OMG! It looks like our pilot is going to keel over! The tiny Cessna stood like a toy when we arrived on the tarmac to fly to Lady Elliott Island, the last piece of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The pilot looked like a toy too, a skinny tiny little man who did not have to duck under the wings. I swear he had a whoopee cushion on his seat. It did not seem like he was to make it for another minute. We were the only two passengers for the run today; apparently four more went on the trip the day before. My daughter was invited to seat in front next to the little man for a better view of the reef from above.
I told her to watch carefully how he was taking off and driving that plane, as I was convinced she might have to take over before the trip was complete. The plane itself was in decent shape, I was just worried about the ancestral conductor who seemed on the verge of expiring of old age. The view from above was astonishing; you could easily point out the vibrant colors of the various sea stars and other coral formations.
You see, the Great Barrier Reef is not really a barrier at all. The huge formation is composed of millions of small reef pieces, corals, stones, holes, caves, recesses, canyons, all covered in multicolor algae, inhabited by the weirdest fish ever, some small, some large, even gigantic.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system on the planet. Made up of some 3,000 pieces of reefs and 900 islands, it stretches for 1,400 miles in the Coral Sea.
So I suppose that when seen from space, it does look like a barrier, but it's not a solid wall. And talking about things we can see from space, such as the Great Wall of China, let me tell you my feelings on this. Everything can be spotted from space -- it depends how high you are. And when does space starts anyway? From a very high altitude plane, you can see the Grand Canyon, the Giza pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.
Heck, now with Google Earth, you can see the bamboo forest in my back yard, and check when my sister's lavender field is in full bloom in July in Provence. Ok. so maybe the Great Wall was the first thing made by men we could see when space exploration started. But now, from up in the air, you can see everything. Keep your underwear on.
We drove up the coast from our last stop on Fraser Island to Bundaberg, a small community of fishermen and reef guides, surviving practically on the visitors from all over the world wanting to see the coral reef. Our short (scary) flight took us over to the small island of Lady Elliot, the southernmost island of the Great Barrier Reef. The round island is 100 acres and is entirely made up of coral. The cay was formed about 3,500 years ago when broken coral fragment came drifting on top of the reef and stayed.
The island was first discovered in 1803 and named after a ship that sailed by. The full day ahead of us includes a reef walk, snorkeling from a glass-bottom boat, lunch, a safety and environmental class and a fish feeding, before the return flight with our antiquarian chauffeur. But at least four more people will be with us for the return flight, so I'm hoping that one of then knows how to fly this thing.
The coral reef is alive. It's made of millions of tiny pieces of very sharp rock -- a good analogy would be to think of a spy movie where Tom Cruise crushes a light bulb on the floor to make sure nobody can sneak on him. Well, the reef is so sharp that one cannot possibly walk barefoot on it -- it's just about covered in shards. Your feet would be in blood in seconds. And besides the obvious pain, the population of sharks in these waters would gather in force to snack on you fairly quickly.
Lady Elliot is flat and partly grassy, the little planes land on the grass. You can cross the island in 45 minutes by foot. Not much is there. A small terminal has a few sandwiches and chips, a restroom and a few postcards. There are a few accommodations from tent sites to rooms where visitors can spend the night. Before you embark on the coral expedition, you have to watch a 40-minute video about the reef, what you will see, what to expect and what not to do, sort of a reef etiquette presentation.
The flat glass bottom boat is about 20 feet off the coast in the water, and we must walk to it to hop in it. This is where heavy duty equipment is given to you. First you get cushy socks, then inner boots and outer ones, made of special neoprene rubber very hard to pierce. Those go up to the knees. For the ones diving, a complete wet suit is added.
The only exposed parts are the knees, for a few inches, it seems that nobody was able to invent a suit that will connect to the boots. So let's hope my daughter does not scrape her knees on the bottom. Apparently some parts of the coral are poisonous and if you get cut, it can take weeks to heal, if at all. Tiny tubes of antibiotic ointment were given to us at the terminal, just in case.
The beach here is not really sand, it's more like fine gravel, but as soon as you get to the water line, you see the coral formation starting. There is no wave, the ocean looks like a flat lake. The temperature is steaming. The other guests have now joined us, three sons and their mother, who is veiled in black from head to toe, but she has the boots! I gather she will not be diving, just like me. The devoted sons carry her to the boat, so technically, she did not need the boots, but still, it's better to have them on, in case her three kids get eaten by sharks, she would have to come back to shore on her own two feet.
Walking on the reef, you sometimes spot a few areas of soft sand and try to step there, in order to minimize the damaged to the coral and also to avoid potential cuts to your feet. The boat cannot be anchored down to the bottom, as it would damage parts of the reef, so instead, once we get a few hundred yards from shore, the instructor ties a line to a permanently anchored buoy line that indicates where to dive, with a large red balloon on its head. As we stare through he transparent floor on the small vessel, we see gorgeous colors, tons of fish and a few sharks. Yes, of course, sharks.
There Are Sharks.
I asked the master diver if those are dangerous, and he replies that all sharks can be dangerous. Great. As my daughter gets ready with the four men to spring off the side of the boat, I voice my concern to her:
Me: "Pumpkin, we just saw sharks down there."
Her: "Mom, do you think I flew thousands and thousands of miles across the world to come to the Great Barrier Reef, and NOT dive?"
She had a point.
Me: "Pumpkin, I love you!"
Off they went the side of the boat. The other mother and I watched from the bottom of the boat as our very own children disappeared into the abyss. She did not speak English, but looking at the reef under our feet, she said: "Beautiful."
I have seen reefs. I saw them in the Florida Keys, in the Dry Tortugas, in the Bahamas, in Greece, in Finding Nemo and the Little Mermaid. But this one is the motherload of all reefs of the world -- it's another world, it's majestic, impressive, a psychedelic show of marine life, water flowers and wildlife. The ocean here is so clear that sunrays penetrate deep into the water and make the colors come alive. If no light, artificial or natural, shine on the coral, it's just a dull grayish/greenish color. But here, nothing is dull.
After an hour, the team comes back, flushed and exhilarated from seeing such wonders. My daughter wants me to change my mind and come diving with them; they have extra suits in the boat. But I declare my fulfilled wonderment from what I have seen so far, from where I sit.
The break last about 20 minutes, for a snack and fresh water. They eat saltines, peanut butter and a banana and get ready to go under again for another hour. At least the veiled guest is not burning under her shroud, she might be boiling but all of her skin is covered. I feel the roasting of my skin under the layers of heavy-duty waterproof total sunscreen. I know I must be an appetizing shade of crimson right now.
I spotted a giant ray right underneath our feet, so large in fact that if I was to put it flat as a carpet, it would cover my entire bedroom floor. I saw dozens of baby blue fish with orange polka dots, several dark purple with yellow stripes, the marine life is astonishingly crowded, they certainly do not fear the large flat wooden boat anchored on top of their swimming territory. You can extend a hand and touch them.
When they return, the team is glowing with camaraderie, as if they went through a major ordeal together and survived. My daughter explains that a shark came straight to her and turned at the last second, slightly grazing her thigh. Good Lawd! And they are all laughing! Well, this was once in a lifetime experience for sure, diving or not diving, the view was worth the trip. The instructor asked how we "mates" were doing. We just wanted to go lay down somewhere safe -- at least I wanted to.
Let me tell you about the "mate" name-calling. Mate is an Aussie term of endearment for everyone you like, or love, or barely know. It pretty much covers everybody, so it's in fact very simple to use. The only person who ever called me Madam during our entire vacation was the nice Qantas lady in red at the ticket counter. I even saw a tape of Nichole Kidman calling a TV anchor mate -- so we all pretty much qualify for the term, which is of course adorable. It makes you at ease right away, unless of course, you are a hard-ass stickler for proper titles. I am not.
Back to the beach, we get hosed down before removing the suits and boots. The water feels great. Our diver does this naked -- Australians have no problems being in the buff in public. I don't have a problem either, being French and all, but my American daughter is a little too prude for this and keeps her bikini on.
Well, the day was exhausting but we made it safe back with our little airplane and the dying-looking pilot. He did just fine. Back at the airport terminal, we find our rental car and start driving to our next B&B destination, about one hour away. I planned this entire trip so I would not have to drive much by night. This was indeed a beautiful day.
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