Panic attacks and sea stars – Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Property 154 – The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

I was in fifteen metres of water, having a panic attack and trying not to drown, but also hoping that no-one would notice. That is what I remember most clearly about visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

I am not a natural swimmer. School swimming carnivals entailed a creeping horror in the days beforehand, which was followed by a dank knot of fear in my belly when walking through the doors of the pool. To this day I experience a mild sense of panic if I smell chlorine, even if it is only a waft from the downstairs pool while I visit another part of a gym.

The locus of terror for me is the immersion of my head in water, especially at depth. The inability to breathe, the disorientation and the tide of rising panic have been alarming enough to keep me away from potentially fatal bodies of water for my entire life. With much effort I have managed to train myself to perform a kind of desperate breaststroke which, while not exactly impressive, allows me to move forward in the water while keeping my head largely above it. No swimming teacher would give me a pass, but I can mostly avoid the humiliation of not being able to swim while also not suffering existential dread near water deeper than my bathtub.

With that in mind, I consider it a triumph that I was able to visit the Great Barrier Reef at all, let alone twice.

Astute readers will be aware that the Reef, intermittently nominated for spurious “7 Wonders of the Natural World” lists is an accretion of coral and fish that stretches for thousands of kilometres along the coastline of Queensland. These same astute readers will also be aware that the Reef is currently under threat from warming of the oceans driven by anthropogenic climate change. For something so extensive, the reef is surprisingly fragile. A change in the water temperature of only a couple of degrees is quite able to bleach large parts of it and render the various marine creatures homeless until they too expire. I was lucky enough to be able to visit twice in the early 2010s, but I may have been one of the last.

The Great Barrier Reef has been known to the Aboriginal people for thousands of years, but the first British record came when Captain Cook embarrassingly ran aground on it in 1770.  These days it is a major tourist attraction, chiefly for divers and snorkelers accessing the reef from Cairns or the backpacker ghetto of Airlie Beach. Tourists cruise up and down the coast in vans, trying to emulate hippy nomads of the 60s. South of Noosa there is surfing but the reef makes that impossible further north. Tourist operators have filled the gap by installing giant pontoons several kilometres out to sea. From these giant floating platforms the enthusiastic visitor can snorkel about, and the more timid can descend below decks to observe listless fish through domed perspex windows. The younger visitors, including almost everyone under the age of 25, seem to get the most satisfaction from chasing each other around and invoking a round of shushing from their parents.

I opted to go on a snorkelling trip and was duly provided with ill-fitting snorkelling gear and a saggy lycra bag resembling a very budget wetsuit. It turned out that this was a stinger suit. The warmer months in North Queensland are stinger season, when the normally placid seas of the sweaty latitudes are colonised by plagues of savage jellyfish which are hungry for human flesh. A sting from one of them brings debilitating agony, neurological shutdown, and may result in strangers urinating on you in an attempt to deactivate the venom. Or so I was told.

I donned my sloppy bag of lycra and courageously launched myself from the edge of the pontoon to join my tour group. Testing the fit of my mask, I swam a few metres away from the pontoon and looked down. I realised that I was fifteen metres off the top of the reef, giving me the simultaneous feeling of falling to my death, and drowning along the way.

Shocked and disconcerted, I attempted to regain my composure and swam towards my tour group with the confident air of someone for whom this is a normal occurrence. This was partially to mask my own terror and partially in an effort to not appear completely hopeless in front of my tour guides, a pair of attractive young female marine biologists. While they waited for the group to assemble, they quietly bitched about their working conditions, while being completely oblivious to the fact that most of their guests spent their workdays hunched over keyboards in offices.

After the obligatory safety briefing we set off on a flipper-powered journey around the local reef. The guides seemed to know it like the back of their hands, although to me it looked like a great deal of undifferentiated water. My fear simmered like a rumbling volcano, taking a concerted effort to suppress and breathe through, which was made much harder by the sound of my own breathing refracted through my snorkel. I did my best to concentrate on what I was seeing, but the sense of imminent death was distracting.

Ecologically the reef is a marvel. Even seen through a gauzy screen of distress it is clear that is an impossibly complex assemblage of lifeforms. Like an aquatic jungle, every small creature works has its place within the whole, a place won through millions of years of cutthroat evolution and maximising marginal environmental benefits. Luminous fish swarm past individually or in schools, quite unaware of their own flamboyant excess. Small scuttling creatures moved in and out of the corals, determinedly seeking out some morsel or other. One of my guides suddenly dived to the bottom, an impressive feat in itself, and retrieved some kind of sea star which squirmed in the sunlight and attempted to molest her hand.

Unlike many of the World Heritage properties which I have written about before, it is genuinely possible that the Great Barrier Reef will not exist ten or twenty years hence. While I generally try to avoid being controversial in this blog, there is little doubt that the Reef is dying, and that we are killing it. Arguments to the contrary are specious at best and mendacious at worst. The failure of governments around the world to address climate change is the greatest political failure of my lifetime, and possibly of the last hundred years.

As I lazily kicked my way around, being distracted by fish like a five year old with an iPad, a strange sense of calm washed over me. This is it, I realised. This is the serenity that divers and other nautical people experience, the sensation that keeps them coming back despite the expense and inconvenience. The warm water had lapped away my tension and the fish had deactivated my intellect, and I realised that the depth of the water wasn’t bothering me any more.

My little excursion around the perimeter of the pontoon came to an end, and we lazily kicked back to “dry” “land”. I hauled myself out of the water with some difficult, noting how cold and merciless the surface seemed in comparison with the amniotic tranquility of the sea. Although I can’t say that I learned that much about the reef, I certainly learned a lot about myself and my ability to face up to fear. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems, but it takes courage to find out.

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