On Tuesday morning, I jumped out of bed, so excited to be heading to the Great Barrier Reef, my Second Natural Wonder, and to be going for my first ocean swim since arriving in Australia. I was instructed to find the Falla on Finger D of the Marlin Marina in Cairns Lagoon. Why is it called a finger instead of a dock? I have no idea. It was a plain old aluminum dock, maybe four feet across. Arms extended in either direction, two boats nestled between each. I had booked a full-day snorkel trip, so a few minutes before 8 a.m. I rounded the corner to Finger D, and started looking for the vintage sailing boat named Falla. I passed boat after boat, sleek yachts, two story fishers, all modern, with big motors and smooth lines and finished in perfect white coat of paint.
And then I saw this:
After everyone arrived, our journey was underway; we left the cover of the harbor and Doug, the captain and owner of the Falla, gathered us together for a quick safety briefing and outline for the day. Though the sun was shining with scattered clouds here and there, the wind was ripping; Doug informed us that making the trip to the Falla's primary location on the reef was inadvisable due to the weather. Instead, we were headed to their spot off of Fitzroy Island.
So here's how this all works: rather than being one long reef, the GBR is the world's largest reef system, and is comprised of over 2900 individual reefs stretching 1600+ miles. It has over 900 islands, and can be seen from space (see the header image at the top of this page!).
Access to the Great Barrier Reef is highly regulated and works on a permit system - only a certain number of permits are given for each site. Companies and boat owners bid to secure permits, and must re-bid each year to continue to have access to the site. Each boat pays a tax per user (in other words, pay tax on each diver and snorkeler). That is my very basic understanding of Reef access regulations - the whole business sounds pretty complicated. As with my thoughts regarding permit funds in Nepal, I hope that money from taxes and permits is turned around by the government and put directly back into Reef protection and restoration efforts. All this permit talk brings us back to my Reef Day 1 Adventure: the Falla (permits are attached to boats, not companies or individuals), has two permits. Maybe three, but one of their dive spots is way south from what I can tell. One permit is for Upolu Cay, their primary site, another for Fitzroy Island.
We soon found out why we were headed to Fitzroy. Doug had advised us to find a spot where we could hang on to settle in for the trip across the channel, and it wasn't long before swells were tossing us like rag dolls about the deck; the crew pulled down and secured the wind/ wave screens and I looked away as four different boating companions suffered through seasickness. It was probably a mild day for anyone well-versed in the ocean and it's ways; for me, a land-locked mountain gal hailing from the flat-lands, it was a blast! I couldn't have been more thrilled, and only a touch disappointed that we couldn't raise the sails because of the winds. The waves crashing all around us more than made up for it :)
But, truth be told, in that brief moment, I was scared. Probably for a lot of reasons but for no reason in particular. Maybe it was because I'm so unfamiliar with the ocean, maybe it's because I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going ("Just swim toward the rocks then make your way along the Reef, off toward the left!" Doug hollered. "You can't miss it! We'll keep an eye on ya!"). I was afraid that I'd get to the reef and not know what to do, I mean I know I'm supposed to look at it, but I didn't have a guide or friend along with me, and for some reason that freaked me out and made me a little lonesome. Or maybe it's because of the whole going-all-in attitude jumping off a boat requires. I've hurled myself off of plenty of boats and cliffs and such, but have always known what the waters below contained. This was something different; this time I was submerging myself completely in the unknown.
I came to a big realization with that one step; the realization that I tend to skirt the sidelines of experience, tend to shy away, be an observer, until I get my bearings. Until I understand people or situations or dynamics or surroundings. I tend to analyze an experience in order to understand it, rather than live it to know it. And I notice that I'll engage in what's happening only after fully interpreting everything that is at play.
That type of constant evaluation not only removes me from the experience, it also takes me away from the present moment. Instead of watching, I should be doing; instead of listening, interacting; instead of thinking, feeling. Obviously not in every situation under the sun, goodness knows what would happen if I didn't analyze a thing, but it couldn't hurt if I participated more readily rather than watching for a while from afar.
Another thought occurred to me, one that hit me when planning this wild trip, too. The truth is that I was going to take that step, all the steps necessary, regardless of what I might find once completely in it. All it took, all anything ever takes, is just putting one foot in front of the other. And in this case, it was just a giant step that plunged me into perfectly safe waters with beautiful things to show me. I just had to open up to and immerse myself in it.
So why am I prattling on about personal journeys about being brave and jumping more readily and engaging completely in the present moment? Partly because it's important; if I'm not learning and growing while seeing the Wonders, if I'm not allowing myself to grasp the lessons that travel and Nature and solitude impart, am not willing to open up and share those lessons, then I might as well just pack up and go home, right?
But I also share all of that because, very truthfully, I wasn't able to see the reef like my camera was, so had time to think about my entire experience, not just the seeing the Reef part. The water was all cloudy since the waves were churning up so much sand, so I didn't see all the colors until, days later, I stumbled upon a way to edit the photos in a way that showed me what I really saw. That first trip out was the most acquatic life I've ever, ever, and I came across some really colorful and neat-looking fish, and I even spotted a turtle when we were taking the little boat to shore for lunch!
In the over 100 shots and a few different videos, this is the very best I can give you for Reef photos from the day:
After a few hours floating above the reef, we rounded out the day by lunching on the beach, climbed back aboard, and made the two and a half hour journey to the Falla's slot on Finger D in Merlin Marina. On the way back, a young couple from Connecticut and Columbian parents of two small and adorable kids, and I shared travel-hacking resources and wins. I chatted with Captain Doug, who is originally from Miami and first worked on the Falla back in 1989. In his twenty-plus years working in Australia, he's worked on several different boats, even Captained one of those sleek, fast, modern snorkel and dive rigs that can haul 150 tourists out to the GBR in one go. But he always came back to the Falla, and eventually took it over somewhere around 2004. I could tell in just a few minutes that he loved the ocean, his boat and the Reef deeply, and probably in that order. We learned that the Falla is a Pearl Lugger built from one single tree (can you imagine?!? This fifty foot long ship was made up of one tree!), has been sunk twice (Doug was responsible for only one of those unhappy incidents), and that his boat gets more pictures taken of it than any other boat on the Reef, particularly when the sails are up.
Doug's First Mate (of sorts) is a 15 year old kid named Connor (fun fact: Connor is a neighbor kid of Mel, Cam and crew, just up the road from where I'm staying. Small world, huh?). Jacqueline, a tall, tanned, beautiful blonde in her 50's, is the Falla's Dive Instructor. And Galena, a tatted-up pierced Russian, and Caitlin, a quiet high-schooler that is amazing with kids, rounded out the crew for our trip.
One of my very most favorite things in life is meeting characters; people with stories, opinions, wild experiences and big personalities. I like meeting people that are who they are, that give no regard to what other people, or society in general, has to say about them. I like meeting salt-of-the-earth people, misfit-toy people, people-with-a-story people. People like those that own and crew the Falla. I was having the best time learning about each of them on our trip back to Cairns!
Doug let me know that they have volunteer positions during the off season, which started in December. If there is an open spot on the Falla, he brings on folks to help out and snorkel when they've finished up the assigned tasks. After a couple emails back and forth this week, I learned that I'll be able to join the Falla and it's crew for an adventure out to the GBR, and meet them tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. sharp!
I'm so excited for tomorrow's trip, and am hoping for sunshine, calm waters and smooth sailing. Oh, and a turtle up close, too :) I can't wait to learn more about the Reef, the Falla and her crew, and promise to share all the stories with you! I also promise to jump without flinching, to fully engage in the present, and enjoy every moment with the fish, the reef structures, and all aboard the Falla! Touch base with you again soon; happy trails!