I’ve been off the boat for twenty seven hours now and I’m still swaying slightly. For a week, I’ve been moving on board the Coral Princess as she cruised the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs and islands or with the motion of the Coral Sea as I snorkeled through the warm tropical reef waters.
Our first snorkeling was off a small island where we had moored. Before we swam, we had a glass bottom boat tour over the reef and were introduced to the coral and fish. The density and colour of the coral was really interesting to see because the only other coral I had previously seen was brown and disappointing. From shore, I waded awkwardly in fins, a too tight wet suit, and the new feeling of a mask and a snorkel before whooshing ahead to discover an undulating world of Technicolor coral and fish.
The fish leapt into life in velvety iridescence. Their markings were vibrant and electric: blue, bright yellow, emerald green, purple, orange and every other colour and pattern combination possible. Large, lorikeet hued parrot fish pushed and nudged at the coral as they fed on the algae, reminding me of a hungry baby butting away at a breast. Curtains of tiny damsel fish hung trembling in the deeper pale blue regions as squadrons of fast swimming blue, black and white fish streamed past. A pair of round yellow, white and black striped butterfly fish posed for a moment before wiggling off-stage.
That’s only a fraction of what I saw. I felt there was too much to take in: the colours, shapes, groupings and movements defied words and I decided to stop thinking about what I was looking at and just float around with them all.
And then there was the coral, the backdrop to the free moving fish. The colouring of the coral was similar to the fish but muted and they too had a large variety of forms: large rounded forms like the mustard coloured boulder corals or the brown and yellow honeycomb sprawling across the reef. The branching corals in white with iridescent blue tips or just plain electric violet contrasted with the velvety contoured and curved elephant ear corals ina yellowy green. The soft corals waved with the current: a faded mauve one on a white trunk flourished its tendrils and the brownish spaghetti coral waved like a carpet of long grass.
Many days, we swam off the back of the boat. By then, I’d jettisoned the wetsuit and the fins and swam in just bathers, a sunscreen Tee shirt and reef sandals with, of course, the all important mask and snorkel. It felt free and easy like that and I loved just slipping into the water without a lot of fuss. There were times when I was swimming with no sight of land at all, with the moored boat the only fixed point. If I was quick, I could be first in the water and feel that I was the only human in the sea for miles and miles around. We would have buoys to swim within and were watched over by at least two crew members all the time. Unlike Victorian waters there was no shark threat, no strong currents and the water was WARM! It felt really safe.
Out on the Ribbon Reefs, further from shore, the water was clearer and the coral spectacular. It was basically the same as our first swim but, now, brighter and absolutely in focus. I could see the polyps let out from the coral swaying as they fed from the passing water. I could stop and float above a colony and observe in fine detail the branching forms, the colour gradations and the tiny fish nudging through the branches feeding within the safety of the coral branches.
In many ways it felt like floating above a forest. The reef resembled trees, shrubs and grasses with the fish being particularly exuberantly coloured birds flying through the branches. Sometimes I felt that I could be looking at an Alpine rock garden. In other places there would be a barren patch of sea floor covered in white broken coral branches which had been knocked over by a cyclone, looking just like a storm damaged forest. Over this white floor there could be a sea cucumber – black, leopard or the spiky pineapple type- perhaps curved like a fat comma as it munched its way through the fallen detritus, excreting it as white coral sand.
Each swim, I would look out for giant clams. Sometimes there would be an isolated clam on a patch of coral sand but often they would appear in pairs or trios. I was intrigued by the different colourings inside their curving shells but never saw a better grouping than one on our first Ribbon Reef swim. The zooxanthellae algae which live in the clam’s mantle develop different colours and in this group, the biggest clam was vibrant blue-violet with green spots (the clam’s ‘eyes’), another had produced a brown and gold leopard skin pattern and the third was an emerald green with yellow spots. These clams were about 70 cms to a metre in length. We learnt that clams actually close quite slowly to about 80% closed and then take much longer to completely shut, so the story of getting feet caught in clams is a bit of a myth.
There was a different type of smaller clam which burrowed into the boulder corals and just presented their white rims and coloured mantles. They could be closed into parallel white squiggles or could be partially open and feeding with their coloured mantles open to the moving water.
From the boat, the reefs would show against the blue as roughly circular brown patches of varying sizes. It was these we swam over, feeling in quite close contact to the life a metre or so below us. At the edge of the reef the sea floor dropped into a glowing, deepening blue. Fish numbers dropped right off. At first I had a strange feeling of perhaps not wanting to go too close to the edge, almost a fear of falling but then when I did ‘jump’ and kicked out over above the blue it was like floating and flying. However, this first time was a bit uneasy as I was outside the buoys by then and it seemed too far on the edge. It was quite good to flip around and return to the security of the reef life. The next time, however, it was really good and I loved floating in what felt like a strange zone of water and sky.
I’m going to miss the moment of anticipation as I sit on the diving platform at the back of the Coral Princess before pushing off into that extraordinary reef world. Writing this piece has helped me consolidate the memory.