It’s difficult to talk about the Reef and the ocean around it without descending into cliché. The phrases that spring to mind have been heard before. I certainly know them, and you do to. So I hope you’ll forgive me when I return to them. There is a simplistic truth to them that no lily gilding on my part can supplant.
I’ve been to the ocean before. Most of them, actually. I’ve flown over them many times. I’ve been to beaches to swim (or at least dip my toe). But never have I seen an ocean as blue as I saw the day we headed to the Great Barrier Reef.
At first, in the harbour, it was simply a murky grey-brown, like many other bodies of water I’d seen. It was nothing that impressive. The sky was grey as well, and I was hoping against hope that the sun would come through.
But then we pulled out of the dock and began to pick up speed. The rain forest covered hills receded as we flew towards the Agincourt Reef (a part of the Great Barrier Reef right on the edge of the Continental Shelf). The sky brightened. Occasionally we saw shafts of sunlight burning through the clouds and lighting up the water with golden ripples. By the time the port completely disappeared, the water began to change.
I never knew how grey the water at home was until I saw this. First, it changed to a dark blue. Then, as more sun came out, it became a vibrant azure. Once we started spotting reefs in the distance, the water was almost turquoise.
The pontoon we docked with looked small as we approached, but it was surprisingly large. Our vessel easily docked on one side, while other smaller ships circled or moored against the structure. It was two stories tall and large enough to host several hundred people. Helicopters flew overhead, delivering tourists who had no interest in arriving by boat.
After listening to the various safety instructions and warnings, I decided to rent a Lycra wet suit to help protect from jelly fish and coral abrasion. My partner decided against it, wanting to feel the water against her skin. We donned our equipment and headed to one of the platforms that swimmers could use to leave the pontoon.
Unlike my partner, I’m not a strong or confident swimmer. I feel no shame about that. I gladly took the floatation jacket as an added precaution.
The water was chilly, but not too cold. The wind was about 10 knots, which we were told promised good visibility. The tide was very low, one meter by one o’clock, meaning we’d be right on top of the coral without needing to swim deep (more on this important fact later).
As a bonus for purchasing two tickets from a particular tour agency, we were loaned an underwater digital camera (on the boat a digital camera rental cost $68 Australian…but hey, you got to keep the 2GB memory card). We’d get out pictures burned to CD for free after as well. I felt pretty good about that bonus.
So, there I was, clinging to the railing of the platform, half submerged in water that was chilling me enough to make it hard to breath, watching my partner casually swim into the mass of children far, far less terrified than me. Not my best moment.
I’ve never snorkelled before. I’ve played with a mask in the pool, and tried to use the snorkel but always found myself sinking and water coming in and having to jump out desperate for breath. Not great memories as I contemplated pushing myself off into the blue abyss.
Ah yes, another thing. Because the water was so crystal clear, so vibrantly blue it was practically invisible; I could see the several meters down to the sandy floor beneath my flippers. I could see the tropical fish inspecting us curiously in their nonchalantly beautiful way. I could see corals that spread like living mountains beneath me. Why, it was almost like I’d be flying.
I’m also a bit scared of heights. Well, not heights per se, but falling. See, I’ll gladly go up into a tall building, or look over the edge of a cliff, but I get those cold sweats and that tumbling falling sensation every time. As my father would say, “It’s enough to pucker my puckerer.” I’ll leave you to decipher that beautiful image on your own.
That left me, the bad swimmer, covered with a pair of plastic goggles, trying to breathe without hyperventilating through a plastic tube, trying to will myself to, as far as my brain was concerned, jump off a cliff. I might as well have been trying to parachute off a cliff.
I remembered a piece of advice they gave us, that to test the fit of your goggles you should dip your face in the water. Ok, I said to myself, let’s try that and see how it goes… make sure the goggles are on tight enough (it felt like they were cutting off circulation to my brain so I didn’t see how they could be tighter). I dipped my face and my brain’s reaction went something like this: OH MY GOD, MIND BLOWING VISION OF FISH AND GIANT MOUNTAINS UNDER THE WATER AND WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU WANT ME TO TAKE A BREATH UNDERWATER…ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?
Yeah, my brain didn’t take well to the idea of sucking in air while I knew I was under water, even though part of it (the small rational part that didn’t like being yelled at by the over-developed survival instinct) knew that sweet, sweet air was just waiting for me to take a hit.
We’ve spent millions of years evolving to the point where we didn’t have to breathe underwater and by gosh, my brain liked it like that. What on earth did I think I was doing trying to go backwards? Hadn’t I got opposable thumbs out of that deal? Wasn’t that enough?
Around this point, my partner noticed I was still tightly clutching the metal rail, while hoards of grannies and little children swarmed past me. “Are you okay?” she asked, swimming back to me.
“Fine, just fine,” I said, the lie made less palatable (and understandable) by the plastic I had clinched in my teeth.
“Come on,” she said, “We’ll swim to the rope line.”
The ‘beginner’s area’ was roped off by two long lines of rope with bobbing floats holding them up. The line she indicated was…maybe…five feet away from my safe, loving metal rail.
I can hold my breath for that distance, I told myself. No big deal. If it were a pool, you’d be laughing, I said. Except, in a pool, I wasn’t trying to swim like a cadaver.
But hell, I’d come all this way. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We’d paid a lot of money and that thought, perhaps more than the embarrassment of returning to the safe pontoon, pushed me towards the rope.
I won’t lie. It was an awkward, fumbling swim. I didn’t know how to make my flippers work. I was refusing to breathe the sweet, sweet air right above my head. The floatation vest held me aloft, but kept me cadaver like, so trying to pull my head from the water gave me a crick in my neck. My Lycra suit ended in mittens, making me feel even more ineffectual without fingers to grab with.
But oh, the view. It was another world, right there, right under my floating corpse body. Schools of tiny, vibrant emerald fish swam past me. Larger striped fish floated to inspect my flailing efforts. And the coral…so unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
When I came up that first time, I felt a little more confident. I also remembered my camera. I had to capture what I was seeing. Even if I did it in short jumps along the safety line while holding my breath, I wanted to catch some of these images.
Distraction was the key, really, that set me free. While I was busy focusing on the camera, my fears and worries disappeared…well, retreated far enough away that I could enjoy myself, but not so far that I didn’t know they were there, watching me with disapproving eyes.
The coral looked like an alien landscape, and the fish like strange birds that hunted above it. Some of the coral was like antlers or spines, others looked like brains, still other waved and undulated like spaghetti (which is actually what’s it called). Everything was alive, awash in this peaceful blue glow. The fish seemed unimpressed by the swimmers, though some avoided the noisier groups. Others just went about their business as we floated by, either oblivious or uncaring about our presence. I was mesmerised.
At this point, I came up and realized that my partner and I had made it to the first rest station (a square of floating plastic tubing you could hold or sit on if you were tired) some distance from the pontoon. From here, we were closer to the coral as the mountains rose to the surface. Spots that looked like greasy yellow muck from the surface were actually just the tops of poorly seen hills of these living creatures.
“Let’s swim over there to that coral,” my partner said, pointing to a bright yellow patch circled by various swimmers. “All right,” I said and followed her as she swam off.
As the mound of spiny, horn like coral got closer and closer to us, I wondered, what are we going to do once we get there?
You aren’t allowed to stand on coral, and we were warned that many of the organisms on the reef could debilitate a full grown man by touch alone. Lycra suit or not, I didn’t think I was going to be protected if I swam into those antlers. But by the time all these thoughts finished running through my brain, I realized that water is a really poor medium for judging distances. A couple of strokes of my legs, a few pictures from my camera, and what do you know, I was floating on top of about a thousand death spines, with no way to turn around, no idea how close I actually was, and the absolutely certainty that I was going to be murdered by an animal that doesn’t even move.
Somehow, with a lot of writhing (not at all the sexy kind), I managed to veer away at an angle and not actually touch any of the million killer spikes. I breathed a sigh of relief, or thought really hard about it but decided to maintain a steady breath through my snorkel, and came up to find my partner.
“I got nicked when I tried to turn around. That’s what I get for being nice to the coral,” she said, and looked down. I followed her gaze underwater where I saw she’d scuffed a knee.
“We need to head back and get that looked at,” I said, mindful of the many instructions they’d given us to do just that. I was also glad that she wasn’t immediately immobilized, or captured by the coral. I didn’t think a camera would have made a brilliant weapon for a rescue attempt.
We made it back without incident and, though her leg bled much more out of the water, the life guards told her it wasn’t bad and she had nothing to worry about. They treated her, and the life guard warned her it would really hurt. After a few moments she asked if he was just messing with her because she hardly felt a tingle. I could tell by the shocked look on his face he thought she was messing with him, but no, she is simply far more METAL than your average tourist. I’d have squealed like a little child no doubt. Anyway, they told her to stay out of the water for a half hour while the antiseptic dried.
Maybe I’d taken the warnings a bit too literally.
The rest of the day went without a hitch. We ate a buffet while the medicine dried and then took a ride on a boat with a glassed in submarine viewing area that allowed us a great view of other parts of the reef (including a sighting of a sea turtle and a shark, albeit a harmless one). I snapped a ridiculous amount of pictures and realized that the camera also took videos.
We swam back in the water again and, other than getting used to the cold, it was a much more secure trip. The water was a bit rougher and I kept looking up to realize the current had pushed me two or three meters from where I thought I was, and little amount of effort on my part actually made any difference. I gained an appreciation of all those stories about tides dragging people out to sea.
Despite my fear at the beginning, this was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’ve never seen anything like this, anything at all. I would do this again in a heartbeat. Perhaps next time I’ll be brave enough to try the beginners’ scuba they offer…but probably not. Regardless, I am proud that I overcame my fear to enjoy a spectacular day. I am so lucky that my partner has wanted to do this for years, and that we had the chance to fulfil that dream. I’m glad I got pulled along, because I doubt I’d ever have had the guts to try this on my own.
It saddens me that global warming and human activities are endangering the reef. The ecosystem and biodiversity are remarkable and it would be a tragedy if we let it die.
It would also mean the end of the rainforests in Australia, oddly enough. But more on that later.