The Great Barrier Reef

Turtles and starfish and anemones, oh my!

For nature-lovers, a visit to the Great Barrier Reef is a quasi-religious experience. From a plane, the 1,600 mile long organism unfurls like a giant blue rash along the north-east coast of Australia. But beneath the placid waves lie canyons of brilliant coral, each one a miniature galaxy of sea life. There are tropical fish and anemones, giant turtles, moray eels, sharks and manta rays so large they can blot out the sun’s light as they pass overhead. The clarity of the water, the intensity of the colors, even the quality of the Australian light are like nowhere else on earth. Most visitors arrive in the booming tropical city of Cairns, then drive north through the rainforest to Port Douglas. This former gold rush port had become a virtual ghost town in the 1960s, but is now one of Australia’s most glamorous resort destinations. From the docks, high-speed catamarans run out to submerged platforms on the Reef, a jumping-off point for snorkelers and glass-bottomed boats. It’s an unforgettable experience. The Pacific pumps back and forth like a giant lung over forests of staghorn coral. Clouds of tropical fish explode off the sandy ocean floor, green sea turtles glide purposefully by. And keep an eye out for the giant clams. Four feet wide, 500 pounds in weight and up to 100 years old, they gape up invitingly from the beds of soft coral swaying in the current. A kick of your flippers takes you down to admire their vibrant colors in the slanting sunlight. And when you touch their sensuous lips, the shells close slowly into fixed, happy smiles.

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