The World of the Great Barrier Reef

Being underwater isn’t just like being in another world–it’s like being in your own world. Sounds are muffled, movements are fluid and languid. Gestures are obscured by bubbles. Shadows are at once more menacing and more enticing. Other people might swim into view, but the space between you and them is heavier than on land, and it takes just a little longer to recognize them. Everything is more beautiful and mysterious underwater, and we can explore and interpret that world however we choose; we literally can’t hear what someone else might say about it, when we’re below the water line. No wonder the mermaid myth has remained popular through the centuries. It’s alluring to imagine ourselves belonging there.

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Even being underwater with 70 other tourists didn’t detract from the magic of the morning for me. I took a boat named, hilariously, Passions of Paradise (doesn’t that sound like a C-list celebrity’s perfume line?). I’d felt ill for most of the two-hour boat ride from Cairns to Paradise Reef, but I felt better as soon as we stopped and looked out from the boat deck at the dark patches in the water that indicated coral. It was a little weird, looking around at open ocean with nothing but gently rolling waves out to the horizon, and then clownshoe-ing over to the edge of the boat in my flippers and slipping into the water and seeing just how much life there was under those gently rolling waves.

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I wish I had been able to take pictures that showed how vibrant the colors were and how graceful the swaying coral was. Unfortunately, the camera I borrowed from Heather chose that morning to inexplicably fog up, and as a result all I have are some dark, dim photos. (I know, my camera luck has been amazing on this trip.) I’ll share a few anyway, but please see these to get a glimpse of what I saw down there.

greened-out coral

greened-out coral

People spread out as soon as we got in the water, so it was just me, and the coral, and the fish. I slowly waved my flippers up and down, and followed a fish from one patch of coral to another, then whipped my whole body around as a school of fish whirled past, and finally I just floated and watched the coral sway back and forth. There’s a philosophy to be found in the way the coral smoothly followed whichever direction the currents were flowing, but I will just note that this natural movement was beautiful to watch. Something caught in my peripheral vision, and I saw that my hand was emulating the coral, calmly swishing one way and then the other.

I saw a large school of fish gliding in the other direction, and I followed them to the edge of the reef. Since I know people will make Finding Nemo comparisons anyway, let me say that this was the part that most reminded me of that movie. When Nemo swims to the edge of the reef and they all peer over into the dark abyss beyond, and they’re all terrified. That’s what this was like. Remember that this is the open ocean, and what’s beyond that reef is thousands of meters of dangers known and unknown, in water that gets so dark it might as well be night. I hung out on the edge for a bit, drawn to that dark, silent place, but then I paddled back to the safety of the reef.

This sort of shows how sudden and steep the drop-off was.

This sort of shows how sudden and steep the drop-off was.

I was one of the last ones out of the water, and then we went to Michaelmas Cay, which is a little strip of land used as a resting area for thousands of migrating birds each year. People chased sea turtles and walked on the beach. I floated on my back and watched the birds in sudden flight. Then I flipped over and watched some huge fish swim figure eights under the boat.

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The birds of Michaelmas Cay

Sorry, random fellow snorkeler. I need to keep you in here to show how huge the fish was.

Sorry, random fellow snorkeler. I need to keep you in here to show how huge the fish was.

This time, I was the very last one out of the water, and they had to call out three times before I heard them. I had been watching a purple clamshell-shaped coral open and close its “mouth” as tiny yellow fish darted past. The coral and the fish were crystal clear, and everything else was indistinct. I eventually heard the crew’s calls, sounding like the teachers in Charlie Brown cartoons, and I surfaced.

One of the best days of my life

One of the best days of my life

But the other thing about being underwater is that if you stay long enough, and you feel immersed enough in the beauty of it, then you can take a little of it with you when you leave. Now there will always be a part of my mind that can see the bright colors, the calm swaying, and the deep abyss.

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