Romancing the Great Barrier Reef with its painterly coral fields, magical underwater world, and even a heart-shaped formation.
I am in an artist's world: more Paul Gauguin than Picasso... fields of light-dappled corals, turrets and striations stretching into miles of splendour. A surreal kaleidoscope of colours: a cumulative act of small, humble, coral polyps and their symbiotic relationship with algae, which are responsible for much of the colour. Covering more than 3,000 sq km, it's the only living structure visible from outer space. I am at the Hardy Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and longer than even the Great Wall of China.
We take Fantasea's high-speed catamaran to the giant pontoon permanently moored at the edge of Hardy reef. This pontoon has won many tourism awards for its unique location and activities. On the ride to the reef we are filled in with factoids about the kinds of reefs, the ‘hard' and ‘soft' corals, and the plethora of sea-life unique to this region. The stocky Bunitj demonstrates the use of life-saving equipment, peppering the talk with typical Aussie humour.
There are easy-to-follow snorkelling trails and a range of options to choose from. There is the ‘Reef sleep' — a unique experience where you can spend the night on the reef, watch the marine life as the sun goes down and feast under the stars, all of which sounds perfect for a honeymoon! There's also a family room with bunk beds. My ‘certified' diver friends descend into the balmy waters in ‘buddy pairs' while I have my first snorkelling experience with Emily Smart, a marine biologist, who leads our nervous group of swimmers into a magical world. We wear special lightweight ‘stinger' suits in fluorescent colours of pink, sea-green and even yellow, giving us the appearance of the clumsy but cute Teletubbies. The suit offers protection from the lethal irukandji, or box jellyfish, in these waters... We also don flippers, masks and mouthpieces, and learn to get our breathing right.
Corals need sunlight and grow surprisingly close to the water surface. Gardens of sea cucumbers, as well as brain, stag and finger corals in lavender and peach carpet the seabed like underwater rainforests, showcasing an astonishing biodiversity. Emily makes our time in the water special by pointing out fish, creatures and other sights that we may have not noticed on our own. An underwater tableau unfolds before my eyes in brilliant shades of electric blue, green, even fuchsia... from Nemo clown fish to shoals of parrot fish that swim blithely past, brilliant yellow butterfly fish and even a green-blue Maori wrasse that can change its gender from female to male when a dominant male dies! Giant clams in iridescent hues that yawn open and starfish — it's a bewitching show.
We are told that six of the world's seven species of sea turtles are found here. We take care not to stand on the reef or swim too close to the delicate coral formations. Emily says that even a small increase in temperature can lead to coral bleaching and wipe out large areas of coral. Every nook and cranny here seemingly hides some fascinating marine life and new sights. There are reef stations for those who wish to rest during the underwater tour, and the watchful staff on special boats make us feel safe as we snorkel.
We peek through a hole in the pontoon's floor to see George the Queensland Grouper feasting on mackerel underwater. Those who don't want to get their feet wet can opt for a ride on a semi-submersible vessel with glass windows that can seat 20 at a time; here you can observe the corals and schools of brightly coloured fish. If an indulgent massage on the reef is what you crave, there is a Massage Hut as well! We idle over a sumptuous barbeque lunch that includes plenty of vegetarian options, and pose for a photograph on the sundeck in our colourful stinger suits.
The icing on the cake? A scenic helicopter ride over the reef and coral fields: the spectacular sights include a view of the absurdly romantic ‘heart' reef with its own lagoon — this heart-shaped geological oddity graces countless advertisements for Queensland Tourism. We see cerulean reef flats and pools, a patchwork quilt of turquoise and jade with reef borders, almost as if a master tailor has crafted them for our personal joy.
Getting there: Fly to Brisbane and take a Virgin Blue flight to Hamilton Island. Take a daytrip on a Fantasea high-speed catamaran to the Hardy Reef. www.fantasea.com.au Accommodation: Reef View Hotel on Hamilton Island has suites with balconies fronting the Coral Sea.
Published in The Hindu Business Line, 2011