Iguazu Falls was honoured with its own update; Machu Picchu gained the same award; and Bolivia’s salt flats received similar tribute. We therefore felt it fair and appropriate that the Great Barrier Reef followed in their footsteps, illustrious or otherwise.
You will find the Great Reef on many of those arbitrary ‘wonder’ lists, whether ancient or modern, natural or manmade. These provide endless and pointless opportunities to debate whether the Taj Mahal is ‘better’ than Christ the Redeemer or the Grand Canyon ‘bigger’ than Victoria Falls. Whatever lists the Great Barrier Reef is currently included in or not, one thing is certain – it boasts some impressive facts (shamelessly cut and pasted from the internet):
– 2,900 separate reefs make up the Great Barrier Reef, ranging in size from less than 1 hectare to over 100,000 hectares.
– The Great Barrier Reef covers over 34 million hectares, a larger area than Italy, and spans 2,300 kilometres of coastline, from Torres Strait to southern Queensland.
– It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and this diversity reflects the maturity of the ecosystem.
– Over 1500 species of fish live on the Great Barrier Reef, representing 10% of world fish species.
– The Great Barrier Reef contributes over $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.
Faced with a daunting number of one-day tour operators in the end we plumped for Quicksilver, not that expensively cool surfing brand but the largest commercial outfit in Port Douglas. Before booking we weren’t aware of just how big they were, but as it turned out what we lost in intimacy we made up in safety and professionalism.
So it was in a rather large catamaran that we left the marina and sailed out to Quicksilver’s pontoon at the Agincourt reef. Once out there, we realised the extent of their setup: for pontoon think small manmade island. From this huge platform they offered every conceivable means of experiencing the reef: snorkelling, scuba diving, an underwater viewing deck, a ride in a semi-submersible, a helicopter flight, and even a helmet dive for those not wishing to get their hair wet.
Our main intention was snorkelling, but our main worry were stingers. Jellyfish to most readers, they fill the coastal waters along the north-east shore from November to April. And they can be deadly; especially the ones that are the size of your fingernail and virtually impossible to see. As a precaution we had to don fetching black stinger suits before entering the water.
Seated on the entry platform and wrestling with our flippers and masks, our minds were put at rest by one of the crew. She was rushing around with a net hooking out small gelatinous lumps and muttering to herself: ‘Jees, there’s thousands of them today!’ We asked if these were the dangerous ones. She replied: ‘if you get stung by one of these, mate, you’re looking at a helicopter ride straight outta here!’
Whether it was bravery or stupidity, we put these concerns to the back of our minds as we slipped gingerly into the water and pushed off from the side of the pontoon. We had entered the special world of the Great Barrier Reef.
Our three swims that day were memorable, if only made so by our senses being heightened by a constant fear of being stung and ending up as shark bait. The water was beautifully calm, the visibility good and the colour and kinds of coral on display impressive. Surprisingly, however, it was the ride in the semi-submersible that really gave us an appreciation of the limitless amount and variety of creatures that lay just beneath the surface. We were even lucky enough to spot a sea turtle.
Now we don’t want to come over all Karl Pilkington at this point, but the Great Barrier Reef does receive a lot of hype. And granted much of this is justified – for example, it is the only living thing on earth visible from space (you can’t sniff at that). But therein lies the problem. Two people bobbing above a structure larger than the Great Wall of China can’t hope to comprehend its vastness. And so we were left to try and appreciate a small section. It’s a bit like standing under a small drip of water at the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and being expected to take in the splendour of Iguazu Falls. You just don’t get the full effect.
And perhaps we were also hamstrung by two other considerations. Firstly, we’ve been fortunate enough to snorkel in the waters of Fiji and the Maldives, the latter being particularly stunning. Secondly – and this point shouldn’t be dismissed – we’ve been privileged to grow up in an era of incredible BBC wildlife documentaries. Sitting in the comfort of your own living room watching beautifully shot, painstakingly pieced together footage is a high bar. Both factors, we’re sure, lessened the impact on our senses.
But that all said, we had a great day; and it would be churlish of us to plead any case for the removal of the Barrier Reef’s well-earned adjective.