Tag Archives: snorkeling
My Top Ten Firsts of the Trip (So Far)
In no particular order:
1. First time driving on the left
2. First time eating sushi (the real kind, with raw fish)
3. First time riding in a tuk-tuk
4. First time using crampons
5. First time drinking sake
6. First time riding a motorbike
7. First time eating kangaroo and camel
8. First time sailing
9. First time snorkeling
10. First time feeding an elephant
Beautiful and Damaged: Hong Island and Railay
I had a mixed experience in paradise. The islands of Thailand are gorgeous, no question, but they’re also woefully underprotected and poorly maintained. For as long as Thailand has been a vacation destination, you’d think there’d be more regulations in place to protect the delicate ecosystem that everyone’s excited to see. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are a few islands that are national parks, but those aren’t watched very carefully, and new (illegal) developments go up all the time.
Tons of tours go out to the islands every day, and there aren’t enough trash cans or port-a-potties for the number of tourists that tear through there. Trash literally piles up on the beach. Pools of motor oil form in the bays as longtail boats maneuver in and out of the tight spaces. Snorkeling reveals little in many places, as the water’s cloudy with pollution. Way too many people amass on each tiny beach and spoil the view and the experience. And of course, as I was always aware, I was part of the problem, just by being there.
And yet, it’s still beautiful, worth visiting and admiring. I went on a tour to Hong Island, which included stops in the shallows of Deng Island and the bay of Paradise Island, and a detour past some ships guarding the princess’s summer residence. Probably about 40 of us piled on to a longtail boat with a driver and a guide (whose name I forget, unfortunately) and off we went into the bright sunshine.
Deng Island was a tiny rock with some scrubby bush upon it, and we anchored next to it for a quick snorkeling session. But the sea was choppy and most people didn’t last long in the water. At one point, we heard a scream from a woman who, turns out, doesn’t know how to swim but had jumped in with her life jacket anyway; she found the rough waves too much to handle. Just before we got back in the boat, a huge school of yellow-white fish swirled up around us, causing everyone to exclaim that now would be a good time to snorkel. But when you’re on a tour you don’t have time to delay, so we carried on.
Paradise Island turned me off initially with the piles of trash not far from shore and the tourists sweating sunscreen into the water, but once I swam a little away from the crowd, I liked it much more. I snorkeled in the space between the island and the rock form next to it, and found lots of interesting colored coral–waving red ferns, shocks of purple stalks. It was a nice little stop, although I’m sure it’s vastly different from what it was even five years ago.
We had lunch at Hong Island and then split up; most people set up on the beach for some sunbathing, and about 15 of us who’d paid a bit extra got into kayaks. They were two-person kayaks, but the guide decided I was too heavy to share, so he had me sit in the middle and pilot one on my own. I could have shared no problem, but you do as your guide says. It was difficult to keep up, since I’ve never kayaked in the ocean before and I was doing the work of two people, but I’m proud to say I managed it. We followed the coast of the island around a couple of curves until we reached the lagoon on the other side. We paddled down a short, narrow passage that opened up into a large cove surrounded by limestone cliffs covered in foliage. The water was a bright, light green of the exact shade called “seafoam” on paint samples.
We were in maybe 2 feet of water, and our guide reached down to the sand and pulled up large white starfish to show us. It was an idyllic spot, but almost the whole time we were there the serenity of the moment was broken by the speedboats that forced their way into the lagoon, despite being far too large for the shallow water; they’d noisily move around the lagoon, then get stuck in the sand and make even more noise revving their engines to get unstuck.
My other day trip out of Krabi Town was a visit to Railay. To get there, I took a songthaew to Ao Nang Beach (a small, uninspiring beach backed by an unrelenting strip of shops–I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a place to base yourself in the area), then a longtail around the coast to West Railay Beach. I think my expectations were a little high, because I was disappointed. Everything at Railay was overpriced (water was four times what it was anywhere else I’d been in Thailand), and there seemed to be few places to set yourself up on the beach since so much space was taken up by longtails. Also, it was super crowded. I walked around to Pra Nang, which was a small beach boasting a cave full of lingams and a pile of rocks to scramble on, and I was overwhelmed by the number of people packed into that tiny space.
I’ve talked to people who stayed at Railay, and they had a much better time; they were able to find hidden areas to sunbathe and swim, so they could focus on the undeniable beauty of the limestone cliffs and calm blue-green water without getting distracted by crowds and a need to catch a boat back before prices went up at sunset.
I did get to see some monkeys on my walk to and from Pra Nang, including a baby! I also stopped by Tonsai, a popular climbing spot, and watched several people clip in and maneuver up and down those sheer cliffs. It looked terrifying, but they had smiles on their faces, so well done them.
I’m not sure what the solution is for the conservation-minded tourist who wants to visit the Thai islands. There are some tour groups out there making an effort to be eco-conscious, so you can give your dollars to them. You can also go to more out-of-the-way islands, although those are becoming harder and harder to find, so you’re not adding to the overcrowding of the popular ones–but does that mean you’re just speeding up the exploitation of an otherwise untouched place? You could just not go at all, but missing out on the beauty of this part of the world would be a shame. I took a visitor survey at the airport and made a big deal about the lack of conservation efforts, so maybe if enough tourists do that it’ll catch a government official’s eye. I don’t know–what are your thoughts?
Sailing Away in the Whitsundays
When traveling the backpackers’ circuit of the Australian east coast, one of the things one does is sail in the Whitsundays. It’s like taking the waters in Bath or catching a Broadway show in New York—you have to splash out a bit for it, but darling, you simply must. I did not know this was the case until I got to Australia, but I soon learned this was the general opinion, and I did a little research to see if it seemed worth the cost. I got a good deal by booking with the Oz Experience ticket (with the same woman who sent me to Magnetic Island), so then it was just a matter of “will the weather hold?” and “will I get seasick?”
I am pleased to tell you, dearest fellow travelers, that it did hold and I did not feel ill. In fact, what with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face and the water sparkling on all sides, I felt fantastic. I spent two days and two nights on board a former racing sailboat with four crew and twenty-five fellow tourists. It was one of my favorite experiences in Australia, and I see now why darling, you simply must.
The boat, called the Condor, had won races in its prime, and the crew was fond of mentioning this fact. They had fun taking us along the established route, but it was clear that they all aspired to work on a racing vessel someday. The boat is made of a material that was new at the time—Kevlar, the bulletproof armor cops wear. It’s a heavy steel, and they used a lot of it. Basically, we were all set if we got in a chase with gun-toting pirates.
Happily, our trip was much more tranquil than that. We boarded in the early afternoon, claimed spots to sleep, and then went back up top to watch the world float by. We didn’t sail for the whole time; in fact, quite a bit of the time, we were motoring to specific destinations. But when we did sail, oh man! The crew could have done it all themselves, but they let us pitch in. Some people pulled on the mainsail and the topsail, and the rest of us furiously turned some machinery to tighten up the rigging. Then we’d be told which side of the boat was safe to be on—called the “upwind” or “windward” side because that was the side tipping up in the air rather than down in the water, based on wind and our position in the water—and we’d hang out there as we sliced through the sea.
The first day, we sailed to Tongue Bay and put in anchor for the night. Several other boats had the same idea, and as the sun set, the lights from all the boats glowed brightly until the stars came out, and then they were brilliantly outshone. People wandered around the boat, drinking wine, watching a dolphin play in the light off the stern, lying back and stargazing. I bundled up and chatted with a couple friendly women as we stared up at the sky. I wanted to stay there all night, but it eventually became too cold, so we all went down below, and balanced on our little bunks as the ship rocked us to sleep.
We were up bright and early the next day, and after breakfast, we got in the dinghy we’d towed, and we were ferried over to the island nearest us. We went on a short bushwalk up to a lookout point, and voila! Whitehaven Beach spread out below us. This beach has some of the whitest, loveliest sand in the world. It’s 98% silica, so for some time, people took the sand to make glass products with. Now it’s protected, which is a very good thing, because the local rocks don’t have any silica, so the sand probably blew over here years ago and it’s likely more can’t be made. What you see is what you get, here.
We walked down to the beach, dumped our things in a central pile, and spread out. Some people went to take jumping photos, the few couples with us wandered off for a romantic stroll, and I walked along the shore looking for stingrays. They float very near the shore, and although it’s hard to tell from my photos, I did see several of them. I walked almost all the way around the point (it was pretty big), and admired the brilliancy of the water, the sky, and the bright white sand. It was like a postcard of paradise had come to life, and just sparkled in the daylight.
Once we were back on the boat, we raised anchor and made our way toward Luncheon Bay. On the way, appropriately, we had lunch, and we watched the crew feed sea eagles. Once we got to the bay, we donned our stinger suits (because Australia is always trying to kill you) and grabbed snorkels and goggles. The dinghy took us close to the shore of this island, from which you can see the smallest lighthouse in Australia. Once we got to the reef, the crewmember cut the engine and we all fell with purpose straight into the water.
The reef here was the same Great Barrier Reef that I’d seen up in Cairns—it is 1,600 miles long, after all—but I preferred snorkeling in Cairns. The water was cloudier here, and there were way more people in the water with me. Also, importantly, the crew hadn’t briefed us on how to safely be near coral here, as they had in Cairns. I saw a man stand on coral while he adjusted his goggles. I told him he couldn’t do that, that he was causing irreparable damage to the reef, and he just looked annoyed with me. That’s why the crew needs to say these things, so they’ll get taken seriously and thus help protect the reef we’re all admiring.
After our snorkel, we sailed around to Langford Sandbar. The dinghy took us out to the sandbar, which only had one other large group, as well as a few couples who were probably highly annoyed at the intrusion. We brought nachos that the crew had made, and snacked on those while the sun started to set. (I say nachos, but please understand that these in no way resembled nachos that you might find in the United States, other than the base of tortilla chips and the addition of some sort of cheese. Still, they were fairly tasty.) We took some group photos and raised a glass of wine as the sun set.
That night was a party night. It’s a strange thing to drink a bit too much wine on a boat in the ocean. You still feel expansive and invulnerable, but a little less so, since two thin wires around the edge of the boat are all that keep you from falling into the black water and the nocturnal sharks therein. So we stayed in the middle of the boat and bonded over drinking games I haven’t played since college.
The next day some people did a morning snorkel, but others of us read and sunbathed in the already fierce morning light. Soon it was time to raise anchor for the last time, and the crew got excited because the wind was up in just the direction they wanted it. We set the sails and all sat upwind side, and only just in time, because that wind was strong. I hadn’t actually had a chance to fling my legs over the side, so for a good portion of the sail back I was bracing myself between something holding coiled rope and a rail bracing another length of rope, which was scary because the boat must have been at least at a 45 degree angle, and if I let go of either my hand or my foothold, I’d go straight down the boat and into the water.
Once I did get more securely settled, though, it was pure bliss. All we heard was the wind whipping the sails, the waves slapping the boat, and passengers occasionally screaming as the spray flew high. I felt free and peaceful. I can see how people structure their whole lives around this feeling.
I walked around with the sea sloshing about in my head for the next few days, and I was a bit shaky on my feet for a little bit, but I didn’t care. I even had to doze on an all-night bus ride that night rather than sleep in a proper bed, and I wasn’t bothered. I had sailed, and darling, I simply must do it again.
The World of the Great Barrier Reef
Being underwater isn’t just like being in another world–it’s like being in your own world. Sounds are muffled, movements are fluid and languid. Gestures are obscured by bubbles. Shadows are at once more menacing and more enticing. Other people might swim into view, but the space between you and them is heavier than on land, and it takes just a little longer to recognize them. Everything is more beautiful and mysterious underwater, and we can explore and interpret that world however we choose; we literally can’t hear what someone else might say about it, when we’re below the water line. No wonder the mermaid myth has remained popular through the centuries. It’s alluring to imagine ourselves belonging there.
Even being underwater with 70 other tourists didn’t detract from the magic of the morning for me. I took a boat named, hilariously, Passions of Paradise (doesn’t that sound like a C-list celebrity’s perfume line?). I’d felt ill for most of the two-hour boat ride from Cairns to Paradise Reef, but I felt better as soon as we stopped and looked out from the boat deck at the dark patches in the water that indicated coral. It was a little weird, looking around at open ocean with nothing but gently rolling waves out to the horizon, and then clownshoe-ing over to the edge of the boat in my flippers and slipping into the water and seeing just how much life there was under those gently rolling waves.
I wish I had been able to take pictures that showed how vibrant the colors were and how graceful the swaying coral was. Unfortunately, the camera I borrowed from Heather chose that morning to inexplicably fog up, and as a result all I have are some dark, dim photos. (I know, my camera luck has been amazing on this trip.) I’ll share a few anyway, but please see these to get a glimpse of what I saw down there.
People spread out as soon as we got in the water, so it was just me, and the coral, and the fish. I slowly waved my flippers up and down, and followed a fish from one patch of coral to another, then whipped my whole body around as a school of fish whirled past, and finally I just floated and watched the coral sway back and forth. There’s a philosophy to be found in the way the coral smoothly followed whichever direction the currents were flowing, but I will just note that this natural movement was beautiful to watch. Something caught in my peripheral vision, and I saw that my hand was emulating the coral, calmly swishing one way and then the other.
I saw a large school of fish gliding in the other direction, and I followed them to the edge of the reef. Since I know people will make Finding Nemo comparisons anyway, let me say that this was the part that most reminded me of that movie. When Nemo swims to the edge of the reef and they all peer over into the dark abyss beyond, and they’re all terrified. That’s what this was like. Remember that this is the open ocean, and what’s beyond that reef is thousands of meters of dangers known and unknown, in water that gets so dark it might as well be night. I hung out on the edge for a bit, drawn to that dark, silent place, but then I paddled back to the safety of the reef.
I was one of the last ones out of the water, and then we went to Michaelmas Cay, which is a little strip of land used as a resting area for thousands of migrating birds each year. People chased sea turtles and walked on the beach. I floated on my back and watched the birds in sudden flight. Then I flipped over and watched some huge fish swim figure eights under the boat.
This time, I was the very last one out of the water, and they had to call out three times before I heard them. I had been watching a purple clamshell-shaped coral open and close its “mouth” as tiny yellow fish darted past. The coral and the fish were crystal clear, and everything else was indistinct. I eventually heard the crew’s calls, sounding like the teachers in Charlie Brown cartoons, and I surfaced.
But the other thing about being underwater is that if you stay long enough, and you feel immersed enough in the beauty of it, then you can take a little of it with you when you leave. Now there will always be a part of my mind that can see the bright colors, the calm swaying, and the deep abyss.
A-Snorkeling We Will Go
When my sister Heather and I started planning this trip, we drew up a list of things we wanted to do in Hawaii: visit a volcano, swim at Waikiki Beach, go to a luau, and snorkel. But that last one actually made me a bit nervous. I love swimming and could easily spend all day frolicking in the water, but that’s all under the power of my own breath. Breathing while under water is just unnatural. I can’t see myself ever scuba diving, but I thought maybe I could handle snorkeling, seeing as how it’s much easier to surface if necessary.
Turns out snorkeling is really easy. (You probably already knew that, but see how I’m growing and learning on this trip?) You just put the mask on, tip your head down, and breathe. We took the advice of my travel book and asked for prescription goggles at the rental place, which ensured that we saw fish instead of brightly colored blobs once we got in the water.
We drove five miles south of the center of Kailua-Kona to Kahalu’u Beach Park and joined the many other snorkelers. At first we tried putting the flippers on and clown-shoeing into the water, but that was comically difficult, and we noticed other people were walking into the water barefoot and putting flippers on once a little further in. This was a much better plan.
And then, the fish! For two hours, we paddled around staring at fish, giving each other the thumb’s-up, and taking photos with Heather’s underwater camera. Yep, there are pictures. They’re mostly cloudy, since the area we were in on the first day of snorkeling was full of people kicking up sand, and we ran out of batteries on the second day, when we were in a quieter, clearer area. They’re still pretty cool, though. Enjoy!