On R&R in Cairns, Ash and I paid the obligatory visit to the Great Barrier Reef.
On the whole, my expectations were low. I’d been warned the diving wasn’t going to compare to the exciting underwater biomes we have here in Madang, and plus it was stinger season- poisonous jellyfish abounding. In addition, the throngs of tourists who flock over the reef not only make for a pretty crowded dive environment, but seem to be destroying this beautiful habitat with as much efficacy as global warming and pollution ever do. Apparently, even the sun-screen that people slap on is killing off the coral. Tragic.
The dive operation certainly was industrial in scale. A good thirty or forty divers were on our boat alone as we skipped across the wave-tops on a custom-designed catamaran to the outer Ribbon Reefs, about ninety minutes from Port Douglas. When we got to our first site, allowing for the hour-long briefing we’d had on the way out, we were placed into smaller groups of five and six divers and issued our gear. Then one by one, like a production-line or a mechanised abbatoir, we were marched in a queue to a side door and launched into the ocean several feet below.
There were a lot of people in the water, no doubt. After the quiet dives of Madang, where as often as not I’ve been alone with just one other diver, it felt crowded, but the guide did a good job of keeping us away from the hordes. The visibility was decent. The fish-life was certainly present, although neither as copious nor as diverse as we find in Papua New Guinea- at least as far as I could see on the three dives we did.
It was the coral landscapes, however, that really stood out as something special. It should have been a no-brainer really. We were on the Great Barrier Reef, after all. Something about that name should have conjured up great sweeping swathes of brightly coloured coral lying just beneath calm blue seas. I guess I’m just a slow learner.
The sheer volume of coral was dramatic. The dives we did were all shallow dives- effectively, snorkelling with an air-supply. We never got below eighteen metres, and actually spent most of that time nearer ten. The reef itself was a constant companion. It rose around us like the walls of a fortress, pocked by dimples and inlets, riven by narrow channels, even wormed into by little caves. It was simply an underwater playground.
For much of the dive we would navigate along these walls, drifting up and down as the sights and wildlife beckoned us. Sometimes we slipped through tight passageways with bristling walls alive with colour hemmed us in. Several times we floated right over the top of the mounts, where the coral came to within just a few feet of the sea’s surface and the sunlight played in shimmering ribbons on the growths. Once, our guide led us around a narrow corner of a canyon and into a shallow cave. From its dark entrance we could see through to the interior. Holes in the ceiling of the cave broke through to the world above, and beams of light danced and twisted on the sandy floor, catching in the suspended particles that hung in the water.
We surfaced content and weary. I’d gone under with a sense of obligation, not expecting to be much excited. While the wildlife was perhaps not the most dramatic I’ve seen, the underwater landscape surely was- an exquisite garden of unique subaquatic features on a scale that’s hard to fathom, the Amazon rain-forest of coral environments. I’m back in Madang now, and can’t wait to get back underwater and explore the now-familiar haunts; the vibrant fish-life at Eel Garden; the sights and colours of the sunken Henry Leith; the deep and eerie drama of Magic and Rasch Passages; the tragic but beautiful B-25 bomber, resting where it has for more than 60 years on the sandy bottom. But I’m so glad Ash and I took the time out to visit what is undoubtedly one of the great natural wonders of our world. I hope that the next time I visit Cairns, it’ll still be there.