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Kids, coral and 'cauliflowers' - how nature throws up the most unforgettable things

Opinion

Even though she grew up within reach of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef, Rebecca Levingston still can’t quite do justice to the magnificence of nature.

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Thank you Mr Gilmore Schjeldahl.

You may not know his name, but he gives a hell of a lot of tourists in Queensland the white paper bag they need to get to the Great Barrier Reef.

Let me explain… via a post card to you from Cairns.

This week, I finally went snorkelling along this country’s most magical coastline. It’s a bit embarrassing really, given that I grew up on the watery doorstep of the reef, but never properly swam with the fish. I took for granted what people all over the world have on their bucket list. And I’ll be honest, my expectations were low.

I figured that David Attenborough documentaries and glossy advertising campaigns had probably given me an unrealistic image of what the reef would be like. Surely it’s not like swimming in an aquarium right?

So with tempered hope, slathered in sunscreen and sharky trepidation, my family and I boarded a catamaran and zoomed towards Fitzroy Island.

The Captain encouraged us to swallow sea sickness tablets. We did. I was relieved they stopped the nausea for me but for others on board there’s no polite way to say it, the retching began within fifteen minutes of us riding those spectacular turquoise waves.

And that’s where Gilmore Schjeldahl had his moment. The American entrepreneur is best known for inventing air sickness bags. White paper with plastic insulation became the surprise saviour for those who succumbed to motion sickness.

Special shout out to the crew who swiftly identified those sucking in deep breaths early and discreetly handed out bags. I kept my eyes on the horizon the whole time and felt fine but fearful. I never let go of the railing on the outside deck (fresh air helps) but I did want to quietly applaud the vomitous diplomacy that I assume is part of the training for tourist operators fortunate to call a boat an office. Pros and cons I guess.

Land ahoy! We made it to Welcome Bay and the coral reef beckoned. After some awkward flipper trips and observations that the water was indeed “really really” salty in your snorkel, I dove in and gasped. I couldn’t talk and that was appropriate because I suddenly felt like I needed a new vocabulary to describe what I saw.

Crossing over into that underwater universe was simply magnificent. The colours, shapes and sounds were bizarre and beautiful. Purple lipped clams and green tasseled coral flowing with the current were immediately amazing. Lilac neon lights glowed on the tips of stag horns and orange brain squiggles were otherworldly. Yellow boulders that seemed to breathe alongside pink cauliflowers and luminescent cream cabbages were ridiculous.

And then there were the fish. Slender silver fellows darting about with yellow triangular creatures nipping alongside green or purple or blue friends with shimmering stripes that defied reality. Black brilliance contrasted with iridescent tentacles. Pectoral fins that propelled and flipped, seemed to switch on blue lights in what I’d call the arms pits of my new marine mates. Golden sheen, red streaks and pearl tails. Everywhere you looked, nature dazzled.

I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t really find the words. Sometimes all I could do was point like a kid who didn’t want to blink. We snorkelled as a family and the aquatic world tolerated four silly humans floating by in awe.

My 10 year old son constantly gestured at a luminous parrot fish that floated past like rainbow lava lamps. My 6 year old bubbled along too. He and I held hands and swam together in a moment that brought tears to my goggled eyes. Foggy, happy and arm in arm with my husband I floated. Australian beauty that I shamefully underestimated. How thrilled I was to be overwhelmed.

The ticking, crackling sand and fish nibbling on coral were the soundtrack to our afternoon. I’ll be honest, I did also occasionally hum the Jaws theme song when I looked into some of the deeper reef ravines. No sharks (that I could see) much to my relief.

Dear Queensland, we are the custodians of nature’s majesty. Complex, fragile, alive and astounding. I’m still giddy. And I feel surprisingly protective of the world’s largest coral reef. You can see it from space. 344,000 square kilometres and almost 3000 individual reefs.

Go see it. Even if you need a sick bag to get there. It’s worth it.

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