Thursday, December 29, 2011


Did you know that coral is an animal, not a plant? It's odd to think of corals as having any life at all. Personally, I'm used to thinking of animals as sentient beings. (The ocean is really watching us.) Male and female corals release sperm and eggs into the water simultaneously, 4-6 days after full moon in November and December. The sperm and eggs float near the surface in threads of pink goo. I might have seen some of the remains of this goo as I was snorkling in the Coral Sea the other day. The threads float around for a while, looking for a place to implant themselves, and when they do, they immediately start building their calcium shells.

Probably the main danger that divers face is nitrogen poisoning (not sharks)--the longer the divers spend underwater and the deeper they go, the more nitrogen accumulates in their bodies. Nitrogen poisoning has effects so freaky (divers going crazy in the water, or developing nitrogen bubbles under their skin) that apparently there was a Dr. House episode dedicated to it. Divers have to come to the surface very slowly, resting at shallower depths to help release some nitrogen from their bodies. Each diver these days is equipped with a computer that monitors their exposure to nitrogen. Taking rests between dives and spending only a few hours under water each day are all ways to avoid overexposure. The threat of nitrogen poisoning is also why divers are strongly discouraged from flying at high altitudes for 24 hours after their last dive.

The tourist industry in the town of Cairns seems to be prospering from this nitrogen business. People come from all over the world to dive at the Barrier Reef, and are forced to stay in town for at least one other day. That's when they discover that Cairns is surrounded by picturesque tropical rainforest, has zoos and botanic gardens, crocodile sanctuaries, and of course lots of shopping with local souvenirs, etc. And since many tourists are wary of driving on the opposite side of the road, they are shuttled and taxied around between the various attractions. We've met only one couple from the Netherlands, Jorrit and Audrey, who after the boat, are not flying out of Cairns, but renting a camper van and planning to take a week or two to drive to New South Wales. Even in the Cairns area alone, there are lots of fascinating things to see and do off the beaten tourist track. From working dairy, sugar cane, coffee and fruit farms to old gold prospecting towns and communities. I've seen the map, and it looks very exciting. Lots more to do during our next trip to Australia. This time, Dave and I shuttled around Cairns for three days (every time being the first ones to be picked up and the last to be dropped off), and so learning the geography of all the hotels and backpacker hostels in town quite well. There's Rydges, there's Coral Tree, there's contemporary-looking Trilogy, etc. etc.

Trapped in town (and tired after several action-packed days), Dave and I camped out at a cafe in town for the afternoon. It was starting to rain, but a warm, tropical rain. We sat outside, under the awning, Dave blogging and I writing postcards. Very quickly Dave made friends with the guy working the cash register, originally from Hamburg, he likes to spend as much time as he can in India playing around with obscure computer technology and building computer games. He was only in Austrlia for a few months, working for a friend who owned this cafe. According to him, the tourist business in Cairns was down, suffering in the last 2 years from the comparatively strong Australian economy that made the country particularly expensive for tourists from other parts of the world, more affected by the economic crisis. We couldn't quite tell: it was hard to know which shops were closed for the Christmas holiday and which for good.

As we were just about ready to leave and look for dinner, Dave spotted Erika--one of the divers from OceanQuest. She and her friend Alexandra (who is not a diver and didn't go on the ship at all) were meeting up later with more people who'd spent 2 nights on the boat and disembarked only an hour or two ago. We joined in, of course. We'd met everyone the day before, and shared a few meals on the boat together. There were 8 people at dinner, including us. Erika and Alex from Gothenburg, Sweden. Amanda from Washington, DC but lives in LA, Robin from Calgary, and Jorrit and Audrey from the Netherlands, near Amsterdam. We all ate at a central "Night Markets" area -- a food court with mostly Asian shops selling some local fish and various combinations of rice and noodles. After a day of diving (and snorkling) together, we really didn't know about each other except that we were all interested in travel and colorful fish and we all liked the desserts on OceanQuest--chocolate pudding and vanilla ice cream the day we were there, and pineapple cake with whipped cream the day we left. But meeting again after a day apart felt very much like we were reuniting with family members. We had dinner together, and then most of us also had gelato. Cairns is packed with ice cream and gelato shops -- there were about ten of them in the one block radius from the Night Market.

The next morning, Dave and I ran into Eugene and Katya, a Russian couple whom we also met on the boat and who were staying in the same hotel as us. Katya is originally from Kiev, grew up near Tel Aviv, and now the two of them live in Washington, DC, working as programmers. Together, we went to explore the local Botanic gardens and the rainforest, and then they had to get back to the hotel to get a taxi ride back to the airport. Dave and I went back to town for more gelato, and then we followed them to the airport.

As we were leaving Cairns, it started to rain with some force. Cairns is in the tropics, and that's what summer is supposed to be like there: days and days of monsoon, tropical rain. We got lucky with good, fairly dry weather. A few hours earlier, when we walked in the local Botanic Gardens, it was barely drizzling, rain coming down a few drops at a time. We saw lots of different kinds of palm trees and tropical plants, birds that looked like turkeys and chickens, a lake that is known to harbor crocodiles. The morning local paper reported that a python attacked a 2-year old boy. The day before, at a little zoo in a mountain village near Cairns, Dave got to huddle a koala bear, and we took a brisk walk through another part of a rainforest. Lots more to explore in the area, and hopefully we'll come back one day, with a camper van and more diving (and snorkling) buddies.

Dave has blogged about our day in Cairns here:

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