The world down under

The great barrier reef is not a holiday for the fainthearted. but if you want to kiss a stingray and swim with a turtle, it’s the only place in the world.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay        Print Edition: October 5, 2008

The Great Barrier Reef has a hypnotic quality about it. We were spending a relaxed week in Sydney with no intention of moving anywhere. It was all fine wine and steak and ostrich burgers, not a care in the world. But then, a documentary on the vanishing coral reefs came on TV and we were mesmerised. That afternoon, we booked a three-day trip to Cairns. Before I knew it, I was staring down a deadly stingray, while a trillion colourful fish played hide and seek in the coral beneath me. I’ll never forget it. Everything about the Reef is staggering. The numbers alone (see Reef Facts). It’s the world’s largest coral reef system, the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms.

Like the Great Wall of China, you can see the Reef from outer space. But that’s not the best view—the best view is up close and personal, underwater, through a diver’s mask. The Reef is all about the wildlife. It’s wilder than you think. The first species we came across was the bare-chested Aussie with his bikiniclad partner. You don’t need to go diving to spot these guys. They’re all over the touristy towns along the Reef—all 2,600 km of it—like Townsville or Port Douglas. But also at any of the 120 or so inhabited islands speckled around the waters there. An interesting animal, the Aussie likes to dive, snorkel or hang around in pubs at all hours of the day and night. Aussies, I discovered, are typically either in the drink, or on the drink.

Scuba diving: Play hide and seek in the coral reefs
Get them talking over a pint or two and they’ll regale you with local legends of daredevilry and adventure. Our guide was Ron, a naturally friendly sort—Aussies are among the friendliest people you’d care to meet. He told us how the Reef supports a diversity of life, including many vulnerable or endangered species—30 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, including the dwarf minke whale, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, and the humpback whale. He told us what danger the Reef’s creatures were in (see Danger!). And he rattled off all the different kinds of sea turtles that come to the Reef to breed—the green sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, hawksbill turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, flatback turtle, and the olive ridley.

I actually saw one of these characters— I saw a sea green turtle and it got me so excited, I fell off the boat. The lifeguards jumped to it, yanking me back onto the boat in double time. They said I was lucky that there wasn’t a stingray down there or I might have been toast. There’s no end of creatures in the Reef that can kill a man. But the sea turtle wasn’t perturbed. He just looked up at us, obligingly, as we scrambled for our camcorders and cameras. A brilliant moment. Eye to eye with a turtle. “That’s a great shot,” said Ron. “Maybe we should throw you back in the water, maybe he’ll do it again.”

The threat
A large part of the Reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which helps to limit the impact of human use, such as over-fishing and tourism. While the Reef is encountering threats to its survival from many quarters, including reef bleaching, pollution, too many tourists and the rise in ocean temperatures, it’s also under attack by fish. Yes, fish. The Crown-of-thorns Starfish is a coral reef predator that preys on coral polyps. In 2000, an outbreak contributed to a loss of 66 per cent of live coral cover on sampled reefs in a study by the local Reefs Research Centre.

Natural lagoons on some islands on the reef make for great places to go snorkelling and diving
What to do
You can take a boat out there—all kinds of cruises are on offer, from single day trips to longer voyages from most of the larger towns and islands in the reef region. Boat sizes range from dinghies, giant yachts, glass-bottomed boats and underwater observatories. But you haven’t done the Reef until you’ve jumped in the water—snorkeling and diving are, by far, the most popular tourist activities on the Reef. You’ll use a pontoon and the area will be enclosed by nets for your safety. Because friendly stingray doesn’t sneak in too close to you or a hungry whale doesn’t mistake you for food I guess!

Reef facts
It’s composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for 2,600 kilometres in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia. It supports over 200,000 different species of flora and fauna. Tourism in the Great Barrier Reef generates over AU$5.5 billion annually and that approximately two million people visit the Reef each year. Some 600 continental islands and 350 coral cays are spread throughout the reef.

Some 600 continental islands and 350 coral cays are spread throughout the reef
Danger!
The Reef has many species of marine life that can be potentially fatal to humans. Here are a few to watch out for: Irukandji Jellyfish: Unlike the common Jelly Fish, Irukandji are found mostly in the deeper waters of the Reef, although they may be swept inshore by prevailing currents.

A sea turtle
Divers and snorkellers are particularly at risk of allergies and burning sensations if stung by these. “Stinger Season” is from November through to March. If you are visiting the Reef around this time and intend to go swimming, you will be told to do so within a specially provided “Stinger Enclosure”. Sea Snakes: Over a dozen species of sea snakes can be found on the Reef. All of them produce lethal venom. They are not normally aggressive and there have been no reported deaths from sea snakes. However, we all heeded Ron’s advice (seconded by Shane, the elderly and “knowledgeable” bartender at Zozo’s, the pub near our hotel) that they should still be “treated with utmost respect”. In other words, if we see a snake, we run like hell.

Lion Fish:
The ones with the zebra-like pattern and the venomous fin spines that can produce painful puncture wounds. Fatalities, however, are rare. Stone Fish: With 13 dorsal spines that release a poisonous toxin when pressed, the Stone Fish can inflict excruciating pain and possible death to the unwary. They dwell on stony, muddy bottom areas. So, wear shoes with thick soles when you’re walking along the beach.

Stingray
Blue-ringed Octopus:
With a beak that can penetrate a wet-suit, they are one little cute creature to look at but definitely not to touch. The blue-ringed octopus is the size of a golf ball but its poison is powerful enough to kill a man in minutes. Residing in rock pools and coral, this octopus' rings will “glow” an electric blue when provoked or on the defence. This is when it is most dangerous, especially to children, as it looks very pretty and harmless.

Stingray:
Fatalities reported from Stingray contact are rare but if you tread on a Stingray tail, it’ll whip up and the barbs can inflict deep lacerations. Not to mention tetanus, if the wound becomes infected. Generally, however, they are harmless and on some islands they even allow you to touch and “kiss” these giant fish… After the guides and the paramedics have suitably equipped you with protective gear.

Where to stay

Base Yourself in Cairns:
It’s a gateway to a tropical wonderland. Cairns is Australia’s premier nature-based destination not just because of its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, but also because the world heritage rainforests and the Atherton Tablelands are next door, not to mention Cairns’ own white sandy beaches.

Kuranda: A scenic drive, train ride or via cable way, Kuranda is 25 minutes from Cairns and set in world heritage rainforest. Kuranda is the home of various arts and crafts with some of the world’s best artists residing in the area. There are several attractions such as Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld, the Heritage Markets, Kuranda Nature Park and Rainforest Nature Park close by.

Mareeba: The largest town on the Atherton Tableland and Tableland’s largest shire and premier producer of coffee, exotic fruit, sugarcane and tobacco, Mareeba offers a variety of attractions; from nature-based to high-flying adventures in the form of hot air ballooning, gliding or go-karting. Visit the Heritage Museum, Mareeba Wetlands and the coffee farm.

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