Going to the Great Barrier Reef on Big Mama Sailing
After a year on the road, my house and garden need a lot of love. Last Friday I skipped the domestic chores, put the “Gone Sailing” sign up and went for a trip in my own backyard. My backyard happens to be the Coral Sea and last week it was a stunner. Flat as a pancake, shiny as a patch of oil, iridescent blue like the Maldives. I ditched the shovel, swapped work clothes for swimmers and joined Lisa, Stewart and Fletcher on Big Mama Sailing for a day out on the reef. It was magical.
It made me remember the very first time I went to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns some 15 years ago. It was the peak of the tourism boom and I found myself on a crowded boat, wedged in among a herd of excitable visitors, many of whom had never been near the ocean, let alone on and in it. It was a mad scramble of flippers in your face, newbie snorkelers balancing on precious coral and tropical fish taking off in freight.
Going out on Big Mama Sailing is everything those big, loud boats are not. With room for only 12 passengers, this is a very personalised experience, more like a private charter. It’s all about learning the art of slow travel; letting go of your sense of time and surrendering to the gentle rhythm of the 60 foot ketch gliding over a mirror of indigo blue water. On the calmest day in a while, it’s the motor, not the wind that propels us past Dunk Island and across the shipping channel to Eddy Reef.
When we get there, we have it all to ourselves. The German and French couples on working holiday visas pinch themselves. We are very lucky indeed. There are only six of us and we disperse easily in the turquoise lagoon, floating over blocks of healthy coral populated by colorful fish, like an underwater city. Skipper Stu points out giant clams 130 years old, and coral sponges some of which were here when Captain Cook sailed through. Watching this silent and ancient underwater world is a meditation of our own smallness.
I’ve lived in the Maldives for most of this year and I can’t help but compare the two. Ironically, the underwater worlds of the Maldives and the Great Barrier reef mirror their over-water worlds. Male’, the capital city of the Maldives, is a crowded maze of new, old and crumbling buildings and so are the reefs of the Maldives. Stick your head underwater almost anywhere and you’ll be looking into a crowded aquarium teaming with colorful marine life. Yet the reefs are not so pretty there. A major coral bleaching event caused by El Niño in 1997/98 destroyed most of the country’s reef cover. Whilst some have recovered well, others look like open quarries of coral waste .
The Great Barrier Reef has not been immune to the effects of coral bleaching, pollution and cyclones, but overall they seem healthier and denser than those I visited in the Maldives. Yet there is a profound emptiness in the Australian landscape, both over and under water, that I had forgotten about. Where are all the people? And where are all the fish?
“Every day is different, on some days we see a lot more fish” says Stu. But in 40 years on the reef, he has seen a noticeable decline of larger fish. Overfishing is a big issue, he says. “Australians always think that the ocean is infinite, but it’s not sustainable. We need to act now to protect it,” he says.
Nothing can protect the reef from the major El Niño event that is predicted for this year. It’s at once depressing and sobering. Coral bleaching is a natural process and has occurred for thousands of years. In the past decades there have been more significant events than ever before and the reefs are stressed. Another El Nino could be catastrophic. I am grateful that I’ve come in time to take a mental snapshot of a fragile ecosystem older than I can comprehend.
Back on board, Lisa has prepared a healthy lunch of salads, kebabs and little parcels of freshly caught mackerel. 11 year old Fletcher emerges from his room to join us for lunch. It’s nearly Christmas and he’s on a break from homeschooling. He does what every kid his age does during the school holidays, he has a sleep-in. But his days are not like those of other kids his age.
Fletcher, like his father Stu, has never lived on land and Big Mama is the only family home he knows. What’s it like to live in a floating home, I want to know. “It’s about the freedom to be able to uplift our roots whenever we want and to take our home with us,” says Lisa who has lived aboard sailing boats ever since meeting Stu 20 years ago. Before starting their own business, she’s never been in a spot for longer than 10 months. “We used to work really hard for 10 months and then take off travelling,” she says.
My imagination is instantly aflame. What would it be like to live a nomadic life at sea? It’s not impossible to swap my house for a yacht, says Stu. He has already picked out the right boat for me and done the figures. A Peterson 46 would be a good fit, he says. How good would that be? No more gardening, no more mulching and no more planes to catch because your home is your means of transport.
I get a little carried away with the idea. Sailing back in the gentle evening breeze I suddenly remember the German couple I met a few years ago at the yacht club on Tana island in Vanuatu. They’d left the grey skies of Germany to live the dream, sailing around the world in their thirties. Fast forward ten years, and in his mid forties the husband got struck down by full blown midlife crisis. Lying there on his yacht in beautiful Resolution Bay, under a hot sun floating in a perfectly shaped palmfringed cove, he was in the midst of a deep depression. “He’s thinking he is missing out on life on land,” his wife said. “He regrets not having pursued a proper career.”
The moral of the story is that the grass is always greener on the other side. I resolve to put a new item on my bucket list. Crewing on a sailboat. It seems safer than trading the house for a floating home. According to Stu and his infinite wisdom, hitching a ride as crew on an ocean going yacht from Panama across the Pacific or from Darwin up into Indonesia shouldn’t be too difficult. So watch out for photos of me sitting on the dock of the bay waiting for a ride.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you.
Can you imagine living on a sailboat? Or maybe you are already a floating nomad? Hit me with your thoughts!
Big Mama Sailing operates regular snorkel trips, sunset cruises and private charter tours from Mission Beach. Expect a small, personalised experience of no more than 12 guests.
It takes 1.5-2 hours to reach the reef on Big Mama.
Mission Beach is one of the closest getaways to the Great Barrier Reef. If you want to experience the emptiness of this epic landscape in all comfort, bypass Cairns and head straight down to Mission Beach, 2 hours by car from the airport. With only three operators offering snorkel trips to the reef from Mission Beach, chances are you will have it all to yourself. It’s a rare treat!
Kerstin Pilz travelled as guest of Big Mama Sailing. A big thank you to the wonderful crew, Lisa, Steward and Fletcher, for hosting my visit.
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