When I wake up on a crisp morning in late April, the rising sun over the Coral Sea is a giant fireball. The remains of a storm system that had been sweeping along the northern Queensland coast are huddled as dark clouds over the jutting headlands of the Great Peaks National Park. As I look out at the scene from my balcony of the Crystalbrook Riley in downtown Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef hovers like a promise somewhere beyond the straight line of the far eastern horizon, where the golden waters give way to slate grey. Today is the day I go to see the corals.
But this wouldn’t be the first time I would be seeing the GBR, as the Australians like to call it. I had flown over it the previous day, in a chartered helicopter out of the town of Port Douglas, further north, where the ancient Daintree Rainforest meets the Coral Sea. My group of fellow travel writers from around the world had hopped on to a pretty fancy Airbus H130 helicopter to cruise over the Batt Reef. It was one of those pinch yourself moments. Am I really flying over the Great Barrier Reef?
The large sandy reef squatted like a green and turquoise jewel amidst the light blue of the shallow waters of the lagoon and the azure of the deep ocean beyond the continental shelf further east. As the helicopter took long, arching passes over the reef, a manta ray suddenly appeared, swimming in the shallows, going about its business. On the mainland, to the west, loomed the mountains of the Great Dividing Range and the Daintree Rainforest and the fringing mangroves of the coast. Here we were, suspended upon one of the great planetary ecosystems, an ancient interconnected habitat ranging from the forest to the reef. I could scarcely believe it.
In these days of easy global travel and the ubiquity of heavily edited #travelgram images on social media, it’s easy to become blasé about new experiences. The wide open spaces of Queensland’s “Wet Tropics” were a welcome reminder that the world is a lot richer and magical than the claustrophobic portrait mode of a phone would have you believe. I was in the land Down Under as a guest of Tourism Australia, to attend the Australian Tourism Exchange (ATE), the famed annual mega tourism jamboree that the country organises. Along with my group of journalists (from Malaysia, South Africa, England and Germany), I got to experience coastal Queensland’s natural wonder before the ATE event in Gold Coast.
By the time we got to Cairns for our GBR adventure, we had already spent a few days in Daintree, luxuriating in a five-star lodge in the forest, going walkabout with members of the Kuku Yalanji people, floating down a forest river and checking out the culinary delights of the nearby Atherton Tablelands. Oh, and that fantastic helicopter ride.
The Great Barrier Reef was the designated jewel in the crown of the trip though. On Reef Day, thanks to the meteorological gods, the persistent stormy weather had abated, the sun was out and the conditions were perfect. Our host for the day was Passions of Paradise, a Cairns-based GBR tour operator, running a large and fast diving catamaran service to the reefs near Cairns.
At 7am, the Cairns marina was humming with activity as locals and tourists bought their tickets for the several boats heading out to the reefs for the day. We were met by Passions of Paradise’s resident Master Reef Guide Russell Hosp, given our anti-seasickness pills, plenty of water, and loaded into the two-tiered 30m-long catamaran Passions III. Soon, we were jetting off from the marina, Cairns shrinking into the background, a perfect mini rainbow framing the catamaran’s spray.
We were to sail for a couple of hours to reach Hastings, the first of our two reefs for the day. The 348,000 sq. km extent of the GBR is actually made up of a string of about 2,500 individual barrier reefs of varying sizes, apart from over 900 islands. The one we were headed to was part of a large cluster that made up the lower end of the northern GBR, in many ways quite distinct from the reef system further south.
Chatting with Hosp was a fantastic way to get to learn about the reefs, the major corals and animals, and, most importantly, the Great Barrier Reef’s sophisticated citizen science initiative. Hosp is actually American, from Denver, Colorado, but he has been living and working in the Cairns area for over a decade. He’s the environmental manager with Passions of Paradise and a member of the first batch (from 2019) of the Master Reef Guide initiative, created by the Australian government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). He’s also an essential cog in the wheel of the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s (AIMS’) “Eye on the Reef” programme. It is very expensive to have scientists monitoring the GBR at all times, so some of the data collection on the health of the reef is outsourced to tourists and fishers through this initiative. Another cool way to experience the reef is through the Be a Marine Biologist for a Day programme.
“What we do with the Be a Marine Biologist for a Day programme, with the clients and guests, is that we teach them how to perform a rapid monitoring survey. Rapid monitoring is just the snapshot,” Hosp explains to us. Then he whips out a laminated form attached to a waterproof grease pencil. The form is to be filled up during a 10-minute swim survey, with tourists first noting down and then tallying some of the indicator species of reef wildlife, as well as specific types of corals. You could spend hours in the water but unless you are heading out into a new area, 10 minutes is all you get to tally, in order to rule out multiple counts of, say, the same fish. “If you are swimming out for two hours, you may see 2,000 fish, or you may see the same fish 2,000 times,” he says wryly.
The rest of the ride is pleasantly dozy, with tourists sunbathing on the upper deck, and those with diving licences doing a quickfire rundown with the boat’s dive instructors. As we head into reef country, the boat becomes a hum of activity, for it’s time to slip into the wetsuits and clean out the snorkelling kits. The boat slows down as it weaves past patches of reef, which you can make out from their distinctive colouring. Imagine underwater islands that don’t quite make it above the sea level and you will get a sense of how the reefs look from above.
I get kitted out, grab a pair of prescription goggles and stick close to Hosp, since this is my first attempt at open- water snorkelling. The crew goes through the drill. We will be in water for 30-40 minutes; then, lookouts on the boat will whistle, at which point we are to return to the catamaran.
Finally, Passions III comes to a halt near Hastings Reef, which is pretty huge. For a while, I just sit and watch while the divers splash over backwards into the sea. It’s surreal to see, this far out to sea, distant breakers crash over the reef in the far distance where it meets the deep ocean, as if we are on a submerged beach. In a sense, we are.
The divers having dived, now it’s time for the snorkellers. I slip into my fins and gingerly lower myself into the cold sea. Never a swimmer, I fight a few moments of sheer panic. A swell hits me smack in the face, followed by another, and I am in fight or flight mode. For reassurance in an alien world, I gaze at my good old Seiko dive watch, strapped over my wetsuit-ed wrist. Its familiar sight calms me a little, until the next swell hits.
Then I remember what someone on the boat told me—it’s easier if you just dunk your face under water. I do that, and there’s an immediate sense of tranquillity. The waves don’t hit me any more, rather, they just sway me gently as they pass. Hosp is nearby in his bright yellow Master Reef Guide vest and a bandana. There’s a tangle of underwater arms and legs as other snorkellers pass and bubbles from the oxygen tanks of the divers float up. The scrum clears as people branch out, and then, my goodness, there’s the reef, below me, beside me, all around me!
The sun is high in the sky at this point, so there’s no dearth of light. Reef towers rise out of the dark depths of the ocean like towers, fringed with corals shimmering in the refracted light. The colours are vivid in this giant underwater cathedral of ancient coral. Shoals of tiny, bright fish flit by, as do some other, equally colourful fish that I don’t know the name of. Far below, deeper among the corals, a small white tipped reef shark slithers by; parrot fish nibble on algae patches on the corals.
This is, to me, an environment that could well be on a different planet, and my brain and body take time to settle, alternating between wonder and sudden waves of panic. When the latter hits, I jerk my head out of the water, only to be hit by a wave or two. So down I go again. I try to make a mental tally of all the creatures I am seeing because in my ungainly attempts at snorkelling, I have long abandoned the marine biologist form. Poor Hosp is gamely carrying it.
After a little while, I start to actually enjoy the feeling of weightlessness and paddle further in, often losing all sense of direction as vistas of swaying coral drift by below me, along with the occasional diver. Whenever I need to reorient, I look around for Hosp’s bright vest. Far behind me, I see the ghostly outline of the catamaran’s dive platform. Evidently, I am not as far in as I think I am.
And then the lookouts blow their whistles to return to the boat. Has it been half an hour already? And here I was just getting started, feeling comfortable in this wondrous underwater garden!
Once everyone is aboard, the catamaran sets off, headed south-east for the next dive site, Flynn Reef, which lies closer to the edge of the continental shelf. Wetsuits come off and are tied along the boat’s railings. Fins are deposited, snorkelling goggles are retained, and everyone stretches out for a snooze, or huddles together to compare notes, or makes a beeline for the boat’s photographer for underwater photographs.
I go out and sit in the prow of the boat, enjoying the rolling swells now that I have got my sea legs. The pill we took earlier in the morning is working just fine. People who have decided not to venture into the water during the next stop (and also some that ultimately do) are already breaking out the beers. The ship’s PA system plays a great selection of rock and pop hits. I bop along to Weezer’s Island In The Sun and have a, yes, beer as we sail past a series of reefs. The sun is high, the air is warm and breezy and all is good.
About an hour and some later, we stop at Flynn, a much smaller reef located on the Outer Reef. Flynn may be smaller than Hastings, but, as I find out when I am back in the water, it seems even more biodiverse. Now that I am better acclimatised, Flynn proves to be a better experience. I have been brushing up on my coral knowledge on the boat and this time I can recognise a pretty, brown staghorn coral when I see it branching off a pinnacle, or a beautiful organ pipe coral.
But Flynn has further surprises up its sleeve. Between swaying anemones, I spot a school of the elusive, gorgeous clown fish, flitting in and out, their distinctive red and white colouring shining in the sub-aquatic light. A little while later, amidst some boulder corals, I see the endangered Maori wrasse, with its distinctive head-hump. A little while later, another find: a giant clam! Mossy green in the light and with the distinctive wavy lips, I recall that Hosp had described it as an indicator species of the GBR. To find one is to know that the local water quality is good.
It’s quite amazing just how “threatened”, “vulnerable” and “endangered” most of the reef ecosystem is. But this isn’t surprising, given the havoc that climate change is wreaking on coral reefs worldwide. The GBR itself has been subject to repeated and widespread coral bleaching events over the past few years due to marine heatwaves. But the GBR is holding its own, for now. According to the AIMS Annual Survey Report On Coral Reef Condition for 2021-22, published in August last year, the northern and central portions of the GBR showed a record increase in hard coral cover. The corals in the southern portion, though, are decreasing.
As I gaze on the tall spires and pinnacles of the reef, I am reminded of the GBR’s history. It’s hard to imagine that all this area, some 60km out to sea from Cairns, was actually land about 10,000 or so years ago. At the end of the last Ice Age, as glaciers melted and global water levels rose, the sea moved in, and reefs began to form. Australia is a geologically ancient landmass, driven by plate tectonics and volcanism. Yet, there was a time in human memory, as recorded by many oral stories of the Aboriginal Peoples, when the GBR didn’t exist, sometime at the beginning of the Holocene era.
As the whistle to return blows, I paddle back after a fond look and a kiss blown at the reef. I think of a story told by the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people, one of the four traditional Aboriginal groups of tropical coastal Queensland, that I had read on the ABC News website. According to the story, a renowned hunter went spear fishing in the ocean with his two wives. He broke a taboo, laid down by the creator god Bhiral, against attacking a black stingray. Incensed, Bhiral cast hot rocks and lava down from the sky. This made the sea levels rise and the cooling lava led to the formation of reefs. Thus was the Great Barrier Reef created.
How to do it: Sign up for Passions of Paradise’s full day Great Barrier Reef Tour, 8am-5pm; A$240 (around ₹12,720) per person, inclusive of lunch. For a more mindful experience, try the Be a Marine Biologist for a Day programme with a reef master guide; A$390 per person; passions.com.au
Where to stay: You have a pick of places to stay in Cairns, from budget to luxury. One great option is the Crystalbrook Riley on the Cairns Esplanade; from A$450 per night for two; crystalbrookcollection.com/riley
What to see & do: The main attraction is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. But there’s much else to do in Cairns as well. You could take a helicopter tour over the GBR and the Daintree Rainforest; from A$399 per person (minimum two passengers); nautilusaviation.com.au. Cairns is an excellent city for restaurant and bar hopping. One sure-fire recommendation is the CC’s Bar & Grill at the Cairns Steakhouse. The grills and wine pairing is a highlight. For an in-depth understanding of the Great Barrier Reef, visit the Cairns Aquarium; from A$52 per person; cairnsaquarium.com.au. Finally, for your shopping fix, definitely check out the Cairns Night Markets, open from 4.30pm daily.