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Saturday, 21 April 2018

A Life Changing Plastic Tube...

How my heart leapt with both surprise and joy as I sat by the window of the Boeing 747 as it cruised some 40,000 feet 12,200 metres above the west coast of the Australian Cape York Peninsula which just came into view from so far down below. It was early morning of late May 1997, not long after daybreak, nearing completion of an overnight flight from Singapore, when I was surprised by the sight of thick forest way down below, covering what I originally thought would be orange tinted desert landscape of this North Queensland peninsula.

After landing at Cairns Airport and passing through Passport control, the first task was to exchange a US dollar Travellers Cheque into Australian currency. With such a purpose-built kiosk near the exit, I was impressed with the pile of banknotes I had in my hand for the first time in my life. They were of thin plastic rather than paper, waterproof, and very much the same as our present UK fivers and tenners, both so recently introduced. It seemed a long time for the UK to learn a thing or two from Down Under, as their plastic currency was in full circulation more than twenty years earlier.

I was alone outside the airport under hot, dry sunshine when a taxi arrived, as it does automatically every twenty minutes, regardless whether there is anyone waiting. When the driver asked me where I wanted to go, I asked about an HI backpacker's hostel which I have read about before take off in London. Presently, the cab stopped and the driver pointed his finger about a hundred metres down the street.

"Do you see that building down there?" He asked in a typical Australian drawl.
"Yes," was my monosyllabic reply.
"That's the hostel."

As I sauntered along the tropical Pacific coastline, I thought about dear Mum, sounding rather exasperated at the time, asking me why I had to travel such great distances. Then a good friend at church, also with a level of concern, suggesting that I should stay with an Australian family he knew of. I assured them both that if I managed quite well in both Israel and North America, then why not in Australia too? To boot, it is one of the British Commonwealth nations with English as its primary language. I then arrived at the hostel, perhaps feeling uncertain about the outcome, as this was another example of my "off-the-street" hotel and hostel experience. I was happy to be told of a bed readily available in the men's dormitory, and I checked in.

There was only one sole occupant still asleep in the dormitory as I prepared the bed. It wan't until a member of staff spoke softly to him that I realised that here was a fellow backpacker struck down with a fever, forcing him to remain confined to his bed throughout the next two or three days, which was just a few feet away from where I would sleep.

I sauntered into the town of Cairns, and rested under a palm tree in a central public garden. If I recall, my eyes were swimming with mild dizziness as I checked out the town and approached the garden. In next to no time I was sleeping soundly, probably snoring too, according to what others said to me in the past, as I caught up with a sleepless night spent in a 'plane, flying 40,000 feet above Oceania after spending five days in Singapore.

It wasn't long before I became aware of the presence of the Great Barrier Reef just off the Queensland coast. After making an enquiry, the hostel receptionist offered to book me a place on one of several catamarans which leaves Cairns Harbour every morning for day trips to the Reef. I accepted her suggestion of Green Island, a coral cay surrounded by shallow waters which makes the location suitable for beginners, as I had never snorkelled before, and this was to be my first go at it.

On board, I hired a snorkelling gear and also bought a single-use cardboard camera sealed in waterproof plastic. It was whilst at Green Island that wearing a plastic breathing tube has converted me from an apathetic into a fanatic of coral and marine life. Indeed the sea was shallow, which was just right to gain confidence with a snorkel without coaching or instruction. Snorkelling turned out to one of these iffy businesses, when water can get into the tube or into the goggles, and trigger panic. And so was at one occasion at Green Island when I had to suddenly lift my head above water. Gradually I resumed, and to regain confidence.

Green Island Coral Cay, off Cairns.

But I returned to the hostel feeling happy, very happy indeed! I was keen for more. Therefore it was a few days later that I found myself boarding the first of the two catamarans at Cairns Harbour for Port Douglas Harbour, a resort further up the heavily forested Queensland coastline, where I was to change catamarans for Low Isles, another coral cay set in deeper water, therefore making the coral larger and richer. With confidence gained, I felt far more comfortable breathing through a plastic tube as I floated horizontally above the aquatic garden. Again as with Green Island, I purchased a single-use underwater camera also for 25 Australian dollars, and with it, took more pictures of these fascinating marine life. I thought of posting a few pics here. All were taken at Low Isles coral cay:

Low Isles, Great Barrier Reef, all taken June 1997.

The first two day trips were to coral cays: Green Island and Low Isles. The third day trip to the Reef was also on a catamaran from Airlie Beach to the Whitsunday Islands. Airlie Beach is another resort about 622 km, or 386 miles further down the coast from Cairns, hence the need to stay at a hostel at that location. The hostel itself was a unique experience, rather different from any other I ever stayed at. Unlike all other backpackers who were staying there, by paying a few dollars extra, I had the entire dormitory to myself, which was housed in a separate hut from the others. Oh the bliss!

At the first attempt to reach the Whitsunday Islands, the catamaran suffered engine failure whilst still at the harbour. So that trip had to be cancelled, and I was taken back to the hostel with a promise of a free pickup on the next day. That morning I was collected personally and driven to the harbour where the repaired vessel waited.

The trip involved two islands, Whitsunday itself, with its volcanic formation involving the creation of White Beach. As its name implies, the sand on that beach was not only nearly pure white but squeaks when walked upon. After a couple of hours, we were ferried to Heron Island, of continental formation rather than a coral cay, and the coral surrounding it was known as a fringe reef. Unfortunately there was no access to an underwater camera, which was something of a shame, because these corals were even more deeper than at Low Isles, with at least one species I instantly recognised as the Brain Coral.

These three catamaran trips to the Great Barrier Reef opened a wealth of knowledge on this tropical marine life. For instance, how could a colony of tiny polyps create exoskeletons of limestone to form a reef so fantastically huge that it could be seen from space? The reef is a phenomenon! Tiny polyps, related to the jellyfish, thrive on a wide continental shelf, a one-time strip of land now submerged under a sea which is naturally deprived of nutrition. Yet roughly at the middle of the barrier reef there is a break. The East Australian ocean current flows through this gap, and then throughout the whole length of the reef, bringing in plankton from the open ocean, on which the polyps feed. Furthermore, each polyp harbours many one-cell algae, known as Zooxanthellae, which photosynthesis providing each polyp with glucose, glycerol and amino acids with which the polyp benefits, in addition to the plankton. 

To add to all that, as the sea level rises, so does the reef. Various algae binds the dead exoskeletons to form a solid wall which is slowly but constantly rising as the living polyps thrive on the upper surface.

Then there are the annual storms which destroys parts of the Outer Reef. With such frequent destruction, I can wonder how on Earth the reef could sustain such a tremendous size over time. The storms literally break off coral limestone, and the fragments accumulate on the sea floor, forming a coral wasteland, indeed, a melancholic sight to behold. However, more than 80% of the coral in that area survive the storms to see another day, whilst at the same time the entire Inner Reef with its coral cays remain protected. But in time, when polyps spore, young larvae settle on these wastelands and life begins all over again.

Then not to mention the Parrot fish, which often arrives in large shoals. These creatures eat coral by the ton. As I wonder why such creatures exist, bringing such destruction to the reef. But there is a twist to the story. Coral swallowed by the fish is defecated as sand. Storms and ocean currents gathers this sand, along with broken exoskeletons and shells, into mounds which eventually breaks the surface of the ocean. Birds bring in the seeds of plants to these mounds and by taking root, binds the sand and calcium rubble together to form permanent islands, or coral cays.

The Parrot Fish plays a role in Coral Cay formation

Much of this I learnt from the experience itself, by reading books and by watching television documentaries and videos on the subject of corals. The Great Barrier Reef was not the only reef I visited. In the year 2000, in celebrating our first anniversary, Alex and I spent the day in Eilat, at the Red Sea, where I believe that the clearer turquoise waters brought out a greater beauty and fascination of the reef thriving within the fingertip of the Indian Ocean.

What can I say but to quote this Scripture:

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number -
living things both large and small.
Psalm 104:24-25.

As I watched the programme earlier in the week, I could not help acknowledge God's handiwork as the presentation warmed the cockles of my heart in praise and thanksgiving to God, at least in my thoughts. It wasn't difficult to ignore the bits about evolution, as the meticulous structure of the Reef became obvious.

The result of Evolution? Let's go over just once again. 

1. A large underwater platform, or continental shelf, exists on which the reef flourishes.
2. Each polyp creates its own limestone exoskeleton, which over time accumulates into a reef of tremendous size. 
3. Also within each polyp, algae co-inhabits - enabling the polyp to feed on the nutrition the algae provides by means of photosynthesis. 
4. As means of good luck, there happens to be a well-placed break in the middle of the barrier wall, through which a strong ocean current brings in adequate supplies of plankton to feed the entire reef.
5. When storms destroy parts of the Outer Reef, less than 20% is actually lost. Not only does the affected parts of the reef replenishes itself, but the Inner Reef with all its cays are protected from the storms rolling in from the open ocean.
6. The Parrot Fish may look to be a scourge on the reef. But its role in creating sand allows cays to form.
7. A coral reef is one of the richest areas to sustain life, being home to a high percentage of all marine life.

The probability of all seven features evolving by pure chance and without divine intervention seems to be a mathematical impossibility. Instead, by acknowledging God as the Creator, I find all this so exhilarating to the spirit. 


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