On the Edge of Down Under: Gobies, Gulls, and Green Turtles on the Great Harrier Reef

ON LAND, ROCK climbers have a pastime called bouldering. It amounts to fooling around on boulders, practicing your technique. Bouldering in a coral sea is an apotheosis of the terrestrial sport. Recently, after several years away from it, I tried my hand again at coral-bouldering on a “bommie” of the Great Barrier Reef. ("Bommie" is short for bombora, an Aboriginal word for a coral head. It is one of the many Australianisms one quickly adopts on the reef. “Groper” is the fish we call grouper. “Trevallies” are jacks. “Dingo fish” are barracuda. To “fossick” is to reef-comb. “Whyles” are whales.)

At the base of the bommie, fifty feet deep, I exhaled through the mouthpiece of my scuba regulator and watched the quicksilvery bubbles wobble up toward the surface. Then I started after them.

Passing myself up the bommie’s sheer, swelling wall of Pontes coral required only a small part of the strength in my fingertips. My legs drifted along behind, uninvolved. A cleaner shrimp saw me coming and retreated into its crevice, waving long antennae. A pair of tiny, translucent pipefish flowed away over the curve of the coralline rock. I folded my arms across my chest. Inertia, and the buoyancy of my wetsuit, increasing as the pressure on it decreased, kept me going upward. Free-climbing was never so free. I laughed a big cloud of bubbles, and the slowed-down, dim-witted sound of underwater laughter resounded in my ears. At the summit I pushed off lightly and sailed backward into the void. Feeling a mucous slickness on my fingertips, I rubbed them together. I could see the strands of coral mucus there, thin as spider web. That is the other miracle of bouldering here: the boulders are alive.

The Great Barrier Reef is not simple geomorphology. It is a kind of superorganism. A coral reef is an edifice of symbiotic connections: between coral polyps and their resident algae, between cleaner shrimp and the fishes cleaned, between blind burrowing shrimp and the popeyed gobies who serve as their sentinels, among all the encrusting algae, tube worms, sea urchins, crustaceans, bivalves, fish, sea snakes, and sponges that have collaborated over millennia to build the reef. Of this outsize variety of life, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest specimen. About 1,250 miles long, composed of 2,500 reef complexes, it is the vastest coral-reef province on earth, the biggest structure created by living things in the known universe. Almost all of it is protected in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, far and away the largest marine sanctuary in any ocean.

My six weeks on the reef began in its least-traveled stretch, the northernmost reefs of the Far Northern Section. From Cairns I flew over fringing reef and unbroken tropical rain forest into Iron Range airstrip, 250 miles north of Queensland’s last paved road.

FROM THE LITTLE community of Lockhart River the photographer David Doubilet, our diveboat captain, and I headed out into the Coral Sea. Five frigate birds soared high above, an escort seeing us eastward. We put the dark green of the mangrove shoreline behind us, and then left behind the outline of Restoration Island, where Captain Bligh restored himself after his difficulties with the mutineers. Ahead opened a blue horizon and a wilderness of reefs.

We made our first dive at a place called Mantis Reef, and then headed northward across Wreck Bay, passing up the Martha Ridgway Reefs and a number of nameless reefs in the vicinity. They were fine reefs, likely, but you can’t dive all of the thousands of reefs in the park—not in one lifetime. The Great Barrier Reef, for a diver, is an embarrassment of riches. When we dove again it was at a place the captain called Magic Gave.

The cave was a short tunnel through a wall of coral, sixty feet beneath the surface. A swarm of small neon-blue pullers hung about the western entrance. A current ran out like a pleasant breeze, not enough to impede a diver much, but sufficient to flush out any kicked-up sand. Feather stars—crinoids—fed on the floor and walls. The tentacles of soft corals stirred in the current. Big-eyed squirrelfish swam upside-down along the cave roof. In a world where gravity seems to have little practical meaning, more things are relative, and the cave top had become bottom for the squirrelfish. From the big-eyed point of view, it was I who was wrong side up.

At the eastern entrance to the tunnel sea fans, a variety of Gorgonian coral, held themselves at right angles to the current. Sea fans have a wonderful two-dimensionality. They are like huge lobate leaves pressed between the pages of a book and forgotten there, nothing left but the veins.

I lay for twenty minutes at the eastern entrance, looking out. It was like sitting in a darkened movie theater, before a vast and luminous screen. White-tip reef sharks passed in the brightness, and horned unicorn fish, and small squads of silvery jacks, and butterfly fish in Technicolor. Two small surgeonfish did a courtship dance, zipping high above their coral head, joining at the zenith, and then racing down again. A pair of huge bumphead parrotfish appeared suddenly. They gave me a start on their arrival, as any big fish will. Their movements were slow, dignified. Their tiny eyes, lying well back of their great bluff foreheads, rotated to watch me. Magic Cave really was magic.

A WEEK LATER WE raised the ruined beacon of Raine Island, our northernmost landfall. Raine is a low sand cay of about seventy-four acres. Its beacon—a tower quarried from coral limestone by convict masons in 1844—was the first navigational aid in Queensland. It dominates the sands of the cay, a vast and trunkless leg of stone in the desert of the Coral Sea. After a week in a horizontal world of reefs, I welcomed the tower’s verticality.

Through binoculars I could make out first a cloud of birds circling the tower, then the wheeling dots of individual birds—frigates. Raine is the most important breeding island for seabirds in all Australia. More than 100,000 terns nest there, as do sizable colonies of brown boobies, masked boobies, frigate birds, and reef herons.

Raine is also Australia’s most important nesting island for sea turtles. A sea turtle leaves a trail like a one-tread tractor, and not an inch of sand above the tide line went unpatterned by that complicated mark. Of the species that visit the Great Barrier Reef—leatherbacks and ridleys passing through, flatbacks nesting on continental islands, green, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles nesting out on the coral cays—the most numerous by far are the green turtles, Chelonia mydas. These tracks belonged to them.

Green turtles are wanderers, and turtles hatched on Raine Island are taken by Indonesians, Papua New Guineans, and other Western Pacific islanders. They make up a large part of the harvest of the islanders of the Torres Strait. Scientists have counted 11,000 females going ashore here in a single night.

Late in the morning we went ashore ourselves. A few tardy turtles were still digging nests. Here and there along the horizon of dunes, sand was being heaved against the sky. Dead turtles lay at wide intervals in the dunes. It seemed strange: having survived nearly interminable lives in a cruel sea, they had died sunny and warm on land. Life out of death was the message of the Raine Island sands, as I understood it. The female turtles had sacrificed themselves in the struggle to renew the species. Then, walking on, I had to smile. Some of the hulks I took to be dead proved to be alive when I nudged them with my foot. On the other hand, some of the turtles I had judged to be alive turned out to be dead. In Chelonia mydas the habit of living is deeply ingrained, and a few turtles had died in poses remarkably lifelike. They did not seem to understand yet that they had expired.

Raising anchor after a day and a half at Raine, we left the island’s lee and motored into a sea of small whitecaps from the southeast. The boat was soon taking spray across her foredeck. The beacon fell lower and lower on the horizon. I was searching behind us for the tower when, under the smooth blue slope of a near wave, I saw the olivegreen circle of a turtle rising. Its head broke the surface for a breath, and dead ahead of it the swell fell to reveal the distant speck of the beacon. Somehow, by navigational methods only they know, turtles find their way home to their native beaches. This one was right on course.

From Raine we worked our way south toward the better-traveled end of the Great Barrier Reef. To port passed an endless procession of reefs: Great Detached Reef, Lagoon Reef, Long Sandy Reef, Second Small Reef, Southern Small Detached Reef, Log Reef, First Small Reef, Bligh Reef, Cat Reef, Tijou Reef. Interspersed among these were many reefs that went nameless. The Great Barrier Reef is so nearly endless that its explorers have run out of epithets.

Below Tijou Reef we began working our way down a series of sand cays marked on the chart only by numbers. The captain and I went ashore for an evening walk on Sand Bank No. 8. The captain had a private name for the place, “Turtle Cay,” but the islet was less remarkable for turtles than for birds. The great majority were sooty terns, which covered the interior in a dense, sooty colony, but there were also crested terns, brown boobies, and a few silver gulls. As we circumambulated, I called out the names. The captain, for his part, had a fine trained eye for liquor bottles and could identify them at great distances. “Lesser crested tern,” 1 would observe. “Gordon’s gin,” the captain would sing out in counterpoint. Then “Johnnie Walker” and “Bundaberg!”

Like seabird colonies everywhere, those of No. 8 were given to sudden, inexplicable alarms. For no good reason the din would rise sharply and there would be a general lifting-off.

These panics of the birds begin, I believe, in the consternation of a single Chicken Little. That bird affects his neighbor and starts a chain reaction. Only once did we ourselves give the birds any cause for concern. One of the captain’s empty bottles lay close to the colony’s edge. As he strode toward it to verify the label, the din crescendoed and the entire population of No. 8 lifted off. The whole sooty top of the island seemed to have atomized and risen heavenward — a sky more of wings than of air. The captain, intent on some old brandy bottle, was oblivious. His identification had been correct. Grinning back at me in triumph, he held the bottle high against the blizzard of birds.

After the two weeks we’d spent cruising reefs lying just below sea level and sand cays just above it, the ridges of Lizard Island seemed Himalayan. Lizard is a “continental" island—one landward of the barrier reef proper— 1.200 feet high. There is a small resort on the island, and a scientific station. The island is named for the three-foot monitor lizards (“sand goannas,” the Australians call them) that Captain Cook discovered here. Cook stopped at Lizard in 1770. He had just patched Endeavor after her disastrous encounter with Endeavor Reef. He climbed to the island’s summit to search out a passage through the rampart of reefs that imprisoned him. The walk to “Cook’s Look" is still a fine one, and the panorama of reefs from the summit is stunning.

There is good fishing off Lizard Island, and good diving and snorkeling on the island’s fringing reefs. The barrier reef lies very close as well. One of the more interesting dives on that outer reef is a place called the Cod Hole. This “hole” is a recess where for fifteen years or so people have been feeding huge potato cod. On entering the water, a diver is surrounded by huge, homely, expectant fish. Potato cod have the faces of hanging judges, with enormous, dour, downturned mouths. They are tame enough to ride, if you can grab hold of a fin. They are polite until you bring out the food, at which point the great wraparound mouths crowd close to inhale offerings of Spanish mackerel from your hand.

Three moray eels live at the Cod Hole. The captain had names for them: Morris, Molly, and Morris Minor. The smallest, Morris Minor, was still unsure of himself and a little snappy, the captain said, but the two big eels were tame and could be petted. When Molly showed her horrific face in a jumble of coral rock below us,

I swam down to her. Molly’s baleful jaws worked ceaselessly, half closing as she passed water over her gills. Her cold, unblinking eye stared out at nothing in particular. I extended a finger toward her, ready to snatch it back. Molly had that baggy look of morays— an old-womany tonelessness of muscle—and I doubted she would feel good to touch. I was wrong. The skin of her cheek was silky.

AT CAIRNS WE left the dive boat. We rested for a couple of days under the green, rain-forested mountains of that town. I slowed my pace, imitating the Aborigines. The Aboriginal strategy, as near as I can figure it, is to hang loose and wait a millennium or two until the white people fade away. By day, from park benches along Cairns’s fine esplanade, the Aborigines and I watched the ibises, pelicans, spoonbills, mudskippers, and fiddler crabs that congregate along the shore. In the evening we watched the sky darken with the multitudes of fruit bats that fly out of the mangroves at dusk.

Then it was off to the reef again. From Port Douglas, in the Cairns Section of the marine park, we made several trips to Agincourt Reefs on the fast catamarans of Quicksilver Cruises. No outfit better illustrates Queensland’s boom in reef tourism. “We had no idea about loading people,”Jim Wallace, the founder, confessed to me in describing Quicksilver’s early days. “We were surveyed for eighty-nine people, and the first day one hundred and thirty-nine showed up. We couldn’t tell them to piss off. We got them all on"— he rolled his eyes—“and we got away with it.”

Today Quicksilver is a remarkably smooth operation. On the trip out to the reef, the divemaster gives lessons in snorkeling. The naturalists give a slide lecture on reef biology. Any difficult passenger is indicated with eyebrow language and passed around among all the members of the crew. Everyone works him over. (“That face mask doesn’t seem to fit quite perfectly, sir,”and so on.) The staff makes a game of breaking him, as one would break a wild horse. The passengers arrive at Agincourt Reefs mollified and educated.

The catamaran ties up to a floating platform moored to the reef. If there are divers, a boatload of them heads off to a dive site. Accomplished snorkelers head off in another boat. Beginning snorkelers descend the gangway to the platform, rummage through bins for masks and snorkels and fins, and go over the side like lemmings.

The variety of shapes and swimming styles in beginning snorkelers is wonderful. The water churned with them. The snorkelers were as exotic and colorful, I thought, as any spawning aggregation of damselfish. From below I watched the eyes of one nine-yearold boy, not five seconds in the water, grow wide behind his face mask.

“Mmmmmmm! Mmmmmmmhhhh! Mmm meeeeeeeemmmm! Mmmmmmm!” he vocalized through his snorkel. Pointing downward with one hand, he groped blindly behind him for his sister with the other. Whole excited sentences came piping unintelligibly through his snorkel. He had just seen the polychromatic creation of the reef for the first time.

Quicksilver passengers who don’t wish to get wet can watch the fish through glass windows in the pontoons of the platform, or take short Nemoesque voyages in a “Subsee Explorer,” from which they look down at passing corals through steeply angled picture windows in the hull.

Another catamaran in the Quicksilver fleet makes the short trip to LowIsles, east of Agincourt Reefs. Low Isles are the most minimal of archipelagos: just two islands. One is a sand cay with a lighthouse, the other a mangrove island. They have a nice polarity: the one small, inhabited, and dominated by its revolving light; the other much larger, an uninhabited wilderness dark with mangroves.

In 1928 Charles Maurice Yonge led the first major biological expedition to the Great Barrier Reef. He and his team of scientists spent almost thirteen months camped on the sand cay under the lighthouse. In his A Year on the Great Barrier Reef, Sir Maurice wrote of “the little sand cay on which we lived and which we grew to know so intimately—every tree and every bush; almost,

I would say, every grain of sand.”The cay, according to Yonge’s measurements, is 185 yards long and 110 yards wide, taking up an area of three and a half acres. After an hour or so on it and two circumambulations, I felt I knew the place almost as well as Sir Maurice had. I rented a ski-board from Bev Grant, the wife of the lighthouse keeper, and paddled it to the mangrove island.

The water was very clear on the incoming tide and seldom more than eight inches deep over the algal flat separating the two islands. Sea cucumbers lay here and there on the sand, and small clams of the genus Tridacna. Twice I flushed a ray: a puff of brownish sand and the disk of the ray shooting away. A dozen reef herons, some in the white phase, some in the dark.

were working knee-deep along a line of seedling mangroves in advance of the main forest. The two color phases ot Egretta sacra, the reef heron, are said to interbreed without prejudice and with no intermediate forms—a little problem in genetics I have never been able to figure out. As I paddled near, several white herons spread dazzling wings and lifted off. Several dark herons followed like their shadows.

Entering a mangrove inlet at the north end of the island, I ceased paddling at the mouth and let my craft glide in. The shade of the mangroves closed very cool over me. Dappled sunlight played among the trunks and on the arches of aerial roots. Reflected rays danced on the bottoms of the leaves. The forest cut off the rumble of surf, and the trees resonated instead to the fine, deep whoooo of Torres Strait pigeons. Now and then I flushed a pigeon. It flew away, snow white over the dark-green canopy. The contrast with the foliage could not have been stronger, yet I never saw a roosting bird. Somehow they hide. One mangrove was thick with them, but the first I knew of it was a white rush of black-tipped wings, and a swaying of branches suddenly unburdened.

ANOLD WRECK, the little ship Protector, marks the channel into the Heron Island pier. She’s no protection anymore, just a shell of exposed iron ribs and rusted plates. A few brown boobies and pied cormorants roost by day on what remains of the tilted deck. In the shadows bowels of the hold, reef herons stand white and ghostly, like passengers on the barge across the river Styx.

Heron Island is not the least bit stygian. It is the opposite sort of place. Heron lies in the middle of the Capricornia Section, the southernmost division of the (Treat Barrier Reef Marine Park. It was the southernmost and last landfall of my trip. If coral cays, in their evolution from sand spits, ever achieve a climax vegetation, then Heron has done so—the island’s interior is a forest of fine gnarled old Pisonia grandis. The island summarizes the marine park nicely. It is simultaneously a wildlife sanctuary, resort, research station, seabird colony, and turtle nesting grounds, all circumscribed by surf breaking white on reefs.

Tens of thousands of noddy terns nest on the island. They police the sandy paths, spearing any fallen Pisonia leaves, carrying them aloft again for nest-building, squabbling over them in midair. Reef herons, buffbanded rails, and silver gulls slip into the resort’s restaurant and slink along the floor from table to table, looking for scraps. Wedge-tailed shearwaters, “moaning birds,” begin their eerie caterwauling at dusk. Many have their burrows beneath the resort cottages, and their lament proceeds from beneath the sand. On a visitor’s first night those cries are infernal, hideous—the moans of subhuman children being tortured, or of deranged cats. By the second night the moans have somehow become lovely.

There is fine diving on the reefs surrounding Heron, and dive a number of them I did. After five weeks under water, though, I found myself drawn to land. There was the cool of the Pisonia forest. There was the research-station library. There were reef walks with the station’s biologists. There were the sunbathers: in bikinis beside the pool, topless toward the eastern end of the lagoon beach. There were tennis, lectures, and the pub.

At four one moonlit morning I walked the beach looking for turtles. Sea turtles come ashore to lay after dusk, and night is die time to see them. The surf murmured on the reef. Now and again the moon shadow of a tern came ghosting over the sand. Three hundred yards past the last resort cottage I began finding the fresh trails of those reptilian tractors. I heard a heaving sound inland as the females dug, and occasionally the snap of a branch. The night smelled of wet, excavated sand. Here and there moonlight glinted from the dome of a shell.

Two flashlights were working the night ahead of me. They belonged to two women from the research station, who carried clipboards on which they logged in turtles and recorded any tags. One of the researchers showed me, with the beam of her torch, a turtle that had finished the pit of its nest and had begun sinking the well of the egg chamber at the bottom. “It happens fairly often,”the woman said. For a moment I was puzzled; then I saw that the turtle was incomplete. She was digging with just one back flipper. The other had been lost to a shark.

Sea turtles are dull creatures of instinct, we’re told, yet this one had figured out how to compensate. She was using her tail to help in the digging. While we watched, the ovipositor began its work. The chamber filled. From those maimed, imperfect hindparts the eggs emerged — round, white, glistening, perfect.

The next afternoon, at Shark Bay, on the eastern tip of the island, I rescued a hatchling turtle from a silver gull. The dash from nest to sea is the crucial moment in any turtle’s life, and this turtle’s moment had been interrupted high on the beach by the gull. The hatchling was on its back, struggling with a foreflipper to right itself, when I chased the gull away. I picked the turtle up and turned it over in my hand. The gull’s beak had done no damage that I could detect. I admired the long, trim oars of the foreflippers, the large eye, the perfect little beak, the imbricate pattern of the shell. I admired the creamy white underside of the shell and flippers. Turtles, like most pelagic creatures, are “couritershaded,” colored dark above and pale below. Viewed from above, this hatchling would disappear against the blue of the ocean. Viewed from below, it would vanish against the brightness of the sky.

I stooped and sent the turtle on its way again. It skittered down the sand with alternate strokes of its foreflippers. A wave broke and slid fast up the beach slope, and the turtle met the sea for the first time. If the hatchling was male, it would never come ashore again. It it was female, it would not return for fifty years. I lost it for a moment in the surf, and then saw it swimming in the smooth sheet of water beyond. For several strokes it propelled itself as it had on land, pulling alternately on the oars of its foreflippers. Then instinct informed it or the ocean whispered that a double stroke is better. Pulling simultaneously on both oars, it headed straight out into the blue of the Coral Sea.

THE PRINCIPAL ports of entry for the Great Barrier Reef are Cairns in the north and Townsville in the south. Both cities are served by direct flights from North America. The best time to visit, especially in the warmer, northern end of the reef, is probably in the cooler months—April through December. Dress is informal in the resorts, and the less of it the better, in Queensland’s tropical climate. Do bring plenty of sunscreen. (Two in three Australians ger skin cancer by age seventy.)

In the foregoing account the various landfalls serve as a kind of shorthand for the great reef. Lizard Island is typpical of the continental islands, of which there are a multitude: the Whitsunday Group, Great Keppel, the Cumberland Islands, Dunk, Fitzroy, and many others. Raine Island and Sand Bank No. 8 represent all the constellations of sand cays. Heron Island stands for all the dozens of wooded cays.

The reef is a universe. Reef tourism is booming, but the reef is vast and the impacts so far seem to be minimal. There are still great stretches of reef where you will see no other people. When you have tired of that, there are places to join humanity again.