illuminate history

Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)

Shallows from Above: Heron Island

Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef has been on our wish-list for years. Friends recommended Heron Island, at the Reef’s southern tip. Gary’s research revealed that most GBR resorts are fancier, with family-friendly features like large swimming pools and water slides—not what we were looking for. We wanted someplace where we could explore directly from the beach.

Heron Island is a National Park and the only island with direct reef access. About a mile in circumference, its surrounding reef extends a quarter-mile or more. The reef is knee-deep at low tide, but above six-feet at high tide.

It’s 50 miles from Gladstone, on the mainland, by boat or, as they say, “heli.” We selected, and paid for, the boat option, which entailed an overnight stay in Gladstone. No big deal. After checking in, we set out to see how far we’d hike to the marina in the morning. We spotted a travel agency offering trips to Heron Island and stopped to ask for directions to the dock. They told us that the boat was out for repair and we were to  go by heli—at no extra charge. Never did learn why they didn’t contact us directly; but no matter.

I mentioned our heavy-luggage-hassle in my last post; the weight limit for the “heli” was 15 kg per person—total! We re-arranged to manage with one suitcase until the other showed up by boat. Confusion ensued at the airport, and a long wait—but it was worth it. The heli carries only five passengers. We flew with man, his five-year-old son, and 16-month-old daughter—for some reason, his wife and infant son followed on the next flight.  All our heavy baggage got loaded on.

Five-year-old eyes rounded to proverbial saucers as we lifted off. We flew with windows open. See how the shipping channel was dredged and blasted through the reef—in the 1940s. The derelict hull at the entrance was wrecked there deliberately, as a dive site.

We landed in an aviary with no cage. Bird orientation: we were to be mindful of hundreds of wedge-tailed shearwaters (“mutton birds”): black egrets with pale green legs.  They tunnel nests under paths and porches; their cries at night sound like human babies. Egrets also reside on the island, as do silver gulls, black noddy terns, buff-banded rails, and bar-tailed godwits.

We continued to observe shallows from above: walking the circumference of the island, wading vast tide-pools, watching reef-sharks from a safe remove.

On the guided reef walk and research lab tour we saw examples of four different sea cucumbers. I remember my mother telling stories of sea cucumbers on Guam; she said they would turn themselves inside-out if you step on them. She was right. They do that; then they generate a new set of internal organs. One type has a shaggy-looking front end, from which it extrudes strands of white liquid which quickly harden to strong threads that feel like plastic. Aborigines made them into reef-walkers by using the thread to bind the animals to their feet. This one, nick-named “burnt sausage,” is best for culinary purposes. It’s called beche de mer in French, a term I recently encountered, uncomprehending, in Brillat-Savarin’s Anatomy of Taste. All learning compounds.

Reef- viewing tubes—reverse periscopes which allow you to see past refracting wave distortion— were provided at the Information Center. The reef near our room mesmerized me for about five hours on our second day. Subtle gradations in colors and shapes of boulder and branch coral, highlighted here and there by vivid zigzag slashes of giant clam, punctuated by fleeting specks of yellow, turquoise, and black fish seemed like a vast work of art. I had just read Calvin Tomkins’ New Yorker article about Carl Andre, the self-styled “first post-studio artist”, who assembled objects into linear sculptures on the floor. The reef was bigger and better than any gallery work.

By late afternoon, it was deep enough submerge about where we’d seen the reef sharks gather. We were bold, assured that they eat only fish and don’t like red meat. The terrain was different here. Sharp-pointed branch-coral predominated on this part of the reef. We swam through a maze of spiky hedges—with lots of company: parrotfish with luminous lime-green pectoral fins, schooling yellow-tailed snapper, myriad varieties of brilliant Moorish idols, coralfish, angelfish, damselfish, triggerfish, and butterfly fish. A couple of reef sharks whipped past—startling us despite assurances. Gary spotted a couple of big manta rays (no stingers). Slender epaulet sharks lurked quietly. One lay on the sand, under a coral over-hang, pectoral fin looking like the floppy paw of a spotted puppy taking a nap. One odd-shaped black-and-white fish looked like half an angelfish. It was twice as long from dorsal-fin-tip to anal-fin-tip, as from snout to tail. Consulting later with the naturalist in the Information Center, I learned that it was most likely a juvenile batfish.

Our friends assured us that we could easily see the whole island in two or three days—the whole island, maybe, but not the whole reef. Showered and dressed, we wandered out on the wharf before dinner to watch flirtatious turtles surface at sunset.

In the morning, the tide was right for us to swim to the wreck. What a treat: deeper water, more fish, more sharks, more rays! I tried to swim back to our room; but the tide ebbed too fast, the thicket of coral forced me onto the beach. We wrapped bread, cheese, and fruit in paper napkins for a picnic on the beach. I waded out to the rim of the reef afterward, noting again that fish are much more skittish when you loom over them than when you swim with them.

The sound of a steady downpour woke us the morning of our last full day. A wet note clipped by the door informed us that we’d return by heli. The regular boat was still out of commission and the smaller replacement couldn’t meet schedule. Only the heli could get us to our connecting flight. Shifting contents of our bags again, to send as much as possible by boat a day ahead, I willingly sent off all my ship-board “smart casual” clothes and my books, keeping snorkel gear and wetsuit.

Dark skies, steady rain, and 30-knot winds persisted; I gave up snorkeling. Wriggling into my wetsuit, I went for a walk. I knew I’d get soaked, but figured the wetsuit would eliminate wind-chill. It did.

I hoped the dismal sky would fool turtle hatchlings to think that night was near. It didn’t. I only saw, darting about on rocks, a few beautiful green-backed crabs—and six human beings as crazy as me.

We thought the storm would blow itself out overnight. It didn’t.

They cancelled the boat altogether: waves were more than 9 meters. A decision on the heli was due around noon. We were scheduled for the third flight out. In a weird state of suspended animation, certain we’d spend another night on Heron Island, unable to change reservations—which would cost hundreds of dollars—we waited.

Then, good news: the heli left Gladstone at 1PM. Thirty minutes later, we watched from the covered pavilion at the end of the wharf as the tiny blue craft landed gently, delivered four new arrivals, and departed with four relieved passengers. So far, so good, but we remained doubtful. We resumed reading on a covered verandah near the small pool, startled when Christine-from-the-office appeared to summon us for the next flight, another change to ensure we’d make our connections. The miracle occurred!

I’d love to return someday.

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This entry was posted on April 3, 2012 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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