After an hour long bus ride along the winding beach between Cairns and Port Douglas (on which we were treated to a pretty rockin’ selection of Bryan Adams greatest hits), we finally reached our destination. The receptionist at our beachside hotel was cheerful and bubbly, despite the near 100% humidity making it almost impossible to breathe. After describing all of the activities and amenities available in her funny musical North Queenslander accent, she handed us our room keys with a warm smile. “Oh,” she said in her high-pitched cheery voice, “Please be advised that swimming on the beach is done at your own risk. It’s the season for marine stingers.” She paused, and we stared at her blankly as she smiled. “Well, I hope you have a nice stay!”
What’s a marine stinger, you ask? We didn’t have the slightest. It didn’t sound THAT serious, though. I mean, things like bumblebees and nettles have stingers. These “marine stingers” sounded a little concerning, but some little jellyfish or plant thingys in the water certainly couldn’t dampen our sense of adventure. That is, until we saw the sign below on the beach, depicting an alien-like creature attacking a human wearing a speedo. It was then that we realized that “marine stingers” are actually box jellyfish, one of the most painful and deadly creatures on the planet. Suddenly you couldn’t have paid us to put a toe in the water, and we stayed so far away from the surf that you would have thought that the ocean had the ability to reach out and and electrocute us.
The next morning Josh and I boarded a boat that would take us out to a floating pontoon platform at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. It was Josh’s first time snorkeling, and we were excited about seeing one of the wonders of the world close-up. The Great Barrier Reef is a protected ecological heritage site, and a pretty big tourist attraction. So big, in fact, that it’s becoming a bit of a liability for the coral communities on the reef. Humans don’t realize that with a swish of a flipper against a branch of coral, they could be responsible for killing an ecosystem that lives in and around that branch. I’ve heard that there’s talk of limiting the number of tourists that go to see the Reef in order to preserve it even further. However, the Great Barrier Reef occupies such a huge space in the ocean off of the coast (it took us about an hour and a half to reach our destination), that it is hard to imagine that people could reach and harm all of it. But I guess we can never underestimate the seemingly disproportionate amount of damage that several boatloads of bumbling tourists can do.
On our way, we went past an island where it was pointed out to us that Steve Irwin, the Crocodile hunter, was swimming and got fatally punctured by the tail of a stingray. It was a mildly interesting factoid, but not really one that you really want to hear before you jump into the water to snorkel.
Also while on the boat we were shown an informative and amusing video about how to snorkel. My favorite part of the video was unintentionally funny: a young man wearing an amazingly fake mustache demonstrated how to ensure an airtight seal on your snorkel mask by smearing vaseline on your fake mustache. One supposes that it might work for real mustaches, as well. We all giggled aloud; it was a uniquely satisfying moment of camaraderie among the tourists.
Before we arrived at the floating platform that would be our outpost on the reef for the rest of the day, the staff came through the cabin to warn us about the “remote” possibility of marine stingers and to inquire about whether we’d like to rent a protective lycra wetsuit for $5 each. (To confuse matters, an elderly lady near us with a slightly Brooklyn-sounding accent with a hearing problem kept shouting “Sharks?? Sharks?? Are they saying that there are sharks in the water???”) As eager as I was to show the world my fashion sense that day by sporting a lycra wetsuit, Josh and I lined up with the other tourists to beg the tour operators to take our $5 as insurance against pain worse than death.
When we arrived at the pontoon, we squeezed ourselves into our very attractive and unsettlingly damp lycra suits and hit the water. Right before we left the snorkeling platform, the lifeguard commented nonchalantly, “The currents are pretty strong today. You all should probably stay close to the pontoon – if you get too far out you could be carried out to sea rather quickly.” While this should have given me pause under normal circumstances, I had already considered the risks of box jellyfish, sharks, and stingrays, so currents seemed like a bit of a non-issue. My strategy was simple: look up out of the water every once in a while and make sure that somebody else was always further out than you were. In retrospect, I’m not sure how that this strategy would prevent a current from sweeping you out to sea, but it made me feel more secure at the time, nonetheless.
Snorkeling ended up being quite a lot of fun, and as Josh and I started swimming around the reef we were stunned by the colorful diversity and intense concentration of life just feet beneath us. Unfortunately our disposable underwater camera really didn’t capture much of anything to do it justice. We saw huge colorful parrotfish, hundreds of types of corals, and giant clams that looked like they might be able to swallow you whole. We saw two sea turtles swimming near the reef and hundreds of types of fish from large to small. The beauty of the Great Barrier Reef is truly almost impossible for me to describe, so I won’t try to say more. Here’s one of the best pictures we were able to take, but again, you can see how the camera made all the colors come out gray and murky. This is definitely not what it looked like!
In the end, thankfully we did not get stung by box jellyfish, speared by stingrays, or swept out to sea in a current. You will also be happy to hear that the elderly lady was not eaten by sharks. But we left with some amazing memories of an incredibly beautiful place that not many people in the world will ever get the opportunity to see. We also left with this hilarious and terrible photo for posterity. Great Barrier Reef? Done and done.