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Finding Nemo at the Great Barrier Reef

Lauren Fritz | Monday, March 18, 2013

PERTH, Australia РWhat happens after the Notre Dame students in Perth have slammed shut their underused textbooks, ripped apart all paper evidence of the past semester and tossed away half their clothes to make room for clich̩ stuffed koalas and Australian bro tanks? The answer for most of us is travel.

When classes ended Nov. 2, we had a week of studying before exams Nov. 10 through 24. Some of us finished our exams the first week of the period, but a few unfortunate souls had an exam the day before we flew out of Perth. I finished in the middle of the second week, which left me with three days to finish exploring and say goodbye to the wonderful Australians and other international students who lived at St. Thomas More College with us. Regardless of when we were able to officially swear away all forms of study, we all departed Perth on Nov. 25, free at last and looking forward to a few weeks of travel.

Earlier in the semester, we broke into travel groups of six to 10 people. We then called the Australian airline Qantas to change our tickets using the amazingly generous deal Notre Dame had set up for us, which basically allowed us to add stopovers for approximately $100 each. My group arranged our itinerary to include three days in Sydney, four in Cairns and two weeks in New Zealand. My roommate and I also managed to snag five days in Fiji.

Cairns is a well-known tourist destination and the main outlet for expeditions in the Great Barrier Reef. From the home base of our hostel, we were able to venture onto the reef one amazingly sunny, tropical and probably typical day for North Queensland. We went with a company called Reef Experience, which took us to two different locations to snorkel, scuba dive and (the one unfortunate side effect of the day) get painfully sunburnt despite several layers of coconut-scented SPF 30.

Sunburns aside, the reef was phenomenal. It’s located in the Coral Sea off the northeast coast of Australia on the continental shelf. We did, in fact, find Nemo (or at least, clownfish), and he looked quite happy in his little anemone. We also saw two massive sea turtles, stingrays and the most remarkable array of fish imaginable. The reef is home to more than 2,000 species of fish, which is almost double the number found in the Caribbean. There are over 30 species of marine mammals, including dolphins and whales, and six species of sea turtles alone. It was like swimming through a rainbow. The only thing that could have made the day more fulfilling was if Thomas Newman’s “Finding Nemo” score were playing underwater.

This amazing day reinforced for me the significance of Australians’ ties to the ocean. There are many ways to see the reef, including glass-bottom boats, overnight sailing trips, helicopter tours, snorkeling and scuba adventures and jet boat rides. In Western Australia, the main attraction may have been the huge swells on the ocean’s surface, but in tropical North Queensland, the underwater dwellers stole the show.

When I wrote this, we were about to leave Cairns for Auckland, New Zealand, where we were going to pick up a campervan and explore for two weeks. I’m beyond thrilled to continue traveling and can only hope that even more epic adventures await me.

Contact Lauren Fritz at lfritz1@nd.edu