A Reef Encounter
Geelong Grammar School camp members at Lady Elliot Island.
As we approached Bundaberg the land lay spread beneath us like a patchwork quilt of greens and browns. A blue ribbon, the Burnett river, broke up the squares of sugar cane fields, tobacco plants, and tropical fruit tree groves. It was hard to believe we would be on the Great Barrier Reef in less than an hour. After months of careful planning by Steve Miller, the art teacher at Geelong Grammar School, Glamorgan, our school camp was on its way. Accompanying the twenty-four boys and girls from grades four through seven were Steve and his wife (lucky me) and three other teachers. Steve had been coaching the children in snorkelling lessons, and had prepared them with slides and films on what they could expect to find on the reef. All twenty-nine of us had been eagerly looking forward to this day for months. One plane shuddered slightly as its altitude dropped to meet the rising air currents warmed by the earth. At the airport everyone was weighed, holding their bags and protesting loudly that they wanted to be on the first flight to Lady Elliot Island. We were split up into groups of eight to be taxied across in four small planes to the island, lying 96 kilometres N.E. of Bundaberg. Steve and I announced that we were going with the girls on the first flight. We had to check in, we told the others. Our excuse was met with suspicious doubt. Our pilot, who lacked youth but hopefully made up for this with lots of experience, put on his headset. I wasn't sure if he wanted to hear the tower or block out the sound of his wildly elated passengers. The engine noise was deafening, but only marginally more so than the yells of delight as the plane rumbled down the runway for its takeoff. The sky was clear to the horizon. The ocean was calm, and every breaking wave seemed it must have been a school of dolphins or a breaching whale, although at an altitude of 2,000 feet, I knew it was probably only my imagination. Then, our coral cay appeared. It jutted out of nowhere, from water forty metres deep. On its leeward side were 80 kilometres of ocean to the mainland, on its windward side were only 10 kilometres to the Continental shelf. From the air it looked like a large hunk of jade set into a perfect turquoise oval. Lady Elliot Island is a true coral cay, the southern most island in the Bunker and Capricom reefs of the Capricornia section of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Here begins the stretch of over 2,500 reefs along the tropical coast of Queensland, covering 2,000 kilometres to the Torres Straight Islands. Our two planes landed on the short grassy runway where we were greeted by staff members who pulled our bags in carts over to our accommodation. The two planes retumed to Bundaberg for the rest of our group, and an hour and a half later we were reunited in the dining lounge for an excellent buffet lunch. After organizing the children and ourselves into seven permanently'erected tents and two cabins, we set out for our first assault on the reef: a walk at low tide. The children were fascinated by the Beche-de-Mer squirting water at them when they lifted the creatures out of the water, and disgusted when a few of the slimy sea slugs ejected a bundle of gooey white threads out at its attackers. Tally, the resort's manager, told us that this strange defense mechanism is incredibly sticky, and can be dangerous as it is almost impossible to remove if it gets into one's eyes. This extraordinary defence system allows the Beche-deMer to suck huge amounts of sand and food particles through its system whilst remaining virtually undisturbed by predators. As we groped our way amongst the plate, stag horn, and brain coral, we found plenty of electric blue sea stars, a few brittle stars, and a pincushion star. The sea urchins were safe from curious fingers, the children saw immediately that the needle-sharp spines would not make for a pleasant encounter. Boring clams, showing off the bright colours of their velvety mantles, partially shut when the shadow of a hand passed over them, or the touch of a finger disturbed them. We found a small wolf eel, which Tally borrowed to take back to the resort's "Creature Feature" fish tank at the bar to spend some time as the lucky exhibit of the day. A small wobbergong shark was startled from its resting place, and the children were thrilled with their first introduction to a "real shark". As high tide started to come in, we returned to the shore. The children were anxious to tell us about everything we had just seen together, convinced they had already encountered everything that the reef had to offer. Steve returned to our tent to grease the 0 rings of his Nikonos camera, his ritual behaviour before taking underwater photos. I went for a walk with a few of the children around the perimeter of the 45 hectare island. We found plenty of evidence of the boats that regulariy wreck themselves on this reef in spite of the lighthouse that had been here since 1866. One of the more famous yachts to come to grief on Lady Elliot in the last few years was. the Australian maxi-racer "Apollo". We watched the sun set, and I felt the urge to hold time still so that I could make this week last forever. Dinner was hearty and delicious, topped off by homemade apple pie. We were very impressed at the selection of fresh fruit and vegetables which must have been a chore to keep in stock. The chef agreed with me when I suggested he must have the most difficult job on the island. He beamed when I told him that all twenty-nine of us thought he did it superbly. After dinner, Tally gave us a slide show. We found. out that a coral cay is a low island formed from the debris of the reef on which it stands. Lady Elliot began forming 3,000 years ago in response to a one metre change in the sea level. As the plants and animals of a coral reef die, the debris is swept up by waves. If this debris is concentrated onto a reef flat with a large oval section, a small shingle bank will start to form. If the difference between high and low tides is not too great, the debris will continue to collect and build up. As this precarious sand bank increases in size and stability it is eventuaiy high enough to remain above most king tides. and seabirds begin to nest on its crown. These birds carry plant seeds in their intestines, and vegetation begins. The cay may also be implanted by floating seeds which are able to germinate even after ninety days at sea. The initial vegetation of low creepers further stabilizes the cay by trapping sand. Soon it is above the highest tides all year round. The plant's organic matter fertilizes the sand, which is also enriched by bird guano. Rainfall carries the guano down into the cay where phosphates cement the sand into a hard pan known as a cay sandstone. Unfortunately in the case of Lady Elliot, this same phosphate that helped create the island also played a roll in its near demise. Through the mid and late 1800s the guano was mined, and the island was left almost barren. A further venture into Beche-de-Mer farming and the release of wild goats were the final blows to the delicate ecology of the island. It was stripped of flora and fauna, and deserted by all but the lonely lighthouse keeper. Fortunately in 1969 a pilot, Don Adams, sought pennission from the government to build a landing strip through the centre section of the island. He re-introduced native flora to the island: coconut palms from Dunk Island, pandanus trees, casuarina trees, pisonia trees, and native shrubs. In 1974 he received a much deserved conservation award. The island is now covered in vegetation, and only photos remain to remind us of the devastation man's carelessness can cause. After several dozen slides of the fish and coral we could expect to find, we wandered back to our tents. By 10 pm, all the children were in their tents. After the long first day they were quiet. Our first snorkel on Lady Elliot was in the fish pond, enclosed in the protected waters of the coral lagoon. What we had marvelled at from above at low tide, we could now inspect from below at high tide. The sky was clear, but with the wind blowing off the ocean it was chilly. Most of the children were willing to venture in regardless. The tame fish of the pond. approached us immediately, recognizing these large awkward beings as easy sources of food. Soon there was a bread induced feeding frenzy by sergeant-majors and butterflyfish. Under a ledge, Steve made friends with a drab looking fish who had a great personality. It was unclear as to whether the fish was trying to seduce Steve's glove, or defend his territory against this red-handed intruder. It ended by soundly thumping the glass plate of Steve's mask. Later one of the teachers confirmed that this cheeky bundle of scales had behaved in the exact same manner with him. By now the children had all returned to the shore, shivering but happy with what they had seen.
After another lovely buffet lunch, we decided to go on a more adventurous snorkel. On the leeward side of the island was a beautiful protected beach. It was much warmer, and as the waters were calm we felt it was time to take the children (and ourselves) out to the ocean side of the coral gardens. After a short stumble in our fins to the edge of the reef shallows, we each took a group of kids ar!d paddled off the edge. Nature's architects had created a perfect wonderland. Over 350 species of coral were set into terraces of beautifully sculpted seascapes. These high rise dwellings were packed with populations each outdoing the other in colour, pattern, and form. Like a huge treasure chest, the reef spilled its contents of jewels out into every little nitch. Ivory grey sergeant-majors wore black onyx stripes and swam freely in the open waters. Butterflyfishes and angelfishes displayed stunning coloured designs on their flat oval bodies that Cartier would have envied. Parrotfish, studded with scales of aquamarine, emerald, ruby, sapphire, quartz, and topaz diligently crunched at the coral beneath us. Coralfish dazzled us with their glittering yellow, blue, white, and black scales. Surgeonfish of vibrant violets, roses, yellows,and blues belied their scalpels which could inflict a painful wound. The children pointed over and over at the astonishing variety before them. Each group found a different marvel. Some saw a cleaning station where a large coral trout hung in a suspended trance, its mouth wide open, whilst a small cleaner wrasse picked away at its teeth and gills. Another group found a delicate mauve anemone with two pale orange clownfish living amongst the waving tentacles. When the last of us emerged from the water we were met by the excited gesticulations of two of the boys. "Dolphins!" A school of these delightful mammals was only about twenty-five metres from us. How wonderful it would have been to swim with them. The children were enchanted. Before dinner we set up a first aid station. We had armed ourselves with an overstocked medical kit, and with our minds fresh with information obtained from a St. John Ambulance course, we were blissfully confident of being able to handle any emergency. Numerous coral cuts placed a heavy demand on our iodine swabs, but fortunately these and blisters were our only injuries. Dinner followed, and was finished off with chocolate eclairs. The children made a mad scramble for these as soon as they were placed on the serving table. I was weakly reassured by one of the guests that we were not ruining his holiday. So far the other unfortunate visitors had regarded us with looks ranging from benign amusement to abject horror. That night we went for a walk. The huge sky was clothed in a gown of black velvet set with millions of diamonds. So numerous were the piercing points of light that all of us were in awe. We spotted a satellite, saw several shooting stars, and looked for a super nova. From here one could see clearty that the Universe is indeed infinite. The next morning, during iodine meets coral cut time, we heard whopping yells coming from the beach. One of the boys came tearing up the path, stumbling and pointing behind him. "Whales", he cried out. "I saw a whale!" Tally had told us we might be lucky enough to spot the first of the migrating population of humpbacks on their voyage up the warm waters of the Barrier Reef to their breeding grounds up north. After having gorged themselves in the Southern ocean on krill, plankton, and small fish, they leave for warmer waters to give birth to their young. They migrate over 5,000 kilometres from the Antarctic and arrive at the southern section of the reef in mid-June. A fully grown humpback whale is 16 metres long and weights up to 40 tonnes. The females carry their calYes for 11.5 months and give birth after reaching the reef. The newborns are 4.3 metres and weigh 1.5 tonnes. On a steady diet of up to 600 litres of milk containing 35% fat the calves increase their weight by 5 to 8 times during their first eleven months of live. By October, when they return with their mothers to the Antarctic, they are protected by a thick layer of fat. We couldn't wait to see them, and we an ran down the path to the shore. There, just off the reef, we saw the first telltale sign: a spout of air that leaves the whale's blowhole at over 400km/hr. The condensed vapor is expelled from two lungs, each the size of a small car, and then refilled again within two seconds. We handed some binoculars around to the children who danced excitedly in the sand. "Can I have a go? Can I have a go' The whales decided to put on a show. With energy derived from spring fever, they started to breach. One after the other launched itself into the air and fell onto its back. The children were ecstatic. So were the teachers. One whale stole the show. He, or she, began to tail slap. Over and over its huge tail flukes thundered into the surface, from one side to the other, sending up a fall of water. When it finished we decided to run down to the beach rock flat and make our way to the edge of the reef. Here we saw more breaching close up. "You know," one of the girls said looking at me with serious eyes as we walked back to our tents awhie later, "seeing those whales must be the experience of a lifetime." "It certainly is. There are only about 10,000 humpbacks left in the world, and that is after their population has increased since the bans on whaling. That's only 8% of the numbers that existed before commercial whaling began." "So, we're very very lucky to see them?" "Yes. Hopefully by the time you grow up, there win be more of them. Right now they're considered the third most endangered species of whale in the world." She nodded. "I have to go now, I'm being called," She ran off across the beach to the trees, her arms spread out like a bird. Later I asked her who had called her. "The earth," she said. We spent the rest of the morning looking around the cay. The resort took up less than one quarter of the island, and the rest was left for the birds. Over fifty species of birds nest on or visit Lady Elliot. One of the teachers was an avid bird watcher and he spotted brown boobies, eastern reef egrets, pied oystercatchers, sooty oystercatchers, lesser golden plovers, bar-tailed godwits, a ruddy turnstone (who should have been nesting in Siberia but apparently hadn't felt like flying that far), silver gulls, crested terns, common noddys, sacred kingfishers, silvereyes (which regularly raid the sugar bowls in the dining lounge), house sparrows, a white goshawk, and white-faced herons. Lady Elliot is also a sea turtle rookery. Egg laying occurs between late November and January. The hatchlings emerge for their made scramble to the water between January and late March. Recent studies of wild turtles indicate that the female does not breed until she is over fifty years old. In the next few days our snorkelling ventures showed us something different each time. Some of us did see one of those dreaded predators, a five foot black-tipped reef shark who couldn't have cared less about us. Our school swam amongst schools of silver batfish and yellow-tailed fusiliers. We found a grumpy looking greasy cod who seemed to be the bully of the coral canyon he lived in. We found a beautiful blue spotted ray who tried to hide from us under a small ledge. We found a wall of brown anemone housing three large clown fish cavorting about in the safety of the poisonous tentacles. As the children became accustomed to this aquatic world, they started to see the little things. They noticed schools of lavender, blue, and yellow damselfish looking up at them from their hiding places amongst the coral brancheso They delighted at boxfish fluttering along, propelled by tiny gasamer fins. They discovered multi-coloured miniature christmas trees in the coral, and were surprised to learn these were worms. They dove down to have a closer look at the gaping gobyfish guarding the entrance to their holes. They saw moorish idols, wrasses, pipefish, and tuskfish. We swam over a coral floor so close to the surface we had to hold our stomachs in to clear it, and then suddenly we were over it as it dropped off to a wall forty feet below us. We found arches to swim through, and caves to look in. We dropped in unexpectedly at the home of a moray eel, he didn't invite us in. We found a sleeping male loggerhead turtle, and woke him up. He gave us a ride, or rather we took one from him, as he swam to the surface for air. The only thing we didn't see was the gentle and graceful manta ray. We had hoped to find some, as a SCUBA diver had told us he had seen eleven of them on one dive. The days seemed to vanish. The teachers all went on a SCUBA dive, but we found we missed the children's participation. One wonder-filled snorkel was followed by another. One beautiful sunset was followed by another. At night we all ended that day reluctantly, to sleep more soundly in our tents than we did in our houses. All of us had enjoyed ourselves, and it had been a joy to show the children the reef. We had loved every moment of our stay, and none of us were ready to go home. But, home was where we had to return. Back to what man insists on calling the real world, although it all seems rather artificial and pointless after the world we had experienced. Back at school a week after, the children and teachers all agreed that it had been one of the best holidays any of us had ever had.
Photos for original article by Steve Miller.
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