Great Barrier Reef, Batman! (CONTAINS VIDEO)

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Australia  ,
Thursday, November 30, 2006

The company that organises our tour to the Great Barrier Reef today is called 'Fantasea', which suggests it may be aimed at either frisky adults or soft drink enthusiasts. From the time they pick us up, though, till they drop us off again in the evening, it is a slick operation. All the staff are incredibly friendly and genuinely interested in every one of the 100-plus passengers on the tour.

The boat powers us out into hte Whitsunday Island archipelago, a collection of variably-sized and mostly uninhabited islands dotted off the Airlie Beach coast. Once past the islands we enter the open sea and come to a stop at what looks like one of those North Sea oil rigs (only without all the drills and oil-covered sea gulls floating on the surface). It is actually a fully-functioning stationary platform called 'Reefworld'. Reefworld has changing rooms, a sun deck, snorkelling and diving equipment, souvenir shop, semi-submerged snorkelling platforms and, of course, a couple of detachable submarines.

We are excited about snorkelling, so we suit up - masks, snorkels, flippers and anti-jellyfish suits - and jump in. The water is amazingly warm, it only ever varies throughout the year between 21 and 30 degrees celsius, but what is under the water is just breathtaking - good thing we have snorkels. Thousands of fish of every conceivable colours glide by with cool nonchalence, seemingly unaware or unconcerned by the gangly-limbed, black-suited humans floating all around them. The fish have the brightest colorus you have ever imagined: oranges, blues, purples, reds, all swimming around together like a rioting painter's palette. It is one thing to see these fish through a foggy aquarium window and quite another to be moving around with them. You can even reach out to touch one but they always dart away at the last moment.

As if the fish themselves were not enough, the Great Barrier Reef itself is there as the most dramatic background. Estimated at around 20 million years old, the reef stretches for 2300 kilometres along Australia's north east coast. On the reef grows an amazing and beautiful array of Mick Jagger-mouthed clams, loose-limbed plants that sway like fans doing the Mexican Wave, big mushy things that contract when touched and, of course, miles and miles of coral in random shapes and designs. If you've seen 'Finding Nemo', it's just like that, only more colourful.

The highlight for us is a guy called Wally, an enormous Maori Wrasse fish who patrols the area in his role as dominant male, showing up to please the crowds at feeding time and mingling with the tourists. He even lets us stroke his leathery side as he slides past.

On the two-hour trip back to the mainland we meet a couple of English ladies - Jenny and Diane. Diane is a 76 year-old firecracker who was snorkelling with the best of them today, and Jenny, her niece, is showing her the sights of Australia. We get on well with them and actually run into them again later that evening at, of all places, our youth hostel bar.
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