Unlike any environment I've ever experienced
On February 21st, 2017, I discovered Paradise. I found it in the ocean about 70 kilometers offshore from Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia. You have heard its official name – the Great Barrier Reef. Our planet’s ever-present climate change has prompted alarming media articles about its demise. When my husband Eric and I were planning to spend three weeks down under, it felt essential to head to the Reef.
Our First Outing
Opposite to the way occupants of the northern hemisphere head south for warmer weather, those in the southern hemisphere head north. The minute we disembarked from our plane from Sydney, the heat and humidity hit us in the face.
We’d booked two boating adventures to the Reef. On February 20th, three hundred of us boarded a large craft which featured glass panels below the water level so non-swimmers could watch sea creatures while staying dry. Most passengers chose to get wet.
Unfortunately, Eric had to be a non-swimmer that day because he was taking strong medication for a chest infection and was following doctor’s orders. In solidarity, I decided to forego the snorkeling experience and stay dry, too – a choice I later regretted. (It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all. He wouldn't have minded.)
Sitting in the underwater observatory was interesting, but everything had a deep blue tinge, due to the thick glass, and I concentrated more on the fish swimming about than coral formations.
A More Intimate Excursion
On our second Port Douglas morning, we headed to the Reef Marina again. Armed with sun hats and sunscreen, we waited with 11 others to board a white Sailaway catamaran moored in the Reef Marina. Skipper Stephen and Marine Biologist Greg welcomed us aboard.
Loving to sail, we were disappointed when the absence of wind necessitated using the motor to reach the Low Isles – two tiny, uninhabited islands of the Great Barrier Reef. They were first discovered by
Captain Cook. The trip took over an hour, so Greg had plenty of time to distribute the snorkeling gear (masks, snorkels, flippers, Lycra full-body suits) and explain what we’d do and see. Our sailboat then tied up to a mooring holding a tender that could carry 22.
Everyone transferred to the glass-bottomed tender with our gear and belongings. We couldn’t see much through the glass as we tootled over to the beach, but at least we got a view of some of the coral we’d be swimming over. After piling out onto hot sand that burned our bare feet, we left our belongings in the shade of several picturesque permanent beach umbrellas. Made out of palm fronds, they looked ready to be in a movie.
Those of us planning to snorkel were already wearing the tight-fitting navy-blue bodysuits that covered also our heads and hands, because stinging jellyfish are a hazard during the summer. We looked like creatures from another world.
After disclosing Eric’s medical condition to the staff, he decided to try snorkeling and promised to quit if breathing became difficult. Greg assured us he’d stay vigilant about Eric’s progress.
Greg helped us into our masks, snorkels, and flippers. Then he taught us the hand signals for non-verbal phrases like, “Are you okay? Yes. No, I need help. Come and see something cool.” Stephen stayed in the tender with the few non-swimmers.
Trailing a yellow floating buoy behind himself to mark his location, Greg began to slowly and carefully guide us over the coral reefs. We’d been thoroughly briefed on the need to never touch the coral or step on it by mistake and shown how to kick shallowly.
What Is Coral?
I quote from the Internet, “What exactly is coral? Coral, a sessile animal, relies on its relationship with plant-like algae to build the largest structures of biological origin on Earth. Corals are sessile animals that ‘take root’ on the ocean floor. It's no wonder that many people think corals are plants!”
Words cannot describe the beauty below us.The bright sun overhead lit everything up and the colours of coral varied widely: pale yellow, brown, green, pale pink, red, turquoise, black, lime green, brilliant white, pale blue, burgundy, and white with turquoise-tips. All were piled next to each other in mounds.
And the movement! Most were soft corals, so they danced like graceful fingers waving in the breeze. A glorious variety of shapes: flowers, giant frilly plates, spaghetti, mushrooms, sticks, reindeer antlers, thick grasses, brains, oblong bubbles, to name a few.
No one used an underwater camera. I found the experience astonishingly liberating because I could just drink in the splendor without stopping to decide what shot to take next. I did my best to imprint the
extraordinary beauty in my mind and first drafted this essay within 24 hours - to capture the details.
Of course, there were plenty of brightly-coloured tropical fish about – some swimming in schools, others solo or in pairs. Also turtles and giant sea clams. Having previously snorkeled in Domenica, Barbados, Turks & Caicos, St. Lucia, Bora Bora, and Tahiti, watching these gorgeous creatures was not new to me. In Bora Bora, being given slices of bread to feed the fish added a memorable intimacy. They approached rather than avoided we humans.
The beauty of the Australian corals was unique and unforgettable. I’ve read that scientists are hard at work trying to breed new coral that resists disease and a warming ocean. They are also looking to technology for novel ways to preserve unique corals like cryogenic freezing for later reintroduction to the wild.
To end on a positive note, I quote from the Internet: “In 2022, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) reported the highest levels of coral cover across two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in over 36 years. After recent massive bleaching events impacted nearly 90% of Australia's corals, it seems that anyone could see this news as a victory.”
Paradise must be preserved.
NOTE TO READERS: I began publishing these weekly essays on August 9, 2022, and this is #33. As summer 2023 approaches (with golf, tennis, and travel), I have decided to take a little break. I'll start up again in September. Thanks for reading these missives and encouraging me to keep on writing!