Great Barrier Reef: Snorkeling with Sheila
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Sheila is not at home today. Today, she has no desire to greet the crowd of tourists, it seems. She favors being alone for a while. Somewhere in the vastness of the ocean she makes her lonely rounds. The small black buoy on the edge of the reef, which marks Sheila’s home, bounces up and down slightly in the light motion of the sea. We have dropped our anchor a few meters away from the sea turtle’s home so we do not disturb her when she returns. She does not usually get far from the buoy as she is a very curious being, so there is a good chance to catch a glimpse of her. At least, this is what the crew told us.
Kids and adults bustle about on the ship, the mood is fidgety and excited. We have finally reached our destination, a part of the outer Great Barrier Reef. It’s been two hours since we left the port of Cairns. The reef stretches out in front of us. Yet, we still cannot see much of the promising underwater world, and that is why everyone cannot wait to get their snorkeling gear and jump into the clear blue water.
While I am still struggling with my lycra suit, a blonde Dutch jams a diving mask and a snorkel into my face to see if the set fits. He nods approvingly. Ari has been on the boat for three months now, he gets out to the reef at least once a day, but he practically never gets into the water. By working on the boat, he finances his stay in Australia. His colleague Meg, the loquacious British woman hands me a pair of swimming shoes and sends me down a ladder to a platform where I get my fins strapped on just before I jump into the water.
In our black full-body suits we all look kind of alike in the water. The suits are mandatory, as the Australian summer is stinger season. This kind of small jellyfish is almost invisible to the naked eye. Yet, anyone who comes into skin contact with one of them is as good as dead. There is no need to worry whatsoever as the probability to meet a stinger out here on the reef is very low – they prefer the warm and shallow waters near the coast. It is much more likely to detect a harmless reef shark nibbling at your flippers.
I make my way away from the group because the sharks avoid crowds and I really want to meet one. The animals actually fascinate me more than the colorful corals that spread beneath me. It’s a little cloudy today, but the colors are still intense. They must be radiant in bright sunlight. In front of an anemone I wait for a few minutes to catch a glimpse of a little Nemo coming out of it but none shows up. The movement of a larger animal distracts me – a shark has crossed my path. Through my mask it looks much larger and closer to me than it actually is. I dive behind it but the shark disappears in a corner I cannot reach. S. and I must have covered quite a distance from the boat, as none of the others crosses our paths anymore.
And then I spot her: Sheila is only a short distance away from us. I excitedly wave to S. who is some meters behind me to alert him. He looks at me, starts to swim in my direction, still not knowing what it is I want to show him. I swim as fast as I can to reach Sheila. I do not dare to approach the impressive creature by more than a meter or so. S. now swims next to us, on the other side of Sheila. The three of us float through the water side by side. The turtle’s swimming movements remind me of ours, she moves her fins like we move our arms. At regular intervals, she stretches her little head out of the water. Sheila is totally unimpressed by her company. We are in awe all the more. And we can only detach ourselves from the sight of the turtle when we hear a whistle warning us not to get too far away from the ship. Meg and Ari would have to start the motor boat to get us back if we continued on Sheila’s track.
Note: As I did not take a camera on our tour to the Great Barrier Reef, all pictures shown in this article are from Wikipedia. Therefore, they do not show Sheila but a conspecific of hers. I struggled with myself all the time before we took the tour but then decided to leave the camera at the hotel in order to really experience the reef instead of being under pressure to capture everything on film. It is a little sad not to have pictures of the reef adventure, but I guess I would never remember the scenes so clearly if I had taken photos instead of storing the experience in my head directly.