Sunday, April 09, 2006

Apex

I'm standing at the front of a catamaran built when I could barely walk and my daily routine consisted of Legos, playing astronaut and a very special daily event called "juice time." Ahead of me, black meets black and the only way I can tell the sea from the sky is by looking for the whitecaps that rush forward from this void and crash onto the ship's deck. The horizon — or at least the subtle distinction between black and black that I'm guessing is the horizon — bobs five feet above my head and then quickly drops out of sight, and every time the boat sweeps downward, I feel like all of us — me, Kristen, Dina, the two Canadian girls, Giacomo from Lake Como and the two guys from London, who, incidentally, have dressed up like pirates — are going to be digested by some pulsating dark-fleshed organism not unlike the giant clams we saw earlier in the day, during our first scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef.

The crew of our ship, the Pacific Star, seems rather blase about this whole scenario. They tell us that we're welcome to remain at the front of the boat provided that we cling to the rail with two hands. (At this point, I note that the London guys' hands are occupied by (a) a rubber cutlass, (b) a can of Victoria Bitter beer, (c) a toy telescope, and (d) another can of VB, and I imagine how ashamed their families will feel when they hear that their sons were found drowned in the waters off the coast of Australia, dressed in pirate drag.) Regardless of the crew's attitude, however, we rail-clutchers have realized that a front-row seat for barrage after barrage of underwear-soaking waves is the absolute best place to be on the boat at the given time.

It's simple, really.

This being our last night on the Pacific Star, we've all been drinking, a fact generated by a choice rendered poor when the boat crossed into a stormy patch marking the place where tall, incoming waves meet an ebbing tide and the run-off of several rivers that empty into this region of the Pacific. The waves peak here, when they might not have anywhere else in the ocean, explains our skipper. As such, standing anywhere inside the boat will make even the sober passengers walk like drunkards. Queasiness ensues. And the best cure for seasickness — which, by the way, I'm just starting to get — is to look to the horizon, however obscured the current meteorological conditions may make it. Who cares if the rain is cold and stinging and may have just evolved into hail? Each large wave that hits us is as warm as bathwater, making our precarious position as figureheads on this vessel the warmest and therefore best place on the boat. We tip forward again, the water splashes and I once again hear that automatic, uniform amusement park squeal. Only when it's done do I realize that I helped make it.

- - - - -

We boarded the Pacific Star on Wednesday night, shortly after we arrived in Airlie Beach. We had initially planned for the day to have been spent at Magnetic Island — the local beach attraction near my aunt's house in Townsville, which we may well leave Australia without having seen — but whether conditions have left "Maggie" stormy enough to warrant looking elsewhere for entertainment. Not wanting to waste a day of our last week down under, we Greayhounded it down to Airlie Beach, the best place to catch a pleasure cruise around the Whitsunday Islands, a scattering of green spots that contrast nicely against the teal of Australia's portion of the Great Barrier Reef. The names of the islands are too whimsical and beautiful to seem real: among them, Daydream, Dumbell, Plum Pudding, Perseverance, and Double Cone — the last of which being "Dina's spiritual homeland," one writer points out to me.

Previous tour groups and abroad study programs have taught me that approximately ten percent of any travel party I move with will be piles of shit encases in human skin. This, however, proves not to be the case with the Pacific Star. As I systematically approach the boat's twenty-some twenty-something passengers, I find each to be remarkable tolerable — personable, even. And entirely attractive, if in a whitewashed Bunim-Murray kind of way. We're like a floating United Nations, if the United Nations actually got along together and consisted solely of Australia, South Africa, Canada, France, Italy, England, and the United States. (Like I said, whitewashed.) My favorites were easily the French couple — friendly, but withdrawn, and looking like Adrian Grenier and Mayim Bialik, respectively. (Also, you have no idea what a big part of our trip Mayim Bialiak has been. Love you, May-May. It wouldn't have been the same without you.)

So in the midst of a good travel group, Dina, Kristen and I konked out in our room — the only above-bottom level cabin and, thus, the one place on the boat where you didn't have to sleep in the smell of sewage. That next morning, we woke up to Whitehaven Beach, the nicest spot on Tongue Island and, if we're to believe what our divemaster told us, "the second-most photographed place in Australia." (He did not specify what was the first.) The sand here is ninety-eight percent pure silica, so dropping a camera on this beach effectively ruins it. That didn't stop us from taking pictures, however, and as soon as I get back to California I'll be uploading the photos from this last leg of the trip. The water was great, though full of sting rays, and those sting rays being the kind that can actually stong you — definitely not the touch tank variety. We stayed long enough to sunburn the tops of my feet — the right somehow worse than the left — before continuing to our first dive practice.

The beach they dropped us at was about as far from Whitehaven as we could get while remaining in the Whitsundays. Think Monterrey peninsula: not much sand to speak of, rocky, cold and fraught with crashing waves. Top make matters worse, the water was also littered with a fine, brown substance that our skipper identified as coral spawn — essentially the little coral gametes washing around in search of a receptive lady coral to make new life. It's here that nature first bared her nasty teeth to me and a particularly strong wave washed me over some coral and, stupidly, instinctively, I put out my hands in order to stop myself. I grazed the tips of the coral with my right hand. Bad move. Not only is sea water rich with foreign-to-landwalkers bacteria, but the coral itself, as I learned, secretes a mucous that can irritate skin. Soon enough, I was back aboard the boat. And slightly less soon, so was everyone else; the conditions proved to bad for diving, what with the coral cum clouding the water and reducing visibility to only a few feet.

We spend the night on the boat back in a cove, where out skipper turned the deck lights on. The light reflecting off the water beneath us drew moths, which in turn drew schools of small white fish. The fish proved prey for a squadron of squid, which glowed orange. The whole nature-versus-nature show climaxed with the arrival of three of four dolphins, which frolicked, lept and then ate as many squid as they could. Me: delighted. Me: awed by nature. Me: more aware than ever that even the pleasant looking nature can be vicious.

The next day, Kristen, Dina and I had our first real dive. Following a simple skills test, we floated down to the bottom of a relatively safe area of the reef. I've never before had the sensation of standing ten meters below the ocean's surface and still walking on sand. What we can't see when we above water truly is beautiful. Alien, colorful, delicate and all those other Steve Zissou adjectives. I must admit, however, that being around coral that's seen millennium after millennium roll by is slightly off-putting. As a newbie diver, I was faced with moving in a full 360 degrees of motion, as well as having plastic flippers extending the clumsiness of my body enough that I was in constant fear of kicking something that would, in turn, bite me back. Despite the divemaster's warnings, I also sliced my hand on a barnacle while gripping the rope we used to pull ourselves out from the ocean. Drew: zero. Nature: two.

After that morning, the Pacific Star sailed far out onto the reef. Far enough, in fact, that we couldn't see a spot of land anywhere on the horizon. I had never before experienced the bare curvature of the earth like this before. Our skipper told us that the area we were over was a place most diving outfits don't take tourists to. He called it "The Cathedral," though I have no idea why. See, while the certified divers took a big kids trip out, we snorkled about. I was enjoying marine-gawking at a forty-five degree angle when I felt a strange burning sensation on the small of my back. "Can't be a jellyfish," I told myself. "I'm wearing my stinger suit." So such luck, however: I quickly felt another sting on my shoulder. Fearing immediate death by the irukandji, I hopped out of the water. I had apparently fallen victim to the little fire jelly, a cute little fucker who, when agitated, sends off stinging cells that can pass through even high-quality stinger suits. I was not amused. Neither was the girl from Buffalo who took one on the neck.

I had nearly given up on becoming a man of the sea when I had a chat below deck with Heena, a Briton who had opted against venturing into the water again after the bad experience at the pseudo-Monterrey Peninsula. She reminded me that I wouldn't have the chance to dive on the Great Barrier Reef again. Somehow, she made more sense than Kristen or Dina. So I went, fearing the worst. Forty minutes underwater, breathing through that awkward mouthpiece and treading around a host of fluorescent creatures who could on a whim string, strangle, immobilize or otherwise maim me. It didn't look good, especially considering my track record, but I dove anyway.

I had a great time.

And that's as far as I'm going to attempt to write about it, really. I didn't get hurt, so I can't write about that. And as far as words in my personal vocabulary go, nothing can really come close to describing the beautiful freaks I saw on the reef. I had a great time. I don't regret it. I had a great time. I saw stuff. I had a great time. Fuck you, ocean. Take that. And I had a great fucking time.

That night, we endured the tossing about at sea I described earlier. It's all basically how I said it, even if I neglected to mention that Heena's fiance, Shaun, spent the night hurling off the back of the ship. But you don't need to know that. We survived — poor placement on the deck aside — and now the worst of it all has become a good story to tell.

The night after we returned to Airlie Beach, a handful of us met up at a bar to celebrate Dina's birthday. We commiserated with all the "I still feel like I'm on a boat!" and "Look how sunburned I am!" and reveled in the fact that a bunch of kids from different spots on the globe all know the lyrics to "Wonderwall" backwards and forwards. We drank (heavily). We danced (humorously). I went to bed (early).

For me, this was effectively the end of the trip. After returning, we had less than a week left, just enough to drive up to Cairns to catch our flight back to Auckland. But as a climax, I think it works rather well. Or is it bad luck to deem what you're doing falling action before you're done with it?

[ you snooze you lose. well i have snost and lost ]

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