Monday, 8 October 2007

A Pinker Shade of Tanned

FIRST of all I owe an apology. I haven't posted here in a week and I know how passionately you have been following my adventures. However I have an excuse. I have been at sea, you see.

On Thursday, after an action packed few days beginning and ending on a beach, we set sail from Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach aboard the beautiful sailing ketch Enid. Built in 1961 she has competed in four Sydney to Hobart races and recently stunned the competition in both the 2003 and 2004 Whitsunday Traditional Boat Regattas. It was to the Whitsunday Islands we sailed.

By Thursday afternoon we arrived at Hayman Island, a small island with a resort on the far side. As the engines were switched off (for the winds had been minimal en route) a school of batfish came to the boat, yellow-finned, black-and-white vertical fish of quite surprising stature, which zipped through the water with breathtaking speed. They were scavenger fish, eating scraps thrown overboard, including beetroot. We donned our Super Sexy Stinger Suits (figure-hugging, full-body, lycra-style swimsuits designed to protect from jellyfish) and jumped in among them, snorkelling up to the shore. Almost instantly we were in another world - a forested sea bed, not with conventional trees but branched corals of blues and oranges. Purple and green parrotfish swam around happily among the spongy coral brains and a host of unknown but beautiful fish swam within arm's reach. This was not the Great Barrier Reef, but it was just as exciting.

At night we anchored near Whitsunday Island itself and ate under the stars. The sea was perfectly still and the sky free from clouds, and we spent a long while making up new constellation names and finding exciting star shapes. Jupiter and Mars were clear to see, as was half of the Southern Cross. In such clear skies the Milky Way and our next nearest galaxy were also visible.

In the morning, the sea was still motionless. A few clouds had infiltrated the sky but sun beams were desperately trying to push through into a steep, forested valley on Whitsunday Island. Hauling up the anchor we set off, sailing gracefully to the sounds of Xavier Rudd, past the luxury resort on Hamilton Island (a delightful little island blighted by high-rise hotels) to Whitehaven Beach, frequently voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Pure white sands stretched onwards, our eyes struggling with the brightness. In the sea we found stingrays resting on the surface. Next we snorkelled off of Border Island, in search (in vain) for giant wrasse. Overnight we stayed in a bay notorious for hammerhead sharks, relaxing to Johnny Cash while looking out over gently rippling waters. I looked over the back of the boat to find microscopic algae luminescing with a blue glow. It was tremendously peaceful, and I was quite sad to go to bed knowing that the following evening I would be back on land.

Yet the third and final day turned out to be the best. Mooring off of Black Island, we dived in to snorkel the fringing reefs and relax on the baking beach. After curing some technical snorkel issues, I followed the crowd and was slightly disappointed by the corals, which were blander and smaller than those we had already seen. I walked onto the beach and wandered around the tiny island, and discovered along with the rest of the group something quite spectacular. In the distance was the hilly and forested Hook Island, providing a scenic backdrop to a scene which contained dark, deep waters on the far side and a 100-metre or so shallow lagoon stretching off of the beach we stood on. Perhaps only a metre deep, everything in it was clear to see, and for a brief moment we assumed there was nothing to see, just sand, rocks and the occasional plant.

In fact the water contained a group of giant turtles. So tame were these beautiful animals that we could follow them and swim with them. At one stage I was but a foot above a metre-long guy, who was paddling along gracefully and looking quite content. Another sat eating on the sea bed, when eight of us formed an audience around him. We even touched its shell. I have to be honest, swimming with turtles is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

If there is one thing you have to do before you die, sailing the Whitsundays is it.

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