Thursday, December 25, 2008

A glimpse of Sydney and a week on (and around) the Great Barrier Reef

Always good to maintain a sense of humor, no matter where you are

Tons of great pics not posted in this blog! Check out the most recent additions: (Sydney, 19 new pics) (Cairns, the rainforest, and the reef!) (All my photo albums) Tomorrow morning (Christmas night for most of you) I will upload a short funny video of me trying to play the didgeridoo! Check that link later for it...

It's nice to be back on land - although my sea legs are persistent so I am still feeling the room rock back and forth a bit. It's been a busy 9 days since I last updated so let me fill you guys in...

First a note (inserted after the rest of this was written) - this post is a bit scattered, and there are a lot of events and topics I could have described in more detail - but it's long enough as it is! If you have any more questions about some of the activities, or my opinions on them, let me know via email or comment at the end of the post and I'd be happy to describe more.


It was a bit of culture shock arriving in Sydney - everything was beautiful, clean, modern, and in English! I wasn't sure how I would react to returning to the 1st world after experiencing Peru. Part of me thought I would somehow be changed by South America - as if my time there might absorb me and make me reevaluate my perspective on the world, and in some ways it did, but it was different than that. It was enjoyable and interesting being in those new environments - but none struck me as a place I would want to stay very long. My perspective on the world certainly did change, but not in a way that changed my personality. In that way, while I loved different parts of South America for many different reasons, I was happy to return to the developed world.

I find myself repeating the phrase 'it was a great change of pace' and it makes me think about the concept of pace and what it means in terms of this trip, as well as life in general. It has been something I've been giving a lot of thought to and I think it's so important for everyone to change the pace of their life in one way or another fairly frequently. It's also something I think most people either ignore purposefully to stay in their comfort zone, are oblivious to, or are stuck in, unable to change it. I won't go on to bore you about that now, though, I have enough to talk about already!


I only had about 48 hours in Sydney, but I knew I would be returning shortly, so I didn't feel rushed. I had been recommended to do the bridge climb in the harbor, so I signed up for that first thing. On my way to the bridge, I wandered around a bit before to see the aquarium and 'wilderness world' which were both fun, then I made my way to the company that led the climbs. I must say - the bridge climb was fun, and the views are outstanding - but the whole experience had a bad taste to it because of how much they dress it up and overcharge customers. The jumpsuit, fancy walkie-talkies, and harness were all 100% unnecessary. The climb was never dangerous or risky - it felt like the harness was more to keep us from jumping off than to keep us from falling. But because of all the gear they give you, it feels like your A$150 is going towards something. I wasn't fooled.

I return to the modern world!

The next day I had time to check out the Powerhouse museum (star wars exhibit!!! see my photo gallery for embarrassing pics of me & darth vader) which randomly turned out to be an extremely inspiring visit. The exhibit was called something like 'Star wars: science fiction and reality' and it focused on the movies and the paralleling research going on now. They had halls devoted to things like vestibular substitution, artificial retinas, bionic arms and wireless muscle stimulators, neural interfaces, cochlear implants, and all sorts of other neuro research going on that I had learned so much about during the end of Penn and my summer internship at NeuroSky. It definitely re-sparked my interest in the field, and I hope to get involved with that field of study as well as medicine to try to figure out what I want to do when I return to the States.

After that I spent the afternoon during the Coogee to Bondi beach walk - a walk that takes you along the coast to see a number of Sydney's beaches. I had heard so much about the beaches in Sydney - everyone has a favorite - so I was excited to see them finally. They were each certainly beautiful, but in comparison to California's beaches they were pretty small. Nonetheless, they are great places to spend an afternoon, and I will definitely be relaxing on them in the days leading up to New Year's.

Bondi beach in the background

That evening I went for a jog in the botanical gardens next to the opera house, and the next day I was off to Cairns!


The first thing I noticed in Cairns was of course the heat & humidity. Thinking of Australia way down in the bottom right of the world map I hadn't realized just how tropical Cairns is.

I met up with Leon and we got some food and drinks and I heard all about his 17 dives which got me pumped to do some of my own. The next day we went to an aboriginal museum/themepark type place which was quite bizzare - a weird mixture of celebrating aboriginal lifestyle in a silly way and depressing stories reminiscent of the unfair treatment of Native Americans.

Later that day we took a rainforest tour which was terrific thanks to an eccentric slightly crazy guide named Bart. We met a bunch of other backpackers on the tour, enjoyed swimming in some waterfalls, and went to the local backpacker dinner joint for the rest of the evening. The next day I did three dives on a day trip to the outer reef which were fantastic (right along the continental shelf, so there were great reef walls) and got me ready for the 3 night live-aboard dive trip that departed the next day - Leon stayed behind because he had already gotten his fill of diving (and spent enough on it).

Leon and I in front of a 500 year old fig tree - the most awesome tree I have ever seen

Live-aboard Dive Trip

I was lucky to get the last spot on the boat at a huge discount (I bought it two days before it departed so they were desparate to sell the spot). The company I went with is known as one of the best in Cairns and I knew I would have a great time - but I was curious as to how the other divers in the group would be.

Good food, great company!

The group consisted of about 20 people - roughly a third were from the States, the rest were from a mix of Asia and Europe (no Australians). It was a really fun and friendly group of people coming from many different backgrounds. I pretty quickly became friends with two guys my age who just started grad school at Stanford, as well as a solo diver Annarieke from Holland (with whom I wound up buddying for most of the dives).

We took a small plane from Cairns to Lizard Island (where our boat was waiting) in the morning, and before we knew it we were at our first dive site ready to go. Most of the three following days you could bet I was doing one of three things - diving, eating, or sleeping.

Our perspective of the reef would soon change dramatically!

One of the dive maps during a dive brief

The diving was amazing. Especially after enduring the cold water in California getting my dry suit certification, this water felt like bath water. I wore a thin wetsuit, but mostly just for jellyfish protection rather than warmth. The wildlife was abundant and beautiful, and for the most part, peaceful. The one exception were the dreaded titan triggerfish. The females, when nesting, are extremely aggressive, and attacked a number of us (thankfully I was spared). Those teeth are nasty, and they bite hard enough to puncture the wetsuit. We learned to look out for them though, and avoid them. One of the guides - Alex - attracted one's attention and was able to fight it off with his fins - it was an amazing (and hilarious) sight seeing him fend it off.

The top deck was an excellent place to relax or nap in-between dives (here I am reading up on nitrox diving)

Later that evening we were all talking about how Alex fended off the triggerfish, and someone put on the video of him during the sharkfeed dive. Unfortunately I wasn't there for this (it was the previous trip) - but it showed him wrestling with the trash can filled with tuna heads, trying to get it open while dozens of sharks zipped by him. What I saw next made my jaw drop - when the sharks started getting really close and were running into him, he started to punch them. Yes, he punched the sharks in the face to fend them off while he got the can open so the guests could see the feed. It seemed like one of those things that is amazing, awesome, ridiculous, and probably very very stupid.

Time for a dip!

The highlight of the trip was probably the night dives - it was a little scary jumping into black water, but I got used to it. A dozen or more big bass followed us, as they have learned divers make excellent hunting partners - whenever I would illuminate an unfortunate small fish out in the open with my flashlight, they would zoom straight for it and devour it. It became a fun game searching for their prey, even though I felt a bit evil doing it.

I managed to fit in 12 dives in those three days, which I am really happy about. Annarieke and I got quite a bit lost on our first dive without a guide, which was scary at the time, to say the least. When we eventually decided to surface - it was the worst feeling in the world not seeing the boat in front of me - just open ocean. The two seconds it took to spin around to check 360' for it felt like an eternity - with an inner monologue saying, as I was turning 'no boat, no boat, no boat, BOAT!!!!' and of course we hadn't gone far - a hundred meters maybe - and we made it back to with no problems. From then on we were very careful to orient ourselves properly before descending. It was also a good excercize in general for keeping my head on straight in a stressful situation.

I was very relieved that I was (mostly) able to keep from getting seasick so I could enjoy the trip in the first place. The food was great, the people were great, the diving was great; there was nothing to complain about, so noone did. I was also able to fit in a nitrox course as well (a special gas that contains less nitrogen and more oxygen, so you can stay for longer at depth without getting decrompression sickness), so I learned alot and had a great time.

My two most frequent dive buddies - Annarieke and Mark

Now I'm hanging out with Leon, looking forward to our return to Sydney and New Year's. For Christmas we were trying to find a salvation army to volunteer at, but noone answered their phones, so it looks like we'll spend Christmas at the backpacker's hangout tonight. Tomorrow we'll most likely be back at the internet cafe waiting for our flight - so if you're online, feel free to say hi!

Once again, this post has become quite long - sorry about that. I hope all of you are well and are enjoying the holidays! Merry Christmas and enjoy the snow for me!

Comments, questions, suggestions, all encouraged!



aunt nan said...

noey: this is wonderful again(australia) - as a writer you are super and your photos add to your words (not the other way around). it's cool to make friends while traveling and then to stay in touch with some of them over the years. your discussion of "breaking pace" is right on - which is why i love Darwin Ranch and other spots that get me away from newspapers and email and cell phones and even from my dogs. hope to talk to you soon- once i return to cambridge (right now i'm on the vineyard, which breaks my pace, somewhat). xo nan

rick said...

the buck teeth on that trigger fish are nasty!
is there still an all-night restaurant down at the ferry dock in sydney?

Noah said...

Haha you nailed it dad - Leon and I have had breakfast there twice now (not many other places serve breakfast past 11:30am).