The Whitsundays are a group of islands and reefs on the Sunshine coast of Queensland, about 700 kilometers north of Brisbane. The Great Barrier Reef starts here and extends 1700 km north to the Torres Straits between York Peninsula and New Guinea.
We took the all-night Sunlander train from Maryborough north to Proserpine, a quaint little town which is a center for sugar cane processing. The area of the Sunshine coast is tropical with miles and miles of sugar cane fields and banana plantations, and a padocks with Brahma beef cattle.The Sunlander is on old train that dates from the ’40’s, but Queensland Rail is inaugurating a new service Sunshine Coastal in October ’14 with modern trains and improved trackbeds. We took a commuter bus from the town of Proserpine to Airlie Beach, one of several picturesque towns and resorts along the coast with marinas for sailboats, catamarans, yachts, fishing vessels, and luxury party boats which cater to tourists who want to sail to the islands offshore.
A very helpful woman, Michelle, at the information center arranged a two night stay at a nice apartment in the hills looking out over the coast and Whitsunday Island about 10 kilometers from the beach.
Airlie Beach was a modest size tourist town with shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and backpacker hostels. Traffic is very light through town making it a pleasant place to wander and stroll along the beach. Because of jellies offshore, the city built salt water lagoons for swimming and sunbathing.
We had a day to explore Airlie Beach and arrange a one day dive the next day. Airlie Beach downtown is mostly for tourists, day trippers, back packers. Several restaurants, souvenir shops, and convenience stores just a few meters from the beach. The weather was blistering hot, so we spent most of our tie in the shade of gum trees along the lagoon, a fresh water swimming pool. Swimmers were cautioned not to enter the water because of pesky jellyfish.
At the dive shop at the marina, where I arranged a dive the owner told a sad tale of how diving and boating had suffered the last few years with the economic downturn and doubling the price of gas. He sent me to the old city marina to meet the crew of the Illusiona, captain Joseph, and first mate Naomi. The Illusions, a catamaran that caters to divers, snorkelers, and day trippers.
Joseph, is a Portugese-American from Woodland CA, who served two combat tours in Vietnam in 1967 – 1969. He took two R&R’s to Australia where he met his first wife. He left the service after ten years and returned to Australia to become a dive instructor. He runs a modest operation without no office, but generates business from referrals from dive shops and the local tourist centre which booked our apartment for two nights in Airlie Beach.
I boarded a catamaran early the next morning and we launched at 8 AM for a two hour trip to Hopman Island. I was surprised that only one another certified diver was on the manifest, a young Dane, Rasmus, who had just finished a work/study semester at an Auckland hospital. Rasmus is a bright fellow, a bio-medical engineer who served a combat tour in Afghanistan with Danish armed forces in 2007.
Rasmus and I hit it off immediately and teamed up as dive ‘buddies’ which means when check out each other’s equipment and gear before diving and stay close together under water.
When we anchored off Hopman Island, Naomi, Rasmus, boarded a dingy and plunged backward into the water. Naomi had cautioned us that currents had created murky conditions. Our visibility was only about 5 meters through a faint greenish haze stirred up from the bottom. Nevertheless, we swam through narrow caverns and under coral mounds where the walls were only inches from us. We carefully navigated through the passages, occasionally hearing ‘pings’ when our tanks brushed the coral.
After our dive, we snorkeled near a sandy beach while Naomi took first-time divers for their orientation dive. A squall came up, so I stayed in the water, snorkeling around coral and spotting colorful topical fish including parrotfish, and schools of zebra fish.
After a quick lunch onboard, we sailed a half hour to Langford Reef along a narrow strip of beach between two bays. Visibility was much clearer and we saw many colorful tropical fish and coral in shades of pink, bronze, yellow, and red. I dove down to brush my fingers over soft corral, anemones, and spongy tubular coral with delicate fronds.
Joseph, Rasmus and I bonded during out trip; we all had military service and had spirited discussions about politics and traveling. Rasmus and I agreed to stay in touch and exchanged email addresses. We might see each other again when we travel to Denmark this summer.
Next: Kookaburra, kangaroos, cockatoos, and fur-headed flying foxes on the Atherton tableland
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