|In the morning the rain had stopped but the skies were dark and dirty, and the sea full of chop. Just looking at it made me feel faintly ill. I am not enamored of the ocean, and the prospect of bouncing 38 nautical miles to a rain-shrouded reef to see the sort of darting fish I could view in comfort at any public aquarium, or indeed any dentist's waiting room, was not enticing. As we sat at the Palm Cove, awaiting our bus to the boat at Port Douglas, 20 miles up the coast, one of the members of the staff breezed past.
"Cyclone coming!" she said perkily.
"Today?" I asked in what was becoming a customary bleat.
I can't tell you how pleased I was when we arrived to find that the boat was huge—as big as an English Channel ferry, or very nearly—and sleekly new. As we lined up with other arriving passengers I learned from a crew member that the seas should be relatively benign. Nevertheless, when we got aboard they announced the free distribution of seasickness tablets to anyone who wanted them. I was the first to the table.
"This is awfully thoughtful of you," I said to the girl dispensing the pills as I swilled down a handful.
"Well, it's better'n having people spewing up all over the shop," she said brightly.
The trip to the reef was smooth, as promised. What's more, the sun came out, albeit weakly, turning the water from a leaden gray to an approximation of cobalt. While Allan went off to the sundeck to see if there were any women with large breasts to look at, I
settled down with my notes.
Depending on which sources you consult, the Great Barrier Reef covers 174,000 square miles or 213,000 or something in between; stretches 1,200 miles from top to bottom, or 1,600. Even by the shortest measure, however, it is equivalent in length to the west coast of the United States. And it is of course an immensely vital habitat—the oceanic equivalent of the Amazon rainforest. Because it consists of some 3,000 separate coral reefs and more than 600 islands, some people insist that it is not a single entity and therefore cannot accurately be termed the largest living thing on earth. That seems to me a little like saying that Los Angeles is not a city because it consists of lots of separate buildings. And it is all thanks to trillions of little coral polyps working with a dedicated and microscopic diligence over 18 million years, each adding a grain or two of thickness before expiring in a self-created silicate tomb. Hard not to be impressed.
As the ship began to make the sort of slowing-down noises that suggested imminent arrival, I went out on deck. I had expected that we would be arriving at some kind of sandy atoll, possibly with a beach bar with a thatched roof, but in fact there was nothing but open sea all around, and a long ruff of gently breaking water, which I presumed indicated the sunken and unseen reef. In the middle of this scene sat an immense aluminum pontoon, two stories high and big enough to accommodate 400 day-trippers. It brought to mind, if vaguely, an oil platform. When the boat had docked, we all filed happily off. A loudspeaker outlined our options. We could loll in the sun in deck chairs, or grab snorkels and flippers for a swim, or board a semisubmersible ship for a tour of the reef in comfort.
We went first on the semisubmersible, a vessel on which 30 or 40 people could crowd into a viewing chamber below the waterline. Well, it was wonderful. The pilot took us into a shimmery world of steep coral canyons and razor-edged defiles, fabulously colorful and teeming with fish of incredible variety and size. We saw giant clams and sea slugs and starfish, small forests of waving anemones and the pleasingly large and dopey potato cod. It was precisely like being at a public aquarium, except of course that this was entirely natural. I was amazed, no doubt foolishly, by what a difference this made.
Back on the pontoon, Allan insisted we go at once for a swim. At one side of the pontoon metal steps led into the water. At the top of the steps were large bins containing flippers, snorkels, and masks. We kitted up and plopped in. I had assumed that we would be in a few feet of water, so I was taken aback—I am putting this mildly—to discover that I was perhaps 60 feet above the bottom. I had never been in water this deep before, and it was unexpectedly unnerving—as unnerving as finding myself floating 60 feet in the air above solid ground. This panicky assessment took place over the course of perhaps three seconds; then my mask and snorkel filled with water and I started choking. Gasping peevishly, I dumped the water out and tried again, but almost immediately the mask filled again. I repeated the exercise two or three times more, but with the same result. Allan, meanwhile, was schussing about like Darryl Hannah in Splash.
"For God's sake, Bryson, what are you doing?" he said. "You're three feet from the pontoon and you're drowning."
"I am drowning." I caught a roll of wave full in the face and came out of it sputtering. "I'm a son of the soil," I gasped. "This is not my milieu."
He clucked and disappeared. I dipped my head lightly under to see him shooting off like a torpedo in the direction of a colorful maori wrasse—an angelfish the size of a sofa cushion—and was consumed once more with a bubbly dismay at the unimagined depth beneath me. There were big things down there, too—fish half as big as me and far more in their element than I was. Then my mask filled and I was sputtering again. Then another small rolling wave smacked me in the face. I must confess that I liked this even less—quite a good deal less—than I had expected to, and I hadn't expected to like it much.
Interestingly, because snorkelers lie on the water with their arms and legs spread and their face just under the surface—that is, in the posture known as the dead man's float—it isn't possible (or so I am told) to tell which people are snorkeling and which are dead. It's only when the whistle blows and everyone gets out except for one oddly inert and devoted soul that they know there will be one less for tea. Fortunately, I managed to haul myself back onto the
pontoon. I took a seat on a deck chair and toweled off with Allan's shirt.
Allan emerged at last, looking invigorated and holding in his stomach in a manner that recalled Jeff Chandler in some of his later films, chattering with tedious gusto about what a brilliant experience it had been and what an egregious wimp I was. He slipped on his shirt and fell into the chair beside me, looking very happy. Then he sat up and patted himself extravagantly.
"This shirt's wet," he announced.
"Is it?" I said, frowning with concern.
"It's wringing wet."
I touched it lightly. "Why, yes it is."