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 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 recognise 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 63 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) walk on rocks and hold its breath for up to 20 minutes.
Vibrant exhibits explain 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, 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 - part of Tourism Australia's Discover Aboriginal Experiences collective - 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.
"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 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).
• Find an eco-certified tour operator and one that's authority approved as a valued operator.
• 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.
Please check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before travelling, for more information visit australia.com