The egrets had left the roost and were pecking at the feet of morning feeding cattle, riding on their backs seeking insects flushed from the long grass. Beams of soft light slanted across the road, highlighting the patches of mist that hung around the edges of the trees and in slight hollows; there was a coolness in the air and for once it was not raining. A cassowary and its following chick walked across the road ahead of us and did its magical disappearing trick into the bush. We arrived at our destination on time to find out that really we were early, and that nobody else was there yet. Elastic time. North Queensland time.
Eventually other people arrive in car, vans and on foot. We fill in forms and order coffee. We take the deep breaths of air full of nothing and promising everything. With less relaxation we pull on the wet suits, regretting the coffee and wondering why we gave up yoga. Nobody looks thin in a wet suit we tell ourselves, but as we look around we find this not to be true. Oh well. The kids giggle as they force (unsuccessfully) a leg into the arm of a wet suit; they hop around in circles struggling for balance, they fall over. And once they have got the suit on and zipped up they need to go to the toilet, so the whole thing starts again. Finally we are all clad in neoprene and ready to listen to the safety brief; we laugh in all the right places and wonder if the stories of turtles, sharks and whales are really true. We walk down to the beach where, we are told, the boat that will take us to the reef that awaits.
The water that the evening before slipped grey and silent beneath our boat has reached the sea. Fresh to salt, land to sea, rolling back downhill after a long time away from home. Crabs and worms build sand sculptures and holes in the tide packed sand, delicate patterns of sand balls and claw scratches; seaside Zen gardens. A few gulls glide overhead, a tern skims low over the wave tops and high in the sky a Frigate Bird flies straight out to sea. An Osprey quarters and sweeps a path from one side of the bay to another. Everything seems to be watching everything else, hunting for food, looking for a chance, hoping for a change, damp with the memories of rain, getting ready for a new day.
The boat grounds on the beach and we splash out, knee deep, to the steps that fold over the bow. Bags are passed, children are boosted , helping hands reach down; gulls circle the boat in a knowing kind of way, waiting for scraps that never come. The gentle, rehearsed efficiency of the crew separates them from the rest of us as we fumble with bags, cameras and the self conscious desire to hide our wet suit stomaches. Sitting on the front seats of the boat was described as being like a roller coaster ride, so, clearly, this is where H chooses to sit. At first this seems like an exaggeration, but as the throttle is pushed forward, the drone from the back of the boat changes in tone and we come to know what they mean. The smile on H’s face is as predictable as his choice of seat.
The twin engines spin through the miles as we head away from the shore. After a while – it’s less than half an hour from shore to reef – a pale shadow line appears on the horizon; it grows in thickness and clarity as we move closer, a boat grows into view at the end of the line and I feel a wave of disappointment. If there are people there already how many birds will there be? Slowly the pale line takes on a firmer form, and the line between air and sea truly becomes land. I can see people walking on the sand and what seems to be a tree is growing from one end. When MacKay’s Reef shows itself fully the people have gone and the tree is a piece of drift wood lodged in the sand. The reef – or at least the island at its heart – seems small and unlikely; just a spot in the ocean. But this is the reality of the place. This is not the deep ocean, but a shallow sea, where the bottom is near the surface and safe navigation a skill beyond prize. Some of the ships that pass between the land and the reef are huge, and the consequence of miscalculation, misfortune or idiocy don’t really bear thinking about. I can’t help but wonder where the drift wood came from – probably the forests on the shore, but that’s no certainty; and did it bring any visitors to the island, hitch-hiking plants or animals from another place, clinging to their wooden life raft, part of the chance by chance colonisation of new land. There is no evidence that it did, but you never can tell.
The water below the boat, above the reef, ripples with colours; dark, almost purple where the corals grow, light and yellow over the banks of sand. An out of place looking floating ring bobs in the water – a “resting station” we are told –, white above and algae green below. Brown Bobbys, gannet like birds of committed angularity, squabble over ownership. Perhaps they have been pushed from the island by people who should not have been there, perhaps they are just argumentative.
The plunge into the water is cool enough to make you glad of the neoprene, but not so cold as to make your head ache – I’ve had colder showers, but not, thankfully, within recent memory. I’m teamed up with H, while P is looked after by Sal. H transforms back into Marine Boy and swims strongly away from the boat. P on the other hand is new to this experience, and despite the snorkel, keeps talking.
Entering the water is like watching colour TV after years of black and white. It’s not that the above reef world is dull, it’s just that the reef explodes with colour and form. The colour scheme is drawn from kindergarten walls, or maybe it’s the other way around. There are blocks of colour, walls of shades, interlocking shapes in hues that will never grace the cat walk – it’s a DNA driven Jackson Pollock art work, and it stretches as far as the eye can see. Fish fill the fluid space between the solid of the floor and the gas of the air; they seem to transfer the energy of waves and particles to the world around them, adding the same strange sense of peaceful urgency that birds bring as they fly over land.
You never feel still with fish around you, their movement too hypnotic to avoid, too beautiful to ignore. The water world swirls; and one fin flip, one tail sweep at a time it pulls you into a world of motion.
Then one point of colour, or one half glimpsed form, anchors you in space and the motion, briefly, ceases. A star fish, poster paint blue , the colour of unwashed cheap jeans, emerges from the living stone that builds the reef. It can’t be real, it’s a bath toy, it must be a cheap plastic parody of a living thing. But it’s not – it really is real, and it really is that blue. Such colour is not uncommon in small patches; tiny glitter marks on the wing edges of butterflies, small patches of feathers, the star light reflection of a bird’s eye. But this is a whole creature of vivid blue and despite the abundance of life around it this starfish comes to stand for the beauty and mystery of the place.
You hear words like “biodiversity”, “abundance” and “ecosystem” all the time these days, often to the point where they lose their meaning. Politicians take the words from biology and use them to appear knowledgeable, but end up soiling them, spoiling them, in sound bites and radio grabs. They become a cliché of apparent concern, used to greenwash the bottom line. But here, floating next to a tiny speck of land, startled but the blue of a starfish, the words regain their old wonder and power. They were invented because people saw places like this and needed a new language to describe what they saw. In places like this you can feel the invention of wonder.
The canvas of evolution is only matched by the diversity of names we have invented to catalogue it . Dusky Dottyback, Emperor Sweet Lips, Swarthy Parrotfish, Striped poison-fanged blenny, Pike, name after name, fish after fish; some borrowed from other places to link back to another time, some pure invention, some possibly chosen with a tongue planted in the cheek and others defying reason. I can name very little apart from the wrasse with their sharp teeth and bright colours. Even the way fish swim has been played with by the changes wrought by evolution – some swim with tail power, others use their other fins, some glide over the bottom as if powered by magic. A small shark bends its body into S shapes as it glides along. For the first time I know of I have photographs spoiled because there are out of focus fish between me and the landscape. When I look at the pictures later, they look like ghosts – brightly coloured ghosts, but ghosts none the less. They remind me of those half formed people that shadow early photographs when film was slow and a snapshot took half an hour. Here the opposite is true: the camera so fast and responsive that you can replace looking with shooting, you don’t look to see, you look to frame a picture and in doing this you lose some part of the experience. Like people taking pictures of street signs and information boards to prove they were there, the quest for that “single” picture can become so strong that you stop looking for anything else.
H taps me on the head and points at a huge clam. He has no camera, so what he wants to point out must be good in its own right, not just a photo-op. I let the camera dangle on my wrist and we swim side by side, following the pointing of each others’ arms and fingers. Look there. Look here. Look that way. I’m rich in a way that defies the logic of talent or ability; I was born into a world where, on a global scale, each and every one of us is rich. Rich in a way that would be beyond the comprehension of our grandparents and most of the people alive in the world today. But as I float with H, knowing P is only a little way away, I know this is money well spent, that this the kind of richness, rather than money itself, is real and valuable and that anybody who has ever had kids would know the power of moments like this. P’s face lights up when she tells me that they saw a turtle. We both agree that the blue starfish were special. We climb back aboard the boat and notice that everybody is smiling; families help each other out of adhesive wet suits, sea flattened hair is ruffled with towels. Snacks are passed around – fruit is good, chocolate much better. We turn and head back towards land. But the day has more to offer.
About half way back from the reef to the shore arms start to point from the left side of the boat. The conversation flips in an instant from quiet family conversations to excitement. “Look there! Past those white horses! In line with that island. Whales!” And there they are. Two whales – possibly a mother and this year’s calf, returned from the cold waters of the Southern Ocean to grow and feed in the warmth of a tropical winter. The larger whale slaps its tail hard on the water for a purpose we can imagine but never really know for sure. Communication? Itchy skin? Excitement at the recognition of some feature of ocean and shore? Whale laughter at some crazy question sung from child to mother? Who knows? A large front flipper waves in the distance as the mother whale rolls on her back. On the boat, hands with the same bones wave and point too. Homology connects across the millions of years of separation; would the excitement be the same if these were just very, very large fish?
Whale song, sea song, and heart strong we continue back to the shore.