Best magical vacation day! Maybe ever! One of those experiences where pictures are not easily taken. I would have sprung for an underwater camera if I had known the day and had I known where to get one.
Julia and I went snorkeling.
We took a boat out to the Low Isles. On our way out, we sat outside on the front (prow?) of the boat. A question popped into my head: was I out of my mind to take this daughter with autism snorkeling? The sensory flags were waving. I was going to ask her to put on a tight wet suit, put on a mask that diminished her ability to breathe through her nose, ask her to breath through a tube in her mouth, keep her head below water and breathe and wear giant flipper on her feet which would make walking impossible. Oh, also, keep her hands and feet away from the coral and the fish.
I think this venture qualifies me as an eternal optimist.
And I have my own challenges with snorkeling.
Back story: I went snorkeling years ago in Key West off a boat. The movement of the open water was worse than any boat and it made me quite sick. I swore I’d never try snorkeling again. But . . . But I wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef. Also, how could I help Julia if we were In open water and I was sick.
I’ve been careful to limit tours to half days which works best with Julia’s energy and general interest levels. Most snorkeling tours were full days and half day tours are not half the price of full day tours so bang for bucks argues in favor of full day tour. The desk staff at the hostel recommended a tour to the Low Isles with Tropical Journeys on the Calypso. No one realized what a good recommendation that was.
We traveled via the quick biggesh boat to a glass bottomed boat parked off the Low Isles and went ashore on the glass bottomed boat. We did a quick tour around the isle, with commentary that didn’t make 20 minutes. This is a small isle. (Point of interest: Steve Irwin, tv star and crocodile hunter died in the shed on Low Isle after being pierced by a sting ray in 2006. No question why every animal demonstration in Australia comes with warnings of what ‘civilians’ shouldn’t do.)
We went out in the glass bottomed boat tour run by a guy who knew his reef. He could answer most questions and gave us names and habits of the different coral and fish. This was an excellent way for us to get acquainted with the reef and to spark Julia’s interest. Then, we went back to the isle to snorkel off the beech. Both of us put on wet suit, goggles and snorkels. Julia immediately hated the wet suit but did not take it off. Julia fins went missing from the little pile of our stuff on the beach which wound up being the best of luck. Julia did not want to go into the water with her wet suit on. (She did look cute in it and I missed the chance to take a picture.) I tried to coax her into the water but was getting no where. I was also struggling a bit with big fins and my own mask and snorkel.
Two of the guys running the tour offered help. One said he would would be Julia’s tug boat out on the reef but needed to first acclimate some of the other guests. A second guy who had to stay on the isle with our gear and also serve as our life guard, offered that Julia could hang out with him while I got into the water. Julia agreed and I started swimming. It took me awhile to get used to using the snorkel and feel comfortable in the mask. When I did, it was wonderful. The coral, the fish! Color! I could follow a fish. My favorite fish were striped pink and blue, outlined in yellow. There were small schools of long, narrow silver fish. Watching them move up and down and turn together was more incredible in person than in nature tv shows. The predominant coral color was a light purple. There were also bright blues and yellows. And the big clams that closed their ‘lips’ tight when I swam over them.
I wanted Julia to see all of it. When I checked back on the shore, she had taken off her wetsuit. I didn’t know if she would get in the water now. The water was not cold but moving around with fins doesn’t take much energy and I guessed I would be chilled without my suit.
I swam back to the shore and Julia began to get in. She brought goggles with her but refused to use the wet suit or snorkel. I thought I could manage to pull her along when the tour guide who offered to be her tug came back to us. He equipped her with a few noodles and a bigger float. He helped her get very calm and then he pulled her out toward the reef. He chatted with her, told her what to look for. She happily looked underwater and got very used to the mask. I stayed close by but the two of them had a great time chatting, listening, looking and naming fish and coral.
We stayed out for about 40 minutes. I could not have done what out guide did and what he did has made the next time we try snorkeling much more of a possibility. It was a wonderful success.
But not without a sad loss. I lost my moon stone ring to the reef. I was so attentive to Julia’s needs preparing to leave to go snorkeling that I did not think to leave my rings at the hostel. It was rather thoughtless. Slightly loose plus cold water, I realized it was gone probably moments after I lost it. It was a special ring—the moon stone was what David and I picked out for our engagement and I reset it after he died to fit my old lady fingers. And so for the splendor of the reef, for the incredible help for Julia, for her wonder new experience my ring was sacrificed to the gods of the reef. Oh yes, a bit of a romantic explanation for this loss and I am embracing it!
On the way back to Port Douglas, I again sat on the front of the boat, present in the wind and sun, hurting for my ring, happy for the experience, for the daring to jump off the cliff and the joy of our angels who caught us.
We left Port Douglas the next day and we drove the 5 hours to Townsville. It was not a bad drive, cementing my confidence driving on ‘the other side.’ We found a place for lunch in a tiny town— not many places to stop for food and gas on the road although there were two macDonalds that we passed. Lots of road work—yes, everywhere in the entire world is doing road word right now—delayed us a bit and we arrived a few hours later than anticipated.
The plan was to be in Townsville for two night, an afternoon and a full day during which we would go to the Acquarium in the first afternoon and go over to Magnetic Island for the full day to explore and snorkel.
The Acquarium was shifted to the next morning. I thought of skipping it in favor of direct experience but it was a small Acquarium, manned by mostly volunteers who were keen to teach us about the reef. We saw some of the same fish we saw when we snorkeled, the coral varieties were not the same but the information was similar and valuable. We went to a few talks including one that included a visit to the turtle hospital where we visited with 3 turtles growing and recovering—one from a gastric blockage probably from ingesting some man made like plastic and another with a virus like human herpes. This was a great visit for Julia.
When we were finished at the Acquarium, we took the ferry to Magnetic Island. I didn’t think that I could effectively help Julia to snorkel especially if the water was cooler than off Port Douglas. As it turned out, the water in the island’s bays was very warm, my grandma would say like bath water and the waves very calm. We took the bus to its last stop and explored Horseshoe Beach. Julia finally was able to collect a few shells.
Later, on our way to feed some wallabies, we met a lovely German woman who was traveling with her young son. We chatted and walked and later had dinner together. We joked that we might be the only two single mom families traveling in Australia. Much like Italy a few years ago, I have not spied many of our breed.
It was after dark (not late but with an early winter sunset) when we caught a bus to the ferry and then walked to our lodgings. We were home in under an hour. We did not spend enough time in Townsville to really form an opinion but I rather fell in love with Magnetic Island. It was laid back, comfortable a bit more commercial than perfect but not too kitschy to ruin it, also not impossibly crowded in winter. It reminded me of the Isle of Wight in temperament and I’d spend days there if I had my druthers.