From Underwater to High in the Sky

I had a packed day that started with snorkeling in the Ningaloo Reef, where I saw some massive creatures - even a shark! Next, was a flying high into the sky on a powered hang glider! It was easily in the top 3 most amazing travel days.

Day 380

After spending a day hidden away from the world feeling lonely, exhausted, and homesick, it was time to snorkel. I booked a tour that would take me out on a boat to the Ningaloo Reef for snorkeling. The Ningaloo Reef is a drift reef, so you can access it directly from the beach. Taking a boat allows you to go much further out.

I was picked up early in the morning, and the driver, Janine, told me that I could sit in the front of the van since I was the first person. As we picked up more people, Janine told me about herself. She was originally from Germany but had been in Australia for 15 years. She had a petite, athletic build to her with wavy blonde hair. Janine was an underwater photographer and had been in Exmouth for 13 years. 

We picked up a family of four, a family of three from Germany (with a college-age daughter), a couple, and a single female who was a teacher. 

After a quick drive, we arrived at the dock to board the boat. The boat wasn’t very big, which was great because we were pretty close to the water. We cruised out to the reef, and the sun shined down, illuminating the turquoise water below. It was incredible! 

We stopped at our first snorkeling site, and the water was chilly, but warm enough that we didn’t need to wear a wetsuit. I borrowed fins from the tour company, but I had my own snorkel gear that I purchased in Thailand. We were instructed to follow Janine around, and she’d point out things while taking pictures. 

The chilly water took my breath away when I first jumped in, but I mostly got used to it. The water was some of the clearest that I’ve ever seen! I could see everything around me. There were mounds of coral all around us. Some were so close; we had to be careful not to hit them with our fins. 

Janine pointed out a giant stingray! It was the largest I’ve ever seen in my life! The stingray rested on the sand at the bottom while we floated above and around him. The body had to be around three feet, and the tail was another five feet. 

We continued and saw a shovelnose guitarfish. This guy was also lying still on the sand. He looked like half stingray (on his head) and half-shark (his body). He appeared to be around six feet long! I didn’t know this creature existed, and I was mesmerized. 

Janine told us that we were fortunate to see those, and the conditions were excellent! Then, we saw a whitetail reef shark! He was hiding below a large rock formation, hanging out until people surrounded him. Then he swam away. I wasn’t even afraid. Janine told us they were harmless, just don’t bother them.

We climbed back into the boat and drove to our next snorkel spot. The crew explained that this would be a drift snorkel. They would drop us off and move down a bit. The current would take us back to the boat. 

The Ningaloo reef is a vast turquoise fringing (or drift) reef, and I could see where the deep part of the ocean started. There was a distinct line because the sea was dark blue, deep, and had powerful waves. The reef spans 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the shore out to the ocean and covers 5,000 square kilometers. It spans 260 kilometers (162 miles) along the coast. There are more than 200 coral species and 500 fish species that inhabit the area. 

We jumped back into the water and were allowed to snorkel on our own, keeping Janine and the boat in our sights. I was in awe! The first time that I ever snorkeled was in Hawaii, where I swam with massive turtles. Before the Ningaloo Reef, that was the best snorkeling spot. But nothing comes close to the brightly colored fish that I saw. So many different varieties and sizes, some that were two feet big! 

It was time to get back on the boat, and Janine pointed out a Dugong, a sea cow. It was in the distance, so we couldn’t see it well, but she was very excited because she often didn’t see them. I was able to purchase the photos from Janine, who did an amazing job at capturing the experience! You can find more of her photography here.

Once I got back to my room at the campground, I showered and ate lunch. Then it was time for my powered hang glide flight at Bird’s Eye Ningaloo. Since I couldn’t get a spot to swim with the whale sharks, this was my replacement.

Now, I’m afraid of heights, but the fear is only really there when I don’t feel stable. When I worked at Target, I would only go up two steps on the ladder. Beyond that, I’d shake, sweat, and freeze. Ladders are too wobbly. Being on a mountain top doesn’t make me nervous because I feel stable. Swinging bridges terrify me. 

I arrived at the large hanger and saw many of the powerful hang gliders. The wingspan was huge, but the part to sit in was small. It held the pilot in front where they’d control the bar attached to the wing. I would sit behind the pilot and wrap my legs to the side of the pilot. There was just a seatbelt and nothing on the sides to hold on. 

I was feeling extremely nervous. Two men were working there, and there was one older woman who was a customer. Gav, my pilot, introduced himself. He was about my height, 36-37 years old, had long black hair in dreadlocks pulled back, an athletic build, and was attractive. Gav fell in love with powered hang glides at the age of 15 but went to school to be a commercial pilot. He passed all of the schooling and was about to start working for an airline, but decided to open this shop. 

I explained that I was very nervous, and this was my first time doing anything like this before. Gav joked, “Don’t worry, it’s my second day on the job.” I said, “Ironically, I don’t feel as nervous doing this as I would going on a small airplane or helicopter. I see those crashes all the time; it just barely makes the news.” Gav explained, “That’s because there is the danger zone. It’s a specific altitude, and you should never fly in it. You only fly through it while ascending and descending. The problem with those sightseeing planes and helicopters is that they go into canyons. That changes the altitude compared to where the lower ground is now. They end up flying in the danger zone, which they shouldn’t do.”

I felt much safer doing this because if the engine died, we could glide down. It was a hang glider after all. Still, I asked Gav not to do any tricks or crazy things, because it would freak me out. 

Gav was super friendly, funny, and kind. I put on a jumpsuit and helmet that they provided and left my belongings in my car. They put a GoPro on the side of the wing, which took pictures every five seconds. I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures – I could sit back and enjoy the ride. 

I climbed into the hang glider, buckled my seatbelt, and asked where to put my hands because there weren’t ledges on the sides. Gav told me to put them on his seat. The thing is, his seat folds down, so I needed to make sure that I didn’t push forward or it would push him forward. My long legs wrapped around him on the sides. Gav kept the atmosphere light and asked for a back massage, so I obliged.

Then it was time. They turned the engine on, and Gav used the petals and the handle to steer us to the runway. I even got to help drive for a few seconds. Then we were off! We cruised down the runway, and suddenly we were up in the air!

I told myself over and over to focus on the views and the enjoyment and not to let my mind run wild with fear. It worked. As soon as I’d feel nervous, I focused on the beauty, calming myself down. 

We had headsets and microphones on our helmets so we could talk to each other. Gav warned me that we were about to approach the danger zone and would be in it for about two minutes. He said it would feel shaky and turbulent, but it would be smooth again once we were out. He was absolutely right. I felt the shaking and turbulence immediately but reminded myself it would go away. 

Sure enough, after two minutes, we were out of the danger zone and flying smoothly again. Below, I could see the peninsula as we headed west across it, towards the Ningaloo Reef. The roads became smaller and smaller. The canyons were beautiful to see from above. 

Suddenly, we were in the clouds! Big, white, billowing clouds engulfed us. It was like being a Care Bear, living in the sky. You know when you’re on an airplane and want to touch the clouds? I was able to touch and fly straight into them! Up, down, and around, we flew in the clouds. The sun tried to peek through as we played in the wonderland. Gav said we were very lucky to get those clouds because it’s not often that they get such amazing ones to fly into. 

When we flew out of the clouds, we were at the Ningaloo Reef! Seeing it from above was indescribable. It all looked so fake. The turquoise reef stretched for miles until we saw the dark blue ocean with waves crashing into the reef. The combination of the desert, reef, and ocean was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen. 

We flew all around the reef, looking for sea life below. We didn’t see any humpback whales, it was a little too early for them to be there, but we did see turtles, whale sharks, and dugongs. The water was so clear that we could see the coral below. Gav took us up and down, spiraling all around the reef. 

I couldn’t believe the beauty in front of my eyes and didn’t want it to end. I felt like the luckiest person alive. I could see for miles. In all of the things I’ve done in my life, this ranks in the top three. 

We started to head back across the peninsula and went through more clouds. We swirled all around them, and Gav asked me if he could do a few tricks. I agreed. We spiraled, turning to the sides, making my stomach turn upside down, but in a good way. 

After almost an hour, we reached the hanger. Gav said he was going to turn off the engine and glide down the final ten minutes of descent. I was nervous, but he assured me that it would be okay.

I couldn’t believe how smooth it was! Going through the danger zone was bumpy and scary again, but it was smooth sailing once we were through it. We spun down in a spiral, which made me a little dizzy. As we approached the tarmac, I held on tightly, expecting it to be forceful. I was pleasantly surprised when we slid onto the runway so smoothly; I barely realized that we had landed. 

We rolled all the way to the hanger perfectly, and Gav stopped us right in front. It was so much fun! Gav and I hugged, and I told him how much I appreciated his fun, light attitude. I also trusted him – he has more than two decades of flying and is even trained to fly commercial aircraft. Gav said he enjoyed flying with me too – we had a great rapport. 

It was a steep price tag (around $350 for an hour), but swimming with the whale sharks cost $400. Everything worked out as it should have. That was the most unique thing that I did while in Australia. I will remember it forever. While I didn’t swim with the whale sharks, I experienced life underwater and flew high into the sky, seeing the Ningaloo Reef in all its glory. Both experiences were unimaginable. 

I was feeling amazing! I went to a restaurant for dinner with outdoor seating. Two singers from the band, The Little Lord Street Band, were playing guitar and singing. I chatted with the two singers and bought one of their CDs, which was the perfect music to listen to while driving in the outback.

The day before, I had sulked inside my room with the curtains closed, hiding from the world. I was lonely and sad. I was struggling. But the next day, God knew exactly what I needed. He surrounded me with amazing, friendly people. Seeing the beautiful sea life and clear waters, and then flying high above, gave me an adrenaline rush. I’ve said this before, but one of the best ways to fight depression and loneliness is to get out into the world. You won’t feel like it at first, but it can be the very best way to get you feeling better and living again. 

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7 Responses

  1. What are the top two things you’ve ever done since this was number three? I was feeling lightheaded just by looking at the photos… in a good way! Can’t believe how high they go up. Do you know what elevation you were flying?

    1. I’m not sure what the elevation was, but it was high! Within the top three was this experience, rock climbing and rappelling into a canyon, and swimming with humpback whales! The other two are coming up! 😁

      1. Lol, that’s what I thought! But I really felt safer than in a helicopter. I just had to occasionally remind myself that I wasn’t going to die. 😂

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