On a reef brief

Snorkel over co­ral gar­dens on an ex­pe­di­tion cruise in Queens­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - AN­GELA SAURINE

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

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