A dream come true - exploring Australia's Great Barrier Reef

For many years I have dreamed of the perfect coral reef; of floating in warm, clear blue water with friendly fish peering into my face mask. After I've climbed high mountains, working against gravity, my fantasy has been to swim in the warm, soothing water and to explore the crevasses, caves, and other mysteries of the reef. Weightless at last, I could descend or ascend a vertical wall under the sea with a kick of my fins.

It's a dream not easy to achieve. I tried first in 1972, when tourist brochures proclaiming ''Enjoy the Great Barrier Reef'' lured me to Cairns, Australia, the town in northeastern Australia closest to the actual reef. But the reef itself was at least 25 miles out to sea, and in 1972 the only way there was by boat.

After joining the local diving club for a choppy two-hour ride out to the reef's edge, I finally had a tantalizing glimpse of the beautiful world beneath the waves, but little time to enjoy it between long, rough boat rides to and fro.

Now the beauties of this reef are easily accessible at a cost of $70. In 20 minutes anyone can now visit the outer reef. A small, innovative airline, Air Whitsunday, flies seaplanes out to the barrier and lands in a calm lagoon. From the plane, the visitor can walk on the reef at low tide. Or visitors may stay for several days on the dive boat Reef Encounter, which is anchored in protected Hardy Lagoon on the barrier reef itself.

The Great Barrier Reef is actually a band of about 3,000 groups of reefs separated by narrow sea passages that extend 1,600 miles from the Fly River in New Guinea, down the coast of northeastern Australia and 25 to 200 miles off shore. Each individual reef is composed of the skeletons of millions of once-living coral polyps.

Capt. James Cook ''discovered'' the reef in 1770 and wrote in his log of superb anchorages among green and pleasant islands between the mainland and the outer barrier. These islands, which he named

the Whitsundays, lie just off what is now Airlie Beach in northern Queensland.

Air Whitsunday, based in Airlie Beach, has developed a remarkable trip giving easy and relatively inexpensive access to the outer reef. The key to all this is a new breed of airline pilot.

The Air Whitsunday pilots I met were all friendly, articulate men, wearing flip-flops or with bare feet. Their work is diverse: flying, fueling, and maintaining the planes; hosing the salt water off after flights; driving the taxi to pick up the passengers; running small boats between the planes and the reef itself; teaching snorkeling and reef ecology; and even mowing the grass on the landing strip.

Flying directly from Los Angeles to Townsville in central Queensland, I was met by Ken, a tanned Air Whitsunday pilot. An hour's flight later, I was in tropical Airlie Beach. My plan was to enjoy a day of snorkeling and reef walking and then stay on the dive boat Reef Encounter afterward for scuba diving and fishing.

At 6 a.m., as the first crimson was tinting the early morning tropical sky, Glenn, another pilot in the Air Whitsunday ''uniform'' of flip-flops and shorts, gave me and eight other passengers a ride to the airport. There, another pilot was fueling a small plane, and a third was mowing the grass landing strip.

Before stepping into the 12-seater Mallard aircraft, Glenn stepped out of his flip-flops, leaving them on the grass runway in a neat row next to those of the other pilots off for a day at the reef. At the day's end, I imagined each of the pilots flying back, landing his plane, putting on his flip-flops, and walking away.

Twenty minutes later, we taxied across the waters of Hardy Lagoon, a sheltered pond on the outer barrier reef about 45 miles northeast of Airlie Beach. Several boats were floating in this calm anchorage, very well protected from all but the most severe cyclones, a superb base for the underwater exploration of the reef.

The Mallard landed in the lagoon and taxied to a small boat on which we motored to the reef. Since the tide was out, the reef surface was exposed, and countless marine creatures were trapped in tidal pools for our observation. Glenn pointed out the long, elegant staghorn coral, the flat circular plate corals, the flowerlike soft corals.

Although coral looks like a plant, each coral is actually composed of thousands of tiny animals which eat drifting plankton particles, small marine worms, and crustaceans. The fossilized ex-skeletons of countless tiny corals form the basis of the reef.

As we strolled along the drying reef we saw dozens of species of coral, sponges, and shells. A two-foot reef shark caught in a pool was patiently waiting for the incoming tide to return his freedom.

After an hour's walk, Glenn gave us masks, snorkels, and fins so we could float on the reef's edge and peer down into the clear blue depths. I floated for several minutes, then bent at the waist and kicked slowly down to the welcoming reef, where schools of brilliantly colored fish darted among vivid coral; huge sea fans waved; an occasional turtle, small shark, or giant grouper swam lazily by.

Back on the surface, I wanted to float there forever, but Glenn and the other reef walkers had to return to the mainland, and I was due to transfer to the Reef Encounter. Staying on this comfortable 112-foot yacht moored in the calm lagoon, I could snorkel, scuba-dive, and fish for the next few days.

As a small boat approached from the Reef Encounter, Barbara, a florist from southern England, who had come to the reef only for the day's walk, looked longingly at the big boat anchored nearby.

She confided to me that her lifetime dream had been to learn to scuba-dive, but now she thought she was too old.

''Too old? Don't be silly,'' I encouraged her. ''This is your chance. Stay for a few days on the Reef Encounter and of course you can learn.''

Although Barbara had no reservations and had only brought the clothes she was wearing, our pilot, Glenn, confirmed that staying would be easy.

''We're flexible here, you've got everything you need.''

Barbara couldn't resist and joined me for the ride to the big boat. Once on board the Reef Encounter, Mike, the instructor from the Barrier Reef Diving Services, welcomed us and invited Barbara to join the beginner's class. Meanwhile, I went with Rob, the boat's captain, and a couple of other experienced divers to the ''canyons'' on the edge of Hook Reef.

Within minutes I was floating in the warm water and then dropping down, down. Large gorgonia fans beckoned. Schools of trevally mackerel and tuna swam by. Around a rocky corner a striped cleaner fish set up a station through which the larger fish came and patiently waited for grooming; the cleaner fish then swam quickly around, pulling off parasites. A big cod opened his mouth and the little fish fearlessly darted in, apparently to clean his mouth and teeth. An exquisite purple and gold nudibranch swam by.

Rob led us through underwater caves and passages from which we could pop back up to the reef. In the back of one cave, three 2-foot-long purple and white lobsters appeared to be having a meeting.

The tropical sky was a vivid orange as we planned for our night dive. ''The reef's very different at night,'' explained Mike; ''some fish are asleep, but all sorts of other creatures are awake.''

With anticipation edging on anxiety, I slipped into the murky waters and flashed on my torch. Immediately myriad floating shrimps and crustaceans were illuminated, their red eyes shining. The fish were indeed asleep, floating calmly in rock crevices or occasionally in the open water. A sea urchin nearly two feet in diameter pulsated iridescent green and purple.

The most amazing change was the coral itself. During the day this creature sleeps and appears to be an inert lump of rock. But at night it blossoms in colorful polyps, reaching out hungrily for food. After four days of the best diving I'd ever enjoyed, I was reluctant to join my barefoot Air Whitsunday pilot for the flight back to Airlie Beach. But reflecting on how easy and inexpensive it now was to enjoy the reef, I knew I'd be back soon.

Practical information:

To enjoy the beauties of the Great Barrier Reef, contact Air Whitsunday, PO Box 166, Airlie Beach, Queensland 4741, Australia, or the Reef Encounter, Captain Southwood, PO Box 56, Airlie Beach, Queensland 47411, Australia.

Current rates are $81 for a round-trip flight to the reef, including reef walk; $57 for accommodations, including fishing, snorkeling, glass-bottom-boat rides, and meals on the Reef Encounter; and $22 per day for diving, including air tanks and wet suits. Windsurfing is also available. A 40-foot motor vessel based at the Reef Encounter is available for trips farther afield on the reef.

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