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First-time visitors experience the glory of Australia's Great Barrier Reef

First-time visitors wonder if they've missed out on the best days of Australia's massive natural wonder -- until they get underwater and up close to the action

04/03/2013 8:59 PM

04/04/2013 1:32 PM

"Have you taken motion-sickness medicine?" the blond, sun-kissed Australian shipmate asks as we step aboard the catamaran. "Once we set sail, it's too late."

We tell her that, in fact, we took our medicine exactly 45 minutes ago, just as instructed on the label.

"One of the strawberry-flavored tablets, right?" she persists. "The ginger-flavored ones won't help."

"You're definitely going to need motion-sickness medicine today, mates," her curly-haired male counterpart chimes in, pointing out the window to the roiling gray skies above.

Yes, strawberry, we assure them -- so let's get this trip to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef started.

Out to sea

"The Reef" is arguably Australia's most iconic tourist destination, an underwater wonderland of brightly colored tropical fish, giant clams, sea turtles and even the occasional reef shark, all swimming so close that snorkelers can reach out and touch them. But last fall, Australian researchers reported that the reef has lost more than 50 percent of coral coverage in the past three decades alone. On travel blogs and in our guidebooks, we also kept encountering grumblings from returning visitors who said that the bright colors and copious fish once found off this northeastern corner of Australia simply aren't as impressive as they used to be.

We decided to take a six-day trip to the Queensland town of Port Douglas -- the ideal base for exploring both the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, another of Australia's World Heritage Sites. We wanted to know if the Reef is still worth the considerable time and expense, or if we missed the boat on this one entirely.

But first it's a 90-minute trip out of Port Douglas through choppy waters on a 25-foot catamaran called the Calypso. Really choppy waters. The boat rises and falls, as wave spray splatters the windows. We look around at the 25 or so other passengers, in various stages of distress. The telltale signs soon come over us as well: cold beads of sweat on our foreheads, a nauseated sensation deep in our guts.

"I don't understand -- we took the motion-sickness medicine," I proclaim to my partner. "Why do I feel like I'm going to hurl?"

"You chewed the motion-sickness tablets, right?" asks another shipmate, passing by us just then. "If you just swallowed it with water, it will have no effect."

That howl of anguish you heard all the way back in the United States in early November was me.

Fragile ecosystem

The Great Barrier Reef, as some mistakenly assume, is not a giant land mass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean around which countless fish swim. Instead, it is a coral reef, an underwater living organism that has grown over many millennia. (Estimates put it at 9,000 years old.) Made up of about 3,000 individual reefs and 1,000 cays and islands, it stretches for 1,400-plus miles, making it the world's largest living structure.

So why does it now seem to be disappearing? Part of the problem, researchers say, has been damage from cyclones, which now happen too frequently for the lost reef to sufficiently regrow and repair itself. (Thirty-four cyclones have struck the region since the mid-1980s.) The other main threat is "killer starfish," which inject neurotoxins that have eaten away at the coral. These starfish outbreaks are presumed to be caused by pollution and agriculture runoff making its way into the ocean.

More anecdotally, many believe that the 2 million-plus tourists who are drawn here each year are only making matters worse. All those fuel-powered boats, and all those flippered feet occasionally stomping on the coral, have wreaked havoc on an extremely fragile ecosystem.

And on that note, there is a wide variety of options for experiencing the Great Barrier Reef, from scuba to snorkeling (or some combination therein), from days-long cruises to hours-long getaways, from private luxury charters to group boats that carry 200 or more passengers.

Most visitors opt for the single-day excursion, which leaves shore early in the morning and makes hourlong stops at three locations on the reef before returning to town just before sunset. (Buffet lunch, afternoon tea, a mini-lecture about the reef and snorkeling equipment are all included.) At the recommendation of our hotel's owners, we opted for the smaller Calypso, which seats up to 80 but on the day we were traveling carried only about half as many.

Since we didn't necessarily have the time or the inclination for scuba-diving certification, we decided we would go snorkeling, which requires no prior experience. We planned our trip for November, at the end of a much longer trip to Australia -- just under the wire for when you should visit. Northern Queensland has a tropical climate, which keeps it warm throughout the year, but December and January can get unbearably hot, with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, and February and March tend to be the rainy season. (Remember, this is the Southern Hemisphere.)

After 45 (interminable) minutes on the water, the sky begins to clear and the waves start to settle -- the seasickness miraculously passes without the need for one of those dreaded paper bags. The catamaran finally comes to a stop, and for miles all around us we can only see the dark blue of the ocean.

For newbie snorkelers, the process is at once exceedingly simple and frequently irksome.

You have to spray your face mask with a disinfectant solution, and then make sure it fits onto your face snugly. Then you fit the breathing piece into your mouth -- and even still, once submerged, you'll inevitably swallow a mouthful or two of salt water. You wear long yellow flippers to better help you navigate the choppy waters, but the current is strong, and you're knocked this way and that -- this is most definitely not an activity for the easily wearied.

Once you drop below the surface of the ocean, though, all the traveling ordeals are forgotten. The sounds of the dry world drift away. All around you are gorgeous expanses of brown and dark green and white coral, gently undulating in the water. The fish come in every shade of the rainbow: bright orange-and-white clownfish (hey, Nemo!), the almost iridescent blue parrotfish, the grayish-blue humphead, as large as an adult man's torso. At one point, our shipmate joins us in the water and plunges to the bottom of a reef formation, toward what looks like an inert rock with giant, wavy lips. When she waves her hands over it, the lips briefly open, and we realize we're looking at a giant clam.

Is our reef experience merely a pale facsimile of what we might have experienced a couple of decades ago? As some folks on our ship point out, the colors of the coral certainly aren't as intense as they sometimes look on those National Geographic documentaries. Back on the boat, I ask one of our guides about this, and she says that while coral loss is indeed a serious problem, the views here are still unlike anything you're going to encounter anywhere else in the world. And don't forget, she notes, National Geographic has ultra-high-tech cameras that can photograph the reef in a manner that the human eye could never see.

On my second snorkeling swim, it's hard not to see her point. There are pinkish-red trout with a polka-dot design on their flesh; there is a large school of lemon-yellow butterfly fish, at least 200 of them. I do not encounter a sea turtle, but at one point I look down and see a sleek gray fish darting through the ocean, and realize that it's a (basically harmless) reef shark. Scientists estimate that there are more than 1,000 species of fish in these waters. Indeed, threatened as the Great Barrier Reef might be, it's still thrillingly teeming with life.

Natural wonders

Getting to the Reef is neither easy nor inexpensive. For most North Americans, you'll first have to fly to Sydney or Melbourne. Round-trip economy-class tickets cost about $2,000 for a 20-hour journey, then an additional two- to three-hour flight to Cairns. Port Douglas is another hourlong drive north. Our daylong boat trip cost about $220 per person. If, like us, you're not a serious scuba diver, two separate day trips will probably more than satisfy.

Some visitors opt to just zip in and out of northern Queensland, but our advice would be to remain in the region a little longer. Port Douglas was an especially good choice in this regard: It's a tourist town, but not as overdeveloped as Cairns.

It's also home to Four Mile Beach, a glorious stretch of sand where we spent a long afternoon slathered in sunscreen (the sun is intense in Australia) and caught up on our reading. If you're there anytime from June to early November, before Australia's notoriously deadly box jellyfish wash into the ocean from the rivers and creeks where they reside the rest of the year, you should be safe to swim. (There are also netted enclosures where it's safe to swim any time of the year.)

And about 90 minutes north of Port Douglas, you can make your way to the Daintree Rainforest and then on to Cape Tribulation. The Daintree is best experienced by way of the Mossman Gorge Centre, where you can take an hourlong walk through the rain forest; the sounds of chirping birds and winds rustling through soaring trees serve as the soundtrack. After you work up a sweat, take a dip in the ice-cold but brilliantly refreshing freshwater gorge.

Cape Tribulation, meanwhile, is a tiny headland, reached only by car ferry and then a winding road surrounded on all sides by lush green plant life; you will feel like you've wandered into some sort of Grimm Brothers' fairy tale. We spent the day walking on the deserted beach, eating ice cream made from local produce like mangoes and wattle seed, and keeping an eye out for crocodiles (alas, we didn't spot any). Indeed, if the Great Barrier Reef is a magnet for tourists, here's a corner of Australia where there are virtually none. (The town has a permanent population of little more than 100.) It's a reminder, too, that whether on land or by sea, it's very easy to get gloriously lost here in natural wonders.

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