The wonderful world of the Great Barrier Reef.
MY PHONE BUZZES with a notification. It’s surprising that a squirt of data has managed to find its way to my device on a remote sand cay in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but nonetheless I take a look to see who’s decided to pester me all the way out here. Ignoring disapproving looks from fellow guests, I see that Google is asking me to rate the Great Barrier Reef out of five like it’s my local pizzeria. And therein lies the problem. All too often the Reef is approached as a commodity, a thing to be conserved or exploited, visited and rated, Instagrammed and ‘liked’. And it seems to be a constant presence in the media, whether in the shape of positive news or negative, an Attenborough documentary or a travel story, this one notwithstanding. But it doesn’t belong to us, its coral reefs formed millions of years before homo sapiens set foot on the grand stage, and what exactly is the Reef behind all the clamour? Putting my phone back in my pocket on Sudbury Cay, our first port of call having left Cairns on a three-day cruise with Coral Expeditions on its small ship the Coral Expeditions II, I wander the short stretch of sand alongside a few other guests and the ship’s resident marine biologist, Olivia Slip. “Give it 10,000 years and this will be a forested island like Fitzroy that you’ll be visiting on the last day,” says Olivia as she shows us fragments of the intricate calcium carbonate skeletal structures that coral polyps inhabit. As we walk, crabs make a run for the safety of their burrows in the white sand; it’s hard to imagine this place as a teeming rainforest 10,000 years hence, one of those lofty figures of time that our shortsighted minds can’t grasp. But then we come across a lone, half-buried coconut with a tentative eruption of green fronds. Vindicated in front of an impressed audience, Olivia excitedly builds a protective fence of coral fragments around it. Exploring Sudbury Cay’s surrounding reefs with snorkel and fins, the nearest fellow swimmer is perhaps 50 metres away and the safety of the boat a similar distance. But I don’t feel nervous; the