The Great Barrier Reef

Part of the reef as seen from the plane window

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved the mystery of life under the sea. Songs like The Beatle’s Octopus’s Garden were a daydreamer’s fantasy. I wanted to be there too, swimming amongst the coral and the anemones, under the waves with the other fish.

It stands to reason then that snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef would be somewhere up the top of my bucket list.

It is, however, a bucket list item that is a tad problematic – the reef, after all, is in trouble. Climate concerns, rising water temperatures, increasing acidity and poorer water quality from sediment and run-off, and the impact of more severe cyclones and crown of thorns starfish are all impacting the reef. We’re seeing more bleaching episodes and, whilst corals have their own level of resilience, an increase in the frequency of mass bleaching events also means that the rate of recovery is reduced. Even Covid-19 has had an impact this year in that the ability to obtain data on the most recent bleaching has been compromised as much of the fleet has been grounded. For fear of never getting off my soapbox I won’t even begin to mention the Australian government’s record on this and other environmental issues.

Surely then if the reef is as fragile as it is, then us snorkelling above it, wearing sunscreen that could leach into the water, and being on a tourist boat would also mean that we would become part of the problem?

That’s more complicated.

Whilst it can potentially become part of the problem, it doesn’t have to be. Most operators know how precious the reef is and operate as responsibly as possible and educate their visitors as well – although actually getting people to listen and take action is another question entirely. Sure, it’s in their best financial interests to ensure there’s still a reef to visit, and sure, perhaps there are exceptions (there always is) but most are passionate regarding their roles as custodians of this wonderland.

Okay, lecture over.

Passions of Paradise

We chose Passions of Paradise for our reef adventure – mostly because they are truly local and one of the few owner-operated boats. We also liked that they are involved in both reef education and scientific surveys and studies. In fact, during lockdown, they were involved in a coral “planting” project to attempt to boost live coral coverage on the reef.

Aside from starting with safety briefings, a platter of fresh fruit, and a lovely 2 hour run out to the first reef, today was all about snorkelling.

After squeezing into wetsuits (seriously not a good look) and armed with (covid-safe) snorkels, masks and fins, we eased into the water and were completely awestruck.

There’s a chapter in Julia Baird’s Phosphoressence where she talks about awe.

When you shrink, your ability to see somehow sharpens. When you see the beauty, vastness and fragility of nature, you want to preserve it. You see what we share, and how we connect. You understand being small.

Julia Baird

It was like that. We were small and we were struck by the wonder. Even though there were other snorkelers in the water with us, we noticed nothing other than the colour, the fish, the Maori Wrasse – a massive fish, at least a metre long – swimming so close to us that if we’d wanted to we could touch it…not that we did, of course. 

We hired a go-pro and Sarah took some footage but the results weren’t great. Instead, the pics you see in this post were taken by the on-board photographer (we purchased a package of photos – including those of us snorkelling – so I have permission to use them).

We saw every one of these fish – plus more – and as good as the photos are, they don’t do what we saw justice. When I close my eyes I can still see the flash of purple, blue and pink, the rush of a silvery school, the anemones waving around, opening and closing.

After lunch – some great salads and a pasta dish – we left for our next reef. Passions have a number of exclusive moorings – with the choice of the reef on the day dependent on conditions. This one was completely different. For a start, the water was really choppy, but mostly we were swimming alongside a reef wall, the reef itself is too shallow to swim over without damaging it. An entirely different experience, it was no less wondrous.

Something about Nemo

Other than snorkelling, a highlight for me was the talk by Russell, the Marine Biologist. He explained that the Great Barrier Reef was actually made up of around 2900 individual reefs and told us what it means when corals bleach and how and why that happens. He also spoke about how corals reproduce and regenerate, and the complex co-dependent system of the algae that live on them and the fish that live among them. Take the parrotfish for example, aside from being beautiful to look at, they feed on the algae and their poo provides the nutrients that corals use for building, plus they flatten the surfaces required for new corals to grow. 

Then there’s the clownfish – or Nemo. Clownfish all begin life as males but have both male and female reproductive systems. They live in a hierarchical system with an alpha female on top, so to speak, partnered with the next biggest fish. If the female dies, the male will change sex and become the new top female, mating with the next male in the structure. 

So, in the movie when Nemo’s mother was eaten by a barracuda, Nemo’s father would have changed sex and partnered up with the next male, ie Nemo. Yes, that would have been an entirely different movie.

Finally, Russell talked about how we can all make a difference in the choices that we make daily. Afterwards, I got chatting to Russell about Reef Check Australia (an organisation I’ve been to a few talks by) and he told me about Reef Teach. While the program has been temporarily suspended (yep, Covid again), it’s one I’ll keep an eye out for when next I’m in Cairns. There’s so much more that I want to learn, that I feel is my responsibility to learn.

the face of a very happy Jo…

If you want to know more about Passions of Paradise, you can find it here.

Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

25 thoughts

  1. Fabulous wrap up and informative too! And those photo’s – wow! Makes me crave being there. Next time I’m in Cairns I will have to do a tour with Passions of Paradise as they sound fantastic. Fun & learning mixed together = my cup of tea. Thought I’d be back in Cairns in September but it seems my daughter will be coming back in September to work on the Gold Coast for 12 months so it’s unlikely now.

    1. It was a great company to go with – and there are so many to choose from up there. I can’t wait to go back.

  2. Wonderful photos (definitely worth purchasing!) and it looks like you had fun and learnt stuff at the same time – something that doesn’t happen very often in life! Loved your selfie at the end – that’s one happy woman! #MLSTL

  3. So interesting and informative Jo, I loved learning all that about the reef and Nemo – I had no idea!! I haven’t been up there but it’s definitely on my list. The photos are fabulous and well worth getting, such great memories for you and Sarah. Thanks for sharing your trip and knowledge with us. #mlstl

  4. Hi Jo, thank you for such stunning photos! I’ve always loved the sea and its creatures. They’re so mysterious and beautiful. I also hope we continue to raise awareness and do more to preserve them all.

  5. Gorgeous pictures and the one of you at the end is also stunning. It looks like a great experience. I’m very shark phobic but would definitely love to try it. I did go snorkelling off an island once but it was right on shore so we didn’t see much.

    And I’m glad you’ve supported a local business and company committed to preservation and education. I’d like to go whale watching again and that’s something I’d be considering.

    1. It was really important to us that whatever we did up there was to support local business – they’ve been hit so hard.

  6. Well I was thoroughly impressed with your underwater photography skills, until I saw that you purchased them! Still, a good investment. It’s a remarkable thing that GBR and never be afraid to be up on that soapbox: this world needs lots of voices speaking up for things which need protecting, and this is surely one of them. I believe in 100 years time, future generations will look back on us with absolute scorn and curse us for not doing more. We are the generation who know what’s happening to our world with climate change and yet we continue merrily on our way digging up fossil fuels with gay abandon as if there’s no problem and allowing our governments to get away with it. The GBR will surely will one of its first casualties. Glad you got to see it in its glory when you did. Will share this important post.

  7. Jo, there is nothing like checking off a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list item, especially with your daughter by your side. You and Sarah will be reliving this time together forever. That smile at the end says it all.

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