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Australia: Great Barrier Reefer madness

by Molly Newborn

A trip to Australia is not complete without an expedition to the famous Great Barrier Reef. And so, I set out on a mini mission—to find Nemo.

The Great Barrier Reef, which is great enough to be seen from outer space, is the world’s largest coral reef system and the biggest single structure made by living organisms. It is home to more than 1,500 fish species, whales, dolphins, dugongs, sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, starfish, seahorses … the list seems endless.

Several companies arrange reef trips. Most of them go to the outer reef and give you the option of snorkeling or scuba diving. Most also offer snacks throughout the day, along with an elaborate seafood buffet lunch—almost worth the price of the whole excursion. Many also offer “live-aboard” reef trips lasting three to seven days. I met a backpacker in Cape Tribulation who was pinching his pennies, saving for a second live-aboard trip to the reef, just after finishing his first.

The live-aboard trips were seriously out of my (student) budget, but I forked over about $200 to a local travel agency and booked a day trip to snorkel and explore three sites at the outer reef.

I was picked up from my hostel in Port Douglas early in the morning. We drove to fetch the rest of the tourists at fancy resorts, then drove to the port. In line, I spoke to a man who was beaming with excitement. This was his second trip that week.

As we boarded, the perfectly tanned babes and hunks … I mean crew … in their short skirts and board shorts greeted us enthusiastically and asked us to remove our shoes. I unenthusiastically did so and stepped onto the icky, wet floor.

They served tea, coffee and biscuits and I found a nice place to sit on the upper deck. The boat filled slowly, but soon it was packed. There were at least 100 people and barely enough room for everyone to sit. I was squeezed into a corner next to a nervous elderly couple from New Zealand, also on their first reef tour. They praised my bravery for taking the trip alone. I told them I was intensely curious.

After separating the men from the boys … I mean the scuba divers from the snorkelers … we were given a brief introduction to the reef and what we could expect to find. They sold motion sickness pills, three for $5, and strongly advised we take them. I popped a couple of pills and patiently sat, uncomfortably and awkwardly squished between strangers.

The boat rocked us like an amusement park-ride as we made our way to the outer reef. Despite the icky floor, and being crammed like a sardine, I was in great spirits anticipating my first snorkeling experience, and at the famed Great Barrier Reef nonetheless!

Five minutes into our journey, the lady sitting across from me regurgitated her breakfast into a bag. Many followed the example. I tried to sink deeper into my corner, so as to not be the unfortunate victim of a fly-by regurgitated omelet, but the boat bounced around so much that I kept falling off my seat.

We were given wet wetsuits to protect us from the stingers in the water. They were unflattering, tight and accentuated our curves, rolls, fat—refer to it however you like. Everyone got a black suit. Except me. I was given the most unflattering, bright, light-blue suit. I put my dignity aside and painstakingly suited up.

It took an hour to get to the first site. An hour spent shivering in my bright blue suit, squished next to everyone else shivering in their suits, as people left and right were vomiting. I wondered why I paid $200 for this dreadful experience.

I remembered the man I met earlier in line and I was starting to question his sanity. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to go through this again.

By the time we reached our first site, I was nervous and not ready to be pushed into the sea. I patiently waited for everyone else to disembark so that I, the princess in blue, could carefully make my way into the ocean.

The water was rough, and though I consider myself to be a superb swimmer, panic set in. What did I get myself into?

I looked behind me. I was drifting further away from the boat. I looked ahead to an endless rough sea.

I praised my bravery, cursed my curiosity, held on tightly to my floating noodle and stuck my head underwater. And there it was, right below my feet in glorious Technicolor: Disneyland. Not the Disneyland we all see through our dull adult eyes—no, this was the Disneyland we all once saw as a child.

It was magic; an endless array of brilliant rainbow colours, fish of all shapes and sizes with faces full of expression, and radiant multicoloured, multi-textured coral that moved and sparkled through the currents. There was a tremendous and dazzling world hidden from my panicked and dismal perception above water, but in full stunning display as I peered underneath.

The colorful fish danced around me, some of them as curious of me as I was of them.

Two small sharks swam right by, and by the time I had the chance to react and be scared, they had already passed by me peacefully.

It was like a psychedelic experience, without the use of psychedelics.

Needless to say, I did find Nemo. I found many little Nemos. It is no wonder Disney chose the orange clownfish as the lead character in Finding Nemo, which takes place at the Great Barrier Reef. They swam around as if they were playing hide and seek, poking their heads out here and there, sometimes swimming right up to me and then back into the coral.

During the hour-long trip back to Port Douglas I was shivering cold, wet, exhausted, awkwardly squeezed between strangers, and beaming in amazement at the splendor of beauty that is nature when we just let it be.

Next time things around you look dismal, maybe you are just looking in the wrong direction.

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