It was not a recognizable word in any human language, but the exclamation that burst out of her snorkel moments after Sally had put her face under water was easily understood. It was a gasp that said “Wow!”
Within seconds my mask and snorkel were in place; I joined her and probably made a similar sound. Our traveling companions, Jen and Bryan, did too. The scenery just below the ocean’s surface at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is spectacular. In contrast to the desolate expanses of the Outback, it is teeming with life.
In fact, Encyclopædia Britannica calls the Great Barrier Reef “the largest structure ever built up by living creatures.” That refers to the coral polyps whose skeletons have accreted over many millennia to form the reef. It is actually a chain of several thousand individual reefs (and several hundred islands) that extends for about 1,600 miles along the northeastern coast of Australia.
In places the reef is as close as ten miles to the mainland; in others it is as much as 100 miles off shore. There are resorts on some of the islands, and there are many tour operators and boats that provide access to the Great Barrier Reef from towns along the mainland.
We were based in Cairns (pronounced like the first syllable of Kansas, to which it bears no resemblance). The trimaran trip from there to the outer edge of the reef took over 3 hours, but that included intermediate stops the boat made to pick up passengers in a couple of other towns. A straight shot from, say, Port Douglas would take about 90 minutes.
At Agincourt Reef there is a docking platform, and it wasn’t long after the Quicksilver VII had parked that we were in the water and hooting into our snorkels, as described above. Among the attractions were many varieties of coral, one of which was cobalt blue.
The tropical fish one expects to see around reefs were here in abundance: damselfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, Moorish Idols, triggerfish. Not only were there lots of them, they seemed to be larger than specimens we had seen in other parts of the world. Maybe that was only an illusion because we were seeing them in unusually clear water, and because some of these fish came in colors that were as vivid as neon.
We also saw some giant clams that were 3-4 feet across, which presumably means they were quite old, like maybe a hundred years or so. All of these life forms thrive inside a barrier reef, which provides protection from storms and waves and other threats to coastal habitats. Barrier reefs tend to be close to the edge of a continental shelf, and the Agincourt Reef section certainly was.
The water where we saw all those beautiful things was perhaps 10-15 feet deep; from there we swam to the edge of the cliff, so to speak. The wall drops off abruptly to a depth of something like 150 feet. It was an odd sensation, like standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, except that we were floating above it.
It was only with great reluctance that we finally got out of the water that day. We thoroughly enjoyed the down-under part of Down Under.