YES! Finally, the post I have been looking forward the most to write. I am sure my friends are totally sick of hearing about this experience already, but honestly I can’t stop talking about it, so bear with me!
The Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef! I still couldn’t believe this day was finally upon me, even whilst I was walking down to the marina where I would shortly be boarding the Tusa T6 reef vessel. This day was something I had dreamed about for most of my life. Actually, to be specific, since the day I first watched David Attenborough’s series “The Blue Planet” and I saw the colourful wonders and the alien marine world that is the reef. Since then, endless other documentaries and videos on the oceans and reef have been watched, random “my snorkel experience on the reef home video” youtube clips adored and dreams formed. I would argue I was above average passionate about this experience, considering my choice of degree (ecology) and year abroad destination (Australia). This was my personal mecca, and I was hours away from reaching this holy marine city. The Great Barrier reef is the largest coral reef structure in the world, stretching 2300 km along North Queensland’s coast, so large it can be seen from outer space. This giant living structure consists of 3000 individual coral reefs, where 600 different types of soft and hard coral call home, and which give home to more than 100 species of jellyfish, 3000 varieties of molluscs, 500 species of worms, 1625 types of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins (source). No wonder I was excited?
So down by the Marina I was greeted by the Tusa staff and climbed on board! We were to set off at 8 am and return back again to Cairns at around 5 pm, which meant a full day on the reef! I was booked onto a day of snorkelling, although doing a scuba dive was available. I had decided I didn’t want to scuba as I hadn’t got the experience I was hoping to get by taking my Padi license in Wollongong during last semester, but that didn’t happen due to the broken leg. I also had a mild cold and so I didn’t want to ruin my reef experience with painful ears! The tour took us to two different sites during the day, giving us plenty of time to spend at each location. The company I was with had permits for several locations along the reef, and could therefore choose the best two for the day’s conditions and for more privacy. The two picked for that day included the Norman reef and the “twin peaks” at Saxon Reef. The boat had a comfortable amount of people and a lovely breakfast spread to welcome us on board. I was by myself that day, as Shawnee was still struggling with an ear infection, poor thing, and so her and Max had decided to leave it for a couple of days to see if she got better. It didn’t look like she would get well in time, so she said best thing for me was to book ahead. Luckily she got well enough to sneak it in right at the end of the stay in Cairns, so they got to go, which I am thrilled about!
It took an hour and 45 minutes to arrive at our first location, Norman Reef. I was extra pleased when we finally got there as I was starting to feel a bit woozy by the end. A strange occurrence for me, as I very rarely get seasick and the waters weren’t even remotely rough that day. My guess was that I was spending too much time looking in books and field guides of the marine life laid out by the staff. I was relieved when the boat anchored and I could wet up into my lycra suit and get into the water to wash off the wooziness. Wetsuit on, goggles washed and snorkel in place, I sat down on the lowered platform to get my flippers put on by staff, grabbed my noodle for floating and then jumped into the cool waters. Now, my expectations were as you can tell very high, and I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the unreal images I had in my mind formed from images by professional filmers on television. The second I opened my eyes and saw, I was stunned. It was so surreal, beyond anything I could have imagined. Worries of disappointment were immediately washed away. The view was so vast, so colourful, clear and intricate. I was overwhelmed with the reefs beauty, I wasn’t expecting my marine mecca to be such a soul finding, emotional experience. Seconds after getting my first look, my eyes catch glimpse of the largest fish I had ever seen in my life, so big my heart skipped a beat! I swam towards the underwater cliffs and mountains of coral and colour towards the coral plateu, where I was mere metres above this wonderful, colourful ocean world. With plenty of space I could swim away from the denser amount of people around the boat to a quieter bit, where it felt like I had the whole ocean to myself. As I swam above the sunlight-dappled coral bed I met wrasses, triggerfish, parrotfish, damselfish, butterflyfish and angelfish, and so many countless others, big and small, flat and oval, long and short, stripy, blotchy and colourful, I couldn’t believe it. I swam past parrotfish eating off the coral, moving pieces around using their beaks, watched as large fish were cleaned at cleaning stations, and admired the different shapes, structures and colours of the coral. Two hours flew by very quickly, but by two hours I was glad to have a break from the waters, rest my foot and have something to eat.
Whilst we dined on the delicious lunch buffet the crew cruised the boat over to our second destination, the “Twin peaks” on Saxon reef. This location had gotten it’s name, Twin peaks, as this particular reef had two towering blocks of reef, side by side, like two coral buildings. On this snorkel I was met with my great pleasure by anenenemone (Nemo fans will understand) where I saw a couple of clownfish maintaining their stingy home! Mere metres away from this sighting I see a TURTLE eating off the sea bed. A green sea turtle if I am not mistaken (?). Eventually this little creature came up for air and I had the most wonderful close encounter with him or her. The experience was slightly ruined by some young lads trying to get a picture with themselves with it (gawd.. even I know there is a time and a place for that sorts.. ) and didn’t consider the turtles personal space. The turtle obviously used to such human behaviour luckily didn’t look fused and after taking some gulps of air took a dive towards the bed again to continue having lunch. It was marvellous watching it glide in the water so effortlessly.
Suddenly time was up and we headed back to Cairns, exhausted, happy and content. The reef now holds an even dearer place in my heart, and I can’t wait to return someday again (because I will). I was so moved by it, and it truly breaks my heart that this wonder is slowly diminishing and dying because of my own selfish species. It makes me so angry and disheartened to know that the Australian government, despite understanding it’s importance, are ignoring all danger warnings and continuing using it as a dumping ground for their industrial waste. The only way to convince them otherwise is to tell them it’s worth in money and how much they can profit from keeping it. Nature needs a price-tag for humans to care. In tourism alone it profits the government 3 BILLION per year. Eco-tourism is the only viable solution at the moment where governments can satisfyingly make money for their countries economic “progress” and development, whilst the wildlife and ecosystem can at the same time remain untouched and encouraged to flourish too (SO GO VISIT THE REEF!). How sad is it though that in our minds, nature (or anything else in this world) only has meaning to us if it gives us benefit, either financially or as our own personal recreation? That it has to have a function for us, for us to care. It would never be just simply taken care of, just because it should. Because who decided this planet was ours to milk dry, and that nothing deserves respect unless it has a benefit to us?
Anyway……. rant over.. The rest of the evening, after returning to the marina and going back to my hostel, was spent hanging out with my roommates; the life-living Frenchman, the hilarous Sweed and the slightly intimidating German/Russian. We decided to get the free Gilligans meal again, but after eating it the guys decided they were not satisfied with the smallish portion size and decided to get dominos pizza too. I walked with them and got some yummy churros for dessert! It was lovely hanging out with them, exchanging language, culture and laughs! Back at the hostel I went to bed whilst the boys went out to party.