Sunday, April 19, 2015

Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef

The boat out to the Great Barrier Reef left early. On the Reef Magic Cruise Ship I had a shady outside aft deck where I could keep my eyes on the horizon. The ocean was calm and so was my stomach. The boat took us to a large off shore platform called Marine World. From here you could choose to take a helicopter flight, a glass bottom boat, scuba diving, or our choice, snorkeling. I had thought ahead and put on my full body neoprene snorkel suit which keeps me warm and blocks sunburn. Rentals for flippers, snorkels and a mask were quite affordable. The water was warm enough so that some people went out without a protective layer, but they got burnt. I wondered why we weren't warned against the use of liquid sun screen. Imagine all those chemicals diffusing in the water and sinking down towards the corals. I'm sure it can't be good for this delicate Eco-system.

I used to have a 200 gallon in wall reef tank that I set up in my home. Getting the right balance of light, calcium, temperature and nutrients is difficult.  Some people have computer systems that keep all these levels in check, but I just checked the chemistry weekly while doing massive water changes. It was an amazing amount of work, yet worth it because in its prime, the tank was gorgeous. Then algae took hold and spread. At first I kept it in check with algae eating fish like Gobies but soon it was out of control. I did several large oil paintings of friends reef tanks and then dismantled my tank and patched the hole in the wall. I hung an oil painting where the tank used to be. This way I got to appreciate the beauty without the hard work of keeping it all alive.

Terry and I floated out on the water and stayed fairly close together. I made it my responsibility to follow her movements. The reef was unimaginably immense and gorgeous. I swam over a brain coral that was the size of a small house. Plate Corals giant open palms caught the sunlight while soft corals waved in the gentle currents. Everywhere I looked, I saw corals that I used to have in my tank, but here they were part of a large thriving community. Near the platform a grouper as large as me swam lazily by. Fish swam together in schools, darting in between coral structures. In several spots the coral grew so close to the surface of the water, that I had to suck my tummy in to keep from touching them as I floated over. Out near the edge of the roped off area, the reef suddenly dropped down creating a reef wall. Hundreds of feet down, I could see sting rays swimming on the sandy bottom. This was the environment I had tried to recreate with my tank, but the reality is so much more overwhelming. I could hear Trigger Fish chomping on corals and a Tang swam up to my mask to stare at me.

One part of the reef disturbed me. There was a mountain of dead Staghorn coral skeletons. When alive these corals are brightly colored. The dead skeletons were white. Clearly scuba divers must patrol this area of the reef each night after the tourists have left and they collect the dead corals and drop them in this pile. Hard skeleton corals like the Staghorns are the hardest to keep alive in a reef tank. A sudden spike in temperature can cause the delicate flesh to peel away from the skeleton. Despite the colorful beauty all over the reef, I began to notice signs of stress and decay. I recognized the signs because I was always trying to keep my corals healthy in my small Eco-system. Terry and I floated out on the reef as long as we could. I'm so happy I got to see this miracle of nature up close. It may not be there forever.

Back on the platform the staff set up an immense buffet lunch. People piled the food up on their plates like this was their last meal. I barely ate, instead drinking lots of water for fear of sea sickness on the boat ride back. I did get a bit dizzy in the hectic rush of removing the tight snorkeling suit. The platform pitched ever so gently. I'm proud to say I survived the boat ride back. I was starving when we got back to dry land. That night we went out to a wonderful seafood restaurant called Barnacle Bills (103 Esplanade, Cairns QLD 4870, Australia). It was expensive, but well worth it. I had a second glass of wine and loved the world on the walk back to Shangrila. Back at the hotel, I found out that a two inch strip of my forehead had gotten a bright red burn. There seems to have been a gap between the hood and the scuba mask. Exhausted, burnt and satiated, I blacked out, the second my head hit the pillow. Perhaps a vacation from all this vacationing is in order.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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