Great Barrier Reef: technicolour treasure


Laura Waters takes the plunge on Queensland Great Barrier Reef.

Clown fish. Credit: Laura Waters

Mackay Reef is awash with colour. I’m mesmerised by the sound of my breath flowing through a snorkel and the tangled branches of lilac and blue staghorn coral clustered beneath me. I idly fin through the warm water, over delicate curls of green cabbage coral, plate corals, quivering soft corals and huge rounded bommies embedded with dozens of electric blue clams.

On a day trip out of Port Douglas with Sailaway, the northern fringe of Mackay Reef looks exhilaratingly good. An hour later, on its southern edge, I jump in the water again and discover great swathes of coral interspersed with the gently swirling tentacles of purple anemones hiding shy little ‘Nemos’. I spot a red gorgonian sea fan, four green turtles, schools of parrotfish and scores of other reef fish.

The experience leaves me on a high, much to the delight of snorkel guide Maddi. ‘I want everyone to love the reef as much as I do,’ she enthuses. ‘I want them to know it’s not dead.’ Maddi, a graduate in marine biology, plays host aboard Sailaway VII as a master reef guide, an initiative launched across the industry in early 2019 to help share the stories of the reef and explain how visitors can contribute to its protection (essentially by reducing their personal carbon footprint, reducing waste and getting involved in various environmental activities).

‘It’s the kind of place that makes you think being shipwrecked wouldn’t be such a bad thing.’

‘We want to make sure that everyone who comes to the reef can appreciate it, because if people understand something they’ll care for it,’ she says.

Local knowledge

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth, stretching over 2000 kilometres and comprising around 3000 individual reefs and 1050 islands and cays. While some areas have been affected by episodes of coral bleaching, others are thriving. David Wachenfeld, Chief Scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, puts it this way: ‘Just like a tourist anywhere, if you were to turn up with no guide and no guidebook you could have an average time. You need local knowledge. You need a local guide to take you to the best places.’

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Sailaway has six sites that it alternates between across Mackay and Undine reefs, depending on tide and weather conditions.

Between swims, we are whizzed via a glass-bottom tender to Mackay Coral Cay, a dollop of blindingly white sand surrounded by aquamarine waters. It’s the kind of place that makes you think being shipwrecked wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Back on board, lunch is a casual affair, with guests grabbing a plate and scattering across the indoor lounge and ample deck up top. Sailaway VII is a 25-metre luxury sailing catamaran and though it’s surveyed for 110 passengers, owner and operator Steve Edmondson likes to cap numbers at 45.

This an excerpt from the article ‘Technicolour treasure’ was first published in the March-April 2020 edition of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini.

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