few more fish. We navigated along the north wall of Round the Bend site. At the end of the dive we saw a few humphead wrasse in a large feeding group pecking at the coral. No need to get in there way! Back on the boat we celebrated Australia Day, which marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove, but present day it provides us with an excuse to drink or in our case, eat a huge Australian flag cake.
Will’s Journal excerpt: “Saw humpheads feeding, giant clam opening and a juv bat fish — cool! 50 bar air left in my tank and 80 bar in Jenny’s. Will work on conserving air so we can dive longer.”
The last dive of the day was our first (ever) night dive in the dark at 7:30pm. The boat was bright but the water was pitch black. Night dives were shorter and visibility was tough. We reviewed the compass directions, strapped a flashlight on our right wrist, safety checked and stepped into the mysterious water to join our small dive group. We had slight fear associated with unknown dark places, but our curiosity of the nighttime reef lead the way. Our 30 minute dive included several sleeping fish wedged in corals, luminescent creatures and jellyfish, schools of red bass that would follow our light and bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism which we saw this when we turned off our flashlights, quickly waved a hand in front of our face and several micro-organism particles illuminated like a starry night sky underwater. Spectacular!
Jenny’s Journal excerpt: “Intimidating yet thrilling night dive. Fireworms swam all around us; found sleeping fish hiding; no sharks; didn’t like being in a group; red bass chased our light thinking we were showing them food. Enjoy day diving more.”
January 27th & 28th: Diving site “Boulders”
After a better nights sleep aboard the boat (due to increased nitrogen absorption from breathing compressed air) we woke at 5:30am for a bite to eat and our 6:30am dive. We did another cliff dive and saw our reef shark friend again. We had a fun dive together, saw lots of active fish in the shallows on top of the cliff.
After breakfast we moved to “Flynn” dive site. Before gearing up we decided to join a few other experienced divers at this site. Our group reviewed the site directions which had lots of swim-through rocks and bommies*. Once we were underwater we realized why compass directions were important – after a few swim-throughs and over or around a few bommies we could have been lost. Our group worked well together and spotted a reef shark, more feeding bumphead parrot fish, neon colored corals and the longest trumpet fish I’d ever seen.
*Bommie: ‘Bombora’ is an indigenous Australian term for an area of large sea waves breaking over a shallow area such as a submerged rock shelf, reef, or sand bank that is located some distance from the shoreline and beach surf break. In slang it is called a bommie.
We dove at Flynn around 3pm and again for our night dive at 7:30pm. Our afternoon dive was the most peaceful with no current, clear waters, lots of boulders to dive around and an amazing sighting of a mellow green turtle feeding followed by a roaming reef shark.
Jenny’s Journal excerpt: “Peaceful dive. Watched a green turtle eat then a white tipped reef shark swam by. Saw a ribbon eel in the coral.”
On our second night dive we paired off and went in charted waters at Flynn. Before walking into the water our instructor said “not sure, but that might be a shark swimming around the boat.” haha… not something I wanted to hear, but we walked to find out. It turned out to be a huge grey tuna who hung out around the boat hoping to be fed. We swam side by side in the quiet ocean spotting all kinds of small organisms.
Will’s Journal excerpt: “Comfortable night dive just us. Saw a blue spotted stingray, red crab, bioluminescence, jellyfish, unicorn fish, sleeping parrot fish, large bat fish and a hermit crab perched on some coral.”
For our final day we went to Boulders on Thetford reef and found out divers rarely visit this spot because the conditions have to be almost glass. We were lucky as we observed calm teal waters and the boat anchored easily. The site had lots of deep walls and was our first swim-through dive where we went through rocky coral arch ways. Will and I paired off and found it a challenge to navigate and keep ourselves from going 30 meters deep. We were in awe of the giant coral and assortment of fish, but managed to get lost after two swim-throughs. We communicated underwater and decided that Will would take a safety stop (3 min wait at 5 meters) and swim to the surface to see the boat. He was able to get compass directions for the boat and then we enjoyed our swim back through the reef with a few stops for goofy photos (below).
Jenny’s journal excerpt: “Our last dive was amazing. Deepest swim-throughs and large walls of coral. Lots of anemone (clown) fish protecting their anemones. Large blue starfish. Got lost, but knew what to do.”
What an experience with ProDive on the reef. The crew, meals, equipment, ship and dive locations exceeded our expectations. I had my doubts about diving 11 times in 3 days but when you’re on a boat with nothing else to do… you might as well be in the water!
When we debarked we instantly felt “land-sick” as we checked-in to relax at the Shangri-La hotel that we splurged on. That night we went out to the Cairns night market, got some Chinese take away and passed out early.
Romping in the Rainforest
January 29th: Port Douglas and the Daintree Rainforest
We kicked off our morning with a gym session compliments of the Shangri-La hotel and enjoyed a fresh buffet breakfast. The best part about the breakfast was the juicing station where we self-juiced an assortment of fruits and veggies. Delicious! Post breakfast we were picked up by a shuttle to travel an hour north to Port Douglas, a tourist destination for those who want to see the rainforest and relax at one of the many resorts. Port Douglas was originally developed based on the mining industry and timber industry around the Daintree River with settlement starting in 1880. In the 1980s, tourism took off in the region after the construction of the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas Resort. We headed to an Airbnb condo in the heart of the small town.
The coastal drive was beautiful and after settling in we went on a walk to 4 Mile Beach and explored the town. The trees at dusk were covered with fruit bats waking up and bright green parakeets squawking. A true sign of the jungle. That evening I cooked up salmon with sautéed veggies while we watched the Australian Open.
January 30th: Daintree National Park
We opted to stick to land for the Daintree Safari to find out more about the land and see the creatures. We were picked up by Nicholas, the 50-something year old who has been operating safari tours for over 20 years. Along the drive to the jungle we passed several sugar cane fields and found out Australia is the 4th largest exporter of sugar cane in the world. We discussed the animals we might see and the cassowary, a largest flightless bird and descendent of the velociraptor (70 million years old), was among the top but endangered. Their population has been disappearing due to deforestation, boating, dingos, roadkill, and being hunted in previous years. Shortly after discussing why they are a rare sight we spotted a 6-year-old chick walking across the road. So big for only six!
While we took a walk through the jungle we admired large mahogany trees often harvested to make boomerangs and other wooden items. We saw a large orange footed scrub fowl digging in the brush for insects. Although we didn’t see many animals, the forest was lush and the birds were countless. Turned out that the Daintree is the oldest continuous rainforest in the world and the only place where two world heritage sites meet (the reef and the rainforest).
Following the walk we visited Cape Tribulation, which was named after captain James Cook’s ship ran aground on the reef in 1770. The beach was a great place to relax as we enjoyed some local coffee with fresh fruit. It was the first time I ate and peeled fresh lychee…yum!
Next we went for a cool swim in the pure fresh water of the Daintree River. On this hot day we could have stayed in the river longer and jumped off the rope swing a few more times, but had to make it quick. We had a lunch reservation to make. Lunch was at a small local restaurant that served us delicious barramundi fish, fresh salad and native fruit. The owner of the restaurant explained each fruit. The most fascinating was the miracle fruit with it’s ability to mask tart or bitter flavors of any food for up to an hour after consuming. Turns out pharmaceutical companies are coating children’s medications with the fruit so they taste better.
We ended the day with a crocodile tour on the river. Our guide said we were visiting at the wrong time since most of the crocs were in the sugar cane fields laying eggs, nesting or avoiding the high heat temps of the water during the day. We enjoyed the boat ride along the river and he was right, no croc sightings, just claw marks of one. We learned the crocs sleep underwater for up to two hours, that the temperature of the egg determines the sex and they can go through 8,000 teeth over a lifetime. Maybe we will see one next time we visit :).
January 31st: Our Last Day on the Reef
With one day left in Port Douglas we couldn’t resist the urge to explore the reef one last time. We went snorkeling with Wavelength Reef Charters out to three different reef sites. We boarded the ship with about 30 others for a full day of snorkeling. We started on the south section of Opal reef and being in the water observing the underwater world felt like our second home.
Back on the boat we talked with one of the marine biologists about the anemone fish. We (re)learned that they rub mucus on themselves so they don’t get stung by the anemone and can live in it. The females are larger than the male because they produce eggs and when they die the male changes genders to become the new queen of the anemone. Strange to think that Nemo might now be a Nema!
The second snorkel was a drift snorkel to ‘Sandbox’ where we floated with the current across the reef where the boat met us. This site was some of the best coral in the world where BBC and National Geographic recently filmed documentaries. It was hard to get out of the water that afternoon since the reef was such a spectacle full of life that seemed to change daily.
At the end of the trip we took note of seeing a blue spotted ray, large flowery cod, semicircle angelfish, longfin banner fish, emperor angelfish, harlequin tusk fish, many spotted sweet lips, diagonal banded sweet lips, humph wad Maori wrasse, red and black anemone fish, clown anemone fish, pink anemone fish, bird wrasse, giant clams, trumpetfish and clearfin lizard fish. Amazing!
Our time on the reef and in the rainforest were well spent and an experience we will never forget. All the operators; Pro Dive, Daintree Safari and Wavelength Charters exceeded our expectations, taught us a lot about this unique part of the world and were well worth the cost. Cheers to underwater adventuring and we hope you find yourself at the reef or learn more about it by watching The Great Barrier Reef Nat Geo.
Jenny & Will