Monday, January 15th, 2007

To expand (slightly) on what Lisa wrote about the Great Barrier Reef:

Some weeks ago now we flew from Auckland to Melbourne, slept for a couple days, then caught a domestic flight up to Cairns in northern Queensland, where the plan was to pick up a rental car and, after a quick jaunt north to Daintree, head back to Melbourne over the course of a month and reach the city in time for New Year’s.

The plan, like all our plans, worked to perfection (except that it took a bit longer than anticipated, about five weeks), and we’ve had many exciting adventures.

One of the first was a mandatory visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is one of the chief jumping-off places for the reef, which extends from Cape York in the north down to Bundaberg, and during our brief stay in that sweaty jungle town we could not fail to pay respect to the great continuous wall of living (and dying) coral and all the many forms of life it contains and sustains. Could not, I say, and would not!

gbr coral

It’s a big strewthing reef (how’s that for vernacular!), a big colorful ecosystem, awe-inspiring in its vastness. It is bigger than New Zealand – but Lisa saw about a millionth of it and I even less, so I don’t have much to illuminate for you about the reef itself. Seeing any significant portion of it when your trip is not financed by National Geographic is basically impossible, chiefly because of the prohibitive cost. If you want that kind of information there are plenty of web sources … start by going to Google, like a journalist would. (Actually at that point you will have done more than most journalists.)

Ahem. The logistics however may be of interest. Here’s how they’ve organized GBR tours: You pay about AU$175 per person. You take a couple of Dramamine to prevent seasickness. A large ferry takes you 45 minutes out to sea to a permanent pontoon station, replete with kitchen, observatory and full-time caretaker, anchored off the reef.

On the way you listen to the staff of the boat – including several marine biologists, among them a woman who speaks seven languages – reference the movie “Finding Nemo” about a hundred times in describing the visual encounters you’re about to have. (Reference and reverence: seems that movie got a lot right, if the good people at Reef Magic Cruises are to be trusted. And they are.) You summon all you can remember of “Nemo,” which it turns out is not much, and arrive at the pontoon in perfect weather. You head straight for the semi-submersible boat – sort of a half-boat, half-submarine – and get an up-close look at the teeming underwater metropolis of the reef.

Impressive. You see clownfish, angelfish, parrotfish, surgeon fish. You get a rare morning sighting of a reef shark, prowling around the mushroom-shaped boulder coral and the forests of staghorn, or branching, coral.

With a picture guide in hand you spot more fish: unicorn fish, stripey, pipefish, snapper, cowfish. Boxfish, batfish, combfish, cardinal fish. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. One of the biologists points out “Wally,” a giant hump-headed Maori wrasse who seems always to be around, not only at the regular feeding times. Wally is the size of five snappers.


But while you are grasping (or gasping at) the diversity of the reef from an abstract, aloof perspective – the poltroon on the pontoon – your intrepid wife has donned a dive suit and is snorkeling joyfully around the reef with a sea turtle. She is seeing the fish, which swarm fearlessly around her, up close and personal – viewing the reef not through inches-thick glass but paper-thin plastic.

Black fish, blue fish, old fish, new fish. As they say in Oz, good on ya, girl.

lisa in suit

Reef Magic is one of the few independently owned reef tour companies and their approach shows it. They do a great job with a large group, giving everyone the right amount of attention (not too much), even the scowling guy in the baseball hat sitting with a book in the corner, popping Dramamine like candy.

With interest in, and concern for the sustainability of the GBR at an all-time high, small eco-friendly outfits like Magic Reef are insurance against over-visitation and over-corporatization because they are in the business of education and sustainable tourism. They care.

It’s a fine business model, if you can make ends meet. As a visit to the GBR is mandatory in this part of the world, we were glad to give our money to that kind of company.

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