After a lovely dinner at the Rustive Olive with Rebecca in Redcliffe on Wednesday, we set off early Thursday morning for Airlie Beach. Which meant flying. Again. Australia is much bigger than I think we northern hemisphere folk realize, and since Gina and I didn't gain any wheels Down Under we have to fly everywhere as it's cheapest and fastest. That is, unless friends tote us around as they often do. The plus side to flying was that we were squinting in the Airlie (AIR-lee) Beach sun in less than two hours. It's a tourist town right on the coast, and the best jumping off point for the Whitsunday Islands, some of Australia's tropical treasures, and you can also get to the Great Barrier Reef from there. If we were starting to get hot when we moved north from Port Macquarie to Brisbane, we were boiling now.
By no accident, our hostel is just across the street from one of the main beaches (though most people don't swim off the coast here, it's safter to swim out by the islands or in the man made lagoon in town, as there are deadly jellyfish that breed along the coast. They are not currently in season but you swim at your own risk. Did you forget for a moment that Australia is trying to kill us? And guess who has two thumbs and swam off the beach? THIS GIRL.) To call Airlie Waterfront Backpackers a hostel is too generous. It is leftover space to the right of a sort of Asian food court, and the lobby is actually a tour booking office. Our room was six flights up and, to be frank, was a garret. An attic. An area that technically has a roof over it so some enterprising individuals thought to themselves hmm, I think I'll charge some backpackers for this.
It's a sixteen bed mixed dorm. I know you're jealous. The single toilet with no toilet paper was two flights down, as were the cement showers and dirty kitchen. Gina swears she's done with hostels after this trip. This place should take note though that it's facilities are worse than hostels we've stayed at in developing countries.
Nice view though eh? The water is an insane shade of teal, even in the early morning. You would swear it is fake. And it has a sort of deep glassiness to it that I have never encountered before.
I forgot to mention that Gina, once she heard me comment during our online airline booking that one could check a box marked "captain", insisted I do just that for her ticket. She will now only respond to Captain Gina or Sir yes Sir.
Downtown is nothing remarkable but since we got in before noon on Thursday we spent the rest of the day just poking around the main strip. Gina bought a new bikini (her sister picks her out the most excellent clothes) and we had a beer at one of the massive, spring break-y type outdoor bars with a disco ball and picnic tables. Then we just went and laid in the sand, which is riddled with tiny shells ranging from the size of a grape to tiny little matchhead ones. It's easy to give in to your inner child and before you know it you have a proud fistfull of the prettiest ones, and wonder to yourself what the hell you're going to do with them all. That was also when I took my chances with the jellyfish.
In the morning we scurried out of our garret by 7:30 to hustle down to the marina to meet the Providence--we booked a day sail on a local tallship.
Isn't she beautiful??? It was the best decision ever! We almost booked spots on the Fury, which is one of those horrid yellow speedboats that looks inflatable, and carries 35 people, but instead we sprang the extra twenty bucks for Providence and my, what a fancy lady she was. Plus, as a very big bonus, there were only four of us onboard (plus the captain and one crew member, a hot Scotsman whom we will revisit momentarily (easy girls, all in good time)). Providence was handmade by a boatbuilder in Airlie who had a passion for antique boats, and he got permission from a museum in the US to copy some building plans they had on display. But he could only build one boat from them, in the agreement. It took him three years to build Providence out of wood natural to Austuralia and she was completed in 1988, so she's older than Gina. She's gorgeous even in the marina, tall and fancy between the other more modern and flashy boats. Her owners are the couple that run the tour--Lindsay makes the bookings and handles the land side of things and her husband captains the boat for both the day and sunset sails. Kieran, the hot Scottish guy, is the crew and also made us tea and took us to shore in the dinghy. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The other guests were a couple from Switzerland who were about my age and lovely to chat and share the day with, which made everything just that much better. We had room to spread out and Kieran had time to hang out with us a bit and flirt too much with my sister.
Right? Am I being overprotective? Maybe but there was definite flirting. Hours of it, in a heavy Scottish accent. I know it when I see it. We also got to help with the sails when the time came, and by help I mean that poor Kieran put us where he wanted us, handed us a rope, told us to haul away, while he pulled on his own rope, and then he had to tie them all himself anyways. But it was the illusion of helping. LIke when you're a little kid and you dunk a cup in the sink and tell your mom you're helping with the dishes.
After a few hours of skimming gloriously over that glassy teal water we nosed near Langford Beach, and Kieran took us ashore in the dinghy and left us there with the snorkeling stuff. Langford is a big arm of sand reaching out into the water, growing and shrinking with the tide.
I stole this photo from Google to illustrate what I'm trying to say. It too is riddled with shells and big pieces of coral, and there are other lush islands not too far away. Since it was high tide, Kieran had promised us turtles and sure enough, we saw a little one munching away on the sea bed, about the size of a hubcap. For a few hours we just paddled around, staring down with our snorkels and our masks, gaping at Langford Reef. There's tons of coral and fish that are literally rainbow colored. I didn't have an underwater camera, so you will have to go on a mental journey with me.
Once we were done snorkeling he brought us lunch and beach umbrellas and we spent the rest of the time basking and combing the beach. Then it was back out in the dinghy but this time the sail back to Airlie was much more adventurous. The sail out had been calm enough to not spill our tea, the sail back was enough to shatter your molars (but in a fun way). The Scotsman talked Gina into spending most of it hanging off the side, on the offchance that dolphins might decide to come play in the waves the Providence cut through the water. We had to pratically be dragged off the boat once the day was over. If I am ever in the Whitsundays again I will definitely book an excursion that it at least several days long. One day was just an addicting tease.
We were up even earlier the next morning to walk all the way out to Jubilee Pocket, a suburb of Airlie Beach that sounds much more exciting than it is. We were horrified to see that most scuba diving excusions cost upwards of $300, mostly because they pad the dives with a shitty lunch and dopey extras like a waterslide and bushwalk. I didn't almost vomit into my breathing regulator to earn my scuba certification to go on a lousey bushwalk! So we had contacted the Whitsunday Diving Academy and arranged to go diving with them for the bargain price of $180. Savy, right? We strolled up to this huge concrete building with a pool and locker rooms and everything and were greeted by a man that looked exactly like Yul Brynner. Only with patchy tattoos and a thick kiwi accent. His name was Wayne and he was the head of this operation, leading another instructor and four students in the process of becoming dive masters and one Australian tourist in the process of his open water certification. Gina and I were a school bonus and we would be diving with Marcus, one of the dive masters in progress who was probably in his late twenties.
The boat was Liquid Fury, a smallish fishing-style boat equipped for scuba extravaganzas. Wayne drove her like a bat out of hell over the waves, rainbows arching out from the spray.
I'm sorry to disappoint but I don't have pictures from our dive either. I don't have an underwater camera and in retrospect, a Go Pro might have been a fun purchase for this trip but oh well. I pulled a few from the Diving Academy page that look like things we saw, though honestly what we saw was much, much cooler and on a grander scale.
The beginner student dove first with one of the dive master students (who were all energetic and quite fun, by the way) and once they were out of the way we kitted up and jumped in too. Such a big difference to the water in Port Macquarie! There we hadn't been able to make it out to the reef on the rough ocean day, and further rough waters prevented us from diving anything but the river and the river mouth, which are relatively unexciting as far as wildlife action is concerned (though there was always the possibility of sharks). This was a rainforest underwater in comparison. Huge walls of coral grew several meters tall, in great big fans, massive brain shapes and far-reaching forests of tiny trees. Marcus signed to us to not touch the tiny trees, they sting.
Of course. Basically you should just try and not touch anything ever, both in the interest of preserving the ecosystem around you as well as your central nervous system. He did show us one coral we could touch without damaging it though, and also presented us with a turgid green slug about eighteen inches long, as big around as my calf and covered in spots. It felt like a stale loaf of French bread.
It was a sea cucumber, a bottom feeder that basically vacuums the sand along the sea bed and eats the tiny organisms inhabiting it. We were also visited by George, a massive fish that I can't for the life of me remember the name of. We're guessing he's about three meters, and at one point he pratically brushed my shoulder. He also had his own little sucker fish friend hanging out on his cheek, tagging along. George's beauty is is in his size, not his looks. He's silvery blue but has a massive underbite and a low brow. I'm sure he has a great personality though. One of our favorite things to watch were the massive clams. The shells were probably a foot and a half long at their biggest, all crenellated and everything, but the insides varied in color, my favorite being an electric blue one with purple spots. As you swim closer the clam withdraws its flesh further and further into the shell until it is just barely there outside the lip, then when we turned I could see it already poking back out again.
Marcus said we did very well, despite my problems with my BCD vest inflating on its own. He thought he lost me at one point but I bobbed back in once I deflated the damn thing again and disconnected it. Then it was a very bumpy ride back to Airlie Beach until suddenly we were approached by a small boating school boat in the harbor. It was a woman Wayne knew and she said they were looking for a turtle trapped in a buoy line. They had already called Eco Barge, a local cleanup and animal rescue group, but they were trying to keep tabs on the turtle until they arrived and would we mind helping?
WOULD WE? Hmm, do I want to participate in a giant sea turtle rescue? UM YES.
It was all rather exciting. The dive master girls all threw their wetsuits back on and donned snorkels and masks. Marcus and Alana wielded ropes as we had no nets or anything. Then we waited, trying to spot the turtle in the choppy water. Every time we got near the turtle (which was larger than a car tire and a mottled brown) it dove down for several minutes, popping up somewhere nearby. We could tell from the way it was swimming that it was indeed caught on something, but when the girls first tried to approach it in the water it dove down and away but they could see it was caught on something white and flapping, not a buoy. But you could tell it was exhausted and probably being dragged down, as when it surfaced its butt was always in the air and it struggled to lift its head for air.
Wayne abandoned the swimming-up-to-the-turtle technique after the first try. He was concerned about bull sharks and saltwater crocs in the harbor, especially since whatever was down below might have started sensing the weakening turtle. Every time it took longer to surface for air we got more and more worried that something had snapped up this easy meal, or it had simply exhausted itself before we could snag it. So the new approach was to all scan the water for the dark spot of its shell and then Wayne made a beeline for that shadow with Liquid Fury, then Amy would fling herself off the boat with a rope and try to loop its fin or at least grab its shell so Tara could leap into the water and loop its fin. That was what the Eco Barge people told us to do when they showed up on a large motorboat after an hour. It was another two hours or so of speeding across the harbor towards the lagging turtle and trying to tackle it, but each time it managed to wrestle itself free, unconvinced that we were trying to help (I don't blame it). Finally one of the Eco Barge guys leaped onto the turtle like a friggin flying squirrel and wrestled the rope on so they could tow the massive reptile up to the boat and lug it onboard. It was not happy but so exhausted it couldn't put up much fight. Whatever was tied to its front fin came loose in the fray, but as she was now compromised from exhaustion and they noticed she didn't look particularly healthy, they decided to continue with bringing her in. They then slowly churned towards shore so as to not frighten it any further.
We got to shore first and pulled Liquid Fury up onto the jetty and out of the way to make room. They pulled their boat next to the dock and a team of people, some of them ours, lifted the massive turtle off the boat and onto a huge turtle harness laid out on the dock. This velcroed over her (at this point they determined it was a her) shell and pinned her flippers close to her body.
They then hauled her into the back of a ute and we were in the train of cars back to the Eco Barge Turtle facility, which was actually just two doors down from the Diving Academy in Jubilee Pocket (who doesn't want to live in a place named Jubilee Pocket?). So we got to watch her get placed in a large clean tank, harness off and debris-free. The main guy said she had a lot more growth on her shell and barnacles stuck to her face than was healthy, and that the vet would be in soon to check her over. They were all part of the Airlie Beach Turtle Team. The Turtle Team! How awesome is that? They're all just volunteers--Gina and i rode with a young woman who said she's been on the Turtle Team for a few years, and she was able to respond to this call quite quickly and be there at the dock to help haul the turtle onto the ute. She will now help feed and care for the turtle until they are confident she is well and can be released exactly where we found her. There was also three or four other sea turtles of varying sizes in other tanks in this huge barn, one of them missing an entire fin due to fishing line.
We got to help rescue a sea turtle! One that is upwards of sixty years old! By "help" I mean Gina and I were not divers but merely turtle spotters on the boat, but we helped! How cool is that??