In which we venture beyond our comfort zone and see many interesting creatures there

We’ve literally spent the last three days on a desert island. Did we miss anything important?

We were on Lady Elliot Island, a coral atoll at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. It can only be reached by small plane — in fact, the island is owned by the airline that services it (as Kate says, “the ultimate trolley park”). Our plane had six passengers and the cheesecake for that night’s dessert. Even the laundry is flown in and out.

We arrived and were given a quick orientation by Dave-your-cruise-director, which seemed disturbingly familiar. Was it Fantasy Island that I was reminded of? No… it was Lost. We had arrived on the isolated island (by plane rather than sub; details, details) where all our needs would be met as long as we played by the rules. And as Lady Elliot is an “eco-resort,” solar-powered and with its own small desalination plant, in a federal protected area, there were a few rules to be followed. Limit water and power use; don’t feed the birds (no matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg); and don’t take anything, not even a shell or a bit of coral, away. Kate took two small bits of coral and I think she’ll be spending a thousand years in Purgatory for each one.

It was also a bit like being on “Mars,” in that we were isolated and always had to keep an eye on our resource use. It was a bit like summer camp in that the food was only okay, but plentiful, and we had young and perky counselors to lead us on nature hikes and other educational activities. It was a bit like a cruise ship in that we couldn’t get off the boat island except under specific, supervised circumstances, we and the staff saw a lot of each other, and there were plenty of tropical activities.

The tropical activities included ping-pong, volleyball, and bird watching (several species of birds make the island their home, and the white-capped noddies came flocking in their squawking thousands each day at sunset — again with the watching birds commute), but the big one is diving and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. We’d never done any such thing before, and in fact neither of us is much of a swimmer, so although we really wanted to try it we were both kind of freaked out at the prospect. It didn’t help that there was a large board in the education center with pictures of all the things on the reef that could kill you.

We started out easy with a reef walk, for which all you need is a pair of crummy shoes (crummy shoes are provided, because no matter how crummy the shoes you brought you don’t want to get them cut up by walking on coral) and a pole for balancing as you slosh through knee-deep water. (One of the rules is that you do not use the pole for poking at sea creatures, or smacking your sister with.) Most of what we saw was slug-like sea cucumbers of various types, but we also saw small fish (and one big one) and a bunch of hermit crabs.

Next came an introductory snorkel lesson, conducted in a concrete pool with a life-size (3-meter-wide) manta ray painted on bottom. It was very weird to breathe and see underwater (thanks to corrective goggles borrowed from the resort) but also very cool. Kate had some trouble at first but eventually got the hang of it.

Then we went for a for-real snorkel in the “fish pool,” which is a section of reef right off the beach where they feed the fish every day at 3:00 so they are extremely friendly. Gosh wow! So amazing, many interesting fish. I caught a glimpse of a 6-foot cowtail ray. After lunch, which we ate overlooking a perfect scene like something from some ad, we went for another snorkel, this one in the east lagoon. I had some problems with water leaking into my mask, because of the mustache, but refused to shave it off.

In the evening of the second day we went for another reef walk, this one at night, led by Dave-your-cruise-director. We saw a bunch of critters who don’t come out during the day, including spiny anemones, chitons, crabs, and a big snaky sea cucumber, but we found ourselves a lot farther from shore and a lot deeper in the water than we were comfortable with, especially after Kate’s flashlight died.

On the last morning we capped off our island adventure with a glass-bottomed boat tour. This began with quite a wade through cold water to the boat, which had a front gate that came down like a landing ship from Omaha Beach. On the way out to the reef we saw a couple of small sea turtles on the surface, and several mantas on the surface and under the boat. Then it was over the side and into the deep water with us! I had a lot of trouble nerving myself up to dive into water over my head, but I had a pool noodle for flotation and a buoyed rope to hold onto, so in I went. And how cool it was! I saw many colorful fish of sizes up to a couple feet long. I peered peering down the wall of the abyss into the shadowy deeps. I floated over coral reefs and observed giant clams and an old anchor on the bottom. Other people saw turtles and mantas but we, sticking close to the boat, did not; despite that, and the cold water, it was still magical and we want to do it again.

Now we are in Hervey Bay (pronounced “Harvey”), “the whale capital of Australia.” We saw whales from the plane and from the beach but tomorrow we’ll be heading out in a small boat in hopes of seeing some up close. Then it’s on to Sydney, our last port of call before returning home.

Some more observations about Australia:

Every single hotel we’ve stayed in in this sunburnt country provides tea makings in the room, including a small container of cold milk handed to you as you check in, and tonight (feeling a little crispy around the edges after all this adventurous travel) I had a nice cuppa. Aah.

I’ll say this for the Australians, they always put a bottle of tap water on the table as soon as you sit down. They do love arugula (which they call “rocket”) though, putting it on damn near everything. They are also very fond of pumpkin.

Sliding doors are more prevalent here than in the US, sometimes automatic (and often hard to spot, you need to look for the twin arrow decals) and sometimes manual. Not sure why, there’s no lack of space, and in fact cities here sprawl in a way that could teach lessons to Los Angeles.

Toilets here always have high- and low-water flush options but I must say that on every toilet I’ve used here even the high-water option does a crap (sorry) job of clearing the bowl; the Japanese-made Toto we have at home is much better.

And now, pictures!

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