Sunday, April 26, 2009


The Great Barrier Reef outside of Cairns looks sepia-toned. About 80% of the coral I saw was some shade of brown. I got to borrow an underwater digital camera for my dives-- one that had been rented from a shop in Cairns. One of the first things I noticed while playing with the settings was that the color bias was set to artificially make all the colors more vibrant. I left it that way for all but one shot, just in case that's standard underwater photography procedure, but it still didn't seem like a good sign.

I'm not saying the reef looks dead. There's color and life down there to see. People will still pay hundreds of dollars to do overnight diving trips out here, and they wouldn't keep doing it if it wasn't worth it. Apparently the brownness isn't a sudden change either. I talked to an ecstatic Canadian diver who had been to the same spots around 2002, and he said it looked pretty much the same as the last time he'd seen it. We saw lots of different and colorful fish, including clownfish (think Nemo) and a gigantic wrasse the dive crew has nicknamed Wally, who circled around me a couple times and then led us all back to our boat, just as our air was hitting the 50 bar mark.

But there were still mutters of people on board who'd expected it to be a bit less... well, brown. I don't know if this is normal for a reef. Not counting my certification dives in Panama, these were my first two scuba dives (maybe some of you more experienced divers will have an idea after looking at some of my pictures). The dive masters and boat crew never mentioned anything about environmental issues or sustainability during any of the presentations. No mention of how to help protect the reef, or if that can even be done. I used to work at a zoo, so I like to think going out and observing these things and telling your friends does a big part by building awareness. But riding the waves on a loud diesel engine boat made me wonder if I was actually having a positive impact.

I can't totally fault the reef trip for my feeling uneasy. I'm getting a little frustrated with the backpacking scene in Eastern Australia. When I was in Latin America, being a backpacker felt a bit like being part of a club of explorers-- people who had left their homes to learn something, and see something new. Out here, we're a different breed. We're tourists in backpackers skin-- we sleep in hostels (pool, bar, and club often attached), drink a bit more than older tourists, and instead of going to normal tour agencies, go to backpacker tour agencies that have bigger type, flashier colors, half an hour of free internet, and mostly the same tours for the same prices, only the people in the pictures are in their 20s and the word “Adventure” is printed everywhere it fits on the page. Adventure? I'm doing this trip to find adventure. Using the term, for example, to describe a cruise on a sailboat that uses its motors instead of its sail more than half the time, includes BBQ lunch, and offers all the alcohol you can buy for twice its store price is a joke. I enjoy BBQ, cruises, etc. as much as the next western 20-something-year-old. But, if you are going to tour agencies booking tours, you are, by definition, a tourist. I know that doesn't bother a lot of people. It bothers me.

I'm not simply trying be be nonconformist here. My problem with being a tourist is that you become a traveling consumer, not even of the destination or local culture, but whatever the tourist industry thinks it can sell you. Fun stuff, sometimes, but that's not what I saved up my money for as a kid.

So I've weaseled my way out of the backpacker scene when I can. But often I then end up back in regular tourist territory. Like the spontaneous day-long road trip with a Canadian citizen born and raised in Kyrgyzstan-- started out so promising, until we ended up just making stops at tourists stopovers with waterfalls and the biggest fig trees in the region. Although there was the 1.5 km sprint up the steep, switchback-riddled rain forest trail, dodging a spider bigger than my hand, so that we would make it out before it got completely dark. I take what I can get.

I flew from Cairns to Darwin two days ago. My flight out of Australia into Singapore leaves from here. Because of that flight and a few key train tickets being sold out, I've painted myself into a corner where I can't see Uluru or Australia's famous “red center” unless I buy round trip airfare there for tomorrow or the next day. I've come to Darwin and was at least hoping to get to Kakadu national park, but public transport is about nonexistent, renting the necessary 4x4 could cost more than $200 a day, and the cheapest 2-3 day tours I've found cost enough to last me over half a month in some of the countries I'll be traveling through soon. The other nearby park, Litchfield, isn't quite as pricey, but is still a good deal more than I'm used to for getting out to a national park. Maybe they're worth it in terms of dollars, but in terms of later opportunities I pass up...

So I've done what I usually do when faced with two choices I feel a bit uneasy about: find choices 3, 4, 15, and up to 21 if necessary. I combed the town yesterday, and, after trying crocodile meat for the first time as lunch, I got lucky. In the bottom corner of a noticeboard of a tourist info center (...) I spotted a flyer advertising open short-term positions with Conservation Volunteers Australia. I'm now sitting in the Northern Territory state library with an application sitting next to my computer. I've been asked to come back after lunch. We'll see what I can do soon!

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. So is the traditional Aussie breakfast still cold canned beans (or cold Franco American spaghetti) on white bread? That's what we got in Fiji.

  2. I don't know about 'more vibrant' colors, but it's standard (and better, in my opinion) to change the color balance for underwater photography. Since water blocks red light more than blue, if you don't you will get pictures that are very blue/green and you won't see any of the red that's there.

  3. I find myself secretly wishing this entry was titled "Reefer" instead of "Reefed"


  4. Catherine- Hope not. Even the Brits at least heat the beans up first. Eugh. Most of the Aussies I've seen were eating cereal of some kind for breakfast. Then again, if it gives you any idea, the Aussies I've seen were eating this breakfast right around the crack of noon.

    Awandering- Good to know-- but there were specific settings to enhance red light that weren't being used... Anyway where are you these days? The last blog post still says Oz.

    Starbuck- You would. By the way, usually when I secretly wish something, I don't post it on a public blog. ;p