The Barrier Reef Revisited
Of the seven wonders of the natural world, the most stupendous must surely be Australia's Great Barrier Reef. One can stand in awe of the others, but none can surpass the claim of being the most diverse marine ecosystem on earth.
Approximately 3,000 reefs make up the broken barrier that stretches over 2,000 kilometers along the coast of Queensland and sprawls over 350,000 square kilometers of the continental shelf. Each reef explodes with life. Each is like a fairyland built of kaleidoscopic shapes and colors, inhabited by amazing creatures. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest structure on earth built by animals. Planula larva drift on currents until they find suitable conditions to attach themselves to the sea floor. They transform themselves into a coral polyp and build a hard skeleton of calcium carbonate, then divide in two…and another two….and another two, until generations of colonies form a reef.
My first visit to the Reef was to Michaelmas Cay. We crossed a sea of sparkling blue crystal to arrive at a tiny white island surrounded by a ring of breathtaking azure water. A sand cay is formed when coral rubble and sand accumulate above the high-tide mark. Birds are attracted to this bit of land in the sea and deposit seeds which form a thin layer of vegetation that stabilizes the shifting sandbank. Michaelmas Cay has some of the largest bird colonies of noddies and terns in this hemisphere. Clusters of fluffy tern chicks stood together dozing in the sun while they waited for their parents to return from the sea with food. Thousands of noddies sat on eggs, crying out to silver gulls that would rob them of their future offspring. An alarm disturbed a tern colony and they rose up like a cloud fluttering above the sand. Surrounding the cay is the coral that gave it life. I was intoxicated by my first encounter with sapphire tipped staghorn coral and tiny jeweled fish that stared back at me in frightened curiosity. Many years and visits later I am still hypnotized.
When it comes to the Barrier Reef, I confess that I am a glutton. I always want more. For the greedy scuba diver a charter boat offering three or four dives a day is ideal. We went on such a trip leaving from Port Douglas and heading up through the Ribbon Reefs to Lizard Island. Pixie Pinnacle and the Cod Hole were my favorite spots.
Pixie Pinnacle juts up from the sea floor like a column holding up the ocean. It is festooned with hard and soft corals, sponges, encrusting algae, marine worms, mollusks, bryozoans and ascidians. It is like a high-rise hotel decorated by a demented and supremely gifted artist. Inside the "hotel" are a host of bizarre guests. In one room there is a delegation of red and white banded shrimp, waving their antennae to each other and perhaps discussing the lethal battles that the reef's 350 species of coral engage in their competitions for territory. In another room a firefish has crammed itself into a corner, gathering her flowing red spines about her like a flamenco dancer trying to hide. Sitting out on a terrace is a pink and grey anemone waving its stinging tentacles seductively in the current while a clownfish cavorts in the symbiotic safety of its flowing home. A coral cod hangs in a suspended trance like a hypnotized patient immobilized in a dentist's chair, while cleaner fish swim through its mouth and gills. Everywhere I looked the marine life unfolded in an infinite variety of fascinating ways.
Further north is the Cod Hole, now famous for it tame potato cod and giant Maori Wrasse. Armed with handfuls of food, I entered the water and was soon surrounded by a gang of unwieldy fish with mouths like large rubbish bins. My husband Steve snapped away on his camera while I was mobbed by these gentle marauders that are really very endearing, gazing at you with their big eyes whilst gulping down morsels of food.
On another dive I had my first encounter with a moray eel. I tentatively stroked it with an ungloved hand and discovered the most velvety texture I have ever felt. The eel eased out of its hole and swam right up the length of me until we were practically dancing face to face. I gently shoved it away and it swam back to its hole. We also dived with two cuttlefish that followed us around, as curious about us as we were about them. As Steve swam after them to get a photo they jetted off together, flashing colors like a neon sign to show their alarm at the extra aquaterrials that clumsily followed them. The solid week of diving was like heaven.
Though I am never happy about sharing time on the reef with lots of other people, sometimes day trips are the best way to see different parts of the reef. Several high speed catamarans operate from coastal towns and cities. I always enjoy them, even though they leave me unsatisfied, as if I had been famished and only had a bite to eat.
Suffering as I do from seasickness, and basically being a land lover, I am partial to diving holidays from terra firma. There are many continental islands (islands once attached to the mainland) near the reef, and many of these claim to be Barrier Reef resorts. Some of them may have fringing reefs, but all of them need dive boats or sea planes to get you out to the real reef. There is however the perfect solution and that is a holiday on a coral cay.
A coral cay is formed when a sand cay becomes partly cemented into sandstone. Birds create the island by bringing seeds that grow into a forest where they live and further fertilize the ground. The bird droppings leach into the sand, hardening it and forming higher levels of solid land base. There are many of these along the reef, and a few of them have resorts or allow camping. Green Island offers the only coral cay resort in North Queensland, but the impact of millions of tourists has taken its toll on the surrounding reef. Further south and closer to the major cities are several coral cays that are like treasure chests just waiting to be explored. For luxury and diving, my favorite spot is Heron Island. We found ourselves sleeping like babies in rooms cooled by the fans while mutton birds wailed and cried all night long. We would wake just in time to make it for breakfast, passing by the thousands of black noddy nests that embellished the branches of almost all the trees. Both birds and humans used the paths to get around the island and there were near collisions all the time. Baby chicks would peer out from under the safety of their parents, while fledglings would boldly stand their ground and peck anyone who care invade their nest. After a morning dive to one of the 21 dive sites around the island, there was time to snorkel in the lagoon with bull rays that vaulted out of the water to rid themselves of parasites, or to sit on the beach and watch white and grey reef herons feed at low tide. After a delicious lunch and another dive there was time for a walk through the forest to the other side of the island where sea birds flew in a dazzling display of aerobatic maneuvers. After dinner there might be a night dive, and then we patrolled the beach in search of turtles and hatchings. We dived the Hole in the Wall and saw a huge white-tipped reef shark swimming by, clearly bored with us. We met Harry and Fang the two resident eels that live at the Bommie. We swam in schools of fish that flashed all around like slivers of gold and silver. We found exquisitely adored nudibranchs that looked like imported Christmas decorations. We lingered by massive fans that crowned coral bommies like magical props. Always there were fish moving by: A manta ray gliding in circles around the divers, a painted flutemouth fluttering past, a boxfish propelling itself on gossamer fins.
Not far from Heron is Wilson Island, another coral cay resort under the management of Heron Island. Here one can camp with all gear and food supplied by Heron. The forest is almost impenetrable, with birds like the endangered roseate tern nesting on the island. The snorkeling off the beach is incredible. Huge mounds of staghorn, brain and plate coral form endlessly varied structures. Blue-spotted rays rush along the sandy floors like commuters late for work. Damselfish clothed in aqua hide shyly in coral clusters like debutantes waiting to be asked to dance. Parrotfish munch and crunch the coral, outrageous in colors that scream. Angelfish, butterfly fish, moorish idols and small wrasse are encrusted with jewel like patterns rivaling Faberge's great creations.
Further south, off Bundaberg, is Lady Musgrave Island where one can stay for $2 a night on a cay with no facilities other than a composting toilet. With our camping gear and six days worth of food and water, we set out on a tourist catamaran operating day tours. On every other trip to the Reef, the wind had been blowing, the seas had been rough and visibility limited. We had heard of conditions where the water was like glass and visibility was forever, but I no longer believed this rumor. Our stay on Lady Musgrave, though, was to prove it true. After hauling our gear for 500 meters down the beach, (and thinking we would perish in the process), we set up our tent and several tarps. These were necessary to shelter us from the sun…and the birds which seemed very busy adding more guano to the island. Just off the campground was the coral reef that fringed the lagoon surrounding the island. There were sea turtles everywhere, swimming around me and poking their heads up to stare when I had my evening saltwater bath. Each time we went out for a snorkel we were overwhelmed by the variety of things we saw. Yet more turtles on parade glided effortlessly by. We saw reef sharks and a grey nurse shark. We found two octopuses living in holes right next to each other. Steve followed one around for a while to photograph it, then backed away when it showed its fear by squirting ink at him. It fled back to its hole where the other one was waiting and watching, and once safely back home stretched out a tentacle to reassure its mate that everything was all right. There were schools of squid buzzing around letting us get just so close, and then zooming off in a flurry of changing colors. If only we could let these marvelous creatures know we wouldn't harm them for all the world. There were large eagles rays soaring through the water. There were farmer fish that grew and tended their own patches of algae, fiercely protecting their turf when we came too close. Anemone fish were everywhere and orange fish with white spots outlined in black. There were aquamarine fish spotted with orange, triangular fish and round fish and flat fish, each with positively psychedelic patterns and colors; soft and hard corals of pink, blue, violet, red, purple and yellow. The layers of marine life erupted all around us. On night high tide the turtles came to lay their eggs. On day low tide sooty oystercatchers came to feed along the beach. Brown Boobies and frigate birds swooped across the waters. In the evenings the sun melted red hot into the ocean. At night the stars spread across the sky like a thick layer of diamonds on black velvet. As long as I am alive, it will give me pleasure to think of it.
The most southerly coral cay of the reef is just 96 kilometers from Bundaberg. Lady Elliott Island was mined for its phosphate-rich guano, which stripped meters of height off the island and destroyed its forest. A further venture in Sea Cucumber farming and the release of wild goats left Lady Elliot completely barren. Re-vegetation began in 1969, and though the island will never be as it was, it is a tribute to what can be done when man decides to correct his tragic mistakes toward nature. Lady Elliot is the only coral cay on the reef with a landing strip, making it easy to get to. It has excellent shore diving and is a marvelous spot for anyone wanting a casual holiday with modest accommodation and cheap diving. In the coral gardens we dived along coral walls and through coral arches. Schools of batfish accompanied us, watching with the inquisitiveness all fish seem to have. At the Lighthouse Bommie an angelfish ate out of my hand, and manta rays suddenly appeared, overwhelming us with excitement and awe. On the lagoon side of the island there is a natural pool where tame fish can be fed. When you enter you are surrounded by white and black sergeant-majors, silver-and pink moon wrasse, and a multitude of other fish in outfits that would put any clothing designer on land to absolute shame. The red-tailed tropicbird sometimes nests close by under a shrub, a rare treat for any bird fancier.
From these coral paradises I have watched humpback whales migrating up the coast and dolphins playing in the waves. I have seen huge female turtles haul themselves up the beach to lay their eggs, and witnessed hundreds of turtle hatchlings emerge from their nest to rush down the moonlit sand to the sea. I had time to linger and watch the alluring mating rituals of fish. I have seen the highly endangered triton shell inch its way along the sea bed. Every time I go to the reef, new wonders await.
Over the years, the reef has been threatened by proposals of oil drilling, a prospect that seems inconceivable to me. It has been threatened by infestations of the crown-of-thorns starfish, which have abated now and may have been a natural occurrence. New threats include an ever increasing tourist impact, with effects that remain to be seen. The most critical threat of all may be fertilizer and pesticide run off from the mainland. By altering the delicate balance of conditions required by the corals, chemicals could theoretically turn the entire reef into a great barrier of algae! Though almost entirely with the boundaries of the Marine Park Authority, and though a World Heritage site, we cannot take the reef for granted and assume it is safe from the multitude of challenges we give it.
Only a tropical rainforest can compare with the richness of life found on a coral reef. As much as I love everything the natural world has to offer, the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef are dearest to me. They have touched me, they have amused me, they have enriched me. They are wonders that will astonish everyone who sees them.