Category Archives: snorkelling

Top 5: Natural Queensland, Australia

www.travelola.org5. Camp outs within the National Parks and State Forests, such as Brooyar State Forest and Cape Hillsborough National Park offered peaceful, beautiful stop offs that were affordable (starting at $6). Granted, there was a lack of facilities (and people) but what more do you need beyond fire pits and  ‘pit dunnies’?!

www.travelola.org4. For a Brit like me, Aussie beaches and rainforests are full of exotic appeal. Digging my toes into the sands at Smalleys’ Beach in Cape Hillsborough National Park was a great, calming way to end a day of driving whilst a hasty dip in the river at Mossman Gorge  whetted my appetite for future wanderings through strangler figs and soul-stirring greens.

Queensland Low Isles Great Barrier Reef3. Although I may have been somewhat spoilt by documentaries and coffee table books full of intensely coloured imagery, the Great Barrier Reef was still, undeniably, stunning. With only a half day to spare, I took the shorter trip out to the Low Isles where I snorkelled and splashed about, circumnavigated the island on foot (okay, it took all of fifteen minutes) and feasted on a smorgasbord of seafood delights. Literally.

Queensland desolate landscapes2. My first taste of desolate landscapes was on the drive out of Cairns towards the Eclipse 2012 festival in Far North Queensland. It intrigued me that anyone would live up tracks that disappeared away from dusty roadsides, further into environments where only the odd spindly bush and termite mounds survived.

www.travelola.org1. After days of driving through inland Queensland, particularly around Charters Towersbig skies have to come top of the crop. I felt fully surrounded, 360° around me, 180° over me – by a spread of resplendent blue skies, of fluffy, bouncy clouds, of stars piercing a blanket of blackness. I felt  my place in the universe: alive and conscious enough to observe it but little, tiny, insignificant overall.

To read my Queensland road trip in its entirety, join the journey here.

To readers who’ve joined me from Cruising Helmsman (and anyone else interested in reading my sailing adventures), click here to rewind to my time in the Galapagos islands and the beginning of a South Pacific adventure.

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A great day at the Barrier Reef

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Back on the ocean!

It was never going to be a big day in terms of covering any great distance, but in others ways it was a big day. How could I go all the way to Far North Queensland without at least glimpsing the Great Barrier Reef, the ‘world’s largest coral reef system’, so big and impressive it can be seen from space? People travel to Australia especially to visit this Unesco Heritage Site, to snorkel and dive in tropical waters, to observe the corals and sealife, to drink in postcard appropriate scenery. Tropical, beaches, warmth? Try stopping me.

After a too-short sleep and a wake-up coffee with the stranger, L-man, D-man and me stuffed bags into the car, said goodbye to temporary housemates, and drove away from the farm to meet back up with other friends and seek out a Great Barrier Reef daytrip deal in Port Douglas.

The realistic option in terms of time and cost was a tour on the Wavedancer, a ‘luxury sailing catamaran’ which would take us out to the Low Isles for AU$161.

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Approaching the Low Isles

Within an hour of north east sailing we were mooring up in calm waters next to a teeny slither of palm trees and golden sand. It was the stereotype. Would the ocean deliver the same or had it already been too damaged? (Was I, I suddenly wondered, in fact contributing to further damage?)

The next few hours passed in a stinger suited blur of guided snorkelling and solo floating about. Occasionally I lifted my head to check I hadn’t drifted miles out to sea, never to be found again, but mostly I just bobbed around and explored and marvelled at underwater spaghetti.

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Round the island walk (all of maybe, oh, fifteen minutes)

It was pretty, undeniably, but like so often can happen, documentaries and coffee table books show it better, at its best. The colours weren’t quite as vivid as anticipated, the fish not quite as abundant. And, I can’t help but feel that the Low Isles experience was far less impressive than that of the Outer Isles.

But I’m not complaining. It was beautiful, the whole experience was beautiful, particularly when I imagined it was just me and a companion or two hanging out on this 4 acre coral cay. Whilst others might tell you that the onboard lunchtime smorgasboard was a highlight of the day, I’d probably say a giant clam did it for me.

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Free beach time massage for a buddy. Paradise, for sure.

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Kitted out, ready for action

Later that evening, camped up a little further down the coast near Palm Cove and sitting on fold-up chairs in a circle around a stove, I looked over at my friends and thought, ‘yeah, I love hanging out with you guys. What a day. Last minute decisions, sunshine, laughter, underwater play and explore, new sights, new sounds, boat time nodding off, after cruise oysters. The Great Barrier Reef. Yeah. And now chats about childhood and life and all that stuff. Good times. Great times’.

I’ll lift a plastic beaker with some left over wine to that.

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 7: Port Douglas – Palm Cove (43km)

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Even sharks can’t spoil my bliss

Watching the sun set... just before...

Watching the sun set… just before…

On my last night on the island of Moorea I sat on the beach barely 30 metres from my shack, dug my toes into fine sand and watched the sun set the sky alight.

I sat for a while and thought about all sorts, and I felt calm and content. The power of nature.

The globe disappeared and I got up to leave, but something stopped me, maybe a greedy goblin who wanted more of that blissed out contentment. So I took another seat on a bench – a higher viewing platform – and gazed out at the horizon flooded with pink, yellow and red.

And then I spotted them: two fins close in the shallows, separated from the shore only by a little strip of water and a slither of rocks. I looked around me. Two English girls sat chatting at the picnic table a few metres away whilst a Swiss mum showered sand off her two-year old son. No one said a thing. Had I imagined it?

I kept watching and sure enough, they surfaced again. ‘Sharks? Are they sharks?’ I asked no-one and everyone. The girls ran down to the water edge, fancy cameras to the ready. The Swiss woman shouted for her husband.

Well spotted’, said one of the girls as they bounced back up to the campsite. I was glad I’d said something, but, if I dare admit, the selfish part of me was secretly smug for having had a few uninterrupted moments to just take it in.

A little sharky send-off.

Moorea, je t’aime. Sharks ‘n’ all.

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The need for patience on a long distance passage

We are sailing…

It’s Day 5 and we’re flying along a calm ocean, slicing through the chop without too much clunking and smashing about. It’s not long before the South Equatorial Current gives us an extra 2knts, and then we hit the trade winds – the South East Trades. We’re being treated to a great start averaging between 7.5 and 8.5 knots. If only we knew what was coming up.

Day 8 and we’ve nearly covered half of the 3,650nm between Galapagos and Tahiti. I haven’t seen land since we left, or another vessel in nearly a week. Other than sea creatures – the suicidal squid, the dolphins and the – we’re now truly alone in the great South Pacific Ocean.

Day 11 and the Trade Winds are not working their magic. We slow significantly. Speeds of 6.04 knots feels crippling slow. There’s worse to come.

On Day 12 we have a bit of a slow struggle and thrash about in changeable winds. We have to do something but with over 1300 miles to go, it’s definitely not the time to start up the engines. A change of course makes the most sense. It’s a case of weighing up wind direction and speed against what ground we would cover (or sea). Joel and Matt do the math (it’s something to do; keeps the grey matter active) and Alan makes the call to gybe, heading significantly away from our waypoint bearing. It’s a bit of excitement, our first gybe of the whole trip. Within nine hours we switch back to a port gybe and it’s back to familiar boat wobbles and what we know.

Day 13 turns out to be a beautiful day for cruising. Everything feels unhurried. Time takes on a different dimension and we all relax into the sunshine and super slow speeds of 3 to 4 knots. If we weren’t on a delivery, maybe it would have been even more enjoyable. ‘Today would be the day for a swim in the sea’ says our skipper, Alan, but none of us take him up on it, not even Matt, who is proving to be the waterboy of the boat with daily bucket dunks and sea water washes out on the back landing deck. Instead, we consider resorting to a stint on the engines.

Day 16 is the actual day we stop for a swim and snorkel. Flat seas, not much wind to get excited about and enough of the noise, we switch off whirring motors and jump into 4,000m of clear blue water, sunlight sending slithers of light deep, deep below. It rejuvenates us. A nice change after more than two weeks of routine.

And then finally, on Day 18 the wind picks up. Averaging 7-8knts, we do what we want to do: sail west. Even the shifty winds of later in the evening don’t dampen our spirits. We are sailing again! The trade winds are back doing their thing.

On Day 19, after a few hours of wind drop I suggest that we switch on the engines momentarily. The rest of the crew pretend not to hear, so we continue on, switching between genoa and spinnaker, trying to harness the wind as best we can. And all is well. Because by Day 20 we are firmly into the islands of French Polynesia. The waypoint countdown suddenly feels all too quick and close.

Are we really ready to re-enter society?

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The world’s biggest and deepest swimming pool

The winds were down, the ocean ocean was calm and the moment had arrived. Over two weeks at sea and we wanted to switch things up a bit, freshen up and reignite some excitement after some slow sailing days.

Diving into 4,000m deep waters did the trick. (I say dive, but I bottled it. Maybe I was scared that I’d just keep plunging down, deeper and deeper, and not find my way back up in time? Maybe it was the unknown? Maybe it was the fact that I’m rubbish at diving and I didn’t want the indignity and pain of a belly flop? All three guys did beautiful, smooth dives, I must add. Ah well.)

Captain overboard

Later we added snorkel and masks to the mix, finning around by the catamaran. One person always remained on board, keeping an eye out for drift and sharks.

We only just pierced the surface of the sea, and she seemed sparsely populated with salpy forms floating around in sunlight streaked water. Any other ocean life was way, way down there, beyond our grasp and lung capacity.

Matt gets a photo from under the catamaran

Swim back to the boat before it leaves without us

And then we clambered back on board, refreshed, reinvigorated and ready for the final 1,000nm. Onwards to Tahiti!

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Overcoming underwater fear

Image © Chris Ridley at chrisridley.co.uk

The day I arrived into the Perhentians, some beautiful little islands off the north east coast of Malaysia, I was terrified of even snorkelling. Half a decade earlier in Thailand I had a cut myself up on a bed of coral following a mad, panicked flailing session in some shallow waters, and it had seriously put me off. I had tried one more time in La Jolla in the US, but the unnaturalness of breathing underwater was too much.

I couldn’t do it and I definitely couldn’t enjoy it.

But as with everything I fear, I try to find a way to deal with it. I’d seen so many great programmes about snorkelling and diving, and so many of my friends loved it. Surely there must be a way for me to fall in love with it too?

So it was 2008, I was staying in a stilted hut in the Perhentians and my good friend Hugo decided to take on the challenge of teaching me to dive.

The theory was fairly straightforward, possibly because I was a bit of a swot and did my homework good and proper. For this part of the PADI course I felt in control. Thinking, reading and remembering. It was familiar.

After the exam, Hugo’s face was sombre. I panicked. No, no, I couldn’t have failed. I had felt confident on all the answers. ‘Just joking’, he said breaking into a smile. Git. I’d passed with flying colours. Well, nearly. One wrong answer. Dammit.

The practical side of things were a little more, erm, panicked.

Hugo distracted me with silly games at the bottom of the sea shallows. Later, he made me do James Bond entries into the water. And when I told him that there was no way I wanted to go to the 18 metres needed to qualify for my PADI Open Water Certificate, he humoured me.

He pointed out cleaner shrimp, took out his reg, let them polish his teeth. I put out my hand for a manicure. They were crazy and translucent and tickly cute (the shrimp that is, not Hugo). And then he showed me his altimeter that displayed a depth of 18 metres. Sneaky chap.

A guy getting his fingernails cleaned (Image © Mark Rosenstein at www.markrosenstein.com)

So, despite a hiccup and underwater panic on my first Open Water dive, I eased into diving just fine. I didn’t have to use the excuse of some dormant heart murmur any longer (yes, it had been a worry, but possibly more of an excuse). I even started to imagine working my way through the PADI qualifications, although maybe I just wanted to get my Dive Master for the completion party? I forget. Whatever, I actually learnt to enjoy diving and my breathing calmed so that I didn’t empty my air tank within twenty minutes or so. It was considerable progress.

Sharks, sting-rays, I saw the lot. And I managed to hold it together.

And now, here in Galapagos, many a shop sign screamed out daily dives. Would I dare to give it a go again now that it had been a few years without practise? Would I get by without a good friend holding my hand?

Time to re-employ my just-get-on-with-it philosophy. Push the button.

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Sharks? Nah, I’m off to find me some turtles

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Settling for a snorkeling spot

I didn’t want to go searching for the sharks let alone swim with them, so when the rest of my group jumped in to the water and quickly disappeared off leaving little old me way behind, I didn’t mind too much.

What I did mind, a bit, was being alone in unknown waters full of strange sea creatures.

I adjusted my mask, took a big breath and put my snorkel in my mouth. My heart beat faster as I submerged my head and I took little gasps of air as I tried to flipper with some gentle rhythm and grace. I don’t take like a fish to water. I panic, a little, every time I look beneath the surface and see the ocean world spread out beneath me.

I tried to see the flipper trails of my team, but they were long gone. What to do? Head off in a similar direction and possibly get lost, or stay closer to the boat? Sometimes I throw caution to the wind, sometimes I’m just silly, but this time I played it safe.

I surfaced for a moment and returned to the boat, head above water. ‘What happened?’ asked Fabricio, my tour guide. I shrugged. ‘I lost them. They went’. ‘You might see some turtles over there’, he said, pointing to the edge of the reef breakwater that was giving us some relief from the ocean chop. ‘Will you keep an eye on me?’ I asked before submerging again, still fighting some anxiety.

Cornetfish (© Matthew Meier 2006)

And then I relaxed into it and I swam along with rainbow wrasse, bluechin parrotfish and various jacks and snappers, and loads of cornetfish –  these thin and crazy looking things that you almost can’t see. A stingray (Raya Sartén) gently flapped by and I gave it a wide berth. Something about stingrays scares the shit out of me. Maybe it’s the Steve Irwin thing? I don’t know.

A stingray slides and glides through Galapagos waters (members.ziggo.nl/mauricef/index.htm)

But my real search was for turtles so I swam away from the colourful charm of these tropical schools, onwards and over towards the far corner of the little lagoon. I spotted the first about four metres down, chomping away on plantlife. Fish darted around her mouth as the ripped off chunks of seaweed in a manner not too dissimilar to the tortoise I’d seen a few days earlier, only here the water gave the feeding process some slow-mo, drifty chic.

Another two turtles coasted around the area, one so huge that it was well on its way to being the size of a Smart car. Closer to me, I swam a few feet above it, tempted like no other time to hold on and go for a ride. But out of respect, and fear, I didn’t’. I like to think that I’m unlikely to cause any nuisance or harm, but who knows what impact a clumsy human might have? And who knows when a turtle might turn on you? Or three against one, in this case.

Not my photo… no underwater camera for me… pity (www.lifesorigin.com)

How long I spent observing the turtles, I’m unsure, but for a good while I bobbed face down and forgot all about short breaths and fast heartbeats, lost in the magic of a private moment with these creatures. A few others from my group started to arrive so I made my way back over to the boat.

‘Did you see the turtles?’ asked a French tourist as we both sat out on deck warming ourselves in the afternoon sun. ‘And the sharks! You missed the sharks. There were many.’

‘Yes’, I told her, ‘I saw the turtles’. But, I realised, I didn’t just see the turtles, I actually had some precious time with them. And I’d sure as anything trade some shark spotting for that, any day.

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Journey into the strangest landscapes

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Approaching Los Tuneles

Despite first impressions of an inhospitable, aggressive and alien landscape, these dry, spiky islands were also strangely fragile and elegant, composed of narrow passageways, slim archways and slender pillars dipping into lightly rippled lagoons of clear, turquoise waters.

I was on a trip out to Los Tuneles and typically I had failed to do any research other than listening in on a couple of travellers debrief the outing. I knew, then, that it involved tunnels and snorkelling in waters with a selection of our sea life friends And I heard sharks were involved. I was both strangely drawn in and totally terrified.

So I set off with expectations of big, fat tunnels where we’d sail into the depth of darkness and take to the water, and splash and snorkel around in a flash-lit womb. I guess I was thinking about caves, or maybe I still had the tunnel experience at El Chato at the forefront of my mind.

Instead, we motored along south from Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela, Galapagos for forty minutes until we reached a splattering of mini lava islands. Nazca and blue footed-boobies sat king-of-the-castle on top of black, chunky rocks as we wound our way further into a thickening maze.

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Getting closer

The skipper manoeuvred through narrow passes and shallow spots, finally dropping anchor in a more sheltered lagoon. Here was a network of lava archways and strips that joined islands into a bigger formation. Cacti and a few piles of rockiness gave some height to this floating land.

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In amongst it

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Moored up in an alien landscape

‘Give me your camera’, said a French tourist. On our way out to Los Tuneles we’d picked him and his family up from a yacht moored a little off Isabela. ‘Come, I take a photo of you here’. I posed awkwardly and then went off on a little solo wander. It was crunchy underfoot and I nearly lost my grip. But no! If you’re going to fall, don’t grab out! There is nothing to hold on to apart from cacti.

I sat on the edge of an archway and looked into one of the lagoons. Here, the water was less rippled and the sun pierced right through to the bottom. A sea-lion swam along, hitting the surface and then diving down again. A turtle glided past, a little beneath the surface. Another woman joined me and shouted over to the others, but the show continued only for a little while longer.

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Sea lion taking a dip

Within fifteen minutes we clambered back on board our little boat. As we headed away from the main bulk of lava mass we passed by some penguins and pulled over for a closer look. It wasn’t long before they leapt into the sea. You humans are all the same! Such voyeurs! Can’t a penguin socialise without you guys hanging around like a bad smell?

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Pose? Nah, let’s get out of here

And what about the snorkelling? Ah, yeah. It turns out that the snorkelling was to come later and was totally separate to the tunnels or archways or whatever you want to call them. Someone mentioned something about swimming and snorkelling not being allowed in Los Tuneles anymore. What was I thinking? Silly me.

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I paid $60 for the tour through Tropical Adventures in Puerto Vilamil.  The tour included a trip out to Los Tuneles, a basic pack lunch and snorkeling in another spot in the afternoon.

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