Diving in the Great Barrier Reef (2016)

Diving in the Great Barrier Reef (2016)

His beady eyes seem to size me up as he weaves circles around us, each circle nudging closer and closer until his body brushes against my hand.  He seems friendly enough.  I put out my hand gingerly and pat his slippery back. There is a swish of tail, a torpedo like movement, a whirl of dizzying colours and he is gone, only to be back in a few seconds, perhaps, wanting to be touched again.  He is a Maori Wrasse, a species of fish that is ubiquitous in these waters. Wrasses are known to be curious. They love to get up close with divers and hang out with them for hours.  Maybe it is the steady stream of air bubbles from a diver’s mask that amuses them. This Wrasse is a riot of colours – blue, olive green and yellow – luminescent in the shaft of sunlight that pierces the water right through to the bottom, illuminating the wonderland that lies below.

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I am kneeling on the ocean floor, some forty feet below the surface in the clear blue waters off the coast of Queensland in Australia, in the Great Barrier Reef, the dream destination of all divers.  This playful Wrasse has already made my day, so to speak. We are at least twice his size, and there are four of us divers, yet he is not afraid of us. He actually wants us to touch him. I gingerly extend my hand to stroke him again only to be told off by my diving buddy not to touch any creature.  Yet, soon after telling me off, he (my diving buddy) goes on to stroke another rock like object lying motionless on the ocean floor;  the creature snaps shut its jagged three-feet long cavity that happens to be its mouth. I am terrified out of my wits. This creature could have easily snapped off his fingers. Later I learn it is a giant clam. The ocean floor is littered with these.

Just a few weeks earlier, I had completed a 3-day PADI diving course back in Sydney just so that I could dive in this ultimate reef in the Pacific Ocean.  The diving course was anything but easy.  It required me to fit my considerable bulk into a constricting wetsuit, carry a ten-kilo oxygen cylinder on my back, four kilo ballasts around my waist and practise removing my oxygen mask under water.  Like most novices, I had panicked initially, but slowly got the hang of breathing noisily through the regulator clutched between my teeth. Making sense of the numerous gadgets hanging from the scuba gear was another challenge, but eventually, I had learnt to figure out which was which and to be comfortable underwater.

Just as well. For, there is a spell-binding universe waiting to be discovered just beneath the surface of the ocean. Rainbow colours and everything in-between, fantastic and weird shapes, fluid and graceful movements, the ocean puts up a show like no other.  And what a theatre to host this spectacular display –  one that extends over 13000 square kilometres, large enough to host the millions of players wearing the most outlandish costumes. The theatre is as much the drama as the performance itself.

Cairns, 2400 kilometers north of Sydney, is the jumping off point for all kinds of marine sports, the most popular being snorkelling and diving. It must have been a village decades ago. Now its marina is lined with resorts and hotels put together with pre-fab structures to cater to the burgeoning tourist population.  Every other shop hawks aquatic sportswear and sporting equipment, but you don’t have to buy these if you’re on a short trip. Great Adventures which operates fast catamarans from Cairns to the outer reef stocks all sizes of wetsuits, scuba equipment and snorkels including prescription masks for the bespectacled. We had started our day early, and made our way to the wharf to board the catamaran.  The vessel had spliced through the blue waters and deposited us on a pontoon in the outer reef in about an hour.  The pontoon is to be our refuge until evening when the catamaran will pick us up and take us back to Cairns. The day is yours to try out every water sport that catches your fancy.

There is much to do for the sedentary visitor as well. The pontoon sports an underwater observation deck, a semi-submersible that cruises around the area revealing the wonders of the ocean to those who do not want to get their feet wet.  For those who want to view the reef from above, there is a separate floating helipad from which one can take helicopter sorties.  The view from above is equally compelling, the aquamarine expanse being the only natural organism visible even from outer space.  A ride in the semi-submersible with its glass walls makes it possible to view marine wonders from the comfort of your cabin.  You sit on benches inside the glass bottom inhaling oxygen supplied by the shaft in the boat, without the aid of masks or gear.  In fact, the semi-submersible gives you a peek into the underwater world without having to swim, snorkel or dive.  The contraption glides around the pontoon to show a forest of stag-horn corals some of which seem to be bleached, presumably by rising acidity of the ocean.

The ocean is a deceptive expanse. Many of its denizens pretend to be lifeless, but are very alive and alert to prey and/or any potential danger.  Some like it spiky, others, striped, slimy or wavy; some act dead until provoked, others tend to merge with the seascape. Something that waves cheerfully like sea grass turns out to be a live creature called sea anemone.  Another called sea cucumber is actually a marine slug.  Then you have the most-dreaded creature of the ocean, the box jellyfish that can inflict the most excruciatingly painful stings. Yet, they look gorgeous, in their translucent skin and silken tassels, making you want to touch them. And the sea is also home to millions of Irukandji, a thumb-sized venomous jellyfish that can sting you through any gaps in your armour.

Despite the dangers, the seductions of the sea are irresistible. Without doubt, here in the barrier reef, the corals reign supreme.  They are alive and graceful and dazzle you with their purples and pinks. There are more than 600 species of coral in this Coral Sea which is part of the reef system.  In fact, underwater, it looks like a massive florist’s stall except that these bouquets glow brighter than any land flowers and come in exotic shapes unseen on land.  I was able to spot stag-horn corals, brain corals, cabbage corals, cactus corals, leaf corals etc. Some are pale or chalky, others, fluorescent. Corals get their fluorescence from the algae with whom they have a symbiotic relationship. The fluorescence actually shields them from the harsh sun and prevents bleaching.

The Great Barrier Reef is so named because it creates a natural barrier to navigation between the open ocean and the coast line.  It is distinguished from other reefs which can be fringing reefs, atolls etc. In fact, the barrier reef runs parallel to the Queensland coast for over 1200 kilometers and is separated from it by a deep-water channel.  While Cairns is probably the most popular reef town, more coastal towns are vying for the tourist dollar. Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, Brisbane are some of the contestants along the coast while the numerous islands in the reef have their own appeal, each home to a specific species like Manta Rays, turtles or whales.

Like elsewhere on our planet, the barrier reef is also under siege. Climate change has taken its toll, bleaching vast expanses of coral.  The reef faces all three threats – rise in ocean levels, rise in temperature and increasing acidity, all caused by climate change. But scientists are busy finding out which species of corals are likely to survive the threats so that they can breed them to replace other sensitive corals that will soon vanish if climate change proceeds unchecked.  The area around Cairns is also infamous for its cyclones which wreak havoc on corals and marine life. It takes a few years after a vicious cyclone for the corals to regenerate, but if ocean temperatures rise, the regeneration may never materialise, leading to permanent loss of this essential marine organism.

(Published in Frontline dated April 1, 2016)


3 thoughts on “Diving in the Great Barrier Reef (2016)”

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