The Great Barrier Reef is to Australia what rolling savannahs and game parks are to Africa, and is equally subject to the corniest of representations. “Another world” is the commonest cliché, which doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of donning mask and fins and coming face to face with extraordinary animals, shapes and colours. There’s so little relationship to life above the surface that distinctions normally taken for granted – such as that between animal, plant and plain rock – seem blurred, while the respective roles of observer and observed are constantly challenged by shoals of curious fish following you about.
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Beginning with Lady Elliot Island, out from Bundaberg, and extending 2300km north to New Guinea, the Barrier Reef follows the outer edge of Australia’s continental plate, running closer to land as it moves north: while it’s 300km to the main body from Gladstone, Cairns is barely 50km distant from the Reef. Far from being a continuous, unified structure, the nature of the Reef varies along its length: the majority is made up by an intricate maze of individual, disconnected patch reefs, which – especially in the southern sections – sometimes act as anchors for the formation of low sand islands known as cays; continental islands everywhere become ringed by fringing reefs; and northern sections form long ribbons. All of it, however, was built by one kind of animal: the tiny coral polyp. Simple organisms, related to sea anemones, polyps grow together like building blocks to create modular colonies – corals – that form the framework of the Reef’s ecology by providing food, shelter and hunting grounds for larger, more mobile species. Around their walls and canyons flows a bewildering assortment of creatures: large rays and turtles “fly” effortlessly by, fish dodge between caves and coral branches, snails sift the sand for edibles, and brightly coloured nudibranchs dance above rocks.
The reef is administered by the Marine Parks Authority, which battles against – or at least attempts to gauge – the effects of overfishing, pollution, agricultural run-off, environmental fluctuations and tourism. All these things are beginning to have a serious effect on the Reef, with many formerly colourful coral gardens reduced to weed-strewn rubble. Don’t let this put you off going – the Reef is still unquestionably worth seeing, and if the government realizes how much tourism will be lost if the Reef dies, they may get more involved in protecting it. In order to minimize damage, visitors should never stand on or hold onto reefs when snorkelling or diving; even if you don’t break off branches, you’ll certainly crush the delicate polyps.
Diving and other ways of seeing the Reef
Scuba diving is the best way to get to grips with the Reef, and dive courses are on offer right along the coast. Five days is the minimum needed to safely cover the course work – three days pool and theory, two days at sea – and secure you the all-important C-card. The quality of training and the price you pay vary; before signing up, ask others who have taken courses about specific businesses’ general attitude and whether they just seem concerned about processing as many students in as short a time as possible. Another consideration is whether you ever plan to dive again: if this seems unlikely, resort dives (a single dive with an instructor) will set you back only $70 or so, and they’re usually available on day-trips to the Reef and island resorts. Qualified divers can save on rental costs by bringing some gear along; tanks and weightbelts are covered in dive packages, but anything else is extra. You need an alternative air source, timer, C-card and log book to dive in Queensland (the last is often ignored, but some places insist, especially for deep or night-time dives).
Snorkelling is a good alternative to diving: you can pick up the basics in five minutes, and with a little practice the only thing you sacrifice is the extended dive time that a tank allows. If you think you’ll do a fair amount, buy your own mask and snorkel – they’re not dramatically expensive – as rental gear nearly always leaks. Look for a silicone rubber and toughened glass mask and ask the shop staff to show you how to find a good fit. If getting wet just isn’t for you, try glass-bottomed boats or “subs”, or even a “helmet dive” which can still turn up everything from sharks to oysters.
The Marine Park Authority levies an Environmental Management Charge (EMC), sometimes referred to as reef tax (currently $20 per day, though some tour operators add $3–5 extra for administration) to help fund monitoring and management of human impact on the Reef. EMC is not usually included in the upfront price of tours and boat trips (unless perhaps a liveaboard); usually you’re asked to pay during the trip.