Day 13 (Sunday) was very, very lucky. It was our visit to the Great Barrier Reef. This extends for 2,300 kms along the north-eastern coast of Australia and is not one large reef but a network of about 2,900 individual coral reefs. Corals are animals in the same family as jellyfish and there are around 400 species. Swimming around these reefs are over 1,500 different types of fish.
When Roger & Vee booked this holiday, they had no idea how the visit to the reef would work out: how would we get there? how far would it be? what we would we do there? would we really be able to see the coral and the fish? In fact, it all worked out brilliantly because the companies that take you to the reef know to make it a wonderful experience.
Our company was Great Adventures and our vessel was a catamaran called “Reef King” which can take almost 400 passengers. We left Cairns at 10.30 am and around 11.15 am we dropped off those tourists visiting a place called Green Island. The rest of us – about 200 – headed further out into the ocean until at 12.20 pm we moored at a pontoon at a section of the reef 40 km or so from land.
It looked like something out of a holiday brochure: a canopy of cloudless azure sky over a still sea with a mixture of blue and green and aquamarine colours. To see the coral and the fish, one has to snorkel. Some of our group had done it before but most – including Roger & Vee – had not.
There are changing rooms on the pontoon. Then, if you want it (Vee & Roger did), you collect a buoyancy vest with the colour appropriate to your size. Everyone chooses a mask with snorkel and fins again with the colour appropriate to your size. If you are concerned about the remote possibility of being stung by a type of jellyfish called marine stingers, you can wear a black lycra suit but, on our trip, only the Asian tourists – Korean, Japanese & Chinese – did so.
Stepping down some metal ladders to an area of sea roped off for snorkelling, you don your fins and wash your mask before launching into the sea. How difficult could snorkelling be? In Vee’s case, it was like a duck taking to water – no problem at all. In Roger’s case, it was not easy. First, he had salty sea water coming into his mouth from both his snorkel and his mouthpiece, he felt like he was drowning, and he was not sure that he was going to be able to do so this.
Then a member of the catamaran’s crew cleared his snorkel and showed him how to hold his mouth around the breathing piece. And he was away. It was a totally new phenomenon – silent except for the sound of your breathing, hanging there in a trance-like state, in a private world inhabited by a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that were just magical.
A buffet lunch – with both cold and hot food – was available and then Roger & Vee took one of the half-hourly trips by a semi-submersible reef viewer which provided an opportunity to see a much wider area of reef from up close, making clear just how many types of coral there are even in a relatively compact area. But, having learned how to snorkel, both Vee & Roger were keen to return to the water.
Manuela showed Roger where to find coral with more fish. This was a wonder world. Corals so close you could almost touch them, looking like giant exotic vegetables or sections of brain. The official names include mushroom coral, brain coral, plate coral, and stag horn coral. And then there were all the different fish, including clown fish and butterfly fish.
There was a company photographer scuba diving around us and taking souvenir shots which later sold at outrageous prices (AU$ 22 for the first one). Roger was photographed stroking a large black fish and the picture was so amazing that, when he bought it, Vee was initially convinced that it had been photoshopped.
We did not want to leave the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkelling there was utterly different from any other experience that we have had and the day will be one of the most memorable of our lives. But we moved off at 3.30 pm and we were back at Cairns at 5.10 pm.
It was St Patrick’s Day and some of our group went off to a local pub to celebrate, but Roger & Vee had an early dinner locally at ” Mondo”, ready for an early night before an early start tomorrow to visit the rainforest at Daintree.