Recently my partner and I spent a week in sunny Port Douglas. There were many highlights of the trip, but there was one in particular for me. I was extra excited by the prospect of ticking off one of my big life goals (I refuse to say ‘bucketlist’ . . . oops): to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies. Yes, that should read ‘before I die’, but at this rate it looks like I’m gonna outlast it.
What’s happening with the reef? Things aren’t looking great right now. The coral, for a number of reasons, is dying. The greatest threat is climate change, causing coral bleaching – this has already begun and is apparently going to become an annual thing as global temperatures rise. Then there’s pollution, primarily from runoff, chemical use, etc. in sugar cane farming and beef grazing.
The latest dredging plan has the dumping of dredge spoil happening not on the reef exactly, more like near the reef. It’s cool to dump in the wetlands, right? Well, not really, as it’ll end up on the reef anyway. That’s the thing about ecosystems, they’re pesky with their interconnectedness. Anyway, meantime the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority seems to be not listening to its scientific experts for some reason. Money reasons, maybe? Government money-loving reasons? It’s all sickeningly short-sighted.
Anyway, back to the holiday. We did a daytrip to the outer reef, snorkelling at three different spots on Opal Reef, and it was amaaazing. I don’t remember having ever snorkelled before, so that was a joy in itself. And on the reef? Pure, unadulterated joy. We swam only about 50 metres from the boat at most each time and saw loads of parrot fish, other . . . tropical fish, incredible coral gardens, sea cucumbers (gross), giant clams, and what we thought was a clown fish but turns out wasn’t a clown fish yet who cared, it was as exciting as seeing an actual clown fish!
We were swimming back to the boat at the end of our second snorkel when I saw a big fish underneath it – about a metre or so long. I nudged my partner’s arm and said ‘Holy crap, look at that!’ which sounded like ‘Mphfh! Mphfphnghmph!’ underwater, then surfaced and yelled something awesome to the boat like, ‘There’s a big fish under the boat!’ Marty, one of our guides, called back, ‘Yeah, that’s Angus!’ Haha, good one, we laughed.
We got back to the boat, pulled ourselves onto the back steps where we sat half in the water still, pulling off our fins and talking about our fish friend. Something bumped my leg; it was the freaking fish. I kind of squealed. Marty had been surreptitiously tossing bits of ham into the water while we were talking, so the fish was swimming right by, having a snack. Marty told us he was a roughly four-year-old Maori wrasse, and we were smack bang in the middle of his territory.
I got over my initial surprise and stuck my head underwater, looking at Angus as he swam right past. I got to see close up his weird fish mouth and his cool eyes – they reminded me of a sheep’s but more colourful – and give him pats. It was incredible. Other snorkellers came up, yet he wasn’t bothered and kept swimming in amongst us, catching the occasional scrap of ham, and generally being a happy ocean pet.
I have no idea what he made of us, but he was impressive to me. Nothing in my life compares to the experience of being eye to eye with a Maori wrasse on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Nothing in my aquatic life, anyway (hey, I’ve ridden an elephant). And he’s out there right now, probably hanging around another tour boat, making friends, getting some ham and pats and having his photo taken.
After having our quality tropical fish time, we headed to the third spot where it was almost low tide, so there was only a metre or so at times between us and the coral. You could just float on the surface, face down, snorkel in, and float on over the top of the coral gardens, watching the fish going about their fish business, weaving in and out of the wavy coral in the filtered sunlight. And that’s exactly what we did.
I came back from the tour wanting to go back out every day for the rest of the week (sadly we didn’t, but there were loads of other things to do and see). I’ll always remember the absolute, sheer childlike joy of floating through the reef – it’s such a gift, and unfortunately it seems it’s going to be a fleeting one.
My heart hurts to think that other people, even the people charged with the caretaking of this beautiful wild place, are not looking after its best interests and still don’t get and probably won’t ever understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the fragile nature of this one, the impact of climate change, and that the damage that has been done and will still unavoidably be done can’t be reversed.
At a time when our country in general is not being looked after properly, when coal is king, when we’re being brainwashed by fear-mongering media, when fundamental human rights are being ignored and a whole range of injustices are taking place on our watch, the future of one of our endangered national icons might just slip through our fingers.
I definitely want to make semi-regular trips back there if I can, to remember what’s out there, see it while I can, to visit my new fish friends and remember the fantastic underwater world that exists out there every day while I’m in my office or on a busy city train or walking crowded footpaths or getting shitty with slow people on escalators. I’m telling everyone who’ll listen that they should do themselves a favour and go out there too. And soon.
Right, I’m off to sponsor a sea turtle or go sign a petition. This one looks good. For a better idea of the magical underwater wonderland we experienced, check out this Calypso YouTube video (a Maori wrasse, probably Angus, can be seen at 1:32).