On a reef brief
Snorkel over coral gardens on an expedition cruise in Queensland
Sunlight streams through the water and flickers across the colourful coral garden. As I snorkel along the surface, I try to identify species I have learned about aboard Coral Expeditions II’s three-night Southern Reef voyage from Cairns. Fortunately, most of the names or corals are obvious by their forms — spaghetti, brain, table, cabbage, boulder, honeycomb, and even elephant ear.
Given the proliferation of coral bleaching on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, it’s heartening to see so many vibrant colours, from purple, bright yellow and pale blue to pink, lavender and electric blue. While many of the 3000 reefs that make up the Great Barrier are suffering, Noggin Reef is looking good. Coral Expeditions II’s marine biologist, Evie Callander, says this is largely due to its location, more than 50km off the coast.
“It’s different all over the reef depending on how far away you are from the mainland and whether you’re north or south,” she says. “Bleaching is quite natural, but what we’ve been seeing lately is more extreme than usual with climate change bringing the water temperatures up … but there’s still plenty of colour and variety.”
During our glass-bottom boat tours, which give passengers an introduction to each reef before we dive in, Callander is excited to see fresh coral formations sprouting. “In the year-and-a-half I’ve been working here there has been a bit of a decline in colour, but it has been coming back as well. The sites that we go to on the outer reef are more untouched and survive a bit better.”
Within hours of departing Cairns, we are at our first snorkel site, Sudbury Reef. Callander warns it is not one of the healthiest as it is only 22km from the mainland, and therefore easily accessible to day-trippers. The coral we see is partially bleached, some with a yellowish tone. But being a shallow reef, Sudbury is a breeding ground for juvenile fish and we spot neon damsels, parrotfish, butterfly fish, liquorice sea cucumbers and blue sea stars.
Later that afternoon, we transfer to Sudbury Cay, an inviting patch of white sand surrounded by turquoise water in the middle of the reef. We kick off our thongs and sit in picnic chairs sipping champagne as a grey and pink sunset forms in the clouds over layers of mountains in the distance. A turtle circling the island pops its head out of the water before it swims hurriedly away. We return to the ship for a seafood buffet dinner of oysters, prawns, salmon and Moreton Bay bugs.
Coral Expeditions pioneered small-ship expedition cruising in this part of the world more than three decades ago. Previously known as Coral Princess Cruises, its name was changed two years ago to better reflect the type of experience offered. The 35m-long, 44 passenger Coral Expeditions II has a shallow draught and is easy to manoeuvre. It has a hydraulic lift at the stern so passengers can step straight from the deck on to the glass-bottom boat before it is lowered to the water, a feature appreciated by older members of our cruise group.
The mood is convivial as Australian and international passengers mingle over meals in the downstairs dining room, at a barbecue lunch on the top deck and pre-dinner drinks in the lounge, which is stocked with board games, books and David Attenborough DVDs. Each evening, the next day’s printed itinerary is placed in our cabins. Snorkel stops usually last for two to three hours, with time for naps in between.
Callander gives on-board lectures on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed reef, its threats and environmental management. The largest system of its kind in the world, it stretches for more than 2300km north from Gladstone to the Torres Strait Islands, and is up to 250km wide in parts. We learn that algae gives coral its colour, but when water temperatures reach around 30C it becomes stressed. If the coral can’t feed itself effectively, the polyps will eventually die, leaving the white skeleton behind. Coates Reef was destroyed by cyclones and out- breaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which eat coral, a few years ago. The ship stopped visiting, but conservation groups set to work, eradicated the starfish, and the reef has regenerated.
Callander’s talks also include lots of fun facts. Did you know that parrotfish poo sand? That clown fish change gender and, in real life, Nemo’s Dad would have turned into a female after his partner died? Or that Christmas tree worms, common on the reef, inspired the plants in James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar?
The reef also has more than 600 isles. We snorkel off Fitzroy Island and embark on a 5.6km return hike to Mt Kootaloo Lookout on Dunk Island, east of Mission Beach. It’s a hot, humid and mostly monotonous tramp through the rainforest but we spot frogs and large, hairy spiders in cobwebs and at the top are rewarded with magnificent views towards the mainland, 4km away.
Coral Expeditions has an open-bridge policy, so passengers can pop in and chat to the captain any time the door is open. One night, he makes an announcement during dinner. A spear fisherman is missing and as we are in the vicinity of his last known location we have been called to help look for him. We arrive at the search area about an hour later and gather on deck as the crew use a spotlight to scan around an island. But there is no sign of him. A couple of days later we get word the man’s body has been found; he was the victim of a crocodile attack.
But Irukandji jellyfish are the biggest threat in the parts of the reef we snorkel. A sting from one of these translucent box jellyfish, the size of a fingernail, can be fatal. During stinger season, from November to June, it’s advisable to swim or snorkel in a full-body suit, which can be purchased on board. Wearing this protective gear, which includes socks, mittens and a hood, makes me feel a bit like a seal.
After a few days at sea with privileged access to reefs and expert guidance, it’s a shock to return to Cairns and see masses of tourists queueing at the marina to board day cruises. I smirk to myself, confident I did it the right way.
Angela Saurine was a guest of Coral Expeditions and Hilton Hotels.
Coral Expeditions II on the Great Barrier Reef, top; colourful fish life, top right; deckchairs afford views of Fitzroy Island, above; snorkelling at Fitzroy Reef, above right; Sudbury Reef, below