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Great Barrier Reef + Snorkeling with Whales

"Wake up, whales are here"

There's a lot of different tour companies when it comes to diving the Great Barrier Reef. There's a variety of boats ranging from half day trips to liveaboard multi-day trips with several dives a day, some go to one area, some go to another area, this section of the reef is known for one thing, that section is more popular (does 'more popular' mean over-visited and destroyed?). Some websites advertise that they're more environmentally conscious, while others try to optimize timing (and cost).

If you put too much thought into it, it can become overwhelming very quickly! Although there was a company or two that seemed to have been able to lower the cost and provide more of a budget trip, Anna and I were afraid of what that meant when it came to diving. Too large of a boat with too many people all getting seasick? It was easy to imagine the horror stories we had heard.

So we committed to spending a bit more money in hopes of a better experience. Then I found a company that had a special permit allowing swimmers to be in the water (with snorkel gear) when there were minke whales nearby! Suddenly the question of money didn't seem relevant anymore, how could we turn down the possibility of being in the water with whales?!

We closed our eyes, handed over our credit cards to Deep Sea Divers Den, and let the reality sink in as we booked the trip aboard Taka. We were going diving on the Great Barrier Reef. With whales. Well, with the possibility of seeing whales anyway. We crossed our fingers. Or the Swedish version, we held our thumbs.

We then anxiously counted down the days while we made our way up the rest of the coast towards Cairns. We'd booked the trip almost a month away so that we had better chances of seeing some Minke Whales, since their migration through the Great Barrier Reef is June-August.

So. Fast forward a month of waiting and we were finally on the boat! The trip started in the evening of the first day, with motoring out away from Cairns and towards the Outer Reef and Ribbon Reefs where we'd be doing most of our diving. The crew gave us the rundown of the plan, the boat we were on, and the schedule for each of the days. We'd be aiming to do 5 dives a day, for 3 (very full) days to get as much diving in as possible. We were on the boat a total of 4 nights, but only 3 full days.

Each day we'd wake up to a schedule written up on the whiteboard that looked something like this.

Wake up call
Night Dive

It was a pretty flexible schedule allowing for if whales showed up or if weather conditions changed.

They also gave us the minke whale talk, explaining how there was a good chance we'd see them, but they couldn't guarantee it. When a whale is spotted, they'll get another crew member in the water right away, and then if the whale sticks around and is seen again, they'll make the announcement and we can all get suited up into wetsuits and snorkel gear and get in the water with as little splash as possible. We were then required to hold onto the rope that was out, ideally spaced out along it, and try not to move as much as possible. The whales would be curious, but more skeptical is someone is flailing and splashing their fins about.

We all went to bed that first night super excited about the possibilities of what we'd see over the next couple days and yet, not quite ready for that 6am wake up call (or at least I wasn't).

When the wake up call came, it came with the phrase "Wake up. Whales are here." Repeated as they knocked on all our doors.

Wait. What? They're here? No..they're just trying to get us up. That's clever. But maybe. Whales are here?

Although I didn't hurry, I didn't exactly take my time rolling out of bed, throwing on the bathing suit and stuffing contacts in my eyes before heading upstairs. And sure enough, half the people were already in the water, the other half still struggling and hopping about trying to get wetsuits on and masks fitted. The sun wasn't even above the horizon yet, but the whales were here!


There were three whales swimming around us. They'd pass by and then circle back to get another look. It was an incredible feeling to see these guys swim by, and then because they wanted to, swim by again. They stuck around for over an hour, and eventually we were ready for breakfast (and getting cold from just floating) and got out of the water; I'm sure they would have stayed a lot longer if we'd stayed in the water with them.





Minke whales are one of the smallest whales in the baleen whale family, but they can still be up to 35' long. Small for a whale, but still giant when you see them swim by just a few meters away!


After the first whale encounter we were all required to fill out survey information sheets that described our experiences, how many whales we saw, how close they were, any specific behavior we saw, etc. Taka (Deep Sea Diver's Den) is able to have a permit for us to be in the water with the whales under the condition that we are helping 'research' and 'gather data' for the whales, since so little is known about minke whales. Although I didn't really trust my judgment in being able to say the whale was '3' meters away, I certainly did the best I could and was willing to submit any pictures I took of the whales for the researchers to try to identify them based on their coloring.


Some whales were just curious and would swim back and forth, checking us out. One time we were joined by this playful whale that was just having some fun being a whale...

The rest of the trip blurred together of putting wetsuits on and taking wetsuits off, only to put them back on again, diving and whales. I was also doing my Advanced Open Water Certification which meant getting together with other students and discussing the lessons, taking quizzes, and doing specific skills while on the dives to show that we've mastered 'peak performance buoyancy' or 'navigation'. We also did a deep dive where we went down to 90 feet (similar to Adrenaline's Dive).

Anna and I were able to dive together some when I wasn't doing skill dives, which was neat too. We saw turtles, moray eels, cuttlefish, puffer fish, and clown fish. And of course so many other fish that I didn't recognize having never swam with them before.






We also did a couple of night dives as well. Not quite as scary as I thought, but I still wasn't a huge fan of it. Perhaps that's because the first night that we did it, our group ended up getting split up some when someone wasn't paying attention, so then the rest of the dive was just stressful in trying to keep track of everyone and then it's hard to relax and look for lobsters and sharks. The second night we did a 'shark dive' where our plan was to (intentionally) try to find some sharks. No such luck. But I was ok with that; I'd rather see them when it's daylight instead of when they're hunting at night. Other groups seemed to have lots of luck with the night dives, coming back with all sorts of stories of creatures they saw (or fish they saw get eaten). So perhaps I was just always pointing my flashlight in the wrong direction.

One day while we were travelling to the next spot we were joined by some dolphins. That was just amazing. They must have heard the boat in the distance and came RACING over to join us in front of the bow.


There was one special dive that we did as a group...this place was known as Cod Hole, home of the very large and somewhat friendly potato cod. We dove down and settled on the bottom in something resembling a circle with one of the instructors in the middle with a bucket of fish for the potato cod.



I'm not sure why there were no sharks attracted to the chunks of fish that were being thrown through the water for the potato cod, but the instructor went around the circle and fed the fish in front of each of us. The fish didn't seem to care for anything but the food and waited patiently each time for it's snack.



This fish was HUGE! The video of Anna and the fish shows the scale (no pun intended) of the fish.


There was an awesome group of people on the boat (luckily it wasn't even full) and we all got along really well, which was amazing. We'd usually end up sitting wherever there was an open seat available so we got to chat with everyone and there wasn't the annoying clique feeling that some large tour groups end up having (noticed that on my Fraser Island tour). We'd swap dive stories or just travel stories, or even stories of home since people were from all over. At the end of each day we were all exhausted though so we didn't really hang out too much before all heading to bed at the end of each day. Everyone looks out for eachother when they're diving, which leads to a sense of closeness on the boat I guess. No one really bragged about wildlife they saw that other people missed out on. Even the loveable “Shark Boys” that managed to see sharks on 90% of their dives were inviting other people to come dive with them and see a shark because they just always saw a shark.

There were a couple other people doing the Advanced Open Water class but luckily it was a small group.


Towards the end of the trip my ears started to bother me. Nothing major, but I'd certainly irritated it by doing all the diving in quick succession after not diving for a long time. I don't know enough about ears to say what the problem was exactly but just that it felt like I had water in my ear, not quite painful but certainly uncomfortable, and everyone told me I should probably not dive anymore. Only I could make that call and it was a hard decision. I did do one more dive (to complete my Advanced Open Water) but I couldn't enjoy it while worrying about my ears the whole time.

Without a doubt, the highlight on the trip was being able to see the minke whales swim by underwater again and again. And taking a million pictures of them, of course. In the end we ended up seeing 10 whales! In pairs or two or three usually. And they always hung out with us for as long as we were in the water with them, usually over an hour.


I never expected my Great Barrier Reef diving experience would be centered around minke whales, but I'm so glad I was there when they were migrating through and that it worked out that way! Taka was a great boat to be on, with an enthusiastic staff that loved what they did, which always makes a huge difference.

And now for some more whale pictures if you're not tired of them yet...



Photo credit to Anna and myself, but since we swapped and shared cameras, I cannot say who's is who's. :)

Posted by smr1188 13:51 Archived in Australia Tagged animals boats diving wildlife australia tours great_barrier_reef whale_watching east_coast Comments (1)

An Extremely Belated Cape Tribulation Adventure

Cassowaries and Crocodiles

First of all, a huge apology to anyone that cares that this post is almost 3 months overdue! Mostly Cape Trib Connections, I'm sorry! (My main excuse is that someone sat on my computer and the screen cracked. So I couldn't access my pictures and had to carry a broken computer around for awhile before I could get around to fixing it. Sad day.)

There may not be much to do in Cairns aside from go out and party every night at the same 4 or 5 main bars and then sleep off the night before at the lagoon. And repeat.

However, there's a lot of things you can access from Cairns, such as the Great Barrier Reef (just wait, that story is coming next) and Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest. Both of these are a must do when you're in the area, and Cape Tribulation was actually pretty awesome!

Anna and I opted for a tour that seemed the most personal and a smaller group. We also picked one that let us spend the night up in the Daintree Rainforest, there's not really a “town” but a collection of a couple hostels that you can stay at. Unfortunately we only had time to stay one night, but two or three would have been better, if we'd planned it out better (timing and food-wise) and if we'd known how much we'd like it there!

Cape Tribulation was named by James Cook in 1770 when his ship hit a reef, he wasn't in a good mood at that point as shown by other names in the area, including Endeavour Reef and Mount Sorrow. Surrounded by the Daintree Rainforest, which is the oldest rainforest in the world, there's lots to see and do.

We stopped at several lookout points along the way, and our driver / tour guide told us about some of the history and stories along the way.



We went for a brief “rainforest walk” which, though it was on a boardwalk, was still informative on the plants we could see. The guide pointed out some of plants were several years old and still only a meter tall but since a storm had blown down a bunch of trees and opened up the area to sunlight, it was now quickly growing as fast as it could in just a short couple months. The new leaves were still a light / bright green and very obviously new growth from the rest of the plant.


We then got dropped off at our hostel, a cute sprawling place with bungalows that were within walking distance to the beach. After a quick lunch we headed out to the beach and to explore.



Since we had a choice of hostels, not all of us from the bus were at the same hostel but we saw familiar faces as we wandered the beach and nearby boardwalks and paths.





We were warned about crocodiles in the area, and kept a wary eye out for them, and unfortunately avoiding wading in the waters.

When we first crossed this, the tide was out so it was relatively shallow, but still gave us some pause. On our way back it was a lot deeper with the tide coming in and after staring at it for awhile, decided we'd better not and turned around to take the long way back.



This area is particularly special in that it's the only region where two 'world heritage areas' meet, the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.



That night we decided to splurge and do a guided night walk. It was cool to be walking around at night in the forest, but unfortunately we didn't see as many things as I was hoping for. We saw a lizard or two, and could certainly hear owls hooting nearby.

The next morning we were up early, no time to sleep when you're exploring a new area! Though it was tough to drag myself out of bed, I knew if I didn't, Anna would see something cool! Like that time I took a nap and she went and found wild koalas on Magnetic Island...

We met up with a couple of other people from our bus (they also did the night walk) and we went off exploring down a dirt road that eventually led to a trail and a river. Supposedly you could swim here, but we didn't have time and the water was pretty chilly too. Also it definitely looked like crocodile territory!


Luckily we were at the right place at the right time walking down the road, and we were lucky enough to see a cassowary!


I wasn't able to get a good picture of him on my simple point and shoot camera, but this is what they actually look like: (google image)


On the way back, someone suggested we walk along the beach instead of back along the dirt road. Ok sure, that sounds fine. We just have to be back to our hostel in time for the bus back to Cairns (he'd already told us he wasn't going to wait for us if we weren't there).

In the end, the beach wasn't the best way to go back, it ended up being very rocky, to the point where we were climbing over boulders as well. Anna and I felt frustrated and super rushed since we didn't how how long it would take us to get back and we didn't want to miss our bus. It would have been a lot of fun if we'd been able to take our time and enjoy it, chasing crabs and I always love rock scrambles. But this was more 'look out crabs, we're coming through' and then Anna throwing in some Swedish phrases.



We did however make it back to our hostel. And then the bus was late (they apparently tell you an early time on purpose, hmph). Once back on the bus we headed back across the Daintree River, this time on a boat, looking for crocodiles. We managed to spot several of them and learned about a lot of the problems crocodiles are facing. Crocodiles have lots of problems with hunting and baiting in the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia, but luckily they're protected along the Daintree River. (If I'd written this 3 months ago, I could have included the crocodile names, yes they had names since the tour guides see them almost daily and get to know them and where they live, but unfortunately I didn't write them down.)





We also stopped by the Mossman Gorge, and had a little time to wander the trails and explore.


There was a beautiful sunset and moonrise as we headed back into Cairns. I loved our trip with Cape Trib Connections and the combination of freedom to do what we wanted and explore, but the commentary of a guide on the small bus giving us history, information, and stories. I'd highly recommend these guys!


Posted by smr1188 10:47 Archived in Australia Tagged landscapes beaches rainforest rivers wildlife australia tours east_coast Comments (1)

Numbers, Take 2

Everyone loves numbers...

Well! I had so much fun coming up with my first [Numbers] post, I thought I'd do a second one to tell the story of my East Coast travel. I bought a 1 way Greyhound bus ticket to travel from Sydney to Cairns, and though I've written a bit about what I've done along the way (Fraser, Kayaking, Whitsundays, Horses, Yongala Dive) I haven't told you where I've gone exactly. That will happen soon, sometime. But first, some numbers...

Days it took me to get from Sydney to Cairns: 67

All about the Greyhound bus...
Hours on a bus: 49
Miles (km) traveled on the bus: 1,919 miles (3,087km)
Buses taken: 11

Towns I stayed overnight in: 14
Hostels stayed at: 19
Nights spent on a boat: 3
Nights spent in a tent: 4

The people..
Americans I met: 6
People I could tell were American and purposely didn't meet: 4

And of course...
Pictures taken: 3,288

Posted by smr1188 14:34 Archived in Australia Tagged australia numbers summary east_coast Comments (1)

Diving the Yongala Wreck

Befriending Batfish

Sunk in 1911 due to a cyclone and undiscovered till 1958, this amazing wreck sits on the sandy bottom with no reefs nearby. This means there's an incredible about of fish life and activities here; the wreck is 109m in length and sits roughly 30m down. It is known as one of the top diving sites in the world!

After a small internal debate regarding the price, I knew I had to go and do it. We went with Adrenalin Dive. Luckily it was a bright sunny day and the waters were "calm" according to the crew (though this did not stop me from getting seasick between dives...does the boat rock the other way in the southern hemisphere?)

I decided to start my Advanced Open Water course on the boat since I needed a guide anyway to go down to 30m. This probably didn't help the seasickness situation as I tried to read and write on the boat, but I was determined. Later, I'd realize it would have been cheaper to do the whole course on a liveaboard boat off Cairns, instead of starting it here but it seemed like a good idea at the time.


The dive itself was unbelievable! Most of the ship itself is gone, but the coral still holds the shape of the wreck and we had awesome visibility. We'd opted to rent a camera and Anna managed to get some amazing pictures and videos. Unfortunately, I was a little overwhelmed with it all and couldn't manage / share the camera so all the pictures and videos are taken by Anna.






We saw a turtle having some lunch.




We saw a ton of spotted eagle rays. They're so elegant and graceful as they soar through the waters.






I didn't recognize this ray, but it was HUGE! The video takes a couple seconds for it to swim into view, but you'll see at the end as it swims by a person, just how big it actually is...



Apparently there are sea snakes, more deadly than anything on land but they're not aggressive at all and occasionally mildly curious. So they'll even swim around your legs and up through your BCD if you're lucky (or unlucky).


After getting back ashore, we tried to load the pictures onto my computer from the memory card and it wasn't working! Yikes! We went through 3 days of panic and that sinking feeling when technology fails you, before we were able to stop by the shop to see if they could fix the problem. They couldn't. So we headed over to a camera store and for the same price as the camera rental, we were able to recover the pictures and videos. Luckily there were good pictures and videos that it was totally worth it to recover them all!

Posted by smr1188 16:35 Archived in Australia Tagged diving wildlife australia scuba wreck east_coast Comments (0)

Horseback Riding with Horseshoe Bay

Magnetic Island has everything...including swimming with horses!

How do you pass up an opportunity to go horseback riding through the bush, along the beach, and through the surf when you're on Magnetic Island?

It's simple. You don't.


Although it's a bit expensive, Horseshoe Bay Ranch is comparable to other horse rides in Australia. And it's definitely worth it. We were just a group of 4, plus the owner and 2 volunteer guides.

There are no words to describe riding horseback through the bush and being surrounded by wallabies hopping everywhere, so I'm not going to try to describe that. But it was awesome!

Eventually we made it out to the beach, and walked along the sand for a bit. The weather cooperated and we actually had sun!


We then stopped for a break and to take the saddles off before going into the water. Once the saddles were off, the horses immediately were on the ground rolling around in the sand with their legs in the air, perfect picture of happiness. So cute!

We suited up with stinger suits (the last of the season) and then hopped back on the horses, bareback, and headed into the water.


That was pretty awesome too, I think the horses liked the refreshing water too.


All too soon we were headed back to the ranch and it was over. I'm glad the horses seemed happy and well cared for, and they've done this routine so many times they know when to walk, trot, and stop, and all you have to do is hold on! (Sorry there aren't more pictures, I was too busy trying to hold on! :) )

Posted by smr1188 17:46 Archived in Australia Tagged beaches horses australia magnetic_island horseback_riding east_coast Comments (1)

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