Below the waves of the sparkling Coral Sea, stretching for 2300 km (1400 miles), the submarine landscape of the World’s largest coral reef system lies steadfast yet ever changing, off the coast of Australia’s Queensland. Over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands make it the biggest structure made out of living organisms, and unsurprisingly it is visible from space. For many visitors to Australia, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a given, but for me, it had taken 5 years and multiple visits to this vast country to come even close. I love being by the sea, and I love the creatures that dwell in the oceans, but getting into the open water and exploring them in person is not a natural activity for me. So suffice to say, I’ve never really been fussed about going to the GBR, but now, working my way as I had up the Queensland coast, it seemed only sensible to reach Cairns and see what all the fuss was about.
The health of the GBR has been a hot topic of late, with reports of invading species such as the Crown of Thorns starfish decimating reefs, pollution changing the fragile water quality and of most note, the devastation of climate-induced coral bleaching. Like many ecosystems, those of coral reefs are a fragile sort, with many creatures and plant life living in symbiosis with each other. In other words, the presence of one organism is crucial to the presence of another. Coral by nature is colourless. It is the algae that colonise their tissues that give coral their fabulous and ranging colours. But rather than being a parasite, these algae are the life source for the coral. Without the algae, the coral fade to white, and eventually they starve and die. As sea temperatures rise, or pollution alters the water quality, the algae are the first to suffer, the coral following suit. My first experience of the GBR was in its southern reefs off the Whitsundays. The snorkelling conditions had been magical, but the coral bleaching was very much in evidence across the whole reef. The reef floor was littered with a graveyard of white coral, and there was more white coral than coloured coral in large sections of the reef. It was sobering and a little disheartening to see. I was intrigued to see how the northern reefs were coping.
After an enjoyable day up in Kuranda, the next morning I had an early rise to meet my pick-up to drive me to the Cairns marina where I was to board my transport for the day. There is an unbelievable amount of choice when it comes to getting out to the reef, from day trips to overnighters, helicopters to boats, diving to snorkelling. It is almost overwhelming. I had booked myself on an overnight reef experience, involving a boat trip out to a moored mini-cruiser which would take me around a selection of reefs over the course of about 30 hours. Most of the people on the boat were just going out for the day, but those of us with a special ticket, got sent up to the wheelhouse where a bacon & egg roll and a platter of fresh fruit awaited us for breakfast. I love spending boat journeys out on deck watching the world go by as the wind whips my hair into the biggest tangle of knotted curls, so I was a little irked that we were confined to the cabin for a while as introductions, formalities, paperwork and liability forms were sorted: an inconvenient necessity that I was glad to get over with. It was a sunny day, and the loungers on the top deck were the perfect spot to soak up the rays as Cairns disappeared behind us, eventually disappearing out of view.
It took some time for the Reef Experience boat to finally reach the Reef Encounter, the floating ‘hotel’ that was to be my base till the following afternoon. The small group of us changed vessels, whilst the many day trippers moored a little way away. For my first experience of a floating ‘hotel’, the Reef Encounter was easy to like. Stepping into the lounge area which appeared both dated but yet retro, the crew were welcoming, smiling and eager to get us settled and into the water. We were shown to our rooms and I was delighted to discover that my twin-share cabin was all mine, and after living in backpacker dorms since I’d left Noosa behind, this was the most amazing news I could have been given. Better still, unlike some of the others, my room was upstairs so I had a sea view and looking out the large windows, I spied the Saxon Reef.
The days were divided around a schedule: early morning snorkel or dive, then breakfast; morning snorkel or dive; mid-morning snorkel then lunch; afternoon snorkel or dive; mid-afternoon snorkel or dive then afternoon tea; night-time dive then dinner; and amongst all this water activity, the boat would move between reefs offering 3 separate locations over two days and the opportunity to learn to dive or gain further dive certification. I’ve done a lot of adrenalin activities in my time but diving has never been something I’ve been interested in. I have a fear of drowning and so the thought of being deep under the water and having to rely on a breathing apparatus doesn’t fill me with much excitement. I was one of only 3 people on the boat who wouldn’t be diving, and as the water activities went on over the 2 days, I began to realise that perhaps the experience was lost on me a little. Undeterred, I was aware that I would likely only visit the GBR once, and I was determined to make the most of it.
Briefings and welcomes over, I got kitted up in a wetsuit and got into the water for the morning snorkel session. Straight away the difference between Saxon Reef and Hardy Reef in the Whitsundays was obvious: there was next to no coral bleaching to be seen. The fish life was incredible and plentiful and excitedly on my first trip out I saw an eel. The water may have been calmer at Hardy Reef, but here the ecosystem seemed so much healthier. I stayed in the Coral Sea for about an hour, bobbing around watching life go on below me before coming out for lunch. The chef on board was incredible and I tucked into the first of many incredibly delicious meals. By the time of the afternoon snorkel, I was surprised to see a swell had appeared and the sea conditions were suddenly quite different to the morning. Still at Saxon Reef, I made a point of exploring different areas than I had on the morning snorkel and I found massive shoals at the fringes of the reef. In fact I got so distracted by them that I got whistled at for having strayed out of the snorkelling zone.
The top deck of the Reef Encounter offered the perfect sunbathing zone, and armed with a book from the library in the lounge, I pretended to read in between getting to know my fellow passengers and soaking up the sun. The boat had a bit of a rigmarole to go through to leave its anchorage and move on to a new spot. We anchored at Norman Reef offering a change of scene for the next water session. Here though, things were very different. The reef was not right next to the boat but a bit of a swim away, and the sea was quite choppy now. The sun was still shining but the sea did not look in the least bit inviting. I was nervous before even getting in the water, and one of my companions on the boat who was also a little nervous asked to buddy with me so that we could keep an eye out for each other. Unfortunately for her, I turned out to be the worst snorkelling buddy ever.
As fine as I am in the swimming pool, being in the open ocean can be a bit hit and miss for me. If conditions are calm and there is something to grab my attention, I can overcome any fear I have and push it to one side. A couple of years prior I had a panic attack whilst snorkelling in the open ocean off the Galapagos Islands. The sea conditions there had also been choppy and my guide at the time had thought the sensible thing for me to do to stop panicking was to stick my head under water and look below me. Little did he know that the sight of a deep oceanic abyss with no bottom in sight would be the catalyst for my fight or flight mechanism kicking in. It had taken all the resilience I could muster to stay in the water that day and complete the snorkel.
So now in the Coral Sea, I wasn’t far from the boat when I started to have water splash into my snorkel, sending me into a bit of a choking fit. My buddy suggested I alter my swimming technique which worked for her but didn’t work for me, and as she swam ahead of me oblivious, the choppy water repeatedly splashed into my snorkel, and as I failed miserably to clear it, I began to swallow water which sent me into a blind panic. Now, part of our welcome briefing had included a run down of emergency signals to give if you get into trouble, but it is incredible how even when I was struggling to clear my throat and breathe properly without taking on more water, the underlying thought process going through my head at the time was that I didn’t want the embarrassment of being a bother to the crew and so I stubbornly didn’t call attention to myself and just allowed myself an attempt at drowning in silence. Wearing large flippers generally makes treading water a relatively easy experience, but in full blown panic mode they weren’t quite enough and for one brief moment, I felt myself slipping under the surface and it finally dawned on me that I would actually drown if I didn’t get my act together. It was a terrifying experience, and my heart was thudding up into my mouth by the time I reached the steps at the back of the boat. When I signed myself back on board, I’d been out in the water for just 5 minutes and when asked why I’d come back in so soon, I was still too embarrassed to admit what had actually happened.
Sheepishly I hung around the lower deck for a while watching the others in the water, before grabbing myself a calming cup of tea and retreating to the sundeck to take stock of what had just happened. Afternoon tea came and went, and as the evening wore on, a few of us headed to the hot tub at the bow of the boat. What more could you ask for on a floating ‘hotel’ but a hot tub. It was a little cramped with us all in it, but it was just what I needed at the end of the day, and it was a great place to get to know the others on board. Dinner was a social affair with crew and passengers eating together. Everyone had such incredible stories to share and even the Captain who was a Kiwi, joined our table, and once again the food was delicious. By the time bedtime came around, there was a gentle rocking and rolling to send me off to sleep.
It felt amazing waking up in the morning after a blissful night’s sleep on an exceptionally comfortable bed. I’d requested a wake-up call for the early morning snorkel but decided to skip it, moored as we were still at Norman Reef. During breakfast, we raised anchor once more and moved on to another reef, known as Fingers. It was actually still part of the large Norman Reef but not only was the reef right next to the boat here, the positioning of our mooring relative to the wind direction meant the sea wasn’t looking quite so unappealing. We spotted two turtles at the surface as we anchored and this was encouragement enough to get back in the water. The conditions were not how I would have liked them to be, but I did my very best to quell the fear of drowning, and focused on the amazing reef below me.
From a snorkellers perspective, as amazing as the reef life was, I had been surprised at how drab a lot of the reef looked. A lot of the coral is a range of browns with the odd splash of purple or pink for good measure. I know that with depth, the colour spectrum becomes limited, so I wasn’t sure if this depth was dulling the colours, in which case diving the reef would be a much better visual experience, or if the reef actually was just this dull and every photo I’ve ever seen is heavily photoshopped. Perhaps the change in sea conditions favours the more drab-coloured algae. Either way, the fish life was probably the best of any snorkel experience I’ve ever had, but I felt that perhaps the coral wasn’t. Maybe my memory was tricking me, but I felt that the coral in Fiji had been rather more colourful than what I was looking at here.
Following a spot of sunbathing and more turtle spotting at the surface, I was surprised to see that a tidal change by the time of the mid-morning snorkel meant that the coral was suddenly much closer to look at, and in places I had to try very hard not to be bashed against it in the choppy surface waves. I was finally relaxing into the snorkel again, and I spotted a cuttlefish which I watched for some time until the strong current made me aware that I had a bit of work to do to get back to the boat. It was easy to dry off between snorkels by heading to the top deck to sunbathe for a bit, and I was quite dry by the time lunchtime came around. By now I’d got to know the other passengers reasonably well. Some of them would be leaving with me that afternoon, whereas a few others were working on their diving certification so were staying another night. One guy had been on board for a week and had dived at every single dive site that the boat was allowed to visit.
Finally it was time for the last snorkel, and the wind had picked up once more creating the undesired surface chop. I sought out the cuttlefish again, watching it dart around the seabed, then I watched the divers exploring below me before being mesmerised by some large fish that were hanging out under the boat. I was both sad to get out of the water and glad all at the same time. Snorkelling the GBR had been a mental challenge, one that nearly got the better of me. I think had the water been as calm as it had been at Hardy Reef, the experience would have been utterly amazing, but there was part of me that was always fighting off the fear, and so the experience was a little tainted.
I showered, gathered my stuff together and transferred back to the Reef Experience which had by now berthed right next to the Reef Encounter. We were again ushered into the wheelhouse where we were plied with wine, cheese and crackers, and feeling like I was at a VIP party with those that I had gotten to know over the previous day, I was quick to get just a little bit tipsy. The trip back to Cairns was a very different experience than the one out had been. The wind and chop meant that we were buffeted the whole way with a cross wind and waves that pushed us from the side, such that we rocked and rolled and dropped over rising crests. I thanked my trusty stomach for holding firm, and embraced the experience, knowing that I had experienced the roughest boat trip of my life between Isabella Island and Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, and therefore nothing could ever be as bad as that.
Twenty-one days prior I had landed in Queensland, and now I was on my last night in the state. I marked the end of the first stage of my great Australian adventure with some ice cream on the esplanade. The next day I was to head to the airport, leaving Queensland behind, and flying deeper into the tropics.