Seals and Sticker Shock on the Sunshine Coast

It only took us two days to recover from our overnight flight from Singapore to Australia.

Two days resting at my parents’ house on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast as the rain bucketed down. The newly-bought warm baby clothes stubbornly not-drying on the drying rack. All beds occupied as we took shifts napping and changing nappies.

The first real day of our holiday was going to be a trip to a farm. But, befuddled, I read the website incorrectly and you only get to enjoy the animals if you fork out A$150/night for a cottage.

We hatched an alternative plan – a trip to Underwater World, one of the Sunshine Coast’s major attractions.

Darling Man made a gallant attempt to save money by staying home. “It’s not interesting to me,” he said. “We have those things in Vietnam, anyway.”

I gently insisted, then gingerly reversed my parents car into the semi-alien Australian traffic. We were on our way.

Underwater World is at The Wharf at Mooloolaba. I waitressed at The Wharf for many years, at a restaurant that’s no longer there. I worked as a pirate (for the princely sum of $11 an hour) at a related attraction, which also didn’t prove enduring.

Pulling into The Wharf carpark brings back many memories. It’s strange to be doing it with a baby in the back seat.

I have a vague idea there’s an ATM somewhere on The Wharf. A quick trip to the shops for essential supplies and some baby singlets burned through our cash. We wander about, aimlessly, having trouble moving the baby past the brightly coloured chocolate machines, whacky mirrors and $2-per-go carousel.

Darling Man announces he’s hungry and I send him off to choose an outlet, confident he will select the cheapest rather than the place with the best looking food.

“Fish and chips,” he announces after his scouting mission. I can’t tell he’s frowning because his face is swollen and cut from where he walked into the door, running to soothe the baby in the middle of the night. (He recovered from the overnight flight much quicker than me.)

Miss M won’t sit still while we wait for the food. She marches over to a pay-per-ride plastic truck. She climbs up, then climbs down and runs over to a giant trampoline, where children in harnesses zing up into the sky, turning slow somersaults against the clouds.

There are kids everywhere. Parents everywhere. I feel out of place. Everyone seems so frowny and fat.

We collect our fish and chips. A$10.95 (US$11.68) for one serve. Three of us share.

Along with sticker shock over the prices comes culture shock.

“I’m going to ask the lady for a free lollypop,” a kid thunders as he drags his mother towards the lolly shop.

“These people don’t know what they’re doing to their bodies,” a fit-looking woman intones as she drags some pudgy kids past us.

Understanding every word that’s spoken in my vicinity is a strain. I’m used to drifting along in a sea of gibberish, thinking my own thoughts against a backdrop of white noise. I’m used to standing out in a crowd. Blonde hair amongst universal black. I’m used to all faces turning to the baby, smiling indulgently. I’m used to street food being cheap. More than four years in Asia and I’m uncomfortable in Australia.

Miss M insists on using a fork to convey a few pieces of fish and a handful of stubby chips to her mouth. She chews the chips, then retrieves the mush and tries to put it in my mouth. I produce the cob of corn we brought with us but she can’t use the fork on the corn so she’s not interested. I realise I brought a bottle but no milk.

I approach the outlet advertising milk shakes for A$4 (US$4.27) each. I tell him I forgot to bring milk for the baby. I ask if I can fill her bottle. The sunbrowned guy behind the counter says “sure”. I ask how much. He squints out over the marina, thinking. “Fifty cents,” he says, finally.

We spot a baby animal farm. A welcome diversion. And free. I’m allowed to enter the enclosure with Miss M, who is too young to be let loose amongst baby animals. The farmer is friendly, loudly telling a parent that she should read Animal Farm to understand how bossy pigs are. “I don’t know the author,” he says. “But if you read it, it’s about pigs being in charge. It’s like that here,” he says, gesturing to the piglet I’m stroking.

The kids sitting inside the animal farm enclosure are sweet. Cupping baby chickens, gently grasping guinea pigs, softly stroking baby goats. We get the baby animal experience I had hoped for. The gentle kids and the milk bar owner make me feel much kindlier towards my fellow Australians.

We finally make it to Underwater World. Entry for two adults is A$66 (US$70.40). The baby is enthralled by the first exhibit – manta rays zooming around a shallow, glass fronted enclosure. At the second exhibit, I stick my arm into the water to pick up a starfish and my re-entry stamp washes off my wrist.


Manta ray tank at Underwater World

Miss M is having fun. Thankfully she’s not a glass tapper. That would give all the fish headaches. She is a pointer, though. And an avid commentator. The strange exclamations keep us entertained.

We look at turtles. Turtles with long necks, turtles with short necks. We see fat fish, iridescent fish, box fish, huge bigger-than-the-baby fish, a chainsaw-snouted fish. We see otters sleeping in the sun. We see sleek streamline seals streaking past, obviously showing off.

It’s nearly 1.30pm. We head towards Seal Island, where the seal show is held. Miss M decides she’ll sit in the row in front of us. She strikes up conversations with the people on either side of her. A harried mother-of-three and a purple-haired teenager in skimpy clothes. They are both very kind to the straight-backed independent baby, kicking her too-big white shoes.

The show starts and Miss M loses her audience. Darling Man is entranced. Miss M figets. The old man next to us edges away. I take the baby for a walk amongst the exhibits. She spots an escalator and we go up to Fantasea Photography. There is no down escalator. We are ushered out a fire escape. We present ourselves to the entry clerk again. Stampless, mobile phone-less, Darling Man-less.

Thankfully our family is still memorable. The entry clerk allows us in and we head back to Seal Island to catch the final moments of the show.

“Seals are really intelligent,” Darling Man proclaims when we find him. He rules that the entry price was fair enough.

On the way home we realise we missed the shark exhibit, for which Underwater World is most famous.

9 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. robin says:

    Entertaining, thoughtful and beautifully written as always.

    I was sorry to hear about the loss of your pirate job. I’m sure things will work out…
    robin recently posted..Blues

    • The Dropout says:

      Don’t worry, Robin. The pirate job was only a university holiday job. It never had a future. The tourist attraction lasted slightly longer than my 11-week professional pirate career.

  2. Norbert says:

    It must be a sharp contrast being in Australia after being for so long in Southeast Asia. Prices, people, places, lifestyle… everything is different. I bet it must feel so disorienting at times.

    On the other hand, that’s a pretty nice visit to the aquarium, looks like Miss M loved the animals. 🙂
    Norbert recently posted..San Pedro Sula- I Tried to Make the Best of You

  3. Laurel says:

    After living in Thailand I was shocked when I came back to Canada about how expensive everything was and had to learn to cook again since in Thailand eating out was cheaper than cooking (and easier). Hope you’re still enjoying your trip home though and always love reading about your adventures with the Darlilng Man and Miss M.
    Laurel recently posted..Rothenburg ob der Tauber- Germany’s Best Preserved Medieval Town

    • The Dropout says:

      Thanks Laurel!
      Cooking at home is not really so cheap at the moment. Cyclone and floods devastated Australia’s main crop growing areas, including 90% of the nation’s banana crop. So fresh fruit and vegetables are really expensive. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw capsicums (that’s red peppers to North Americans) were $8.99/kg. Bananas are A$14/kg.

  4. Adam says:

    We were only gone for a year and have been back for a year and a half now, and I’m still not over the sticker shock. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you. It’s maddening at times, isn’t it?
    Adam recently posted..Old San Juan – A Place of Beauty

  5. adventureswithben says:

    I loved Australia, but the prices were nuts!

  6. jade says:

    Um, how did i not know about this place when we were in OZ?! and love love love fish and chips!

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