Best Break Ever Part 5: The best day of my life (so far)

Okay, that title may be somewhat of an exaggeration. The day I got my drivers’ license, the day I first tasted Shakespeare’s pizza, and the last day of #J4804 were all pretty good days as well.

But the day I went to the Great Barrier Reef has to be one of the best days of my life.

I had been looking forward to this day since…well, since I submitted my application to study abroad in Australia. I was excited to go to the Sydney Opera House, I wanted to check out Melbourne, and I thought it might be nice to see the Outback. But I knew I HAD to go to the Great Barrier Reef.

I don’t know why it appealed to me so much. I suppose in my mind, it looked like a fantasy world. Sunlight beaming through crystal clear water, illuminating strange fish swimming amongst colourful coral formations. I’d seen “Finding Nemo,” and now I wanted to see it for real.

I’d be lying if I said my reef experience was exactly like I expected it to be. For one thing, the reef is a lot further from land than most people think. Cairns is “the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef,” but it still takes a good two hours to reach the Outer Reef by boat from the coastline. There are about a million different tours that go there, offering experiences from snorkelling off a huge yacht to spending the night on the reef to diving from a sailboat. I somewhat randomly chose Passions of Paradise, which kind of sounds like a lingerie store but actually turned out to be a very good tour.

On the ride out to the reef, I spent most of the time lying in the sun, enjoying the breeze and the warmth and the mountains in the distance.  The crew served tea and muffins, explained how the snorkelling and diving tours were going to work, and tried to convince us to rent everything from stinger suits to underwater cameras. I forked over the $7 to rent a stinger suit, which protects from coral cuts and jellyfish stings. It looks like a wetsuit, but when I put it on, I got colder, not warmer.

I didn’t rent an underwater camera. We only had about an hour to snorkel, and I didn’t want to spend it swimming around attempting to take the same slightly out-of-focus shots that every tourist takes. It’s not like those pixels were going to adequately capture my Reef experience anyway.

I felt obligated to take a couple of pictures from the boat, but even the best photographers–and I’m far from one of the best photographers–cannot capture the feeling of sunshine, the immensity of the ocean, or the hum of a boat crusing over the waves.

Looking back at land.

Even the water above the reef is colourful.

Once we got to the Reef, the boat anchored near Michaelmus Cay, a small island covered almost entirely by a wild bird preserve. The water there was remarkably calm. Later in the day, we explored another part of the reef, out in the opean ocean.

As soon as the boat stopped at the first site, I jumped in the water relatively fearlessly for someone who’d never been snorkelling before. Initially, it was hard to get used to the idea of sticking my face straight into the ocean. But once I did it, my brain realised I wasn’t going to drown, and it was quite…peaceful, I’d say. When snorkelling you breathe through your mouth, so there’s really no way to not sound like Darth Vader. But besides hearing myself breathe, it was amazingly quiet under the water.  For the first few metres of my swim, I saw nothing but the ocean’s sandy bottom.

Then, suddenly, there it was. Right below me. My first glimpse of the reef took my breath away. As if learning to breathe while snorkelling wasn’t hard enough already.

The first thing I noticed was the coral, and how colourful it, well, wasn’t. There were a few bright patches of purples and pinks, but most of it was coloured in various shades of tan. I’d heard about coral bleaching and how it’s destroying the reef, but I had never really made the connection until that moment.

So my first thought when I saw the reef was a breathtaking “wow.” My second thought?

“Wow. Humans suck.”

The fact that I consider myself a human didn’t help any. It’s interesting, in a way. We Americans constantly hear about rainforests threatened by deforestation, tundras destroyed by oil exploration, and, well, coral reefs bleached as a result of global warming. But those things happen in faraway places. Out of sight, out of mind. We brush them away with an “Aww, that’s a shame,” and go on with our lives. Or at least I did.

Until, suddenly, the reef was no longer this faraway mystical place. It was right underneath me, and I could see the damage firsthand. In that moment, all those dire Greenpeace warnings suddenly became very real and very relevant.

I’d be lying if I said I changed my entire viewpoint on life and became an environmental crusader at that moment. I didn’t. After all, if I really wanted to protect the reef, I’d keep my nosy self away from it in the first place. (Coral bleaching specifically is caused by global warming, but the millions of tourists who visit the Reef each year aren’t doing it any favours either.)

Despite the bleaching, the reef was still absolutely beautiful. If humans have impacted the rest of the animal life in any way–and I’m sure they have–it wasn’t immediately apparent to me. I’m one of those people who NEVER sees animals in the wild. For example, I haven’t yet seen a kangaroo in its natural habitat. I think I’m just too impatient.

At the reef, I floated just a few feet above fish of all shapes and sizes. There were small, brightly coloured fish swimming in groups. These were my favourites. When I saw them, I really did feel like I was in a real-life “Finding Nemo.” There were some very strangely shaped fish just cruising around the coral. There were some gigantic, flat fish swimming in groups of two or three. All these species have names, and I guess could have identified them if I wanted to. But I’m not a biology major, and I was content with admiring their brilliant colours and unique shapes as I glided above them.

And once, while I was swimming along minding my own business, I passed over a stingray, coasting across the sandy bottom. Oddly, I thought of the time a few summers ago when I pet a stingray at the St. Louis Zoo. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool. But now, here I was swimming with them, in the Great Barrier Reef. Now that, that is REALLY cool.

This is what I loved about the Reef. We’ve all seen these fish in zoos and aquariums and Pixar movies. We stare at them through glass and read about their natural habitat, thousands of miles away. But here I was in real Australia, experiencing the real thing. I could practically taste my dreams coming true. The Reef was more personal, more unbelievable, more life-altering than even I expected.

And if that doesn’t fit the criteria of “best day of my life,” I don’t know what does.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s