24 May Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef – Our close encounter with Sharks, Clownfish and Giant Clams
One of the undisputed highlights of our trip to Australia was the day we spent snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Here’s the story of our day swimming with exotic fish, checking out giant clams and confronting my fear of sharks.
There are so many Great Barrier Reef trips available that we spent our first day in tropical Cairns shopping around, debating which to choose. Eventually we decided to spend a bit more cash to join one of the faster boats on a day-long trip; apparently the equipment was better, we would get out to the reef quicker and we’d get to explore three top snorkelling and diving spots.
We set-sail early and sped out into the Pacific until all we could see around us was open, shimmering water. Clad in fetching stretchy stinger suits to protect us from deadly jellyfish stings we donned our masks and flippers and prepared to jump into the unknown.
The Reef Shark
For as long as I can remember I’ve had an irrational fear of sharks. Yes, my fear probably does stem from watching Jaws as a child and having an over-active imagination, but every so often I’ll have a nightmare about something chasing me through the water, or become obsessed with a news report about a recent shark attack and I’ll promise myself afresh never to get into a position where I could come face-to-face with one of these terrifying beasts.
Yet, there I was in Australia, home of all manner of fierce, life-threatening creatures. I was in the middle of the ocean bracing myself to jump into the cool, deep water with nothing but a noodle for comfort and my shark-fear lurking in the depths of my unconscious.
There was nothing for it but to jump in.
After struggling to adjust my mask and position my noodle Andrew and I were swimming off towards the coral; the water was perfectly clear and calm, so much so that you could see straight to the sandy bottom and make out each strand and spike of multi-coloured coral swaying in the currents. In fact, the water was so glassy-clear that there was no mistaking what came gliding through the forest of coral beneath us – a long, grey, pointy-nosed reef shark.
I clutched at Andrew in horror as its body slid, snake-like in an s-shape through the maze of coral, my brain struggling to catch up with my beating heart. In a second, as if it knew we were looking, the shark disappeared into the blue and we both surfaced, Andrew prying himself away from my vice-like grip and complaining that I was going to drown him.
As the immediate panic receded, to my surprise I didn’t feel the urge to swim straight back to boat, in fact, seeing the shark ultimately put me at ease; it had seemed shy and furtive, far more wary of us than we were of him. I’d come so close to a shark and nothing had happened – my irrational fear had been just that, irrational.
Later, we learnt how rare it is to see a reef shark. So many are killed by hunters who capture and hack off their fins. No longer able to swim, the sharks are left to sink to the ocean-bed where they drown, all for the imaginary benefits a dose of shark-fin soup can bestow. Our snorkelling guide explained how regularly sharks are killed and how, since they have a gestation period of a year, their numbers must be dwindling – however, they aren’t classed as endangered since there are no concrete figures of how many sharks there are in the wild.
Now, I think of that reef shark gliding gracefully through the water and feel ashamed that I could be scared of such a timid animal. Sure, I’d die of a heart-attack if I came up against a Great White, but apart from that I can confidently say that my fear of most other kinds of sharks, as well as snorkelling in deep water has disappeared.
Great Barrier Reef Fish
After that astonishing start to our snorkelling trip we swam further out into the sea, surrounded by fish so colourful and strange I couldn’t have dreamt them up if I’d tried. Some were as flat as plates, or were thin and eel-like; others had long beaks or huge misshapen heads. Flurries of electric blue, neon pinks and splashes of orange came from all directions as fish darted nimbly around, careful never to brush us as we clumsily crashed through the water. Many had elaborate markings; combinations of spots, stripes and squiggles. The biggest rusty-coloured swollen-lipped fish gathered near the rear of the boat waiting to be fed.
Later we looked up the names of some of those fish; butterfly and angel fish, sergeant majors, coral trout and parrotfish among them. I wish we’d been able to take better pictures and video of our under-water experiences but the only disaster of the day was Andrew’s ‘waterproof’ iPhone case leaking. This broke the phone’s button and left permanent damage; it now refuses to turn off and likes to wake us up in the night to play random songs or tell us that voice dialling is unavailable. We’ll invest in an underwater camera for our next snorkelling adventure.
In the afternoon we were taken on a reef tour; our guide retrieved, from 15 meters below, a sea cucumber for us to touch, its suckers silky soft and squirming under our fingertips. We dived down to see clownfish disappearing in and out of their anemone and spotted giant clams one and a half metres tall, almost as big as me! We were introduced to Nigel the Maori Wrass who protects that particular reef; he was blue with a black stripe along his back and a huge bulbous head and he liked to swim up to investigate the divers and snorkellers.
All too soon it was time to leave and exhausted, we hauled ourselves back on board for chocolate cake and the trip back to land. As we sat on the deck I marvelled at how flat and two-dimensional the water looked from above, despite all the strange and alien life that I now knew teemed beneath the surface.
Pin Me For Later!
*Our day-trip snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef cost £120 per person; including snorkelling gear, lunch, morning and afternoon tea