School Excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.

As a high school teacher, my workday revolves around the trials and tribulations of teenagers and as I have said before it’s never dull!  Some days are better than others, and in early December, I went on a  Marine Studies excursion to Cairns – the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef –  with forty-two 15-16-year-olds and 3 other teachers besides myself.

Sounds like fun, heh? Well, it was!

The bulk of the trip was managed by Small World Journeys, an Australian based educational adventure provider. They looked after the itinerary, accommodation, most of the meals, and transfers while in Cairns. We organised our own transport to and from school to the airport and the meals not covered in the package. (One dinner, one lunch).  We were, of course, responsible for supervising the kids and making sure they were safely in the right place at the right time for the 4-day adventure. The study tour included serious educational content with presentations from marine biologists balanced by hands-on activities including snorkelling at Fitzroy Island and Moore Reef.

IMG_3774

On arrival, the weather came as a bit of a shock to the students! I am not sure what they had expected, but the 2000 km plane ride had taken us out of the subtropics to well north of the Tropic Of Capricorn.  When we left Sydney, it was only 16ºC with low humidity. When we walked out of  Cairns Airport, we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity. (34ºC and 69% RH) and some of them started to melt.

students sitting in a lecture hall
Learning about deadly critters from a PhD student

Our first visit was to the marine research labs at James Cook University. Here we learnt about the myriad of toxic, deadly and dangerous critters found in this part of the world, including brown snakes, cone snails, box jellyfish, Irukandji jellyfish, stonefish, the blue-ringed octopus and to top it off large salt-water crocodiles!

The second day had us at the Reef Fleet Terminal at 9:00 AM for a day trip out to Fitzroy Island to visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, snorkel and to do some mapping activities.

Turtle Rehab Centre

4 girls wearing full body stinger suits getting ready to enter the water
At this time of year, stinger suits are a MUST!

 

Day 3 was the highlight for both myself and the students with a trip to the Outer Reef.  We were booked on a Sunlover Reef Cruise, and after 2 hours cruising, we pulled up alongside their  Moore Reef Pontoon. On the way, we listened to Pablo, a marine biologist, explain what activities we would be doing and the tasks we needed to complete.

A life gaurd on the pontoon

The students participated in two citizen science projects involving surveying designated areas for species abundance and coral cover and condition.  Once back on the catamaran, their findings were uploaded to the Eye on the Reef database, giving a real sense that they had done something that actually counted.

Green Sea Turtle
This photo was taken by one of my students (Piper) using an iPhone in a waterproof case.

All in all, we had 4 hours on the pontoon and students were able to snorkel and explore for nearly all of that time, either as part of the arranged activity or on their own. A buffet lunch, snorkelling gear and stinger suits were all included.

 

Small Journeys always include a social justice/sustainability twist to their itineraries so our final day involved a talk from two remote area health workers. These nurses work with patients who travel to Cairns for treatment from very remote areas of far north Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands. These people, often indigenous, suffer from a range of complex health problems which are exacerbated by their remoteness and the long term effects of colonialism and discrimination. Alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse are all too often part of their daily lives. The students sat quietly reflecting on what they had heard while they made up personal care packs using toiletry and sanitary items donated by the students themselves and other community groups.

Fish swimming near a boat
Through the observation window

We stayed at the Cairns Central YHA, which was comfortable and very centrally located. I am sure the other guests let out a muffled gasp when they saw a swarm of over-excited teenagers descending on the pool area after a hot, sweaty afternoon at the University! The next night we gave the house guests a break by taking our kids to the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, a large public swimming pool which had plenty of space for everyone!

Cains Laggon at sunrise
Cairns Lagoon

 

I would highly recommend Small World Journeys to any school looking for an excursion of this sort. The guides were knowledgeable, friendly and well organised. The price was very reasonable for the inclusions and the provided risk assessment, excellent.

If you were looking to go to Cairns on a family holiday,  I would certainly recommend the Sunlover trip. There were plenty of other activities in Cairns, which I did not get an opportunity to visit. If you are not a fan of the heat, you might prefer to go in June or July. According to the Small World Journey’s leader, September is pure bliss. Warm, but not humid and no stingers! I will certainly be looking to go back for another visit without 42 kids in tow.  (AND with an underwater camera!)

A clown fish swimming near an anenome
Found him!

 

 

Photo of the week 8

Sunday Stills 8

four cockatoos in a tree
Gangster cockatoos 2- after the meeting

I took a long time taking lots of frames of these cockatoos waiting for one to fly away when I was finally rewarded with my battery flashing red.

Once I was home in front of the computer, I was fooling with the clouds – trying to get more texture, when I clicked on a preset filter. It changed the mood immediately and made me think of the Saprano’s. My cheeky cockatoos had suddenly become gangsters! Here the Gangsters have finished their meeting!

Taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 1/1000 f8.0 ISO 125 65.81 mm

Edited in Lightroom and then with a Digital Photo School preset – Splendid Day

Photo of the week 7

Sunday Stills 7

Holiday time

Taken on Cat’s Eye Beach, Hamilton Island Queensland. In this photo, I wanted to get the idea of an old postcard. I used Photoshop’s content aware fill to get rid of a small child to her left. You can see the patch. I need to work on that!

Taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 1/640s f8.0 124.37 mm ISO 125

Edited in Lightroom

Photo of the week 6

Sunday Stills 6

A woman standing in ankle deep water looking for sheels
The Shell Seeker

Taken on Cat’s Eye Beach, Hamilton Island Queensland. I was looking to get that feel that Max Dupain had with his photos of sunbakers from the 1930’s. I think it might need to be a little bit more high key? What do you think?

Taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 1/500 f8.0 ISO 125 9.12 mm

Edited in Lightroom and then using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. High Structure preset and selenium tint.

Hamilton Island – North Queensland

“It’s too hot up here for White Pointers. They don’t like the hot water” Natalie said with the confidence of a local. She’s lived in North Queensland all her life so she should know. Guy laughed quietly as he continued to trim the greenery for a bouquet he was building.

“The winters here are stunning” he said. “The water is clear, the humidity is gone and there is less chance of stingers”

Natalie and Guy from Floral Collection – florist and homewares
Floral Collection
Homewares with a difference at Floral Collection

I’m here in mid-January and  the temperature has hovered in the high 20’s dropping (!) to 23 overnight. The humidity remains a constant 69%. Summer was doing it’s tropical best! Water temperature averages out at 28C

Natalie says that anything under 20C and she has a jumper on! Natalie and Guy run the Floral Collection on Front Street and are just two of the friendly people willing to share their story with me as I went from shop to shop in Hamilton Island.

Burgers and Fries at Popeyes
Interesting marble sculptures
Marina Cafe
Buggies galore!
The marina and Front Street
The IGA Supermarket is busy all day!
Ice Cream anyone?

There are not many shops on Hamilton Island. The retail section runs along the Marina. There are a few restaurants/bars, the pub, a post office, an IGA supermarket, a pharmacy, the Bakery, a pizzeria, fish and chip shop, and four clothing boutiques, The dive shop, at least two art galleries, the souvenir shop, a real estate agent, marina admin, cruise office and water sport hire round it off. There is also a private College which seems a bit of an oddity.  The resort hotel complex has a spa and another boutique/souvenir store as well. The prices are not too bad, considering. Considering it’s a captive audience and the lack of competition.

There are a few exclusive accomodation options that have there own restaurant but a school teacher has no business messing with those places!

Front Street is crowded with golf buggies, the only form of transport for hire. These electric buggies are limited to the Island’s maximum speed of 20kph. Their pace matches the pace of the people on the island. This is a holiday island not the place for an adventure! The surrounding landscapes are stunning and the tropical heat and humidity lull you into a lazy haze very quickly.

The view from Passage peak

Over the last few days I have settled into the routine of an early morning coffee watching the busy-ness of the marina, while guarding my food from the clever birds who will swipe your banana bread as soon as look at you.

Cheeky, cheerful and conniving cockatoo!

I watch as the early ferry drops off construction and resort workers coming in from the mainland. Then as the tourists begin to board for shore excursions to Airlie Beach or the Reef. I watch the yachties take their provisions for the week in little trolleys along the narrow docks. I watch the planes take off and land on the runway that seems too short. It’s quiet but not silent. The low hum of boats motoring out of the harbour and the flutter of helicopters an almost constant backdrop of sound broken occasionally by the buzzing of a reversing buggy.

From Passage Peak – the Island’s highest point

Cat’s Eye Beach at low tide

Jarryd from the Marina Tavern told me most “hospo” workers live on the island in subsidised accommodation which on the whole is very comfortable depending on how much you want to spend. Jarryd has been on the Island for a few years and hales from the Albury-Wodonga area at the NSW-Victorian border.  The Chef has been there for 5 years and loves Island living. The Island workers’ families can attend the State run primary school which has less than 60 students and 4 teachers. Secondary School students need to head off to the mainland to Proserpine High School.

Island living suits these fellows from the Marina Tavern.

I stopped to ask one of the HI-VIS clad workers about the best place to get a shot of a plane landing on that short runway. He’s been coming to the Island by ferry every work day since 1986. He’s seen a lot of changes since then. Originally a privately owned farm, Hamilton Island was developed by Keith Hamilton as a resort in 1975. It is now 100% owned by 21st Century Resort Holdings. In 2017,it was significantly damaged by Cyclone Debbie although there is little evidence of that now.

Don’t come for the extreme sports.

Don’t come to Hamilton Island if you are looking for an adventure packed itinerary. Come here if you are looking for a family friendly, high end resort holiday. Swimming (in the pool because of the risk of stingers in the sea), sailing, fishing, eating, drinking and resting. There are some opportunities for more active pursuits such as kart racing, jet ski hire and 4WD buggies. The island is small (5 x 3.5 km) but there are a few short walks that take you to some spectacular view points. I’d recommend  the walk up to Passage Peak. There are lots of steps and according the information board it’s the most challenging walk on offer.The views make it worth it. At the very top you stand on a rocky granite outcrop which towers above the surrounding landscape. The breeze cools your sweaty body and as you turn slowly on your heel you can take in 360o  of magic turquoise water studded with green islands.

Coral Cove

Who comes to Hamilton Island?

The marina here is the largest in all of the Whitsunday group of islands so it’s a starting point for sailors and yachties. Boats come and go all day. Families with younger children and a few teenagers are the predominant group. Honeymooners and wedding parties also make up a significant chunk of the population. There are some international visitors but from my rough observations they are in the minority. Given it’s the long summer break from school here in Australia, that’s not surprising. The scales may be in the other direction in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. It would be an great destination for a few days away for the “girl’s weekend” or a ‘significant” birthday. There are several flights in and out every day and the ferry crosses from Shute Harbour on the mainland several times a day. It’s clean, tidy and there is an overwhelming feeling of affluence. I am here on grandma duty so I can’t comment on the nightlife, but sunset cocktails at One Tree Hill is a family friendly experience not to be missed.

Cat’s Eye Beach

Bommie Restaurant in the Yacht Club – fine dining

Sinuous curves of the whale inspired Yacht Club
A cleansing ale at the Marina Tavern
Boats of all sizes
Sunset cocktails at One Tree Hill
The sunset!

…And about those jellyfish…

Australia has its fair share of biting things that have the potential to kill you. It’s all about risk management. The likelihood is low but the consequence is extreme. Irukandji are small, transparent jellyfish that cause extremely painful and in some cases life threatening  stings. They are cousins to the much larger, more deadly Box Jellyfish. Jellyfish are apparently more of a problem when there is a northerly wind blowing and after heavy rains when they are washed down into the ocean from the breeding grounds in the estuaries. The Island’s management recommend you wear a stinger suit which is essentially a very thin wetsuit if you want to swim in the ocean.

Taking the plunge…

As I sat on the back step of the catamaran, I surveyed the inviting blue water.  There were five other boats moored in the same area off Whitehaven Beach. No-one else was swimming. What seemed like a good idea at the time, became to me, more and more risky the longer I sat there. The jellyfish were not going to be a problem as I was suited up, it was the idea of sharks that got me worried. Would a lone swimmer splashing about become a shark’s easy lunch?  Be invincible not invisible I shouted in my own head. I dove into the water and adjusted my mask. I swam a few metres and floated awhile. The nearby fringe reef suddenly seemed much too far away. I had overcome my fear – I had done enough – I was wet! I could get out now!. I scrambled back on board, heart beating a little faster.

I should have spoken to Natalie before I went swimming!  Let’s hope someone told the sharks to carry a thermometer!

Charting a course to Whitehaven Beach

You can find out more about the details of getting to Hamilton Island and where to stay on their excellent website.

I prepared this post on my IPad. I’m never happy with the image options on the app version of WordPress and will fix them up when I get back home!

Apologies for the slow loading too! Check out the short video I made here.