Stories and life abound around the Great Barrier Reef, writes Dani Wright.
Snorkelling and scuba diving are taken to a higher level on the Great Barrier Reef, thanks to a new group of master reef guides who share stories about the incredible diversity of life under the Coral Sea.
"I love telling the stories of all the characters on the reef," says master reef guide Sam Gray, a marine biologist working on the reef out of Cairns for the Quicksilver Group.
Her favourite tale is about the damsel fish, a tiny but feisty little creature that stakes out its territory — weeding its garden, cleaning up its territory by removing sticks and being very intimidating to other fish that come into its environment.
"They're like little bulldogs defending their patch; I find them so intriguing," says Gray. "Everyone laughs when I tell them about this little fish with the big personality. I can then give pointers of where to see them while people snorkel or dive."
It's these stories that are so special to Gray and the people she guides. She's happy when they come back with sightings, rather than just swimming past these creatures, not knowing the intricacies of the life taking place.
Master reef guides are a new initiative for 2019, recognising the world's leading reef guides, interpreters and storytellers sharing the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, providing up-to-date information on the reef and explaining what people can do to make a difference.
There are now about 50 master reef guides, including marine biologists, dive instructors, skippers and boat captains working in the tourism industry.
"You can feel the energy in the room when we're together — a bunch of people passionate about the reef and telling its stories," says Gray. "The goal is not just to dump facts on people, it's to engage and excite."
At the Cairns Aquarium, I hear more stories unfold on a guided tour. There's the sleepy cod, the "grumpy fish with anger problems", the pig-nosed turtle with a taste for wild figs, and a spotted shark that can (somewhat terrifyingly to discover) walk on rocks and hold its breath for up to 20 minutes.
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Vibrant exhibits educate on why fish are a certain colour and the dangers of the reef — don't worry, you're apparently more likely to get crushed by a vending machine than killed by a shark. But, it's the camouflaged stonefish, which resembles a rock and is the most dangerous fish in the world, that gives another good reason not to touch anything when you're out snorkelling.
There's also the clown fish, now forever linked to Finding Nemo, who are all born male. The biggest fish turns into a female and becomes the group's boss. There's also cleaning stations where big fish are cleaned by little fish — arriving in the same spot each time like at a carwash.
On a Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel safari on the reef later in the day, I'm taken to a reef shelf by indigenous sea ranger Robbie and marine biologist Anna. Back on the boat, we'd heard Dreamtime reef creation stories and all about the indigenous philosophy, a balancing act of catching many types of seafood, rather than overfishing on one species.
As we're splashing our colourful flippers above the coral, Anna finds a tube about the size of a slinky floating just under the water in the current. She points it out, guessing it's thousands of squid eggs in long strings of pink beads wrapped around a gelatinous core. She's very excited about the rare find — there's always something new to discover on the reef, even for the guides.
While we're focused on the squid eggs, though, someone spots a blue bottle jellyfish, then another, and another — they look like bubbles on the surface until you're too close to escape their sting.
Shrieks go off among the snorkelling group, like firecrackers, of people getting stung. It's painful and hilarious at the same time.
We hold our closed fists up in unison to be rescued by the people back on the boat. Anna goes to blow the whistle on the rescue ring, but it's been taken over by a blue bottle. Finally, we're rescued back to the boat for sprays of vinegar.
The reef holds many stories but now we have our own to add, and I notice that while the pain of the stings subsides, the stories of the experience get bigger. One British tourist even tells his friend he was stung about 100 times.
"Every day working on the reef is so different and I never know what we will see — we're out in the wild, in nature, so every day is surprising," says Gray.
She says it's a shame that so many people read the reef health reports and think it's already dead.
"They think there will be nothing to see, but there's so much diversity and life to be discovered," says Gray. "Seeing the reef and being educated about it will help to protect it."
The annual coral spawning happens in November, when the conditions are just right after a full moon. Gray calls the baby corals "recruits", because they are needed to counteract bleaching and cyclone-damage. The conditions are looking good for a successful year.
"The Great Barrier Reef is still beautiful, it will blow your mind and you'll have an amazing time coming here," says Gray. "Please come and experience it for yourself."
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
• Choose a master reef guide at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) website (gbrmpa.gov.au).
• Find an eco-certified tour operator and one that's authority approved as a valued operator.
• Educate the kids and get them to sign up to become Nickelodeon Junior Citizens of the Reef .
• Pledge your own support to become a Citizen of the Reef .
• Don't touch any part of the reef or any of the animals. Just observe.
• Feel good knowing every guest to the reef pays an environmental management charge as part of the tour fee.
• To protect yourself, visit the Surf Life Saving Queensland website and familiarise yourselves with jellyfish and their sting treatments, as well as other water and beach safety tips for tourists.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop from Auckland to Cairns during New Zealand's autumn and winter. At other times you can fly to Cairns via Brisbane or Sydney. Flight time from Auckland to Cairns is five hours and 35 mins.
Riley by Crystalbrook .