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Aquanauts on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

It’s often described as the largest living thing on the planet. Stretching almost 2000 kilometres from Bundaberg to New Guinea, Australia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is certainly the largest coral reef known to man. When seen from space, it forms a surreal aura along the vast Queensland coastline, imbuing the “sunshine state” with an almost magical lustre.

With the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc, it comes as no surprise that the Great Barrier Reef holds enormous attraction to recreational divers from all over the world. Each year, around 2 million people visit the reef, kicking some 6 billion dollars in the Australian economy.

Thousands upon thousands of scuba-equipped aquanauts descend below the picture-postcard turquoise waters to explore the enormous diversity just beneath the surface. But what they’re seeing could be the last hurrah of a dying reef. Researchers are concerned that the cumulative effect of Global Warming and human activity is killing one of the world’s most marvellous natural treasures.

Although protected by both UNESCO’s World Heritage treaty and Australia’s own Marine Park legislation, our Great Barrier Reef is crying out for help.

“Rising sea temperatures increase the frequency of mass coral bleaching events,” explains Eric Matson a research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Corals live only 1-2oC below their upper thermal limit and sustained periods of water temperatures above this threshold stresses the coral and the symbiotic algae (the essential partner for reef-building corals) are expelled.”

Ironically all this attention and doom-saying could be a key to saving the reef. It’s enormous economic value, natural beauty and environmental significance is bringing unprecedented scientific resources to bear. Organisations like the Australian Institute of Marine Science, located in Townsville, are working around the clock to find solutions to the numerous threats facing our reef.

In the meantime, visitors arrivals are unabated, most passing through the idyllically located tropical city of Cairns, and it was there that I headed to see for myself the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

My vessel, the Coral Princess II, is one of three operated by the Cairns-based Coral Princess Cruises company. Founded in 1984 by Tony Briggs, Coral Princess Cruises is an acknowledged pioneer in Australian adventure cruising, beginning with extended excursions to the nearby reef and now expanded as far as the Kimberleys, Papua New Guinea, Noumea, Vanuatu, New Zealand and Tasmania.

My itinerary is one of the most popular; a four-night exploration to Cooktown and Lizard Island, stopping at several remote and definitely unspoiled reefs along the way. One of the attractions of the Coral Princess operation is the accessibility of the dive product to all-comers, even those who have never dived or snorkelled before.

Our divemaster, Denis, begins his introductory demonstration in the serene waters of Watson’s Bay on Lizard Island. Four of us, each with a few perfunctory dives to our credit in some past life, are reacquainted with the hoses, regulators, valves and dials of the scuba kit. This is no “Men of Honour” routine, rather a relaxed, but thorough preparation for a few shallow dives in ideal conditions. We each make a few trial plunges and satisfy Denis we can undertake a closely supervised dive – and away we go!

We keep close to Denis as our depth gauges read barely a few metres, but already we’re surrounded by hundreds of unperturbed fish of myriad hues. Starfish cling nervously to little coral clumps while tiny “Nemo” Clown Fish peer suspiciously from within incandescent anemones.

As our voyage continues, the array of underwater vistas continue to amaze us as we progressively tick off the enumerated Ribbon Reefs; 3,6,9. Thanks to both Denis and Pixar Films, my knowledge of the biology of the reef expands considerably. I can now tell a Loggerhead from a Hawksbill Turtle and distinguish a Fairy Basslet from a Harlequin Tusk Fish. The secrets of sea stars, cucumbers and urchins are revealed and the cryptic contortions of the nudibranchs deciphered. But even with this greatly accelerated learning, it’s abundantly clear that the complex web of life beneath the waves is so incomprehensibly complicated that the job of a marine biologist is certainly one for life!

By the time we’d tied up again at Cairns, I’d made nearly a dozen dives into the vivid submarine realms of the reef. For a once-a-year diver (at best), the experience was both enriching and enlightening. I’d seen, firsthand, the exquisite colours, shapes and impossible lifeforms of the reef; each inseparably intertwined and inexorably co-dependent. From the scary, but thankfully harmless, reef sharks to the tiniest mollusc, the reef is simply the most amazing collection of bizarre animals imaginable – and even then it takes quite an imagination!

I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible the diving is and what a complete experience is available to even the most novice of divers, but sadly the reef is currently in the best shape it will be for my lifetime. I couldn’t help feeling slightly melancholy as I wafted weightlessly over the bulbous brain coral and spectacular polyps. As our cruise staff so often reminded us, the reef is a precious resource that must be vigorously protected for future enjoyment and not be selfishly exploited for the immediate needs of this, the instant gratification generation.
Fact File:

Coral Princess Cruises operate 3, 4 or 7 night Great Barrier Reef and Island Cruises. Prices start from A$1155 (triple share) for the 3 night Cairns – Townsville itinerary. Introductory dive is free and then pay-as-you-go.

Contact Coral Princess Cruises on 1800 079 545 or visit

More Information:

    * Australian Institute of Marine Science
    * UNESCO World Heritage – Great Barrier Reef

Where to Stay:

    * Cairns Hilton
    * Pullman Reef Hotel Casino

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