CAIRNS, Australia — An olive sea snake, more than a metre long and highly venomous, was waiting at the bottom on my fist dive.
My second might have resulted in a very painful — if not deadly — encounter with a well-camouflaged stonefish had a considerably more observant diver before me not marked its hiding spot with a glowstick.
Hours later, on a third reef, I warily watch a stingray — not the milquetoast southern stingray of the Caribbean but the kind that killed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin — glide within 5 metres before thankfully disappearing with a flap of its wings.
Welcome to Australia, mate, and to the Great Barrier Reef. Vast, colourful, teeming with marine life— and dying. Or so recent reports would have you believe.
First, Australian scientists concluded the GBR, falling prey to the scourge of coral reefs across the globe, had lost half its coral in the past 30 years and expressed alarm over the decline in the number of “large fauna.” Then UNESCO — the United Nations heritage agency — chimed in, demanding the Australian government take greater care of its priceless resource.
A year later and Richard Fitzpatrick, the renowned underwater videographer and passionate marine biologist, is still seething.
“The biggest problem with the reef is the negative publicity it’s getting around the world,” Fitzpatrick says from his office — actually an outbuilding at James Cook University in Cairns — crammed with aquariums and mini-biospheres from which he observes and films some of the reef’s most frightening creatures.
Sure, he says, a few of the inner reefs, feeling the effects of agricultural runoff and a mining boom, not to mention climate change, cyclones, tourism and inaction by the government, have suffered. But you need to look at the overall picture.
The Great Barrier Reef is, as Fitzpatrick puts it, “fricking huge.”
More than 2,300 km long, in fact, running down the continent’s east coast and visible from outer space. It’s substantially larger once you factor in the proposed Coral Sea Marine Park, which would add an extra 1 million sq. km of government protection to the existing reef.
This is key for Fitzpatrick, citing the “inter-connectivity” of the 3,000 smaller reefs and hundreds of islands that make up the GBR.
“The reef system is so big; it’s always spawning,” he says. “It’s self-propagating and regenerative. It keeps bouncing back.”
“The reef is still there. It’s still awesome ... I can come back to the same place time and time again and each day is different.”
Travel a little further to the outer reefs, he said, and you’ll see.
So we did. Two dozen of us — admittedly without a scientist in the crowd — returned from three nights on a Mike Ball Dive Expeditions live-aboard boat with their own anecdotal evidence. The verdict? We want to go back.
A 240-km troll along the outer ribbon reefs, stopping for dives at 10 mesmerizing anchorages, left us panting for more. — from Cod Hole, host to cod the size of a refrigerator, to the reef sharks of Challenger Bay to the extraordinary marine diversity of Steve’s Bommie. The latter, a vibrant coral-encrusted pinnacle rising about 23 metres from the sea bottom, left us in awe, from the clouds of yellow jacks to a rainbow of waving anemones to a kaleidoscope of coral glinting in the morning sun. About 80% of the region’s 1,500 fish species reportedly thrive here.
If this is the “So-so Barrier Reef,” I’ll take it.
Never mind sea snakes, stingrays and certain sharks, the waters of the Great Barrier Reef have even more sinister dangers:
1. BOX JELLYFISH
Rampant during the Queensland summer, they swim at 5 knots, have 24 eyes, no brain and some of the most powerful venom around. The temperature of the water may by 28 C but they’re why divers still wear wetsuits.
“Everyone thinks it’s an Australian problem,” says noted marine biologist Richard Fitzpatrick. “It’s not. It’s a global issue.”
2. IRUKANDJI JELLYFISH
Regarded as one of the world’s worst pains, their 2-metre long tentacles, as fine as human hair, can kill anyone with weak blood pressure.
3. CONE SHELLS
One of the top 10 venoms, it works like a shotgun, firing 60 different venoms into its prey, attacking different organs. Now researchers are studying them as potential treatment for some types of cancer. “It’s another case where the killers become the curers,” Fitzpatrick said.
4. SPEARING MANTA FISH
An extremely intelligent invertebrate with complex eyes that fires a poison-laden harpoon into its prey.
Fitzpatrick has been stung 13 times by these hideous, craggy creatures. Asked if he’s developed an immunity, he shrugs. “Nah, it just hurts like s---.” Hot water (greater than 50 C) is probably the only way to deaden the pain.
NEED TO KNOW
— There are no non-stop flights from Canada to Cairns, which means a stopover in the U.S. and either Brisbane or Sydney in Australia. Those flights alone are about 14 hours plus another couple hours in-country. Air Canada flies direct to Sydney from Vancouver.
— June through August is the Queensland winter, meaning perfect temperatures — daytime highs around 25 C with little rain. The Austral summer (November to May) brings the serious heat and humidity.
— Mike Ball Dive Expeditions — mikeball.com — caters to divers looking for comfort, great diving and professional standards, with three, four and seven-night packages starting at $1,700 a person.
— You can find out more about Australia’s tropical north at queenslandholidays.com.au.
Cairns (pop. 165,000) is a seaside tourist town full of hostels and a few big-name hotels such as Hilton. Along the beach-lined east coast are greater choices. The art deco QT hotel in upscale Port Douglas is a funky, modern selection. Fine dining options abound in Port Douglas.