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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Days 28-31: The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of North Queensland, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, I believe, was the ultimate bucket-list experience before the term “bucket list” was invented. Snorkeling on the Reef, or diving if scuba is your thing, is something you really should do before you die. People know this. In Cancer in Two Voices, one of the things that co-authors Barbara Rosenblum and Sandy Butler do when they realize Barbara is going to die, is to go and snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Reef extends from Bundaberg, the rum capital in central Queensland, north to the coast of Papua New Guinea. The coral reefs of the Queensland continental shelf extend up to 220 miles into the Pacific Ocean. The present reef, grown over hundreds of meters of ancient reefs from previous falls in sea level, is between six and eighteen thousand years old. Corals (more than four hundred species of them) are, of course, animals that behave somewhat weirdly like plants. Trillions of them make up the largest living thing ever. It is like no place on earth.

So although we’d snorkeled on fringing reef in the Whitsundays, and had a glimpse of the tropical fish and corals, nothing could compare to the moment I first donned mask and fins and slipped off the ramp from the rear deck into the sea. The waters around Thetford Reef were filled with color and natural wonders, and although I’m very nearsighted, what I wanted to see was close to the surface, or swimming right in front of my mask. “Some nondivers may wonder if it’s really worth going to the Great Barrier Reef ‘just to snorkel,’” says the Lonely Planet guide to Australia. “The answer is a resounding yes. Much of the rich, colourful coral lies just underneath the surface (as coral needs bright sunlight to flourish)”.

They say you could snorkel different parts of the Reef all your life and never see everything. I find myself coming up with only bathetic comparisons—certainly no photographs could capture it, as I’m not an underwater photographer. It was like swimming in the tropical fish tank at my pediatricians’. It’s a wonderworld. For all that, though, I can’t say that Airlie Beach and the nearby islands aren’t still where I’d go back on vacation. And the Grand Canyon (once we were finally reunited at the traumatic end of a long hike) is still the pitch-black place in which I’ve seen the most amazing star-filled sky.

Because the Reef is wild and natural. Such an experience has to accept that we have no control over either weather or wildlife. There is no guarantee of clear weather or smooth sailing, especially in the wet tropics. Nor can sea turtles or Ulysses butterflies be made to appear. A clear night on the Reef with sunset or stars was not to be. Never take any experience for granted.

We began in Cairns, eating locally caught barramundi—such fresh fish. The moment our small ship set out we were on the top deck, the “sun” deck, sitting around the spa. Quickly the bumping around began and sloshed water from the spa all over us, so we figured we might as well get into our swimsuits and sit in it. This was to be as much as we’d enjoy the spa in three days!

The first snorkel, at Thetford Reef (an atoll reef), the song running through my head constantly was “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.” And it was. Whatever people say to describe the glorious coral and fish of the Reef, there’s nothing like actually floating over it for the first time. Elephant-ear coral, black surgeon fish, brilliantly colored parrot fish crunching away at the coral’s surface, and more other species than I could ever count, let alone name. The marine biologist told us more about some of what we were seeing in the glass-bottomed boat later, which led to T. sharing this Doris Day gem:

“The glass-bottomed boat, you will agree/ Gives you the secrets of the deep blue sea”

Everybody we ate with, even when extra people came and went, was British. Ten thousand miles I came to be surrounded by English people—well, there was a single Scot. So I learned a lot at dinner about English places and sports. I also learned more Australian lessons, such as, that I don’t get the point of oysters, nor do I like Moreton Bay Bugs (crayfish)—and why would I?

So there we were: a whole load of Brits, an Austrian, German, and New Zealand family (one each), an American couple who were older than everybody else but game for anything—and me. At dinner the Scotsman sat on the other side of T. and, as there was another man beside me and a heterosexual couple, the server put two and two together. Or didn’t. She assumed T. would pay for Scottie’s drinks. T. pointed to me and said, “I’m with her—not him!”

What we essentially did was go down the coast of north Queensland the same way we’d just come up, only on the sea side. So we sailed through Hinchinbrook Channel, of which an old sailor’s adage was quoted: “No one can sail through the Hinchinbrook Channel and not believe in God.” He must have been there on a sunny day; if I didn’t believe in God I’m not sure Hinchinbrook Island would convince me. It’s the rainiest place in Australia. No barbecue on the beach for us. Most of the Palm Islands are either national park or Aboriginal land, but we went to Pelorus Island, which is neither. Our nature walk showed us golden orb spiders, green ants, casuarina trees like those planted around Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and Moses-in-a-Basket rhododendron; but the only other wildlife we saw was the wickedly invasive cane toad. Again, it was the marine environment that was the star, with giant clams. We snorkeled again around Yanks Jetty, on Orpheus Island, where there was a really nice beach. By “really nice” I mean that it was sand, not coral rock, and that the sun came out for a bit. To be fair, it doesn’t much matter when it rains while you’re snorkeling.

From the sea side we now saw the impressively long (5.7-km) jetty at Lucinda, Queensland, which is used for sugar cane. And we came to Dunk Island, last seen from the land side at Wongaling Beach, where we saw the water taxi leaving from the beach. Wongaling is part of the community of Mission Beach, which takes its name from the ill-fated “mission” to the Djiru people. Decimated by malaria and cyclone, they were further removed to Great Palm Island, which is why the Palm Islands (except Orpheus and Pelorus) are still Aboriginal lands today.

I saw intricate pink and purple lipstick clams, which open and close like, well, lips. Thousands of little fish swimming right along with me. Strange birdsong and not even being able to see the birds was my experience of Dunk Island (Coonanglebah, “the island of peace and plenty,” in Djiru). Well, we did see a few plants and butterflies, and a rainbow over the nearby “desert” island. Back on the sun deck, the sun rapidly gave way to rain; at least being under 80% canopy cover made us feel part of the rainforest itself.

It’s safe to say I preferred the underwater to the rainforest environment. For a native of a landlocked state, who never saw an ocean until I was fourteen, I sure have been spending a lot of time at sea lately. The one sunny morning we had time to doze on the sun lounges, the sun was endurable because of the great wind tossing the ship up and down. What a relief to arrive at Nathan Reef, which was the best snorkeling experience yet—the coral gardens more spectacular, the fish more varied, and the sea swell greater!
The final morning it was raining so hard when we woke up I thought there was no way we were going to Fitzroy Island, or Gabarra as it’s called in Gungandji. In 1877 this island was used to quarantine Chinese workers on their way to the goldfields, and of course, many died of the squalid conditions. Seems there’s a bad story behind every place.

But amazingly, the weather cleared up long enough for us to snorkel one more time off the coral rock beach. Not even any injuries this time (they’ve healed wondrously—thanks, intern pharmacist at Airlie Beach!) We enjoyed seeing many more fish, including species I hadn’t previously seen, along this fringing reef. The sun came out again, briefly, just long enough for us to snap a group photo on the deck. Then just before we docked at Cairns, would you believe we saw dolphins on the starboard side. Not close enough to get a picture, but just seeing them was enough.

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