Sunday, October 16th, 2011: Noumea, New Caledonia
Sometimes its fun being #2… Though the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is without a doubt the largest reef in the world (it can be seen from space), until our arrival in the South Pacific, we were unaware that New Caledonia is actually home to the 2nd largest reef on the planet. So today, we experience the beauty, the colors, and the abundant sea life of New Caledonia’s reef, along with the quiet serenity from the lack of crowds that know about it.
Disembarkation at Noumea’s working container port was just after 8:00am, and due to the active work occurring on the pier, a mandatory short shuttle bus ride later, we arrive at the Gare Terminal on the water’s edge in central Noumea. As it was a Sunday morning, just after 8:15am, we were a bit surprised at the number of cars on the road and people out and about, but quickly found the source of this early hustle and bustle.
The Marche Municipal (Central Market) opened its doors at 4:30am and nearly four hours later, the place was just beginning to calm down. The source of nearly all of the fresh fish coming off of the boats and a wide variety of local produce, meats, and hot bakery items, this is the place to be for picking up the upcoming week’s menu ingredients.
As we had an 8:45am checkin further down on the docks at the picturesque Noumea harbor, we quickly passed the market and made our way to our excursion for the day with the talented team at Aquanature. Aquanature specializes in snorkeling excursions to the reef to the southwest of Noumea’s harbor, as well as stops to Amedee and Signal Islands for snorkeling and beach time. Today’s itinerary included Signal Island over Amedee due to the tidal fluctuations and the a better opportunity for visibility at the reef, so with the keen recommendations of the captain, we set off with a group of about 16 people to spend the day out on the water.
About 45 minutes into the trip, we had arrived at our first snorkel site. The boat was well appointed with two toilets, two outdoor sinks and showers, and a complete complement of wetsuits, hoods, snorkels, masks, and fins. Members of the Aquanature team provided us with our gear and our guide who was an excellent English speaker briefed us on the proper use of our equipment and constantly made herself available to us for questions, should the need arise.
As everyone on the boat wetsuited up for the first swim, we realized that our guides not only helped us prepare for the snorkel runs, but actually accompanied us into the water, providing commentary on the different types of coral, sealife, and features of the site we were at, but also to help seek out some of the treasures of these places, including stingrays, sharks, lobsters, octopi, and relatively rare fish species. We were divided up into four groups and each group of 4 had their own guide. Though we stayed with our guide, she provided us with ample opportunity to see more/see less, stay close by or to adventure off, and was very responsive to the group.
We spent about an hour at our first site, and was able to get a number of great pictures with the underwater camera as the visibility was exceptional. Our guide found a number of fun things for us to “play” with, including a sea cucumber and a giant mollusk of some sort with a white shell and a mouth that felt like a suction cup in your hand. After the first run was completed, we all returned to the ship, were able to quickly shed our wetsuits and gear, using the open racks available on the boat, and enjoyed coffee, tea, cookies, and shortbread as we made our way to the next stop of the day — Signal Island.
Signal Island is much, much smaller than Dravuni, is uninhabited, and has a number of the same amazing characterstics of the earlier port stop, so it was a very nice place to spend an hour and a half to enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach under a shade tree. Given the earlier snorkel run and the knowledge that we would be doing another in the afternoon, we took the time to enjoy our lunch and relax with a short nap in the shade as we listened to the water lap up against the shoreline.
As we closed out our time on the beach, we found a new friend slithering his (or her) way just a few inches from our beach mat. A 2-3 foot long New Caledonian yellow lipped sea snake (showing its signature stripes of orange and black) was working its way from the hot sun into a burrow in the shadows of the same shade tree we were using. It was entirely uninterested in us and while it crawled itself into its hole to rest, Darin snapped some pictures of it. Upon return to the boat and as we headed to our next snorkel site, our guide filled us in on the name of the snake we described along with the small detail that it is poisonous. She smiled and continued to say that these snakes have very small mouths, generally have zero interest in humans (most of our fingers, toes, hands, etc. are too big for it to bite, and that dozens of encounters by her and the other guides yielded no bad outcomes), so we were in the clear and to chalk it up as another fun experience while in New Caledonia.
We arrived a short time later at our second and larger snorkel site. We were at the reef and were able to spend another hour here, though fighting a relatively strong current meant that it felt more life two. The captain was right on the mark and we had exceptionally clear visibility, making the coral and the sea life at this location easy to see, spot, and enjoy and we swam a number of different routes in and through the reef site. A few members of our group elected to return to the boat early as the current really was taking a lot of energy, but we continued to the end, enjoying a few great paths with coral and fish just inches above our wetsuits as we glided through the water.
With our return to the boat, we made our way back to the harbor and bid a quick farewell to the amazing team at Aquanature as we had just more than 20 minutes remaining to return to the ship, but thanked them for a fantastic day at sea, and introducing us to the amazing reef of New Caledonia.