This given day started off like many others on our journey so far; I pulled myself from beneath a ratty, old sleeping bag, climbed over the ‘bed’ to our pump sink to brush my teeth and tugged and pulled to remove the boards used to convert our kitchen table into a bed. Still, something was different about today. Overwhelming flutters of nervous excitement pushed my heart to beat out of my chest as I could only fill my thoughts with the possibility of what the day might hold.
With a gentle breeze blowing, the sun began to peek out from behind dark storm clouds left behind by what was expected to be a tropical cyclone that lifted north just days before. For landlubbers the chance of showers and 25 km per hour winds were nothing but a slight annoyance. Unfortunately, for us the weather had a chance to ruin everything. We’d been watching it closely since the day we arrived in Cairns, Australia. As our plane prepared to bounce and skid its way to a stop – the pilot announced the cyclone predicted to hit the area had weakened and moved north. “Cyclone?” I thought aloud. Dan looked as puzzled as I. We hadn’t check the weather in days. Luckily, it only took a matter of minutes to learn that indeed a cyclone set to hit the Tropical Queensland Region had petered out and drifted north leaving Cairns with daily rain and high winds – not good conditions for exploring the Great Barrier Reef. It was the entire purpose of our visit to the north, and news that just days before all boats to the reef were docked and all tours canceled was a devastating blow. The good news, while still rough, the boats had resumed taking throngs of tourists more than an hour into the deep blue to see the renowned reef.
Still, we waited and waited for the weather to clear. Three days later on the hopes the storm would have left us alone, we booked our trip to the reef. We arrived at the Reef Fleet Terminal at promptly 7:30am to check in for our boat, but weren’t prepared for what we were facing. The doors pulled back to reveal what could be equated with a modern-day cattle call. Hundreds of tourists dawning sun hats and clutching towels stood in lines winding back and forth through ropes laid out like an airport or even worse yet an amusement park. Still, I didn’t let it hamper my excitement at the thought of checking something off the top of my bucket list. The world beneath the ocean’s surface has always intrigued and, let’s be honest, frightened me. Still, something always seems to pull me to overcome my fear of creatures unknown and dive in.
And I soon would after the one and a half hour ride to the reef. As we boarded the boat, the Disney-like adventure began. A professional photographer was waiting to capture this once in a lifetime moment, and of course sell it to us later at an ungodly and unjustifiable cost. As we settled into a small row of seats in the lower cabin I could hardly contain my excitement. Not even the crew screaming warnings of rough seas ahead and the available purchase of sea sickness tablets could get me down. I helped myself to coffee, tea and muffins as the remainder of the passengers posed for pictures and boarded the boat. At the end of the buffet, like a shining beacon sat a bowl of all-natural ginger tablets and behind the counter – the stronger pharmaceutical motion sickness medication. Not wanting to pay for the stronger tablets, but not 100 percent sure I would fine, I stuffed a couple ginger tablets into my pockets and hurried back to my seat. Again – the warning. “The seas will be extremely rough and YOU WILL GET SICK,” a crew member screamed again over the loudspeaker. At the time, I thought this scare tactic must be the best way to bump up sales of their drugs, but now I know the crew’s repeated warnings were as much for our benefit as their own.
With the rumbling of a massive engine, our Silver Sonic, high-speed catamaran roared to a start. As we rolled over wave after wave, chatter on the boat was constant as eager divers and snorkelers shared their excitement. It was somewhere in the span of fifteen minutes after we had just barely breached the outlying harbor and the skinny, pale, red-headed British boy next to us began to sweat. “He’s gonna blow,” I quietly whispered to Dan, who chuckled perhaps only half believing me. Bingo. Only moments later he was up and out to the back of the boat. As we powered on, the catamaran and captain were doing all they could to cut through the massive swells, but it simply wasn’t enough. The giant boat rose high upon the waves and fell just as quickly slapping the water. Simultaneously, we were being tossed from one side to another like a toy boat in a toddler’s bathtub fighting to stay upright. Those hurrying to the back of the boat to get sick were desperately grasping at rails to sustain their balance, but some fell to their knees as they scrambled outside.
As if running on some sort of a timer, every crew member on deck snapped on a pair of rubber medical gloves and began freely passing out white motion sickness bags to greedy, grabbing hands. “Carnage,” I said to Dan as I looked around and realized we were two of only about 10 people, of the original 50, remaining in the main cabin. As I spoke, I felt my stomach churning and my head was already swimming. We had both taken the free ginger tablets, but as only a true sea woman would know, the lady who passed them out snickered at their effectiveness. “5-10 km per hour – these work,” she said. “Today, they won’t do a thing.” As a wonderful husband who truly knows his wife, Dan must have been signaled by something in my eyes. He gleefully pulled two pharmaceutical motion sickness tablets from his pocket that he had purchased after we boarded unbeknownst to me.
Both believing that we were stronger than the rising and falling waves – we held on…both of us telling random stories from our childhood we’d never shared as we tried to pass the time and keep our focus on something other than the remaining people around us who had given up on making their way outside and instead were vomiting into bags at their seats. Many of those who had already taken the motion sickness tablets, weren’t faring well either. They too were hanging off the back of the boat leaving me to fear the tablets now in my possession didn’t work. My head was starting to get the better of me and I was beginning to feel like a small part of me couldn’t champion through the pain. My shaky, sweaty hands struggled to open and pop the strawberry flavored motion sickness tablet in my mouth. We were about 30 minutes from the reef, and the tablets took 20 or so minutes to work, but I didn’t care. I was looking for anything that would stop my stomach from rising up through my chest.
So, there we were laughing and talking as if nothing was wrong amid a sea of people green as the churching water below us and violently ill. As the boat passed a nearby platform, I hopped up to quickly use the restroom. As I walked through the outside cabin in the rear, every seat was taken and every person was desperately clutching a sickness bag. Like a proud, snarky kid who took home the blue ribbon at track and field day, I stood tall as I walked smiling through the rows of people who at this point would pass for zombies trick-or-treating on Halloween. A glance to the other side of the boat revealed the group of professional divers who were once gathered in the comfortable, air-conditioned cabin were now clinging to the side of the boat and their motion sickness bags.
As I returned to my seat, my mission became clear. I would not be one of them. I was in control, and I wouldn’t let it happen. Twenty minutes and several more childhood stories later, the captain cut the engine as the crew secured the boat to the moorings below. You would have just thought I tackled a triathlon, as I have rarely been more proud of myself than I was at the moment.
I raced to the back of the boat, and as those still suffering sat there stunned, I tugged, pulled and stretched my lycra wetsuit on and grabbed my snorkel. As I stepped down the cold, rough metal steps – I stopped in my tracks. The rough water was lapping well above the release platform and those already in the water were being tossed around by the waves. I sat down on the platform to inch my way toward the edge only to be slammed back into the boat as I choked down a mouth full of sea water. I turned and climbed back aboard, grabbed a life jacket and jumped back into a pool of fish gathered along the tail of the boat.
My first glance into the water was filled with fear and disappointment. The strong waves were tougher to plow through than I had imagined, and a small portion of reef seemed to disappear into a deep bar of sand. “They were right,” I thought. “The reef is dead.” As I was beginning to believe what guides in other parts of the world had told us about the reef, I glanced to the left through the dark blue waters hiding an unbelievably beautiful reef ecosystem.
Here it was – the Great Barrier Reef. It rolled out before me as far as I could see. I wasn’t going to get lost in taking photos or trying to capture steady underwater video through the waves – no, not this time. I was going to revel in the moment and direct my focus on swimming through the endless coral formations.
Exotic, bizarre, brightly-colored fish carried on as if dozens of snorkelers were no where in sight. The sound of Parrot fish chomping on the sharp, hard coral exterior filled my ears as I watched them work away diligently beneath me. A massive Maori Wrasse swam toward my outreached arms as if it wanted to play before turning and darting back to the sea floor.
The coral isn’t colorful, but it is plentiful and it rises up from the sea floor creating deep valleys between. Exotic fish darted in and out of the coral or navigated the coral valleys deep below. A white-tipped reef shark swam below as if it had a specific destination in mind, but in reality it was just trying to avoid the people floating above. It’s actually important to slow your breathing and try to lower your heart rate as the reef sharks sense the beating of your heart. It’s how they seek out food, but our heart beat is much strong than their usual prey and can overwhelm the shark sending it scurrying away as it foresees danger.
As we continued peering into the world below, the powerful waves pounded overhead knocking us back and forth in the water. Back on the boat, already exhausted but elated, I couldn’t stop recounting what I’d seen as if Dan hadn’t been by my side. “Did you see the shark?” I asked already knowing the answer. “What about the turtle or how about that massive clam?” All notion of being seasick or worried about our safety melted away with the excitement of what we found below the murky blue waters.
I had swallowed so much salt water I wasn’t hungry for lunch, but as the divers plunged into the water at our second stop, the snorkelers were given time to engorge on the hearty buffet lunch. I shoveled vegetable curry, potato salad, pasta salad and fruit into my mouth with the intent of diving back in as quickly as possible. Overstuffed and with a belly ache I headed to the back of the boat.
I stretched, pulled and tugged at my wet lycra suit but it seemed to be unforgiving sticking to my legs as I tried to pour myself in. Finally dressed and ready to go, I searched for Dan who was caught by his suit as well. I sprayed my mask with anti-fog, dipped it into the water and sat down to put my fins on. As I glanced back toward Dan, who was filling his beard with petroleum jelly to help create a tight seal with his mask, a wave lifted me from the step and slammed me into the back of the boat. I grabbed my masked shoving it tightly over my face and again attempted to make my way toward the water. Again, I was thrown back into the steps. Already feeling the bruises form on the my arms and legs, I powered forward into the water and waited until Dan was ready to go.
The second site was better than the first offering more marine life and coral formations. We spent all the time in the water we could watching the world below. But as the horn sounded signaling all snorkelers to return to the boat bound for our next destination, I panicked. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the horror stories of tourists left stranded at sea, but without a real reason I started swimming faster and more gracefully than ever before. Despite both my parents serving as lifeguards when they were younger, I was afraid to put my face in the water as a child and would doggy paddle my way across with the pool with my ashamed father shaking his head as he looked on. Not this time, in the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, I channeled every tip I could remember as I took off toward the boat leaving Dan floating breathlessly behind me.
As the boat powered back to the dock, the ride was smooth as silk and the carnage we had witnessed on the trip to the reef was only a distant memory. I chomped happily on chocolate cake, carrot cake and cheese and crackers while recounting my adventure at sea.
Back on shore it was time to brag. “I can’t believe it,” I boasted proudly to Dan. “We didn’t get sick!” He shook his head with pride. “Nope!” “No, we didn’t get sick,” I repeated as if I didn’t believe it. “Carnage,” he replied. “Absolute carnage.”
You would have thought we had just summited Everest or swam the Bering Strait as we were overwhelmed with pride, and rightfully so – we had just checked one of our most sought after adventures off our bucket list.