The Surprises of the Great Barrier Reef

February 16, 2017

It’s hot in Australia. I’m writing this nearly two weeks after the fact, but if you’ve been paying attention to what’s happening in Australia right now, it’s bonkers.

Graphic from the Guardian showing Australia’s crazy 2017 heat wave by the numbers. Click on the image to see the original article.

We had been sleeping in that camper van the whole way up the Australian east coast, hoping for some sea breeze to cool us off, but it’s not often in the cards. The night before we arrived in Brisbane we slept in a Beenleigh truck stop that was dropped in between two highway ramps. It was surprisingly quiet, but the Australia heat was oppressive all through the night.

Our wonderful friends Francis and Helen live in Brisbane and were our primary draws to visit the city. They generously offered us some space in their garage so that we could offload the bulk of our luggage and our disassembled bikes and have a little bit more room in our modest

It was morning when we arrived. We had designs on getting north to the Great Barrier Reef area that day, but we weren’t exactly sure if a snorkelling adventure through the coral reefs was entirely in the budget. These boat trips currently start at around AU$215 each at the lower end of the price range. Moreover, a trip from Brisbane up to Cairns or Airlie Beach was going to cost us a lot in time: something in the range of twelve hours of additional driving. The cost of fuel on top of that made the prospect seem out of reach.

A modest dilemma: risk never seeing one of the natural wonders of the world, something vis Ilse from space, something that was reportedly dying from warming ocean waters and agricultural effluent run-off? We didn’t know if we’d ever be back to Australia, and it was likely that the GBR was going to be in worse shape if/when we ever did return to Oceania.

We had a quick coffee with Helen and Francis and picked their brains. Would setting out to the southern end of the reef be an adequate way to experience it? We were looking at Lady Musgrave Island. Helen emphatically assured us that she had camped there when she was younger and that it was, in fact, a beautiful place and a great exemplar for the GBR. She also told us that we might be better off because the killer jellyfish (and their lesser just-stingy-not-deadly counterparts) would likely be inhabiting the more northern waters at this point in the summer, so we should stick as far south as we could. It was all the convincing that we needed to hear.

We set out before lunch and had our sights set on somewhere near Bundaberg, which was the launch point for the boat that would take us out to Lady Musgrave Island. Bronwyn’s internet sleuthing pulled up a reasonably priced trip that would take us out to the reef, host an island walk and give us a glass-bottom boat tour, lunch included. We also had about 2 hours after lunch to snorkel around at our own pace and check out what was going on. After camping out at the Wallum rest area just off the main highway and south of Bundaberg, we set out early for the 7:00AM sailing.

9 February 2017: Queensland, Australia for

The passengers were divided into two groups (adorably “turtles” and “dolphins”) to indicate who would be starting with the island tour first and who would enjoy their glass-bottom boat ride. In total, there were probably sixty passengers travelling with a crew, and the dolphin contingent of our sailing was exclusively Chinese tourists who arrived in two buses shortly before we left the dock. Our turtle group would be the first group to walk around on Lady Musgrave Island with our tour guide (and, incidentally, the first group to enjoy lunch when we got back).

9 February 2017: Queensland, Australia for

We had heard stories of rough seas on these tours. I’m impervious to motion sickness, but Bronwyn is usually reduced to spins and sickliness if she so much as looks at a screen during a car ride with frequent turns. When the waters started to get rough about ten minutes into the trip, I could see that many of my shipmates were starting to question their personal resolve regarding taking this trip. When morning tea was announced at 8:30AM after an hour or so of bounce, a good number of people started asking for seasickness bags. I’m excluding the ten or so that had already made a bee line to the ships outer rails to throw up. I was just excited for coffee and scones, but Bronwyn stood up and was suddenly taken by the motion of the ocean.

She would later claim that it was the perfect storm of motion, standing, the sight of coffee and food and the sounds of other people vomiting that pushed her over the edge. Who could blame her? When she didn’t return after ten minutes, I went looking for her outside. I found her looking reasonably good, still with colour in her cheeks, but clearly shaken by her gastric ejection which had taken her over- over the side of the boat.

We decided to watch the ocean rush by from the comfort of the boat’s bow, a fresh ocean wind rushing past us to clear the air and distract us from the constant rolling and bouncing. I was glad I joined her: it wasn’t long before we started to see flocks of seabirds, jellyfish and eventually dolphins swimming with the boat. Still on a high from our parasailing adventure with dolphins, I scanned through the mental list of animals I hadn’t seen yet but was hoping to see before we left Australia. Seeing dolphins again was amazing – I was so taken to see how fast they were when swimming at full speed. I wished in my heart of hearts for some sea turtles, knowing that a whale migration was probably too much to hope for. But I would have taken healthy coral and some sea anemones.

9 February 2017: Queensland, Australia for

When we arrived at the island, we boarded the glass-bottomed boat as a means to transport us to Lady Musgrave Island. There wasn’t much to see through the bottom as we were merely being shuttled to the island for the walking tour. We arrived and learned that the island was formed entirely of coral and was home to around 22 species of birds. Their tragic place in the island’s symbiosis cycle was to serve as food for the trees. The trees were happy to house the birds, but their seed pods contained a sticky substance that eventually rendered the feathers useless for flying and a good many of the birds would die and decompose on the forest floor, enriching the soil’s nutrient profile and allow for more trees (and more sticky seeds). It was a dark and alluring tale.

9 February 2017: Queensland, Australia for

After emerging from the forest of death, we found ourselves on a beautiful beach and were told that earlier in the season it served as a hatching ground for green sea turtles. To protect any clutches, unlikely though they were, still incubating in the sands, we walked down below the high tide line and observed some small white-tipped reef sharks swimming around in shallow waters. It was pretty remarkable to see a shark at the surface in its natural habitat.


It was more remarkable when we came across an entire clutch of hatching turtles. I can’t really emphasize this point enough, so I’m going to use capital letters now in an attempt to represent both my excitement at a bucket list moment and the extent to which this was a rare event:

WE WITNESSED A CLUTCH OF BABY SEA TURTLES HATCHING. And got to watch their tear-inducing run into the ocean. It was seriously hard to refrain from crying when I was editing this video:

What more could I have asked for? I though that maybe I should just quit while I was ahead. I wanted to see kangaroos at the beginning of the trip and they hopped past our van. I thought that seeing koalas would be pretty sweet, so we got to see them at Featherdale. I mused at the idea at seeing some dolphins and got to see them on two separate occasions, in the wild, and once from the insane birds-eye view from a parasailing ride. In my deepest inner child I had always wanted to watch those little flippy-flappies racing for the sea after emerging from the sand, and I got to witness it – in the daytime no less.
So imagine my absolute child-on-Christmas-morning delight when I would later swim with some adult green sea turtles after watching a whole clutch of baby sea turtles hatch. Insane.

5 February 2017: The Great Barrier Reef GoPro Photos for

The reef snorkelling was so beautiful. The full spectrum of colours begin to disappear when sunlight hits water, so many of the photos you see of coral in National Geographic have been bumped a bit with photoshop. But this was easily one of the most beautiful visual arrays I’ve had the chance to see underwater (and I’m speaking as someone who has done some pretty amazing scuba diving over the last ten years).


We returned to shore around 5:30: nearly ten hours of time out at sea. To say that the experience was money well spent would be an understatement. And it even felt like there was less barfing on the trip home. Bronwyn’s stomach was a champion, though she did give herself a pretty wicked sunburn on the back of her legs.

5 February 2017: The Great Barrier Reef GoPro Photos for

Author: Christian

Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of

1 comment

  1. Comment by Jennifer Henrichsen

    Jennifer Henrichsen Reply February 16, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    love this. I’m booking flights…

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