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Think Australia, and a few images are bound to pop in your head. Among them may be bouncing kangaroos, cuddly koalas, the Sydney Harbour Bridge ensconcing the armadillo-styled Opera House, the enigmatic Uluru, and of course – the Great Barrier Reef.
First introduced in our elementary geography classes, the Reef almost inevitably finds its way to everyone’s bucket list. And why shouldn’t it? Cradled in the Coral Sea, the largest reef system in the world runs for a staggering 2300 km parallel to the northeastern coast of Australia.
In comparison, the second-longest reef in the world, the Belize Reef in the Caribbean, runs for ‘only’ 300 km. That puts into perspective the scale of the Australian natural wonder.
Getting to the Great Barrier Reef
There are many gateways to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Cairns is the undisputed capital for reef exploration. However, Townsville, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bundaberg and Port Douglas are also towns on the Queensland coastline that provide excellent getaways to the GBR.
I chose to travel to Airlie Beach, a small town just 3 hours from Sydney and 90 minutes from Brisbane by flight. My decision was based on its proximity to the glittering Whitsunday Islands, with its coveted Whitehaven beach, reputed to be amongst the whitest in the world.
Staying at Arlie Beach
Airlie Beach is a small township but being a backpacker haven, it bustles with vibrant energy, particularly in summer. The town has one main street, the Waterson Way.
The street is full of shops targeted at tourism: reef snorkelling, diving and PADI certifications, helicopter tours. Plus, of course, healthy portions of crispy fish and chips.
Slightly hilly, the more exotic and luxury stays are concentrated towards the hilltops that promise the bluest sea views to wake up to. Alternately, Waterson Way accounts for budget accommodation, but with easy access to shops, restaurants and public transport.
I had chosen the Mantra Boathouse for my stay, which is located slightly outside the main thoroughfares. With spectacular views of a marina on tropical waters in a warm blend of cyan and chartreuse, I plonked on the balcony.
Here I wondered how hard it would be to steal away from this view, even if it was the GBR that was calling. And so it was that the first day I allowed myself to melt away in perfect laziness to enjoy a tranquil sunset on the Coral Sea.
Great Barrier Reef Facts
The next day, I heeded the call and went early to grab a seat for a cruise to the reef. I had booked a full-day trip that would take me not only to the reef but also to the famous Whitehaven Beach. We set sail on a relatively clear day with good conditions for snorkelling.
It would take us some time to reach the first destination, during which we were enlightened by our guide, Crystal. In hindsight, it turned out to be extremely educating. I learned more in that lecture than I did in my geography classes.
First came tumbling an amazing array of numbers. About 3,000 separate reefs, 300 coral islands and 600 continental islands stretching over 2300 km. All with living coral growing on dead coral, some of which dated back to 20 million years.
Imagine the country of Italy off the coast of Australia, and that would be a good approximation of what is the largest living organism in the world.
Sealife and Fish of the Great Barrier Reef
Then followed a staggering number of species. Fish, turtles, molluscs, snakes, crustaceans, dolphins, dugongs, sharks and whales, of which I unabashedly lost all count.
The next chapter was a proper zoological explanation of the corals. These consist of tiny creatures called polyps that use calcium and carbonate from the seawaters to create a hard, outer skeleton that protects their soft bodies.
These polyps survive due to a symbiotic relationship with algae that are given a home in the corals. The algae, in turn, absorbs light from the sun and subsequently feeds the coral, while also providing the latter with their bright colours.
This also explains why bleached corals turn white (they lose the algae) and why corals grow in shallow depths of the sea (the algae require sunlight to produce food).
The Difference Between the Inner and Outer Reefs
Crystal further explained the difference between two types of reefs – the inner fringing reef and the outer barrier reef. The inner fringing reefs of the GBR are closer to the shore and around the islands with predominantly soft corals.
The outer barrier reef is farther away, grows from the ocean floor instead of outwards from a land base and has predominantly hard corals. This also creates a kind of a lagoon between itself and the shoreline.
History of the Whitsunday Islands
The lesson for the day was not yet over without a helping of history. Off the coast of Airlie Beach lies a smattering of 74 continental islands called the Whitsunday Islands. We were sailing around these to arrive at our snorkelling destinations on the fringing reef growing out from these islands.
They were named by Captain James Cook, the father of Australian taxonomy. , He crossed this place on a Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter.
However, given that the Date Line was still not established then, James Cook was crossing these waters a day ahead on a Whitmonday. The misnomer has stuck for centuries but what’s in a name?
The islands are just as balmy, the coconuts sway languorously, while the tropical waters remain cerulean as the reef bursts with a paroxysm of colours.
However, it was Matthew Flinders, the first circumnavigator of Australia, who gave the name to the Great Barrier Reef as well as that of the country.
First Time Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef
By this time, we had arrived at our first snorkelling spot, somewhere near Hook Island. While I was wondering whether to take a lifejacket or a pool noodle to stay afloat, a bunch of school kids jumped off the boat the moment the motor stopped.
I donned my snorkel, hesitated a moment, looked at the kids splashing with enthusiasm, then plunged into the aquamarine waters of the underwater wonderland.
There were fragments of clouds playing hide and seek with the sun, thereby reducing the visibility underwater. Despite that, my first views of the reef were marvellous.
Whichever way I looked were mile after mile of reefs. Most were the staghorn and brain coral types (that look exactly as the name) besides a blend of colourful wavy soft corals and seaweeds.
In the absence of the clouds, I guess the colours would have looked more resplendent and less muted.
Kaleidoscope of Colorful Fish
However, that was made up for by the number of fish that swam around me. Their colours and designs were astounding as if you were swimming inside a liquid kaleidoscope. Solids, stripes, polka dots and diamond scaled patterns were all on display.
You could guess the template, choose a colour, open your eyes and be are sure to find at least one variety of your wish. Such was the spectacle.
Thanks to earlier snorkelling experiences, I identified the multicoloured parrotfish, dazzling even more whenever the sun came out. Also the coral trouts. Then there was the cuteness overload of the Nemos and the Dories in the water.
Clownfish in various shades of orange and white and black peeped out of their anemones while the blue surgeonfish swam past in healthy numbers.
There were instances when the corals sank deeper down and I wished I was more skilful in diving to explore the fecund life. I was balancing my physical self and mental emotions. Excitement, wonder, awe, curiosity and even a bit of fear for being an average swimmer were all in play.
That’s when a green sea turtle lazily passed by, giving a casual glance, as if saying in quintessential Aussie style, take it easy, mate, life here is slow and super-chilled, now go and grab a beer.
I was one of the last swimmers to get onboard. Of course, one dive was not enough, but we had a fixed itinerary and the boat started on to the next pitstop – the wonderfully named, Manta-ray Bay.
We stopped just off a beautiful scimitar of a small golden beach, lapped by clear turquoise waters. I, perhaps like many others, was half-tempted to make a dash for the beach and laze there.
But Crystal guided us against it as there was something bigger awaiting us at the next stop. It was the prettiest dame of Australia’s beaches – the stunner of the Whitehaven Beach. But more on that later.
Our second snorkelling spot was aimed towards more leisurely swimming with less coral but more fish. The sky had cleared up and the waters were inviting. The moment we all splashed into the sea the staff on board dropped packets of breadcrumbs on the water.
It led to an immediate flurry of dazzling blue and gold. Shoals of fusilier fishes zip-zap-zoomed past us creating a feeling of being in a huge aquarium. They were joined by more parrotfish, trout and a host of other species.
While the moniker of Manta-ray was not justified, what I did see was as enthralling, if not a bit scary as well.
Hunting for the Māori Wrasse
Along with the other small fish, I could discern from afar the silhouette of something huge and scary swimming rapidly towards us. Being a Spielberg fan, and having over-read all about shark mishaps in Australia, you can understand my scare. I swam to our guide and asked him about the huge snarling fish close by. He only smiled and uttered two words – Māori wrasse.
Empowered with the knowledge that these waters do not harbour full-grown sharks, the hunted became the hunter, and I went underwater in search of the wrasse. But the fish was shy and evaded human company.
I persevered and in one instance came face to face with the huge pale green coloured fish. It was then that I realised why it was called the Māori wrasse for its blue-green face was decorated with intricate tattoo-like designs, very similar to the Māori warriors of New Zealand.
Face to face with that beast almost a meter and half in length, I felt almost humbled. Not just because of its size, but in that simple realisation of its name, it dawned on me that there was just so much to learn and know in these waters.
First Glimpse of Whitehaven Beach
Back on board, there was little time for contemplation as the boat sped to the next stop on Whitsunday Island. Here we were to hike to a viewpoint to see the Hill Inlet and Whitehaven beach. A 20-minute bushwalk later, I was left speechless.
A heavenly canvas unfolded. A few woolly clouds floated in a lovely blue sky that seemed to compete intensely for the higher blue index score with the tranquil waters beneath. Low brown and green hills lay in front with a broad inlet for the seas.
Across the inlet lay the Whitehaven beach dazzling like a white ribbon. The beach boasts the whitest sand in Queensland. This is due to the high silica content in the sand which contributes to this incandescent glow. The whitest in the country is apparently Lucky Bay in West Australia though I could not fathom how anything could be whiter than this.
With the white siliceous seabed, the shallow sea waters were glittering in transparent cyan. The sight took away half the stress with which I had arrived on my vacation. Stingrays and baby sharks were abundant, the transparent waters providing no camouflage whatsoever.
Creation of the Whitsunday Islands
The sands with an astounding silica content are one of a kind, with no equal in any of the 74 islands in the Whitsunday group. Many geologists wonder where the sands came from, given that nearby rocks are devoid of the quartz required to create the fine sands here.
The Whitsunday Islands are all that remain of several volcanic calderas that erupted about a hundred million years ago. This was during the continental breakup times, when the microcontinent of Zealandia, now mostly submerged under New Zealand, was being torn away from Australia by rifting.
The volcanic episode that accompanied the rifting was enormous. Geologists estimate that roughly 2.5 million cubic kilometres of silica-rich magma were produced.
Most of the volcanic rocks were carried away on Zealandia and are now submerged beneath the waters of the Tasman Sea. The rest of that immense volume filled the interior Great Australian Basin to the west.
When the sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years back, silicic sediments from the basin moved in specific currents. They were then deposited at Whitehaven beach creating this unique marvel in the archipelago.
The Wonder Called Whitehaven
I could have spent the entire day here viewing the Hill Inlet. That is until I heard that we would be moving to the Whitehaven beach itself. Our boat took us to the beach where we disembarked just off the hill inlet and spent more than an hour swimming, snorkelling, exploring and relaxing.
I took a walk, first to the inlet, then to the tip of the beach walking in the ankle to knee-deep waters. The silica-rich sand was cool to the touch despite the hot sun overhead. It also felt softer and silkier than the yellow granular sand.
The deeper waters towards the horizon looked as if an artist had made straight, rectilinear brush strokes in different shades of blue. The different shades of blue were endless when taking one glance from beach to horizon.
A small spotted stingray came close then immediately sped away as I took a step forward. Small shoals of fish floated by as I sat in the calm waters to admire the meditative beauty. I breathed slowly and wished for time to stand still.
The Must-Take Scenic Flight
The boat trip around the reef was amazing. However, the next day, I decided to get a different perspective. I wanted to see the reef from above and hence took a scenic flight. As under, so over, and the two-hour flight was as mesmerising and unforgettable as the day before.
The small Cessna hummed like a bumblebee throughout, interspersed by the commentary from the pilot. We flew over Airlie beach and its picturesque marina.
The indigo waters of the coral sea were sprinkled with islands of the Whitsunday group. The trailer of the GBR was already visible in light flashes. But it was when the flight reached the outer reef that the true scale of the actual picture was put on display.
Mile after mile of the reef seemed to spread under us, the coral licking the surface of the water and sometimes even jutting out of it while displaying contrasting colours with the sea.
I felt that unless one saw the grandeur of this spectacle from above, the greatest natural wonder would remain incomplete. From the skies, the scale of the GBR becomes truly visible.
Heart Reef and Heavenly Hues
A highlight of these views was the Heart reef – apparently the most photographed reef in the world due to the unique heart shape of its formation.
Not surprisingly, this spot is used countless times for marriage proposals. The ‘river’ ran close by– a deep indigo channel that ploughed through the turquoise waters of the reef.
As we headed back to Airlie Beach atop the Whitsundays, the flight went by the Hill Inlet. The bright white sands of the Whitehaven came alive one more time as did heavenly hues of pastel blue and green.
The full expanse of the hills and the sands justified why this is the most photographed beach in Australia. The rise and ebb of the sea waters into the Hill Inlet created swirling sands. An ever-changing display of dazzling white ridges, painted by the whims of the tidal flows.
What is the Future for the Great Barrier Reef?
My trip was coming to an end, but never did I find a journey as educating and eye-opening as it was relaxing. Sadly, over the last two decades, the reef ecosystem has come under immense pressure.
This is due to large-scale bleaching from the warming oceans, with larger damage arising in the northern parts of the reef. While the government and countless agencies are working to save the reef and come up with more sturdy variants, only time can tell how much of this great natural wonder can we retain for posterity.
I felt incredibly grateful for my experience. Furthermore, with hundreds of picture postcards printed onto the floppy of my mind, I realized that the next time someone mentions Australia, there will be so much more that will inevitably come to mind besides the conventional Australiana.
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Author Bio: Ayan is a consultant by profession and loves traveling, and has been to nearly 30 countries. He likes writing about his travel experiences besides scribbling poetry, short stories and essays. He is currently working on a collection of haiku, and has recently published a coffee table book on the coastal beauty of New South Wales. You can read more of my travels at http://www.vagabonds-trail.com/