This past weekend marked the fulfillment of one of my lifetime goals: visit the Great Barrier Reef. With climate change and who knows what causing the demise of this international Bucket List location, visiting was becoming a more time-pressed necessity. Researchers aren’t sure how much longer this token of Australian pride will be in existence. After seeing the Reef with my own eyes, I can assure you that would be a terrible loss. It was absolutely incredible. Apparently I didn’t even see half of what it used to be, but I saw enough to make me decide for myself that it needs to stick around forever.
Like most things here, everything about the Great Barrier Reef was far out of my comfort zone. I’m terrified of being in the water (especially the open ocean!), and I’m not the biggest fan of long boat rides. Slipping into the water after a two and a half hour ride out to the Reef simply felt wrong. It was going against all the rules I set for myself on this trip, the “don’t do’s” that would “surely” result in a “great time.” Standing on the edge of the boat when we arrived, I wondered why in the world I was about to flip my little rubber fins around exploring wildlife for four hours in the big bad territory of the far-out ocean….I slipped in and stopped thinking.
All of a sudden I was there. I opened my frightened eyes and saw that I was moving and breathing in the one and only Great Barrier Reef. Blue, purple, yellow, orange, green- color was everywhere. Fish skirted busily in every direction. Each one seemed to have a purpose, a hurried reason to be swimming along. They swam to the bottom, swam to the top, darted behind some coral or confronted another fish. They chased each other in circles. The smaller fish cleaned the bigger ones, and the bigger ones left the small ones behind as they swam off towards the edge. The edge of what? The edge of the Reef. Just like in Finding Nemo, it seemed taboo for the small fish to cross the point where the Reef dropped off into deep water. At the abyss where the coral ended, the sea floor disappeared dramatically into a dark blue, cloudy world of mystery. I swam with a few brave fish to the edge of the Reef. We floated there together for a second, at the cusp of something vast and lonely, looking out at whatever might be out there, we wondered about the invisible. In a moment’s time we’d snap out of our daze and swivel back quickly towards the hectic Reef.
Polka dots, tiger stripes, and bright neon colors surrounded me and passed in flashes. Some fish had fins designed so incredibly that it seemed they had tattoos. I realized with unapologetic excitement that I was going to spend the next four hours of my life exploring this global treasure, this biological hotspot and scientific phenomenon. Me. A student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I came up to adjust my snorkel, kept afloat by the cool waters as a universe of marine life carried on their day below me. Then in a second and without warning, a wave smacked my face and the magic was gone. Coughing out a mouthful of saltwater, I got pelted with another one. And another one. It was almost impossible to get my mouthpiece back between my teeth. Yes, apparently there really are big waves even that far out. Me and my measly little snorkel learned that the hard way.
Saturday out at the Reef left me and my friend exhausted. Plans for a lazy Sunday turned into a twelve mile walk (as lazy days tend to do when you’re with me), but we got to see most of the laid back town of Cairns. That day alone I made three trips down to the muddy, mangrove- dotted water’s edge where the pelicans flocked together. My favorite spot in Cairns (besides the Reef of course) was a stone bench that sat at the edge of the boardwalk and looked down at the murky water. The muddy shore below me seemed to be a gathering place for the ibis, the pelicans, the plovers and the seagulls. They would all keep to their own species, feasting on the tiny crustaceans in the water all day long. In the afternoon hours just before dusk, I saw a pelican on the beach right below me trying to swallow a plastic lid and straw. It dipped its head down to fill up her gigantic beak with enough water to swallow the trash, but each time she tried she could only barely manage to spit it out. People stopped to watch and a few of us tried to scare her away, but she was too used to humans and wouldn’t move. We couldn’t jump down to help either (the signs all over town warn of crocodiles on the beach), so we watched feeling helpless and feeling like we were to blame. In the end the beautiful bird gave up and flew away back to her friends further out in the mud. The plastic straw and lid sat waiting for something else to try, flattened and covered in mud. I think everyone that saw it all happen thought a little more about where they put their trash after that.
Witnessing a pelican almost swallow plastic in front of me and not being able to do anything about it, and seeing the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef opened my eyes this weekend. The wildlife in Cairns is so unique and seemingly untouched, but even here the effects of our lifestyles are making their marks one by one. I’m not one to rally for anything, but I know if I could have, I would’ve picked up that trash before it fell on the floor of the pelican’s home. I would’ve used marine-friendly sun tan lotion before getting in the water of the Great Barrier Reef. Even if I’m not standing out there with a sign, trying to get policy makers to change something drastic, seeing the biological beauty of Cairns makes me want to rally in my own small ways everyday. I always had it in the back of my mind that my future home will function in harmony with nature. I see now that it isn’t only a “millennial lifestyle.” Living green and advocating for the climate shouldn’t be disregarded as a lifestyle choice, like hipster, punk, gothic, hippie, or any other persona that a person can be. Living green should be a necessary part of being a human, not a persona that someone chooses to be, but a responsibility that everyone has. Otherwise places like the ones I saw this weekend might not be here in ten, fifteen years. They’ll only be sections in textbooks, highlights of old stories, and memories of beauty framed in the minds of those lucky enough to see them. For others who never got the chance, they’ll only be legends.