One of the seven wonders of the natural world, The Great Barrier Reef is either 1,600 miles long, or 1,800, covers 100,000 square miles or 137,000 square miles and is about the size of Italy. Or Kansas, depending on which sources you consult.
While few can agree on exactly where The Reef begins, all seem to agree that it’s Great. Very rarely do you find it referred to as the Mostly Swell Barrier Reef.
Made up of around 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest single living organism. It’s home to thousands of sea creatures, including 1,500 species of colorful and exotic fish, 100 species of sharks and more than 400 species of coral. It may be the most diverse, and most spectacular, natural habitat on earth.
It’s also dying.
Whether you acknowledge man’s impact on climate change or not, the undisputable fact is that our planet is warming. A report released recently by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority predicts severe mass bleaching by 2035, which would prohibit new coral from growing and set in motion a domino effect which would trickle down the food chain, destroying the reef’s ecosystem. Former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Charlie Veron, who helped prepare the 2009 report, cautions that continued warming will result in the complete death of the reef by 2050.
The Reef stretches along much of the northern coast of Queensland. There are bunches of different towns and cities along the coast from which you can sail out to tour The Reef. We choose Port Douglas, nestled along the Daintree Rainforest an hour’s drive north from Cairns.
Port Douglas is a delightful little seaside town with a permanent population of only around 1,000 people. It’s quaint, charming, laid-back and absolutely wonderful.
Well, wonderful if you’re not Steve Irwin. It was just offshore from Port Douglas that the famed Crocodile Hunter picked a fight with an irritated stingray and lost his life, ironically while filming a documentary called The Ocean’s Deadliest.
There are lots of nasty creatures in the waters around The Reef determined to bring your life to a swift and painful end (someone should have told Steve.) Box jellyfish, called “jellies” in Australia, are prevalent in this area, and deliver venom so powerful that human victims often go into shock and paralysis before they can even make it back to shore. Those lucky enough to survive often endure unbearable pain for weeks after the sting.
Sounds like my kinda fun.
Jellies are enough of a threat this time of year that dive companies require everyone entering the water – staff and tourists alike – to wear a full wetsuit, even if you’re only snorkeling. You can die just as quickly on the surface as you can in the depths.
There are numerous companies offering tours out to the Reef, from private yachts like the Marcrista to more modest options for budget-conscious travelers willing to go with groups.
We fell into the latter category, and choose Calypso Reef Cruises, a family-owned tour company excellent in almost every respect. (My only real complaint was that they picked us up from our hotel at 8:15am. I don’t do mornings well. I understand the reef is dying, but I’m quite certain it would still have been there around noon.)
The Calypso is a 75-foot catamaran that holds up to 80 guests. For our excursion there were around 30 of us, about equally divided between those who would dive and those who would snorkel. The day’s tour would take us to three magnificent spots, and during the hour-long sail to the outer reef the crew gave us tips and pointers on how to enjoy the underwater spectacle with minimal environmental impact.
They’ll also sell you disposable underwater cameras, which we bought, or rent you underwater digital cameras, which we leased as well. Those were ever so much better, and we’re so pleased we had them. Tip for first-time visitors to the reef: Take a camera! We didn’t rent the digital cameras until the second stop and missed capturing so many scenes of wonder on our first snorkel. I can’t tell you how many times Soo or I surfaced, sputtering out water and gasping, “Holy crap! Did you see that?!?”
Once in the water, divers and snorkelers are transported to a world of stunning beauty and color, bursting with life. As you slide beneath the surface you’re instantly transfixed, all the stresses of home or work temporarily forgotten as you immerse yourself in National Geographic-like splendor. You can’t help but feel connected to the natural world in ways you’ve probably never felt before, awe-struck at the complexity and diversity of life in constant and graceful motion. It’s as peaceful and wondrous a time as I can remember having.
We swam with, and tried to take pictures of all manner of angelfish, clown fish (think Nemo!), Sweetlip Emperor fish, nurse sharks, reef sharks, fabulously colorful parrot fish, damselfish, surgeon fish, butterfly fish, giant clams, long-limbed blue starfish and multicolored, shoaling constellations of others too numerous to list here. It was a thrilling and wondrous experience.
Perhaps the best experience of the day was the traffic jam we got into at our first stop. Soo and I, ever the trouble-makers, had drifted far outside the zone in which were supposed to dive, and were, of course, the last to return to the boat. On the way back we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a huge school of massive buffalo wrasse, also known as green humphead parrotfish. Each one was around 4-feet long, and about as wide, casually gliding past us, pausing every so often to chomp on the coral. It was a little unsettling to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a crowd of creatures you’ve never seen before, all about your size, who clearly find you to be of little consequence but which you find utterly amazing. We cursed ourselves for not having cameras, an omission we rectified at the next dive.
The trouble with trying to photograph fish along the reef is that they’re woefully uncooperative when it comes to posing. Much of our time underwater spent chasing individual fish around with a camera, gurgling “Hold still dammit!” while they fled in shy terror. Soo and I marveled at the ever-changing underwater scene, and took nearly 500 pictures with our newly rented little cameras, a lot of them, I fear, of where a beautiful fish had just been.
The funniest part of diving with a group is the mandatory head count the staff performs after each stop. It’s kindergarten funny, but quite necessary. In 1998 an American couple, Thomas and Eileen Lonergan, went out on a similar tour with a company called Outer Edge. At the end of the afternoon their little dive group surfaced at the appointed time, boarded the boat and returned to port. That the Lonergans had failed to emerge from the water with the rest of the divers wasn’t noticed for two and a half days, at which time a massive search was organized. No trace of the couple was ever found.
Local dive companies are a bit touchy about this, as you might imagine, and at the conclusion of each dive everyone must freeze in place while staff walks through taking count. Three crew members take their own count and all three must agree before the boat sets back off. You’re not allowed to move an inch during this process, regardless of what you’re doing, even if you’re rushing to the loo (bathroom in Australia) as happened to one visibly inconvenienced woman. Everyone but her had a bit of a giggle over her predicament.
Tragically, the generation being born now may be the last to enjoy this wonderland. Soo and I were so grateful to be a part of it for just one day. Go there, man, while you still can! It’s what heaven would be if god were a fish.