August 27, 2004

Boggling the Mind at the Great Barrier Reef

You can't really go to Australia and not see the Great Barrier Reef. Partly the darn thing is just so huge, running for over 2000 km along Australia's eastern coast. But also you feel like you already know the reef and have to see it for yourself. You've seen it in countless documentaries -- on T.V., in movies, maybe in an IMAX -- is it really that beautiful?

Actually, it's even better than that. It's fantastic. It's unbelievable. It boggles, and also does some other pretty cool things for which there are no words, the mind. It's ... reef-tacular.

It's hard to say what's better about the reef: the fish or the coral itself. Both are otherworldly, painted with a pallette of colours that would make the most experienced Photoshop user dizzy. Call me a geek, but the one thought running through my mind as it tried desperately to grasp with what it was seeing was this: no designer could come up with something this stunning. You could sit down the most talented, creative person with a blank slate and an infinite supply of pizza and ask them to come up with the most visually arresting thing they could think of, and whatever they came up with just wouldn't be able to hold a waterproof candle to the reef.

In any case, the reef is simply something else. If you want to see it, though, you might want to get there soon. Sadly, the largest living organism in the world is slowly dying, a victim of human impact and coral bleaching widely believed to be exacerbated by climate change. The most dire predictions see the reef ceasing to exist -- as we know it today, teeming with such a bewildering array of life -- within 15-50 years.

We were lucky enough to have two reef encounters out on the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs (the Great Barrier Reef is really a reef system). The Agincourt reefs are part of the "outer reef," which is closest to the mainland in the more northerly parts of Queensland (both our trips therefore left from Port Douglas, not Cairns). Our tour operator was Quicksilver, allegedly the only company that can reach the outer reef in a day trip using its fast catamarans. The first time Miriam and I went alone, and I tried my first ever scuba dive -- very cool! The second time we went with Miriam's parents who were visiting.

Some of the highlights included various types of parrotfish (which nibble audibly on the coral; see also here, here and here) and the Moorish Idol (my personal favourite fish), giant clams, and the brain and staghorn coral. We also spotted some bigger fish, including barracuda and a whitetip reef shark. And yes, we saw a "Nemo". Several, in fact. They really were sheltering in the anemone. And there's nothing like having your magical underwater experience appropriated by a terrible blockbuster movie.

Exploring the ribbon reefs was fun -- an endless series of nooks and crannies to survey and the ability to move fluidly in almost any direction. While many of the individual fish and types of coral were fascinating, the really phenomenal thing about the reef is the overall diversity and quantity of fish. When you're in a good patch of coral, you can't turn in any direction without seeing an icthyological feast for the eyes. At one point near the end of our second reef trip, Miriam and I were swimming away from the ribbon reef towards the boat when we stopped to communicate and clear our masks above water. When we went back under, we had been surrounded -- in 360 degrees -- by a massive school of tiny fish that formed a shimmering, whirling pinwheel around us.

It was a fitting end to our time at the reef, where you get dizzy just trying to figure out which way to look.

More photos from the Great Barrier Reef.
More photos from Queensland (coming soon!).

Posted by anatole at August 27, 2004 12:38 PM

> appropriated by a terrible blockbuster movie.

What do you mean, terrible?

Posted by: Alasdair at August 28, 2004 04:10 AM

With apologies to all Nemo-lovers, I just wasn't a big fan and I remain amazed at its popularity. It had its moments and a couple of memorable characters (well, basically the sharks), but overall I thought it was pretty annoying. The animation was impressive, but that's not really enough to carry the movie all on its own.

Posted by: Anatole at August 28, 2004 12:33 PM

Don't apologize: everyone gets to be wrong sometimes. ;)

Posted by: Alasdair at August 28, 2004 05:04 PM

Itís really a pleasure being here. I will surely recommend your site to all my friends.

Posted by: Tamara Joel at August 30, 2004 07:56 PM