I was dropped at the wharf at Cairns rather early for my cruise. Fortunately I was able to leave my bags and head into Cairns to grab some lunch before heading back to the Coral Princess II, a small cruise ship. On my trip there were 35 passengers and a crew of thirteen. They like to have you on board an hour before departure to settle you in and provide a safety briefing. This was bad news for me as I am not a good sailor, and by the time we set off I was feeling rather queasy. While everyone else was bonding over pre-dinner drinks, I was in my cabin sleeping off a sea-sickness tablet. I went to dinner, but turned tail as soon as I smelled the food. Fortunately I was able to compose myself and join the other passengers for dinner. Thanks to the tablet, I went straight to bed after dinner. I woke about four hours later with no idea where I was when the tablet wore off, and tried to get out of the wrong side of my bed. The wall was in the way! Clearly I should say no to drugs.
We travelled all night and and in the morning arrived at Cooktown, where Captain Cook landed to repair the Endeavour after he holed it on the reef. Owing to the tides, we had just two hours to explore the town. Having left a crucial item behind in Port Douglas, I had to find a supermarket. I eventually did after finding someone to give me directions, which left me with just an hour to explore and return to the wharf. I decided on the botanical gardens over the museum as I would not have time to do the museum justice, and spent a few minutes there photographing some olive-backed orioles before I had to head back to the boat. They were facing one another, singing, but sadly one was obscured by leaves so only one appears in the pictures. As the tide was out, we had to be transferred on the glass bottomed boat back to the ship. Once back on board, we headed towards Lizard Island. On the way, the crew announced that there were dolphins off the bow, but they did not stick around long enough for anyone else to see them. It was nice to stand at the front of the ship and get some fresh air though.
We got there in the afternoon. Lizard Island was hammered by a cyclone in April, so the resort there is closed, and it was looking rather bare, with many of its trees stripped of leaves. We were transferred to Turtle Beach to have a snorkel. Even though the reef was damaged by the cyclone, it gave us an opportunity to start to see what the Great Barrier Reef had to offer. I saw an octopus sticking out of a crevice, colourful parrot fish, and lots of other fish I could not identify. I had been hoping to test my newest toy, a GoPro which I bought after being frustrated at not being able to record my underwater experiences in Maui, but I had not charged it properly, so it would have to wait until the following day. As the sun began to sink we went back on board, and all went to bed straight after dinner after our early start.
The following morning, we had an early start to hike up to Cook’s Look. Captain Cook scaled a hill on the island to look for a way out of the reef. He found one, but soon returned to its sheltered waters. Our guide, Chris, set off at a frantic pace that soon saw me confined to the rear despite being younger than most of the others on the trek. Fourteen of us braved the climb, and he did say it was the first time no one had turned back. It is a steep climb, and hot even at first light, but taken at a slower pace it is perfectly doable. On the way I finally tested the GoPro. Back at the beach, there was just time for a quick snorkel to cool down after passing a catamaran which had been parked on the beach by the cyclone. Hopefully the owner will be able to get it back on the water, otherwise it will be an expensive houseboat. We then returned to the ship to head off to Ribbon Reef No. 9.
At Ribbon Reef No. 9 I decided to go for a dive. I am a PADI certified diver, but other than the brief Snuba experience in Maui, I had not dived for years. I gave it up because I suffer from such bad motion sickness, but I decided that off the back of a big boat like the Coral Princess II, I would not suffer in the same way as diving from a rubber dingy. There were four of us who went down with Elayna, the instructor; father and son Mick and Nick and novice diver Angelo. There was a strong current, which meant that we did not get very far, and we got through our air very quickly, so it was not the best dive, but at least I was not sick.
That night at dinner saw a young person’s table form, as I sat with Nat and Scott, a young couple from Sydney having a last holiday before the birth of their baby, and Sonia and Clemente, honeymooners from Italy. Sonia spoke good Spanish and Clemente’s French was better than his English, so we had a conversation in four languages. Dinner was a barbecue cooked by the captain on the back of the boat. Tiny blue fish were attracted to the lights on the boat, in turn attracted scores of mid-sized silver fish. Three huge gropers also circled around, although they were not feeding. Perhaps they were just showing off for us. It was hypnotic to hang over the back rail and watch them all. After the hike and battling the current, once again we all retired to bed very early, although perhaps it was having to dig up my French that left me so exhausted!
The next morning I went on a glass bottomed boat trip with Chris, who is a marine biologist. He told us lots of fish and coral reproduction stories. It seems fish swap genders rather a lot, the saucy things. After that, we dived at Ribbon Reef No. 3. This time there was no current, and I had an excellent dive with Mick and Nick. There were so many fish it was like being almost like an aquarium. I tested the video function on the GoPro, and managed to film Mick and Nick on their dive but avoid the fish! All accompanied by a Darth Vader soundtrack.
No sooner had I got in when I heard someone on the ship shout that there were whales off the front of the boat. I swam out to where everyone was gathered together in the deep water. Chris told us to stay together and let them come to us. After just a few minutes Malcolm, the mate who was in the glass bottomed boat watching them from the surface, told us they were headed our way. I peered down into the inky blue depths and suddenly right below me was a dwarf minke whale. It swam slowly beneath us, looking at us very closely. I almost forgot to breathe, I was so awestruck.
Chris and the captain were free diving, both capable of staying under for ages. The captain in particular could dive for so long I was sure he was half fish. I, on the other hand, was so buoyant in my wetsuit it was almost impossible for me to dive under, and by the time I got below the surface I had used all my air in the effort to get underwater! There were three whales, and they circled round us, as curious about the brightly coloured group of snorkelers as we were about them. Each time they came a little closer, and we had an amazing time with them. As one came right underneath us, it turned to look at some of the snorkelers more closely. It was not at all frightening, just awe inspiring. Despite being small for whales, they were still impressively large. By this stage the captain had urged the crew to jump in, so they were all there, still in their uniforms, having just grabbed a mask and fins. What a nice boss, making sure no one missed out on a rare and magical experience.
Back on the boat we were all buzzing after our close encounter. As a farewell, the whales breached near the boat, but I missed it having gone inside. This meant that even those who were unable to get in the water got a lovely view of the whales. They left, and we too set off, this time for for Escape Reef.
Once at Escape Reef, I decided to do a final dive, as I am not sure whether I will get the chance again. This time it was just me with Elayna and Julie, another crew member. As I moved onto the platform at the back of the boat to put on my fins and my scuba gear, I stepped onto the lower step and just kept going. Once I realised I was slipping, I let myself go so as not to hurt myself and slid off the platform which was about a metre and a half above the sea. When I surfaced, still clutching my GoPro and my mask in one hand, I could see Elayna peering very anxiously at me. She dived in, frantic as I was wearing a weight belt, but in my very buoyant wetsuit I was fine. She pulled off the weight belt and let it drop before ushering me back onto the boat. Once back on board, Foxy, the engineer and safety office who had been watched from the deck above, appeared in fits of giggles to lighten the mood. Poor Elayna got a big fright, but I was fine, despite falling off the boat, and after collecting another weight belt, completed the dive. We did pick up the first weight belt before surfacing!
There was no time for a snorkel after that last dive, as we started to head back towards Cairns. After dinner we had a quiz on all the information imparted by Chris over the course of the cruise. I was in a small team with Scott and Nat, and to our surprise we tied for first place. The decider was a picture round, which we lost resoundingly after getting into a helpless fit of giggles when my picture was inadvertently suggestive. It made Nat think of the reproduction stories she had heard from Chris earlier that day. Marine sex is all the boy talked about on his glassy trips. The more I tried to fix it, the worse it got and the more we laughed. We did not mind losing though – we saw whales earlier in the day!
We docked in Cairns early the next morning. I then had the day in Cairns before my evening flight to Darwin. I checked my suitcase in but was carrying all of my hand luggage, so I just had a little wander around. There is a very nice esplanade, complete with free wifi and a lagoon pool along the mudflats. Right in the centre of town, I could hear a lot of squawking and looked up to see hundreds of flying foxes roosting in giant fig trees. These amazing bats have beautiful doggy faces and large black wings that they flapped gently to keep themselves cool. It seems the local council has tried to evict them by cutting the trees they like to roost in. I am sure they are a bit messy and they are certainly noisy, but they are gorgeous. Leave them alone, they add to the tropical feel of the place. Also on my wanders I saw a shop selling museum quality shrunken heads. Well, I had been wondering what to get the family. Problem solved!
I headed back to the esplanade and watched some pelicans for a while, chatting to a Dutch girl called Franke who had just arrived in Cairns. She was a PhD student who was in Australia to speak at a conference. Nice work if you can get it! We admired the rainbow lorikeets roosting in the palm trees along the esplanade before I headed off to the airport to catch my flight to Darwin, unsure if Queensland could be topped, but at the same time knowing more exciting experiences were waiting for me.