One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth. It’s not actually a single reef, but a series of 2,900 reefs and 900 islands stretching 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers). It covers an area about the size of Italy. Over 1500 fish species, 600 types of coral, 4000 types of mollusk, and 30 whale and dolphin species inhabit the Great Barrier Reef. There is no place on the planet like it.
British conservationist Sir David Attenborough recently released a three-part series about the reef. We caught the 1st episode the night before our snorkeling trip to the Outer reefs. I highly recommend checking out his interactive website if you’re interested in learning more about the reef or if one of your kids has a school project and is looking for an amazing subject to study.
Coral reefs are living organisms – hard to believe for something that looks like hard, pretty ocean rocks to untrained eyes. But coral is anything but static. A scene in Attenbourgh’s first episode shows time-lapse video of two adjacent reefs fighting each other for turf. I’d never thought I’d see coral duking it out, but that’s exactly what they do. Prime real estate in the ocean is valuable and apparently worth fighting for. It’s like West Side Story under the sea.
There are several snorkeling and diving companies that run day and overnight tours to the reef. (Tourism in the Great Barrier Reef contributes well over $5 billion annually to the Australian economy.) Countering the assumption that bigger is better, we chose a company called Wavelength that’s independently owned and operated by marine biologists.
When you are jumping off of a boat into one of the most bio-diverse areas of the world an hour and a half from shore, we opted for the scientists over the party barge.
One of the spectacular sites on the outer reefs, Opal Reef is located in a protected low-tourism zone, so is accessible by only a select few of the smaller boats. Snorkeling on Opal Reef is like transporting yourself to another world. Seeing layers of giant, bright corals, tiny to huge colorful fish, and active sea life of all shapes, sizes and colors is an alien experience to a land dwelling creature.
After about 15 minutes of cautiously exploring the site, I thought I’d found Atlantis. I couldn’t help but hum “Under the Sea” into my snorkeling tube.
Opal reef is located about 30 miles off the Port Douglas coastline and is a crescent-shaped reef near the edge of the continental shelf. My favorite of our three dives was at SNO (South North Opal), our last of the day. The site was magical.
About 25 years ago, the reef suffered from substantial damage from crown of thorns starfish, but has recovered beautifully. Coral is a resilient creature, so long as it’s water quality is good.
Threats to the Reef
Evidence of coral bleaching throughout the Great Barrier Reef as a result of warming ocean temperatures is sadly apparent. There have been three mass coral bleaching events in the last 20 years and scientists are predicting it could become an annual occurrence. What is coral bleaching? It’s what happens when coral becomes stressed by major variations in temperatures and the algae living in the coral becomes toxic to it. The coral then expels the algae. That’s why the coral turns white. Bleaching doesn’t kill coral outright and it’s possible for coral to recover if temperatures stabilize and the algae return, but it does substantially increase the likelihood of the coral dying.
Scientists predict that if current warming trends continue, the reefs could be bleached to death by the 2050’s.
Other threats to the reef include ocean acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when the oceans absorb increased Co2 that changes the Ph of the ocean. Corals and other marine life exist in a delicate ecosystem where many organisms are symbiotically connected. Changes to the Ph of the water pose the greatest long-term threat to the reef.
One of the bright spots of our visit to the reef was learning about Tangaroa Blue, an organization committed to the removal and prevention of marine debris. (Tangaroa is the Maori name for the god of the sea.) In addition to staging cleanup events all around Australia’s coastline, they quite literally go “up-stream” to determine sources of pollution and develop long-term prevention efforts. They have a great online store that I recommend checking out. Since the proceeds from their store support ocean clean-up, I acquired a Tangaroa Blue “Protect our Oceans” t-shirt to add to my travel wardrobe.
Four-mile beach is one of Port Douglas’s top attractions – a long stretch of continuous beach ideal for walking and running.
The morning after we arrived in Port Douglas, we were excited to venture out to the beach for an early morning walk. No one bothered to mention the crocodiles or jellyfish.
Not wanting our first walk on the beach to be our last walk on the beach, we cut short our stroll after about 20 minutes and headed back into town.
A highlight of our Port Douglas visit was a trip to Wildlife Habitat, a conservation center with plants and animals from four Australian ecosystems.
If you time your visit right, you too can spend a few moments holding a Koala. Koalas “work” only 30 minutes every other day. It’s hard work to be that cute all the time.
There are large areas where you can walk among kangaroos and wallabies. One wallaby and a family of kangaroos approached me looking for nibbles. The kangas were not that pleased by my wallaby friend hanging around.
Even though much of the wildlife in Australia can kill ya, getting a chance to hang out with koalas, wallabies and kangaroos makes a visit a risk worth taking.
Located about an hour’s drive North of Port Douglas, the Daintree Rainforest is the largest and most bio-diverse rainforest in Australia. It is also the oldest continuously living rainforest in the world, dating back 135 million years. Because of its unique ecosystem, Daintree was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. The rainforest world in the film Avatar was reportedly based on the Daintree Rainforest and the Mossman Gorge.
Interested in learning more about the forest, Alisa and I embarked on a day-long tour with Tony’s Tropical Tours. The tour included a small-boat cruise up the Daintree River, home to estuarine crocodiles, or Saltwater crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles are the largest of all reptiles and the largest land-living predator, extremely resilient in its environment and just as territorial. These crocs can reach up to 20 feet in size and have earned a reputation as an “ambush predator.” We saw two crocs in the water – a baby hatchling and a “big head.”
I developed a healthy fear of and respect for the saltwater crocodile. After seeing one up close, I’d rather take my chances diving with sharks.
Our guide Steve took us on a few walks through the rainforest, explaining each of the plants that make the forest one large pharmacy.
Since carbohydrates are hard to come by in the forest, aboriginal people used to soak this particular bean in the water for days to leech out some of the toxics. The bean was later used to make the drug AZT, an early drug used to treat AIDS patients.
The Daintree Rainforest is home to over 430 species of birds, including 13 species exclusive to the area. What would you do if you encountered a five-foot tall bird in the wild? I’d recommend moving slowly out of its territory, because you likely came upon a Cassowary. They have razor-sharp claws that allow them to quickly scale steep ravines. Cassowaries are endangered in Queensland as a result of habitat destruction (only 20% of their native habitat remains). Female cassowaries are larger than males and leave their nest once they’ve laid their eggs. Males will then take over incubating the eggs and will protect the chicks for up to nine months. Cassowaries still can be found roaming wild in the Daintree Rainforest.
Our takeaway from our visit to Queensland?
Nature is extraordinary.
More conservation, education and environmental protection is needed to keep these remarkable places available for future generations to visit and enjoy.