||June 22-27, 1999 Cairns,
It's a beautifully sunny day, only a few clouds in
the bright cyan sky that stretches, with the aqua-green waters of the Coral Sea, for as
far as we can see. It's the end of June, and that means winter in Cairns. And winter in
Cairns sometimes means sun - but always means wind - especially out in the ocean's open
waters. The good news is that we will, under full sails of the 60' Ecstasea, reach
the Great Barrier Reef a little sooner than expected. The bad news is that we'll be forced
to do our best to 'ignore' the day's swells and choppy waves - and ignore them not just
for a short spell, but for the next eight hours.
As we lay anchor, Laura is one of the first in
the water with her snorkel and fins. Meanwhile, I'm suiting up in my wetsuit and scuba
gear. It seemed to happen so fast. Not really having given much thought to what's about to
happen, I just stand here as instructed, flippers hanging off the boat's edge, balancing
the weight of the scuba tanks on my back, all with one hand pressing on my mask and
regulator, and the other tightly gripping the clamp of my weight belt. Two of the crew
hold my shoulders and belt to keep me from prematurely slipping off the rocking boat. My
heart is pounding with excitement as I step off the deck, drop six feet and into the
swirling sea, then pop back up to the turbulent surface in an effort to gain my bearings.
With waves crashing in my face, I paddle a few feet, then struggle to catch my breath as I
cling to the dive platform on the back of the boat.
my breath shouldn't be a big deal, but I'm still trying to get accustomed to breathing the
compressed oxygen out of my regulator. Easy, eeassy, eeeeaasssy, I tell myself. Remember .
. . slow, consistent, easy breathing. Slow . . consistent . . easy . . breeaathiiing. My
heart's still pounding. The waves are still crashing in my face. Enough of this madness I
decide . . . slow, consistent, easy, I repeat over and over in my head as I let myself
drop down 10-12 feet below the surface.
Suddenly, I'm in another world. The choppy
chaos of the surface, yields to calm serenity below. I glance up at the bobbing keel of
the Ecstasea, the sea surface around her ripped, rippled, and occasionally sprayed
with bubbles. It glistens and reflects back at me, like a giant sheet of cellophane
shaking violently in a breeze. Easy, eeassy, eeeeaasssy. Now calm down Scott. Slow,
consistent, easy breathing. And in my new found peacefulness, those are the only sounds,
my own breathing, and that little voice in my head reminding me how to do it.
I start to relax. Now feeling more at ease, I begin to enjoy
the weightless. In fact, I just let myself go and float along, float along like the fish
around me. And wow! Look at all the fish! All sizes, shapes, and colors. And they act as
differently as they look. While some of them dart for cover, others don't seem bothered by
my being there. Most are somewhere in-between, scooting around in their normal way, only
occasionally glancing my direction. The fat ones rolling a bulging eye, and the flat ones
tilting over, all to give me a cautious glance. Like them, I also keep my eyes peeled,
glancing about as to take in as much as I can. It's a constantly changing spectacle, even
floating in the exact same place, I'm treated to a constant parade of colorful marine
life. Some move in and out of my line of sight very, very fleetingly. And others catch my
attention only when they dart out from their carefully chosen hiding places - snagging a
quick bite, or defending their ground from an encroaching enemy. Still other creatures
remain a total mystery, detectable only by the hint of small pieces of crushed shell and
sand, blowing conspicuously in and out of their holes and caves in the ocean floor.
Then still others make a complete and obvious
spectacle of themselves. There are dark and gruesome sea slugs, each at least two feet or
more in length; and the schools of tiny electric blue fish, each numbering at least a
hundred or more in force. My low air gauge means a quick trip back to the boat. Changing
my empty air tank for a snorkel makes me feel even more like I'm a part of it all, just
floating lazily and watching passively, as some of the fish busy themselves by chasing and
striking the others. Sometimes smaller, and always more aggressive, they constantly
torment the larger, but less combative species. Also zipping over to say 'hello': an
occasional hot-orange coral cod, dressed smartly with little blue dots; or a pair of
yellow face angel fish, their long, thin, top appendages looking more like trailing locks
of hair than fins.
There's a moon rasse, unmistakable with its multi-colored
fluorescent head and glowing green body. And then, on my new list of favorites there's:
the amazingly colorful parrot fish showing off its patchwork suit of what seems like every
bright color and hue in the universe, all mixed up in the wildest of combinations; and the
blow your fins off reef starfish, flashing the world with its brilliant bright blue
sparkle. But the definite forerunners on my list of beloved are the gigantic clams, set
straight upright in the seabed, breathing in and out of blowholes that are at least as big
as my fist. They're so big in fact, that I'm sure that Laura could fit completely inside,
should she be around and it happen to yawn.
Hey, a whole batch of 'always a treat to see',
glowing-orange, white, and black striped clown fish; providing a case in contrast of
vanity to the 'can just barely see', nothing but two eyes in the grit, sand fish. And
there's another little guy taking cover in a bed of rust-colored coral. And oh, the
incredible coral. It is, after all, what makes the great barrier reef a reef. This is the
world's biggest collection of the stuff, over 2,000 miles of it. A huge strip of living,
breathing, seemingly undisturbed, and untouched coral polyps, all shifting, waving back,
then forth, in unison with the each shift in the current.
To one side and spilling down below me, splashes of lemon
yellow, fiery orange, lime green, cobalt blue and plumly purplish clumps. Coral in all
shapes and sizes - fingers, fists, humps, and lumps. This one, a bright yellow piece of
mammoth cauliflower. That one, funky green hues in the complexity and texture of a giant's
brain. Mixed in the huge mushroom caps, are sheets that take the look of random-pattered
lace. Some others resemble plants, but painted with fluorescent colors. Still some others
are like funky rock formations, but from some distant planet in a fantasy solar system.
Still others simply defy description, like nothing that I've ever seen above the surface
of the saltwater world.
all so amazing, I could just float here for hours. Never bored, for in this magical
underwater world, it seems there's constant activity. Always distractions of movement and
color, barely caught out of the corners of my eye. Holy %$#*&!!! That fish is longer
than my arm! And almost as thick as my waist! He tries to hide by burying under a huge
coral about the same brown-orange as he is. I can still see you, you big silly fish!
Ohmagawd!, look at him! A sea turtle has just come up on my right side! Man he's a cool
one, pretty good sized too. His shell's even bigger than the circle I can make with my
arms. He's just paddling along, slowly but surely, not a care in the world. Wish I was
close enough to grab for him, maybe hitch a ride back to the boat. Hum, guess I need to
start thinking about getting back to the boat. My tummy tells me it's lunch time. And
because I'm probably the only one still out here, I'd better get swimming before the other
divers and crew eat all the sandwiches.