THE LIFE AQUATIC

Slip un­der­wa­ter at Or­pheus Is­land Re­sort for close en­coun­ters of the aquatic kind

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS DAN DOWN

While Or­pheus Is­land of­fers an un­par­al­leled sense of un­der­stated lux­ury, div­ing from this na­tional park af­fords you an­other kind of priv­i­lege: hav­ing the Great Bar­rier Reef all to your­self.

Twenty me­tres be­low the sur­face my dive guide, Ash­ley, is do­ing a fist­pump­ing mo­tion, look­ing wide-eyed at me through her mask. I won­der if it’s some emer­gency hand sig­nal I’m not aware of; per­haps my tank has sprung a dis­as­trous leak, or there’s a big shark loom­ing up be­hind me. But then the rasp­ing noise of my breath­ing is in­ter­rupted by a haunt­ing, drawn-out horn of a sound. It hap­pens again, and I re­alise that we can hear hump­back whales con­vers­ing. My guide is ex­press­ing her sheer ex­cite­ment at the sound of th­ese mag­nif­i­cent beasts as we glide along, light fil­ter­ing down from the sur­face and danc­ing off spec­tac­u­lar co­ral gar­dens. The Great Bar­rier Reef, one of the Seven Won­ders of the Nat­u­ral World, is in our own back­yard. Yes you can don a snorkel and float above it, but div­ing let’s you be­come a part of it. It would be the equiv­a­lent of fly­ing a small plane above that other bio­di­ver­sity hotspot, the Ama­zon; spec­tac­u­lar, cer­tainly, but put on a pair of hik­ing boots and you can get in the thick of it, see its denizens up close. And away from the reef’s busy tourist hop-off points of Cairns and Townsville, div­ing from the ex­clu­sive Or­pheus Is­land Re­sort and its name­sake is­land, one of the Bar­rier Reef ’s stun­ning nat­u­ral havens, af­fords an­other kind of lux­ury that’s so of­ten miss­ing on our eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble planet: seclu­sion. Making your way to Or­pheus is an ad­ven­ture in it­self, and two days ear­lier I’m board­ing a he­li­copter at Townsville Air­port. We rise over Nau­tilus Avi­a­tion’s im­pres­sive her­itage-listed hangar, a vast wood and steel struc­ture where Amer­i­can bombers were once sta­tioned for oper­a­tions against the Ja­panese. Gain­ing al­ti­tude, we head straight out to­wards the Co­ral Sea’s many is­lands that com­prise the in­ner reef re­gion of the Great Bar­rier Reef. I would be div­ing off one of th­ese spec­tac­u­lar slices of green be­fore head­ing to the outer reef, the Serengeti of the Bar­rier Reef, if you will, where large ocean-dwelling species like to pa­trol. We haven’t even reached our des­ti­na­tion be­fore the bo­nanza of wildlife be­gins. “Whale!” ex­claims pi­lot Matt over the ra­dio. I can’t see any­thing, but he’s spot­ted the tell-tale smudge of a hump­back hun­dreds of me­tres be­low. He pulls the joy­stick to the right and we’re swoop­ing down to get a bet­ter look at it. A ner­vous air pas­sen­ger at the best of times, I hold on for dear life be­fore notic­ing a large Navy ves­sel. “What hap­pens if we get too close to that war­ship?” I yell over the noise of the ro­tors. I can al­most pic­ture its large can­non piv­ot­ing to­wards us; a sub­or­di­nate’s hand poised over a red but­ton wait­ing for the or­der. “They’d ra­dio in and tell us to move on,” says Matt. The whale ap­par­ently saw us com­ing, so we re­set our course for Or­pheus; a sailor’s hand re­laxes.

The is­lands here are steeped in the kind of curious his­to­ries only Aus­tralia seems able to pro­duce. We fly over Mag­netic Is­land, so-called for mess­ing with Cap­tain Cook’s com­pass, be­fore pass­ing Palm Is­land, home to an in­dige­nous com­mu­nity that hunts for cray­fish off the sur­round­ing islets as well as, con­tro­ver­sially, sea tur­tles. On my last day on Or­pheus, en route to a snorkelling spot, I would ex­change waves with two skiffs of in­dige­nous Palm Is­lan­ders, jet­ting off at high speed, per­haps in search of their quarry. Then there’s Fan­tome Is­land, which re­mark­ably was a leper colony right up un­til 1973, where­upon it was com­pletely in­cin­er­ated to de­stroy any trace of the dis­ease (they moved ev­ery­one off first). Abo­rig­i­nals call this is­land Gool­boddi, but in 1887 it was named af­ter the ship HMS Or­pheus, which had sunk off the coast of New Zealand. Or­pheus is an 11-kilo­me­tre-long stretch of bush com­pris­ing 1368 square kilo­me­tres of na­tional park. James Cook Univer­sity has a small re­search sta­tion here, to study the 1100 or so species of fish and the hun­dreds of types of co­ral found in its wa­ters but, ap­proach­ing from the air, the only sign of hu­man habi­ta­tion is its lux­ury re­sort. A fine base of oper­a­tions for any ex­pe­di­tion to the reef if ever there was one, its vil­las sit perched along the white cres­cent beach of Haz­ard Bay, in­ter­rupted in­vari­ably by lean­ing palms and bi­sected by a tim­ber jetty lead­ing out to a beau­ti­ful white boat­shed. A straight chan­nel was carved through the bay’s co­ral in the ’70s to al­low boats ac­cess to the is­land par­adise; hor­ri­fy­ing to mod­ern-day sen­si­tiv­i­ties but thank­fully our at­ti­tudes have changed some­what since. Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than with the re­sort’s en­thu­si­as­tic dive team, who have back­grounds in marine bi­ol­ogy and an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of life on the reef. Af­ter making a Hol­ly­wood star’s en­trance and be­ing in­tro­duced to the re­sort’s tal­ented chefs be­side an awesome slab of an infinity pool, it would be very easy to do noth­ing for a few hours. Seem­ingly the staff know you by first name im­me­di­ately and are more than happy to serve cock­tails at a lazy, beach­side bar, or get you straight out on the wa­ters sur­round­ing this re­mark­able place. I’m here for the lat­ter, and it’s not long be­fore the dive team of Ash­ley and Te­gan are fit­ting me out with scuba gear in the re­sort’s quaint dive shop and we’re head­ing out to sea.

WILD WA­TERS

There’s com­mo­tion on the boat; hump­backs have been spot­ted, a mother and calf, their dark backs glis­ten­ing in the sun as they arc just above the sur­face off one of Or­pheus’s beaches. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing to think that I’d soon be shar­ing the wa­ter with them, div­ing along a fringe reef off adjacent Cu­ra­coa Is­land. Later that night over din­ner, the ship’s skip­per, Ash­ley, would tell me that she once had to slam the en­gines into re­verse as a hump­back rose up sud­denly, ar­row­ing out of the wa­ter di­rectly in their path. Wildlife here doesn’t care much for per­sonal bound­aries. A rel­a­tively shal­low dive of about 15 me­tres’ depth, Te­gan and I are cruis­ing along the face of a vast co­ral cliff just off Cu­ra­coa’s shore. A dream sport for the lazy, div­ing is all about be­ing as re­laxed as pos­si­ble, try­ing not to ex­ert one­self in or­der to con­serve air. Here I’m find­ing that dif­fi­cult. There is such an abun­dance of life that it’s hard not to let the heart­beat quicken. On the tow­er­ing wall of co­ral to our right Te­gan points out masses of fin­ger-like anemones; the branch­ing forms of staghorn corals; pri­mary-coloured Christ­mas Tree worms, their fan-like ten­ta­cles catching what they can be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing in a flash if you get too close; and the oc­ca­sional psy­che­delic pat­tern­ing of a nudi­branch, the vi­brant sea slugs of the reef. Lay­ered on all of this are strik­ing an­gel fish; a shoal of ju­ve­nile bar­racuda; a very large bar­racuda, its fear­some head keep­ing an eye on us; and count­less mul­ti­coloured dam­sel fish darting in and out of the pro­tec­tive co­ral. It’s all topped off by the big­gest li­on­fish I’ve ever seen, non­cha­lantly hang­ing in the wa­ter, sur­rounded by its el­e­gant, but highly toxic, spiny fins. Hav­ing lost track of time and all sense of lo­ca­tion, ab­sorbed in this un­der­wa­ter Eden, we’re greeted at the sur­face by a ca­coph­ony of bird­song com­ing from the is­land, its golden beach and dense for­est be­yond. It’s a star­tling tran­si­tion from one spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral world to an­other. “If you thought that was good, you won’t be­lieve tomorrow,” says Te­gan back on the boat. Or­pheus is very good at making you do ab­so­lutely noth­ing, but with ac­cess to such plen­ti­ful wa­ters it’s geared up for you to do ev­ery­thing from kayak­ing to snorkelling and sail­ing. But div­ing from such an ex­clu­sive re­sort means you have ac­cess to reefs that aren’t on the radar of the big tourist boats. It was this sense of seclu­sion that I ex­pe­ri­enced the next day fol­low­ing a very sound sleep in a vast, mod­ern beach­side apart­ment. There’s an un­der­stated sea­side charm to the rooms; a pair of oars adorn a ter­race, while in­side big black-and-white pho­tos of peo­ple frol­ick­ing here in the ’50s be­tray the re­sort’s rich her­itage. I wake early and enjoy a break­fast served on the half-hour jour­ney out to Bram­ble Reef, one of the outer reefs of the Co­ral Sea.

Te­gan’s op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tion was spot on. To a whale-song sound­track I drift along with Ash­ley, my fist-pump­ing guide, ad­mir­ing the multi-tiered plat­forms of colour­ful ta­ble co­ral and the sil­houe es of net-like fan corals. As I hang sus­pended in the wa­ter, the slight­est kick of a flip­per sends me for­ward ef­fort­lessly, such is the unique feel­ing of scuba div­ing. I look out into the blue abyss try­ing to imag­ine the gi­ant an­i­mals making that sound, but in­stead catch sight of a rather ski ish green tur­tle that im­me­di­ately darts for cover. Ash­ley later ex­plains that they’re per­haps more ner­vous around hu­mans here be­cause of the prox­im­ity of Palm Is­land and its tra­di­tional hunt­ing prac­tices. On our re­turn to Or­pheus, a huge hump­back breaches in the dis­tance and the crew change course to try and get closer. With the en­gines off I’m scan­ning the sur­face for the whale but in­stead catch the rather hor­ri­fy­ing sight of a large pale worm wrig­gling across the sur­face straight to­wards the boat. It’s a me­tre-and-a-half long and thick – as chunky as my wrist. “What the hell is that?” I shout. “Oh, it’s a sea snake,” says skip­per Paul. “They’re highly poi­sonous, but in the wa­ter you can play with them; they’re quite friendly, really.” I watch in­tently as the crea­ture sud­denly dives, dis­ap­pear­ing from view. Af­ter a fine din­ner look­ing out over Haz­ard Bay, the je y lit by flam­ing torches, I take a walk up to a look­out at the crest of Or­pheus Is­land. With torch in hand I make my way through the bush, dis­turb­ing the oc­ca­sional echidna. From the top I sur­vey the Co­ral Sea, and imag­ine all the forms of life I’d seen over the pre­vi­ous days liv­ing un­der its inky black sur­face. On Or­pheus you can have mo­ments like this to your­self, on land or at sea.

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