On the Great Barrier Reef

It’s a dozy midafternoon in the single closest place to paradise that I’ve ever been. Wilson Island is a coral and sand cay on the Great Barrier Reef, about a 20-minute walk in circumference. For the next three days, it’s inhabited by just six people: Melissa and I, a retired academic couple from Sydney, and a young couple (Heath and Jacinta) who serve as chef, guide, and general staff.

Luxury tent under trees

From the canvas-shaded deck of our luxury tent, in a deep, soft chair, I look through pandanus palm trees about a hundred yards to the wide ocean (quiet now and hazy). Melissa reads and sometimes dozes in the hammock beside me. The temperature is in the 70s, I think, with light breezes and no insects to pester us.

Melissa in hammock

Overhead, interrupting the lassitude (or maybe adding to it), a few hundred noddy terns roost and swoop and squawk to each other. They’re the forerunners of a huge colony of seabirds that will arrive here for the breeding season in the weeks to come.

I feel like I could spend half my life in this spot.

By turning my head in different directions, from this chair I can see not only the black noddy terns in the trees but also a brilliant white eastern reef egret standing on a rock in the sun, two silver gulls at the water’s edge, a greenish-yellow finch-like silvereye bird in a bush, and a buff-banded rail bird poking through the dried palm fronds on the ground. That’s nearly all of the island’s bird species. What Wilson Island lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in proximity.

White eastern reef egret in a tree
An eastern reef egret

Getting to this wonderful spot was no easy task—more like an endurance test. It took a 5-hour flight from Washington to Los Angeles, a 13-hour flight to Brisbane, and a 1.5-hour flight to Gladstone. After an overnight stop in Gladstone (a town that seemed to have fallen asleep in the 1960s and forgotten to wake up), there was a 2-hour ferry ride to larger Heron Island and then a 40-minute motorboat ride to tiny Wilson Island. Along the way, thanks to the magic of the International Date Line, an entire day (Sept. 17, 2005) completely vanished from our lives.

Chris and Melissa on boat
On the boat from Heron Island (a larger resort island on the reef) to little Wilson Island

If all we’d wanted was relaxation in a quiet natural setting, we could have found that much closer to home. What brought us to the Great Barrier Reef was the chance to snorkel the most famous place in the world for underwater life.

The reefs around Wilson and Heron Islands—and a different part of the Great Barrier Reef that we visited later by boat from Port Douglas—were extraordinary. We already knew from trips to the Caribbean that we liked snorkeling. But our time on the Great Barrier Reef hooked us on the hobby for life.

Small fish swimming over reef
A little yellow- and black-striped sergeant major damsel fish swimming on the reef

We saw bigger and more diverse fish than we’d seen before: butterfly fish and angel fish and orange clown fish and parrot fish, Moorish idols with long trailing top fins, pufferfish, squid and rays and eels. And oh, the colors! Starfish of azure or red or orange with green bumps, giant clams (3 feet across) with lips of deep blue or purple, green sea turtles, iridescent blue staghorn coral, celery-green sea fans, plate corals 20 feet across and boulder-sized coral bommies. A whole underwater world. There’s never enough time to really explore and absorb it when you’re snorkeling. You’re getting cold (in Australia’s bracing waters) or sun-baked or tired, or you have to get back to the boat. A couple of hours here and there and you feel like you’re just getting glimpses.

Dark blue starfish
Azure blue starfish are common on the reef

[Note from 2019: Many of our later snorkeling trips—to coral reefs in the Cayman Islands, Central America, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines—have been efforts to recapture the wonder of what we saw on the Great Barrier Reef in 2005. We’re still at it, researching potential snorkeling spots for future trips. It’s a race against time: coral conditions around the world are changing rapidly as the oceans heat up. But, like our memories of close-up views of glaciers in the Alps, our memories of the richness and color of the marine life on the Great Barrier Reef will stay with us throughout our lives.]

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