Snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef

I had the amazing chance of being able to do an exchange to the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia for about 5 months in early 2019. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and take a class called Australia’s Marine Environment, that was going to have different field works in remote islands across the Great Barrier Reef.

The most memorable trip we did was a one week field course at the Heron Island Research Station. This research station is divided into two sections – one for tourists with a resort, and one for researchers, with a well-designed facility on the farther end of the island. It’s so small, you can walk around the entire island in just less than an hour.

Getting to this island was pretty gruesome, though. At 11pm, we boarded a bus at the university campus, and rode all night long until we reached the port. Here, we waited about 3 hours for the boat that would take us to the island to arrive, since our bus was earlier than our professor had anticipated. As we tiredly tried to make time go by, we walked around the port, waiting for this damn boat that just wouldn’t appear. But finally it did, and boy, was that an adventure in its own. The rough sea shook the large boat violently, making us fly from our seats for two hours. 90% of the people onboard, including some of the crew members and myself, became sick and had to excuse ourselves to relieve our stomachs in small brown paper bags, as our nausea wouldn’t leave us alone. Finally, though, we made it. Great.

I was finally in one the seven wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef, and I just wanted to go lay down and sleep somewhere, preferably on a bed. This only lasted a few minutes, and as I was sitting on that dry, wooden dock, and felt the sea breeze make my stomach settle from the commotion, I looked up and this time, it was my breathe that left me. It was absolutely gorgeous, the sea endless in the horizon, and the distinct feeling of peace.

Our one week trip started as rough as it could have, but it was the most wonderful experience. It rained throughout almost the entire seven days we were there, but it didn’t bother us at all. On April 26, 2019, we went for a dive with our professor. We were separated into two groups, each on a small boat, and taken on the further side of the coral reef of the island. Here, we were let off and when I looked down at the sea floor, colours exploded into my mask. Blues, oranges, yellows, pinks, greens, blacks, purples… The entire rainbow was under our fins.

I heard my professor yell, “There’s a white-tipped shark everyone! Come see quickly!” In any other type of environment, this would probably have caused utter chaos, but we all were excited to find and see this shark. We were marine students, we knew this reef shark couldn’t care less about us, if anything, we would frighten her, not she us. And there she was. A dark shadow swimming at the bottom, but with the beautiful movement similar to that one of a snake, gracious and slow. Was this heaven?

As we continued our dive, I slightly went away from the group and looked at different angles than everyone was looking at. I didn’t swim far, I just wanted to see what else was out there. I found myself swimming next to where the reef ended; I was on the deeper end, looking towards the shallower side of the reef, where corals were higher up to the surface. Suddenly, a school of white-spotted eagle rays zoomed by the shallower water in front of me. There must have been at least twenty or thirty of them, swimming extremely fast and in the same direction. But out of the blue, one ray diverted from the pack and took a 90 degree turn towards me. He saw me. Actually, he just stared at me, acknowledging that I was in his domain, or maybe he was just curious as to what I was. It took me by surprise, but we locked eyes for a few seconds, enough to make me feel nervous and judged. When something as wild as a ray turns away from his pack to just stare at you and then swim back to his school, it doesn’t leave you unmarked, I’ll tell you that.

It made me feel humbled that this creature was looking at me, curiously, but also with a warning, that this was his land, not mine. At the time, I didn’t know if this was a dangerous species of ray or not, so when he turned towards me, I was frightened, thinking he might sting me. But he just … stared. And then left, becoming one with the blue of the sea once again.

Back on the island, I couldn’t get over the feeling that something extraordinary had just happened to me, but I kept it to myself. As the days went on, and we carried on with our personal projects and research on the reef and on the island, the course was coming to an end. On the second to last day before we’d go back to the mainland, a few of us decided to go out and look at the stars that night. When you’re two hours away by boat from the nearest city, the sky gets really bright from the stars; the night sky almost looks the holes from heavens floor. The milky way was brighter than I’d ever seen it, with shooting stars becoming almost as common as hearing ambulance sirens in a big city.

The next morning at 5am, about ten of us woke up before sunrise, geared up in our wet suits, flippers, masks, tubas, and flashlights. We quietly walked to the beach and as we were about to walk into the water to go for an hour dive during sunrise, when we saw a shark fin swimming on top of the water. It really looked the same as in scary movies where sharks are in the water, ready to kill humans.

Let’s go! I thought, as I saw the small, juvenile shark fin swimming peacefully by our side. It felt like it was inviting us in. So as we dived in, my friend beside me yelped, and as I turned to see what had startled her, a giant leatherback turtle, the size of a mini car made for children to drive, was snoozing on the sea floor. We laughed at ourselves and let it wake up at its own pace, and swam out into the reef. That morning, it rained a little, but when the sun rose above the island, a cloud blocked the sun from being at its fullest shine, making it become a bright yet mellow pink. It was extraordinary. I counted 17 sea turtles (one of which is the photo for this post), four sharks, and ten rays that morning. It was the best morning of my life – so far.

If you’re interested, as I am, in the ocean, you need to understand what’s happening to it. Current ocean conservation efforts (no pun intended) are trying to drive change in this part of the world, but ocean acidification, over-fishing, and climate change are most likely going to cause this wonder of the world to only be viewed in history books. As more CO2 dissolves in the ocean, it becomes more acidic, and causes a decline in coral growth. Corals are the base of every reef system, as they create food and homes for smaller fish and organisms, which in turn attract the larger organisms. Coral reefs need all of their different actors to work efficiently, but if the base of a reef, the coral, dies, then nothing can live in the coastal area, and it becomes a coral graveyard; all white as bone, with nothing alive around it. This course taught me about the chemical systems occurring in the sea, as well as the interdependence of species with the reef they live in.

The decline of the Great Barrier Reef is real, and it may be worse than anyone thought. Ocean acidification isn’t the only thing affecting the reef. Warmer waters that cause coral bleaching, tropical storms, sea level rise, disease, invasive species such as the crown of thorns starfish, and pollution all increase the stress on corals and the different species living in it. By driving research, social/public awareness, and conservation efforts, coral reefs can be saved from this human damnation.

Heron Island Research Station – Sunrise above the island during our early morning snorkel

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