The Great Barrier Reef is situated off the coast of Queensland, in relatively shallow waters rarely more than 60 metres deep. This is the world’s largest coral reef province, and it extends over an area of 230 000 square kilometres from the Gulf of Papua along 2300 km of coastline to just beyond the Tropic of Capricorn. Over 2100 individual reefs make up the main barrier, with a further 540 islands closer inshore having significant fringing reefs. The coral formations are created by plants and animals and make up the most extensive structure ever built by living creatures. While corals occur in the relatively cool waters of southern Australia, it is only in the warmer tropics that coral reefs form.
My first visit to the Great Barrier Reef was in 1990, when I travelled around Australia as a 21 year old. Before getting far enough north on my way up the east coast, I explored places like Byron Bay in NSW and spent nearly a week in a tent on Fraser Island (somewhere near the Maheno wreck). When I eventually was well inside the Great Barrier Reef area I went sailing and snorkeling out of Airlie Beach in the Whitsunday Islands. Just north of Townsville I also spent a few days on Magnetic Island but the destination for the ultimate Great Barrier Reef experience was Cairns, which is where most of the backpackers were heading. From Cairns I managed to get out to the reef and onto Green Island, which also is part of the reef. It was easy to understand already then that it was a very special underwater experience.
It was to be more than eight years until I got back to Australia, after moving to New Zealand. I had met Hayley at Easter 1997 when we were both diving in Thailand. Both Hayley and her sister Melanie were keen divers (and qualified divemasters) and it was our one big common interest when we met. So when Hayley and I went to visit Melanie in December ’98 she lived in Melbourne, Victoria (she has since moved back to Brisbane, Queensland), where we took the opportunity to dive the Victoria coast. We had the great fortune of seeing the rare leafy seadragon during one dive but of course that diving doesn’t measure up to what’s on offer in Queensland in general and on the Great Barrier Reef in particular. So our next Australian adventure was a trip at Easter 2001 to Cairns and Palm Cove and diving the Great Barrier Reef for the first time together. And it seemed obvious that we would return again one day.
Our return to the Great Barrier Reef was going to take much longer than we could have anticipated. Our diving was instead concentrated around our northern waters of New Zealand. Melanie would occasionally come over and dive with us, as well as her having trips to places like Vanuatu, the Maldives, the WWII wrecks of Truk in Micronesia and to the sardine run in South Africa. In 2005 we celebrated her 40th with a dive trip to Vava’u in Tonga but it was not until July this year, to celebrate her 50th(!), that we returned to the Great Barrier Reef. This time to Heron Island, located within the Capricorn group of islands and reefs at the southern end of the Great Barrier.
Like in Tonga ten years earlier, some of Melanie’s best friends came along for the celebrations. Aidan was only 2 years old back then, he is now 12 and already quite experienced snorkeling. Finn, aged nine, was also seriously getting into it. He experienced being in close proximity to a black tip reef shark and also saw a green turtle, which he dived down and touched. Aidan spent nearly the entire week in the water, sometimes with me, sometimes with Hayley or with some of the others. In the photo to the right, Hayley and he’s just coming out of the water after having had an awesome shark experience. After having seen some reef sharks they were approached by a three meter copper coloured shark, which stayed with them for ages. Hayley grabbed Aidan’s arm and squeezed it hard while he was busy trying to identify it. At first they suspected it was a Bronze Whaler but most likely it was a Sicklefin Lemon Shark (named so because of its yellowish brown colour). They came out buzzing from the experience and they had many more exciting encounters.
Heron Island is a coral cay sitting just at the Tropic of Capricorn, 72 km off the coast of Gladstone. While the reef is much more colourful further north, it is in good health here and absolutely teeming with a variety of marine life. We arrived with all our scuba gear but the snorkeling was so outstanding that it really wasn’t necessary. The kids thoroughly enjoyed it and we all saw multiple sharks, turtles, rays and a huge range of fish. I also spotted a banded sea snake. Pictured above are some white-spotted eagle rays but we also saw numerous cow-tailed rays (an excited Finn got to show me the first one), a black tip reef shark which were plentiful and a turtle. Heron Island is home to both the Green Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle. Heron Island was in fact a turtle cannery until it in 1936 was bought and made into a tourist attraction. It received National Park status in 1943. We also watched Humpback Whales swimming past on their migration from Antarctica north towards the Pacific Islands (like Tonga, where we experienced to hear them under water while diving). We didn’t get to see any Manta rays but on our second day they had been spotted from the air by some fellow guests, when they were flown in with the sea plane.
For our aspiring marine biologist Aidan, it was also very rewarding to visit the University of Queensland’s research station on the island, which also provided educational walks on the reef at low tide. For all of us it was just great being able to stay for a week on the actual reef, which is reached either by sea plane or by a 2 hour trip on a fast catamaran. That makes it quite unique as you normally would either get onto the reef by boat for a day trip, or go on a liveaboard dive boat. At Heron Island we went in and out of the water as it pleased us, only taking into account the tides. Otherwise we could socialise or take the opportunity to catch up with some reading. I managed to read Mr Pip, which is an excellent New Zealand novel set on a Pacific Island, and started another one before it was time to head back home.
In the picture above Aidan is snorkeling with Peter (the edge of the reef can be seen where the water breaks behind them). In the picture below he is out in a glass-bottom kayak with Bettina, both Brisbane friends of his aunty Melanie.
One interesting project which had been initiated by one of the biology students on the island, is to determine how much light pollution affects the survival rate of newly hatched turtles. Between October – March turtles come on land to lay their eggs. While some of the babies will not make it past hinders on the beach, like birds, even some of those who’ve made it into the sea get confused by lights on land. It is the moonlight that pulls the baby turtles out and into the water but some get confused by other man-made lights and then accidentally make it back on shore. This study has led to that they will put up a wall on the mainland to block out the lights from Gladstone seen from the water. The little turtle pictured below was found by some of Melanie’s friends in a drain on the island. They carried it back to the sea where it eventually swam off. Myself pictured on the right after having swam with some adult Green turtles.
We’re happy too report that we saw a healthy reef, even though some predictions blaming the rate of pollution changing the oceans makes for quite dark reading. Again, we’d certainly like to come back to the Great Barrier Reef but again we don’t know when we get the next opportunity. The week we spent on Heron Island certainly whet the boys’ appetite for more underwater exploring. In the next few months it’s warming up in NZ waters which offers different experiences. The more we see of the world’s oceans, we find an amazement in what we learn about the ecosystem.