Part 1 of our Great Barrier Reef adventure, read Part 2 here.

We fly from Cambodia to Darwin, Australia, landing at about 4am. Things are expensive again, no more $30 to stay in a gorgeous hotel, now it’s more than double that for a drab motel. But we can drink the water and that’s very exciting when we arrive. There’s not much to do in Darwin. There is an amazing outdoor night movie where possums walk around and try to steal your food. In America this would be terrifying, but the Australian possums are cute, furry little creatures. Google it.

We spend the night in Darwin and then head for Cairns. The main attraction in Cairns is the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is actually how I’ve sold the whole Australia idea to Jane. We splurge on a 4 day snorkeling trip on a dive boat. One secret we learn on the trip is that if you’re ok with working on the boat you can stay for free and dive/snorkel twice a day. I spend the rest of the trip torturing Jane with questions about whether we should go live on the boat.

But back to our reef adventure. The trip starts by getting on a boat with a ton of people (most are going out for the day), sitting next to a strange woman who doesn’t seem to want anyone sitting next to her, though she is friendly and chatty by the end of the trip out. The ride begins with a very friendly young Aussie explaining the protocol for motion sickness. Basically, don’t puke on the bottom deck. The staff offer free ginger tablets, free because “they don’t work” and sell dramamine. Fortunately I did the day trip once before so Jane and I have already taken ours.

Unfortunately most of the other passengers didn’t learn this lesson.

As the water gets choppy half of the boat flees outside. What was once a packed deck is now a ghost town. Jane and I get a six person table to ourselves. When someone (usually a child) forgets the don’t-puke-on-the-bottom-deck rule, the staff run around like a SWAT team, cheerfully yelling something like “vomit” and spraying Febreeze. Outside is a gauntlet of misery, dozens of people bent over tiny brown paper bags. We still enjoy the ride out, but we may be the only ones.

After about three hours we make it to the reef. They call overnight passengers to the top deck for a “ladder transfer” to the other boat. On the top deck the staff is still cheerful but now muttering profanities about the bottom deck. They call of the ladder transfer because the water is too choppy. Instead we do a “glass bottom boat transfer.” It’s pretty much what it sounds like. We see fish!

The overnight boat is another world. We’re ushered into a comfy dining room and delivered a quick briefing. Then we’re shown to our private bunk to change in relative luxury with our own shower. Back on deck we get a bin with wetsuits, flippers and snorkels and we’re off.

For the first snorkel we each take a pool noodle. I decide it’s easier to swim without it so I put it “next to me.” But I don’t account for the current and soon “next to me” has turned into “behind our boat on the opposite side from the reef.” I try a daring rescue. My rescue is called off when the staff whistles at me to stop swimming away from the reef. A small speedboat is now heading for the noodle.

I finally make it back, through a coral graveyard, to some very neat living coral, fish and sea turtles. Full of adrenaline I could stay out here forever, but we’re whistled in for lunch.

After lunch we get to snorkel more, and then the boat heads to another spot on the reef. We come out for the next session and it’s so beautiful it’s ridiculous. There’s a rainbow. Then a double rainbow. And beautiful turquoise water with parts of the reef almost above the surface. We swim through underwater gardens filled with neon parrotfish, more sea turtles and even a small reef shark. I’ve read that reef sharks are timid, but not running away frantically still feels weird. That night we see bigger sharks off the side of the boat, feasting away.