29 May 1999


Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef


Since yesterday's buffet was just about empty, we chose to order breakfast via room service.  After eating, we checked out and boarded the Quicksilver shuttle bus to Port Douglas.  This town was not as developed as Cairns; it reminded me of one of those lazy Carribean island towns: lots of vegetation with stores and restaurants sparsely located throughout.  We were dropped off at the marina while our luggage went on ahead to our hotel.


  • On the way to the marina
  • We boarded the Quicksilver catamaran and found a booth next to a window.  The brochure at the table told us of the optional things that we could do once the ship reached the Agincourt Reef Complex.  We decided to sign up for a snorkeling tour of the reef, led by three marine biologists.


  • The Agincourt Reef Complex
  • The skies were cloudy at the mainland, but after we were out to sea, the sun started shining again.  After a 1.5 hour trip, we arrived at the reef complex.  It was a two-level structure that featured a viewing deck, cafeteria, practice areas for snorkeling and diving, an underwater viewing area, and docks.


  • Tobin in snorkeling gear
  • Fish in the practice area
  • Daria practicing snorkeling
  • We made our way to the snorkeling practice area.  Once we selected fins, masks and snorkels, we lowered ourselves into the blue waters.  It was cold at first, but our bodies got used to it quickly.  I practiced propelling myself with the fins and breathing through the snorkel.  The section of water roped off for practice had some coral reef, but it lay far below and beyond where I could dive to.  Many fish swam through the area; some were so tame that they hung around the steps, oblivious to the legs of the tourists.


  • In the semisubmersible
  • View of the reef from within the semisub
  • Taking the advice of one of the marine biologists, Jutte, we gathered food from the buffet and had it saved for later.  We only had a few bites of food to avoid cramping while snorkeling.  To help digest what little food we did eat, we boarded one of the semi-submersible vehicles.  This resembled a small submarine whose lower half contained benches and walls made of glass.  Once we picked our seats, the boat took off on its slow journey around the reef.  A tour guide explained the many varieties of fish that we saw just inches away from the glass, huddled among the colorful reef.  The most colorful was the parrot fish, whose irridescent scales were sometimes blue, sometimes emerald green.  We passed over sea slugs and giant clams, and saw numerous shapes and colors of coral.  The fish liked to stay on the side of the coral that lay within the current, so that they could gather the food that passed by.  We took many pictures of the wonderful sights.  [Visibilty was 10 m, which normally on a calm day got up to 40 m.]


  • Daria models the wetsuit
  • Leaving the submarine, we approached the docks where the snorkeling tours departed.  They gave us wetsuits (which made us look like professional divers) and better masks and snorkels than what we practiced with.  Once everyone was outfitted and on board the small pontoon boat, we made our way out to a section of reef away from the Quicksilver complex.  But instead of stopping, Jutte threw something overboard, and we sped off to another area.  We later learned that someone had lost their wedding ring while snorkeling earlier, and their spouse wanted the other ring to be lost along with the first.


  • The snorkeling tourists
  • The reef island we stoped at was enormous - we could see waves breaking along its outer edge for miles.  Only a small chunk of the reef was above water; the rest was visible below the surface.  We jumped overboard and gathered around Ben, our tour guide.  The wet suits not only protected us from the cold, but they made us boyant as well.  The waters were a bit choppy, but they weren't too rough to handle.


  • What not to do when snorkeling
  • Our snorkeling tour guide
  • A close-up of the coral reef
  • A parrot fish waits for food
  • Another parrot fish skims the floor
  • A pillar of coral
  • Ben started the tour by breaking off some antler coral and showing it to us - something that we thought was forbidden!  But he placed it back in its bed down below.  We paddled after him as he led us around the reef.  The sights below were so amazing though, I tended to ignore his commentary.  While in the submersible, we could not get any closer to the wonderful coral. Here, we could reach out and touch it!  I could see all the different fish passing below, with nothing separating us.  It took some practice to dive down, what with the suit being so boyant.  At one point, we passed over a sleeping shark.  Ben swam down to point it out, but he woke it up.  As we huddled together for protection, it sleepily swam away.  I swam over to some coral to feel it - it was coated in a protective layer of slime.  But the current around the reef was strong, and I scraped my thumb as I tried to swim away.  Before we knew it, Ben signalled for us to return to the boat.  Once on board, we returned to the Quicksilver complex.

    We rinsed the saltwater off, collected our towels and boarded the catamaran.  I cleaned out my cut to avoid infection, as recommended by the biologists.  We picked up our saved meals and ate heartily.  The food wasn't substantial: cold cut slices, pasta and potato salad, and shrimp.  The catamaran meanwhile sped its way back to the mainland.

    Back at the marina, we located the bus that would take us to the hotel: a coach that made local stops in Port Douglas.  We dropped our stuff off in one of the seats and went inside the marina to get drinks and visit the restrooms.  When we returned, we saw the bus driving away - and with our bag!  We waited for another local coach to stop at the marina, and we explained to the driver what had happened.  He radioed the other bus and had them drop off our bag at the hotel.  Then he took us there, free of charge.

    Port Douglas's Carnivale

    The hotel clerk at the Whispering Palms informed us of the wine and food festival in town this evening.  This was part of Port Douglas's Carnivale weekend - an attempt to get people to visit and boost the local economy during the start of the winter.  We got dressed and waited outside for the bus.  Half an hour after the posted arrival time, the bus finally came.  The drivers have a pretty relaxed attitude toward their stops.  You can get on and tell them where you'd like to go.  As long as it doesn't wander too far from their route, they'll take you there.  Consequently, they aren't very timely.

    Once we got into town, we followed the crowd down the mainstreet to an area near the beach that contained many tents and many, many people.  We bought entrance passes to the festival, which got us wine glasses.  Then we had to buy food and drink tickets, which came in AU$1 and AU$5 denominations.  It was like the Taste of DC: area restaurants and bars sold their specialities, and live music kept people entertained.  It was raining on and off; while it rained, people sought out the shelter of some of the larger tents.

    During one such downpour, we ran under the limbs of a giant fig tree, which looked like something out of a Tolkein novel.  Tables and chairs were set up underneath, and the branches were lit up from below.  We sat down at a table and were soon joined by another couple, Andrew and Liz from Melbourne.  They were here for their honemoon - just married two weeks ago.  We talked for a while, discussing the similarities and differences between our countries.  The hour grew late, so we made our way to the bus stop.  While waiting we watched people wander by in varous states of intoxication.  Some street musicians were playing drums, and poeple were dancing in the street.  As usual, the bus took forever to come.  We saw it stop on the other side of the street, so we raced over to it; even though it had to finish a few more stops before heading out of town, we wanted a guaranteed seat home.  Luckily, we got the last two seats.  The passengers were in good spirits; at one point, they all sang along to James Brown.  We slept soundly that night.

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