Its beady eyes seem to size me up as it weaves circles around us, each circle nudging it closer and closer until its body brushes against my hand. It seems friendly enough. I put out my hand gingerly and pat its slippery back. There is a swish of tail, a torpedo-like movement, a whirl of dizzying colours and it is gone, only to be back in a few seconds, perhaps, wanting to be touched again. It 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 to 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.
I am kneeling on the ocean floor, some 40 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 its size, and there are four of us divers, yet it is not afraid of us. It actually wants us to touch it. I gingerly extend my hand to stroke it again only to be told off by my diving buddy not to touch any creature. Yet, soon after telling me off, he goes on to stroke a rock-like object lying motionless on the ocean floor; the creature snaps shut the jagged three-foot-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 three-day diving course by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors in Sydney just so that I could dive in this ultimate reef in the Pacific Ocean. The course was anything but easy. It required me to fit my considerable bulk into a constricting wetsuit, carry a 10-kilogram oxygen cylinder on my back, 4 kg ballasts around my waist and practise removing my oxygen mask underwater. Like most novices, I 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 learnt to figure out which was which and to be comfortable underwater.
Just as well. For, there is a spellbinding 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 on a show like no other. And what a theatre to host this spectacular display: one that extends over an area 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, 2,400 km 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 prefabricated structures to cater to the burgeoning tourist population. Every other shop hawks aquatic sportswear and sporting equipment, but you do not have to buy these if you are 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 started our day early and made our way to the wharf to board the catamaran. The vessel 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 of the aquamarine expanse from above is equally compelling. A ride in the semi-submersible with its glass walls makes it possible to view marine wonders from the comfort of a cabin. You sit on benches 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 staghorn corals some of which seem to be bleached, presumably by the rising acidity of the ocean.
The ocean is a deceptive expanse. Many of its denizens pretend to be lifeless but are very much alive and alert to prey and/or any potential danger. Some like it spiky, others are 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, with 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, 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, 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 staghorn corals, brain corals, cabbage corals, cactus corals and leaf corals. Some are pale or chalky, others, fluorescent. Corals get their fluorescence from the algae with which 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 coastline. 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 1,200 km 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 and 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.
Three threats Like elsewhere on the planet, the barrier reef is also under siege. Climate change has taken its toll, bleaching vast expanses of coral. The reef faces 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.
The reef dominates Queensland, no doubt. It is a magnet that attracts not only surfers, divers, snorkellers, swimmers and sailors from all over the world but also scientists, environmentalists and nature lovers. But there is much more to Queensland than the reef. This State hosts one of the most biodiverse rainforests in all of Australia, one that was inhabited originally by the Yirriganydji indigenous people with their specific coastal and rainforest culture. The Yirriganydji’s intimate knowledge of both the reef and the rainforest shaped their culture, food and even their clothing. Their food included, apart from wild animals hunted with boomerangs, figs and fruits and certain highly toxic nuts that they had learnt to leach in the stream for weeks to wash away the toxins and make them safe for consumption. Each year, the Yirriganydji would meet with neighbouring tribes to feast, trade, conduct initiation ceremonies, arrange marriages and settle scores. They traded square-cut nautilus shell necklaces and dilly baskets.
But the advent of Captain Cook on the Queensland coast in 1770 and the subsequent influx of Europeans into this part of Australia spelt the end of the Yirriganydji way of life and indeed threatened their very existence. Today, these native tribes have been edged out of their land and mainstream life to eke out an existence in Aboriginal Mission Stations north-west of Cooktown in the Daintree region. There are no more Yirriganydji settlements left. Naturally, we did not see any Yirriganydji people during our stay in Cairns and Port Douglas, the neighbouring coastal town.
However, conservationists have ensured that a visitor can see a variety of native wildlife and endemic species of flora. Wildlife Habitat is a theme park that has painstakingly recreated the natural habitat of many species, including the barn owl and the awesome cassowary. A posse of kangaroos crowds around visitors much like pet dogs. We spot kookaburras, Australia’s iconic mocking bird; wombats; lorikeets; cockatoos; chameleons; barn owls; and giant cassowaries. Queensland is home also to bandicoots, scrub pythons, frogs, sand goannas, blue-tongued lizards and flying foxes.
The Daintree rainforest, north-west of Cairns, is home to strangler figs, mangroves and basket ferns that line the boardwalk deep inside the jungle. The drive up to the rainforest is a feast for the eyes, with the ocean on one side and the jungle on the other. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures runs a Daintree river cable ferry to whisk you safely through this dangerous river with its ever-hungry inhabitants waiting to grab an unguarded limb.
Oldest surviving rainforest
Queenslanders proudly claim that Daintree, 165 million years old, is the oldest surviving rainforest in the world. There is an abundance of mangroves, explained by the proximity of the rainforest to the reef. Whereas in the Amazon and in Borneo, you paddle through the creeks to view wildlife, in Daintree, crocodiles have made it impassable. But enterprising Queenslanders have devised other ways to foray into the rainforest without getting tangled in strangler figs and vines or ending up as crocodile dinner.
Here, you can actually surf through the jungle without your feet ever touching the ground. Little do I realise what I am letting myself in for when I enlist for the Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour. I am strapped from my waist and thighs, dangled from a chain and pushed from a metal platform hoisted around a tree at a height of 20 metres from the ground. I sway violently and slide on the cable high above in the forest canopy and careen towards another tree several metres away where I am hauled on to a platform and the process is repeated. In fact, you can zipfly through the forest canopy without ever touching the ground. I am reminded of Himachal Pradesh where farmers still use similar techniques to surf with their crates of apples across the Sutlej to reach markets in Mandi and elsewhere. Of course, in Australia, you sign numerous forms indemnifying the jungle surf tour operators against any liability on account of accidents, whereas for India’s apple-growers in Himachal Pradesh, it is daily fare with no safety trappings, metallic or legal.
After a restful night at Peppers Beach Club in Port Douglas, I recoup my energy to go ballooning over the Atherton Tablelands before sunrise. A hot air balloon has no steering console except some kind of a rudder. So the captain uses what he calls a “spitometer” to assess wind direction and direct the balloon. He spits into the air and from the direction in which the spit flies, determines wind direction. We float over mango plantations whose tops have been cropped flat to facilitate plucking. Far below us, in the plantations, kangaroos hop and hide at the sight of the balloon.