Monday, April 12, 2010

Snorkelling at Great Barrier Reef

3rd April 2010

There were dozens of tour operators here, all exhorting tourists to take their packages. For tourists, backpackers, flash packers, etc., there were simply too many packages to choose from, thus making the decision difficult.

I had originally looked at a package costing AUD165. However, Sandra, the receptionist had other plans for me. Without hesitation, she told me that this package was for people doing diving, and I should not waste my money when I did not dive. Earlier, I told her that I didn't scuba dive. Instead, she recommended me a package which she took in the past that was not only cheaper but also more suitable for snorkellers, with a stop at Upolu Cay. She said it was very comfy and the crew members were very helpful. As she showed me the brochure, I saw how beautiful the cay is - a picture for postcards and calendars.

And then, she exclaimed, "Oh, the price has gone up! It is now 179 dollars!" Who cares? I could not possibly give it a miss and regret it forever. I have to be there, to be photographed on the cay! And the deal was done to cruise on Ocean Freedom.

At the reception counter, I saw brochures promoting the rental of underwater camera, or rather, ordinary camera in water-proof casing. A day's rental was 45 dollars, inclusive of the burning of the photographs onto a CD disk. Should I take it? That was about MYR135 for a day. What if the coral lied deep in the water like Perhentian? The flash from the camera would not reach the coral, unless I was diving. Without sufficient light, photographs of the corals would not come out beautiful and in brilliant colours. The camera would be for divers, not snorkellers. I was to regret this decision because the coral is lying in shallow sea at the site we were snorkelling.

On the day of the trip, I was up at 4:00 a.m. It was drizzling outside. I could not get back to sleep because I slept early the night before.

At 5:45 a.m., I went to Rusty's Market. I had hoped to buy some fresh water pearl jewellery that I saw a day earlier. Four pairs for 10 dollars only. I walked and reached there in about ten minutes' time.

Hawkers were still unpacking their goods. I walked about and around, waiting patiently for them to complete unpacking. When I returned at 6:45 a.m., the hawkers had still not completed unpacking. I decided that I could not wait any longer and went to the pier to check in for my Great Barrier Reef trip.

I waited at the Reef Fleet Terminal for the Ocean Freedom counter to open to check in. The weather was positive for snorkelling, with wind speed of 10 - 15 knots only. When the staff did arrived, I was told to check in straight at the catamaran. As I left the building, I realised that the drizzle has turned into a heavy shower.

Finger A of the pier was just outside the terminal. On reaching Ocean Freedom, I saw a short queue. No umbrella was provided for those without one. What shameful service, letting their guests wet and shivering under the rain in the queue.

When my turn came, my name was checked against a name list and was then directed to a temporary counter to pay the balance of the money for the trip. I was then instructed to keep my bag and slippers in the store on the upper deck and then to come down for morning tea. Tea was two pieces of pastry and a cup of coffee. I took two tablets of Kwell sea sickness pills that I bought in PNG, which Sandra said was very effective.

As it was still raining, most of the guests who arrived early stayed on in the cabin. The late-comers stayed outside. The catamaran finally pulled out at 7:55 a.m. Soon, three crew members briefed us, in turn, about the safety (what to do if the catamaran sank), hygiene in the boat, sea sickness, etc. According to one of the speakers, when one has fallen sea sick, it would be too late to take the tablets. The tablets must take effect before one falls sick. A couple of tablets could be bought from the bar at three dollars.

While the catamaran was on its way, flippers were distributed.

Later, guests who were interested in diving were invited to submit their names, for a price. There were about 10 of them. A briefing was given to them in the cabin, and I was there listening intently. One lesson learnt was that while diving, the diver must breathe constantly and not hold their breath. Doing that would cause the air in their lung to expand.

At 9:15 a.m. the catamaran reached its destination. Passengers were gathered on the upper deck for a briefing on the snorkelling equipment and safety. In order to ensure that the mask did not become foggy while snorkelling, the speaker told us to use our saliva to smear the inside of the mask, and then to fill it with water and waggle it from side to side without scrubbing it before pouring out the water. Stinger suits would also be given to those who wanted to wear them, though stingers (poisonous jelly fish) were not sighted that morning. We were also told to continuously move our feet/ flippers up and down to propel ourselves while in the water.

While the snorkellers were being briefed, the divers took to the water.

By 9:30 a.m. we were in the water. The water here was calmer than those that I experienced at Perhentian Island in Malaysia. I did not get a shock of finding myself floating in deep water, looking at corals far down in the seabed, something that I experienced during my first snorkelling trip in Malaysia. The coral was in shallow water. Here, you could almost touch the coral, between one to two metres deep only. Not only that, the coral colony was so large. I spent much longer time in the water here, partly because I did not feel sea sick and because the sea was calm.

The fins were giving me problem. It was difficult to push my feet down with the flippers on, as they have the tendency to float. How did these experienced guides do it so effortlessly? It was a joy watching their fins moving up and down gracefully in the water.

At 10:10 a.m., I was out of the water. We have a total of 6 hours snorkelling at the two sites for this trip, but here I was, watching and taking photographs from the upper deck.

With most of the divers and snorkellers out of the water, we went out to see the coral again, this time in a glass-bottom boat, at 10:40 a.m. The crew member who brought us out described the marine life in details.

From the photographs, you can see that the coral lies in very shallow water, some almost touching the glass-bottom boat.

On returning to Ocean Freedom, it was about 11:00 a.m. Lunch was served at 11:20 a.m., while the second group of passengers were out in the glass-bottom boat. The food was taken straight out from the refrigerator, without being heated before being served to the guests. I ate little. It was cold and unpalatable. In addition, I did not want to snorkel with a full stomach, which would be uncomfortable.

After lunch, I went up to the upper deck to relax, and to take more photographs.

At 12:10 p.m. we were on our way to Upolu Cay, to my dream island. At 12:30 p.m., the catamaran reached a spot not far from the cay. Here it anchored. A dinghy would take us to the cay, and from there, we would drift-snorkel back to Ocean Freedom. Earlier, the crew told us that it was high tide and the cay was submerged in water. How disappointing to hear that. I was not going to let the opportunity go. Whatever it was, I must bring my camera to the cay.

Everybody was putting on their snorkelling gear anxiously. While looking for a pair of fins, I missed the first boat out to Upolu Cay.

Only a small patch of beautiful, white sand could be seen. Even then, the pounding waves would roll over it every now and then. There was no dry land, and I was thinking whether I should just follow the guide to the sea or stay put on the cay. I did not really want to go but the thought that there was no dry land to keep my snorkelling gear from being washed away and camera dry compelled me to leave the camera with the beautiful crew member who said that she was not going into the water. I had only about one minute on the beautiful cay, before following the snorkelling group into the water.

The water was shallow and we walked far out from Upolu Cay before snorkelling. The guide was guiding us around and showing us the spot to snorkel. The water visibility was very much better than the first snorkelling spot. The white sand at the bottom was so beautiful. There was of course the coral too.

The lady standing on Upolu Cay has gone, taking my camera with her. We kept snorkelling, closer and closer to a boat, not realising that it was Ocean Freedom, our catamaran. By the time I realised that it was Ocean Freedom, I got a shock. Have I really snorkelled all the way from Upolu Cay to the catamaran? Unbelievable! A crew did mention earlier that the current was flowing from the cay to the catamaran. Only then did I realise the significance of that remark. I had drifted back to the catamaran. That is the meaning of drift snorkel. I decided I had enough and came on board.

By 2:20 p.m., everybody has surfaced and returned to the catamaran. An attendance check was carried out to ensure that everybody was present.

Soon, we were on our way back to Marlin Marina.

At 3:50 p.m., the catamaran put down anchor. The crew members lined up and thanked everybody.


  1. I enjoy seeing the pictures of beautiful caucasian ladies than corals, haha!

  2. Jam: It was just my bad fortune. It was drizzling. The ladies were not out sun-bathing in their bikini. Otherwise, my day at the Great Barrier Reef could have been so much better. With so many Caucasian tourists, I did see some very tall and beautiful girls with silky smooth skin here.