When the captain of the dive boat puts on a mask and jumps into the water with us tourists, you know what you’re seeing is special.
It takes over an hour to reach the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns and the nearby towns. You have to hire a boat or join a tour. Ken and I were hoping to find a small tour operator for our visit to the reef. Ken is a registered diver. I enjoy snorkeling. We wanted a tour that catered to both.
Many tours take 80 to 100 people. Some take even more and dock at reef-side platforms where you can sunbathe, swim in a pool, eat from a hot and cold buffet, oh yes, and dive or snorkel, too. That’s not really our speed.
We visited several tour company offices looking for what we wanted; none seemed right. Then, strolling down the main street of Port Douglas, north of Cairns, Ken noticed a mini-van that was a rolling advertisement for ABC Scuba Diving. Looking around, we spotted the small shop across the street. That looks like a real dive shop Ken said. A half hour later we were booked for a 7:30 start the next morning.
We had a fabulous day. ABC takes only 12 passengers on its dive boat, divers and snorkelers. It’s the only shop that provides a guide for the snorkelers. Their equipment is top-notch and their dive masters are passionate about the reef. One, Paul, is building a website about the reef and its marine life.
On our first of three swims, Lizzie, the snorkeling guide, pointed out a sea turtle as soon as we entered the water. You have to be quick in this setting because what you’re trying to see can swim away at any time. I missed the turtle, but moments later a second one came up from beneath us and gracefully swam by. After that it was one colourful fish after another, all kinds of parrot fish, clown fish, wrasses, angelfish, groupers, triggerfish, damselfish, the abundance and diversity is astounding. We even saw two kinds of reef sharks. The living reef itself is a beautiful mixture of corals and colours. No matter where I looked, there was life and activity. It was spectacular.
Snorkeling near Lizzie at our final site, she suddenly popped up and asked me did you see that? Do you think it’s a manta ray? Let’s see if we can catch up to it. We both took off, me trying to keep up. Suddenly, we saw it again. I was able to position myself right over it and tried to estimate its size – about three, maybe four metres across, wing-tip to tip. The ray then turned upwards and came straight at me from the depth, its weird curved horns and gaping mouth looked like it could swallow me whole. I wasn’t sure what to do and just stayed still. It veered off and dove back down. In a moment, it came up towards me again, this time doing a complete 360, showing me its milky white belly, before diving back towards the ocean bottom. I was awed.
We were near our dive boat so Lizzie called out to the captain, Simon. After flagging the divers who were a short way off, he jumped in to see for himself. The entire group gathered and we were all able to observe the manta ray. It seemed to enjoy the attention. It swam and rolled and did 360s over and over again to everyone’s delight.
One of the dive masters later told us he’s been working on the reef for nine years, and this is only the third time he’s seen a manta ray. How fortunate we were!
The Great Barrier Reef: Many superlatives are associated with the reef: bigger than the Great Wall of China, the only living thing visible from space, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s 3000 reefs, 900 coral islands and home to 1500 species of tropical fish, as well as turtles, rays and dolphins.
The reported death of the reef due to bleaching is a real concern. The reef can survive and regenerate from bleaching episodes, but it takes years. The danger is that the episodes are happening more often. There is still much life on the reef and locals are determined to do all they can to save it.
The manta ray is a filter feeder and poses no danger to humans.