Australia Part Two: Cairns and the Coral Sea

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 3:53 pm

After our first day in Sydney, we both kind of felt like we were done already: we were ready to get on the dive boat. But then we spent Sydney Day Two being shown all around the area on a bus… and we started to wish we had longer to explore! So it was a little bit sad to hop in a cab Wednesday morning and head to the airport, even though we were psyched about getting on with the diving portion of the trip.

The Sydney domestic terminal was a little bit trippy for two reasons. First, instead of a combined check-in where you get your boarding pass and leave your bags, it was two separate areas: check-in and “Luggage Drop.” They accepted our insanely heavy pile of backs without even flinching, and we breezed on through security – which is when we realized trippy thing #2. They never checked our IDs! Not at check-in, not at security, and not when you board. Quite a change from flying around the US.

We landed in Cairns to heat, humidity, and a steady drizzle from cloudy skies. The hotel we’d picked based on recommendations from other divers turned out to be a little crummier than expected – and there was NO ELEVATOR. We were only on the second floor, but hauling all our crapola up an outdoor staircase in the rain and humidity was not the best introduction to the facility. The room itself was stuffy and ant-infested, with a comforter that clearly had not been washed in years (as I discovered when I lay down on it – first I thought maybe I smelled that bad, but we quickly ascertained that the year-old-sweat smell was not coming from me).

We headed out to spend an evening exploring what Cairns had to offer. Turns out, an evening is plenty of time to check out the Esplanade and the Pier, with all the little tourist shops and restaurants. We also passed a lovely-looking Holiday Inn, and decided on the spot to change our reservations for the following week to that lovely, elevator-having hotel.

There was one very cool thing about Cairns at night: as soon as the sun sets, the bats come out. And I’m not talking about wussy little American bats: these are “flying foxes,” enormous fruit bats that squawk their way into the night.

We got a better look at the bats Thursday morning, on our way back to the hotel room after breakfast. Passing under some enormous trees, we suddenly realized the noises we were hearing were bat sounds – and the trees overhead were full of them:


We checked out of the “hotel,” dropped our bags off at the Mike Ball office… and then had about seven hours to kill until dinner and boarding the boat. And we’d already explored the Esplanade the night before. Doh. After wasting some time photographing the bats, we crashed for a few hours at a big backpacker’s resort – with a pool. And a bar.

Once we were sunburned enough, it was back to the Esplanade and Pier. We killed another hour just lounging around in a park; I snoozed on a bench in the shade while Jeff snapped macro photos of green-assed ants (yes, that is the scientific name).

Somehow, we passed the time until dinner, when we met up with the rest of the folks who’d signed up through California Digital Diving. And then – at last – it was time to board the boat! Everyone was exhausted and cranky from a day spent walking in circles around Cairns, so it was kind of funny as we were all herded onto the boat and they tried to get everyone’s picture. Sweaty, grumpy people – so photogenic.

It felt great to finally curl up in our bunks. I’m not sure what was more exciting: knowing that we’d spend the night steaming out to the Great Barrier Reef, or knowing that we wouldn’t have to pick up our damned luggage again for a week. Woohoo!


We woke up Saturday morning at Challenger Bay, at the end of one of the northern Ribbon Reefs. Everyone seemed to be bundling up in 3 or 5 mil wetsuits; so much so that I started to worry about our measly 1mils. But as soon as we dropped into the 84 degree water, I quit worrying – bathwater, baby!

Our first impression of the Great Barrier Reef was actually a little disappointing. Thanks to a lot of recent rain and wind chop, the vis was only about 40′ – not any better than it’s been in Southern California the last year. And Challenger Bay, while pretty, didn’t exactly blow our minds like we’d expected.

But hey – we finally got to see giant clams! And anemonefish!


After two dives at Challenger Bay, we motored up to Cod Hole, home of enormous potato cod. I was unimpressed by one diver who insisted on grabbing at the fish – although, it did make for some cool photo ops:


The vis still wasn’t great, but getting to see these enormous fish tooling around pretty much made up for it. Jeff saw one pounce on a fish and snap it up with an audible gulp.

We stayed at Cod Hole for the first night dive of the trip – and again, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. The night dives we’ve done in the Caribbean and Hawaii have always been so full of action, and packed with different critters. At Cod Hole, we saw another potato cod… a few jacks trying to hunt by our lights… and some fusiliers hiding under coral ledges. If you looked really close, you could also find some interesting little crabs and shrimps. But – eh.

Luckily, the next morning we woke up at Osprey Reef, another 70 km northeast of the Ribbon Reefs. There we had perfect weather, calm seas, and incredible vis….


  1. Are divers encouraged touch the cod? I’ve heard of places where things like that are suggested or encouraged, but I don’t know anything about the ramifications. If it’s like a petting zoo and it doesn’t bother the animal, es okay?

    Comment by Ben — 3/13/2007 @ 2:31 pm

  2. In the dive briefing, we were told NOT to touch the cod. We carry all kinds of yucky bacteria. In her defense, she was wearing gloves, and I might not have “tsk”ed too hard at a pat or two – but she was actively pulling on parts of the fish while we watched. (And also moving around using a telescoping metal stick to keep herself off the bottom, rather than correcting her buoyancy. It wasn’t pretty.)

    I think the general opinion on dive boats is that it’s somewhat acceptable to touch if the critter approaches you. But still not necessarily healthy for the animal. And if the animal is moving away when you touch it, you really need to stop.

    Comment by Anastasia L — 3/13/2007 @ 3:11 pm

  3. Even if you’re wearing gloves, touching a fish wipes away the slimy outer coating that protects them from bacteria. Sharks and stingrays are probably OK because they don’t have slimy scales, but there are other reasons you might want to leave them alone.

    Comment by Jeff — 3/15/2007 @ 10:53 am

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