Thursday, October 07, 2004

Polar Bears v Reef Sharks

I find myself in Bundaberg, home of the world famous Bundaburger.

Complacently squatting among the fields of sugar-cane that produce Bundaberg Rum - the rum preferred by jaunty polar bears, or so the label seems to suggest - this town is my home for the next 5 hours as I wait for the Spirit of the Outback to roll into the station and spirit me away to the lights and exctement of the state capital, Brisbane. Estimated arrival time: 7:10 am. From there I will be spirited farther away to the Gold Coast town of Logan, where I will assuage the thirst for poetry of a small but desperate crowd that has assembled at the local library. Then I will be spirited back to Fortitude Valley in the city, where I will be spirited and otherwise nourished during a breathless crescendo of anticipation before the official opening of the Queensland Poetry Festival 2004.

I have been looking through the programme ( and the bios of the participants, and I think it's going to be a very worthwhile weekend. In the meantime, though, I bide my time in Bundaberg, puzzled by my failure to spot any polar bears whatsoever. What brings me to this land of cane and imaginary arctic animals?

It's my last week in Australia, and I didn't want to leave without giving the tropical part of it a fair go, after weeks of shivery southern mornings and cold desert nights. So the obvious thing, it seemed, the vast, unmissable, visible-from-space thing that I should spend my last week getting to know, was the Great Barrier Reef. I had already had a fairly successful visit with the Great Ocean Road, and earlier Great Britain had been pretty fun too, so it occurred to me that if something has the word "great" as a part of its name, then maybe it's worth checking out. Even if a detour is involved.

The detour in this case seemed much longer than it needed to be: on the map, the Town of 1770 doesn't seem that far away from Brisbane, but as any Queenslander will tell you, Queensland is deceptively big. I spent eleven hours on two buses getting to Agnes Water, sister town to 1770. It's called 1770, by the way, because that's the year that Captain James Cook landed there in his big wooden ship The Endeavour and claimed the place for England. The two little towns are basically resort communities, with lots of houses on the beach and a marina and a few stores. Up until a couple of years ago, before the roads were finished, the only way to get there was in a 4X4 or a boat.

My reasons for going there had nothing to do with glory or world domination or wealth, unlike some earlier visitors. I went for one thing: I wanted to swim with the great fishes of the Great Barrier Reef. So I booked a ticket on the Spirit of 1770, a catamaran that makes daily trips to Lady Musgrave Island, a 14-hectare (tiny) coral cay about 32 nautical miles (far) offshore and part of the southernmost fingers of the reef. I wasn't sure what spirit exactly was being commemorated in the christening of the boat - discovery, colonialism, rum? - but I was looking forward to being spirited out to my first real desert island experience. I was so excited about it, having seen the pictures, that I slept through my alarm, or thought I had. My eyelids suddenly and painfully snapped open around 6:30 and I was relieved to see that it wasn't 10 o'clock and I hadn't missed the boat.

There were, unfortunately, 70 or so other pilgrims sharing my journey of discovery, but this was in one way a relief to me, because I was a little nervous about the actual underwater part of the underwater odyssey, and when I saw that many of the passengers were small children or golden-age adults of limited mobility, I knew that I would probably seem rather intrepid and adventurous in comparison. We skimmed across the waves for about an hour and a quarter, out of the sight of land, and then suddenly in what seemed like the middle of the open ocean a leafy island arose - yes, like a mirage - and then a couple of other little islands. In fact, Lady Musgrave Island (it's named after the US-born socialite wife of a former governor - she wasn't a famous writer or scientist or leader, but boy could she throw a good tea party) is not an island in the normal sense, or made of rock and soil in the normal sense; it's just the accumulation of thousands of years of coral dying and breaking and being swept into a pile by wind and waves, and building up until it was a flat oval no longer covered by water, which was then inhabited by birds which ate lots of fish and then produced lots of guano, which gradually accumulated to form a kind of humus that allowed seeds transported by wind and wildlife to sprout and produce a low forest which shed leaves which decomposed and formed an even richer surface for plant growth. And stretching in a large circle around this pseudo-island is a coral reef several kilometers in diameter, with a shallow blue-green lagoon in the middle. The island has no water, just trees and driftwood and black noddy terns and frigate birds and turtle nesting grounds. It's exactly what you imagine when you play desert island discs.

Even more amazing than the island, though, is what's in the water around it: some two thousands species of fishes and part of the largest organic structure in the world, the coral reef itself. We started by snorkelling right off the beach. In the shallows were sea slugs and sea cucumbers and dead coral, but after a few paddles the wall of coral sank away to a depth of six or seven metres and I swam along its edge (I didn't mind the underwater part so much with an artificial breathing orifice on the top of my head) as its edge turned blue and brown and white and bright pink, and the coral morphed into spiny trees, huge involuted domes like brains, and craggy pinnacles, all inhabited by hundreds of thousands of fishes big and small. I hadn't been out very long when a shark swam by only a couple of metres from my face. I was so startled by this sight that I didn't react at all, at first. Nobody had warned us that there would be sharks, but nobody had warned us how beautiful and otherworldly it all would be, either, so a shark didn't register as a big surprise. And it was only a small one, after all, a reef shark, which I am told doesn't bite. Not hard, anyway. Shortly after that I came to the spot we'd been told about, a turtle hang-out, and sure enough I swam above a green turtle about the size of my torso. The water kept going warm and cold as I swam through it, and eventually I had to go back to shore to warm up a bit in the sun. But by then it was already time for lunch on the boat.

After lunch, though, we were offered the coral lagoon as a snorkelling playground: we dove right off the back of the boat into deeper water, and I saw things there that made me think the world is a truly bizarre place. I found myself uttering syllables of awe into my mouthpiece which would then echo spookily up the snorkel and past my ear. The top of the reef was too shallow to swim above (and walking on it would kill the coral and cut your feet), but a couple hundred metres from the boat was a narrow gap in the reef wall that one could swim through to enter a small enclosed lagoon-within-the-lagoon that is known to the regulars as the aquarium. I chased another turtle through the water and between the walls of living rock - it was such a strange, dreamy feeling - into this bowl that had huge brain coral at the bottom, with phrenological fishes darting in and out of the folds like little lightning bolts. I saw Finding-Nemo-esque clown fish, zebra-striped fish, long yellow flute-mouthed fish, opal-coloured frisbee fish, fish with fluttery fins, fish that looked like snakes, fish that looked like kites, fish that looked nothing like fish. One fish, two fish, red fish... I suddenly swam into a whole school of coin-sized blue fish that sparkled in the sun, and they swam along with me moving as one, surrounding me, above and below me, thousands of them. And then I turned, and when looked at from a different angle the school of tiny blue fish became a school of tiny golden fish. Wow, I said, forgetting that I had a snorkel in my mouth.

On the ride back to the mainland, I stood at the front of the boat with the wind in my face and my eyes on the water, looking for whales. I didn't see any, but alongside the boat there were flying fish soaring out of the bow waves and gliding above the water for impossible distances. When I first saw them, I mistook them for birds.

We got back as the sun was setting. The next day I lay on the beach in Agnes Water and considered it all.


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