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where onearth chromatic scales The Great Barrier Reef plays host to 1,500 species of riotously colorful fish.

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Grab a snorkel and flippers and behold the Great Barrier Reef By caitlin barasch

panning more than 1,400 miles and containing some 3,000

separate and unique coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef—as I was reminded by my snorkeling-tour guide—is one of the world’s only natural wonders visible from outer space. That’s all well and good, but experiencing this wonder off Australia’s Queensland coast is better when it’s right in front of you. The first thing I was struck by was the water’s Technicolor-worthy shade of aqua. Even from above the surface, the reef was easy to delineate. Once I took the plunge, I found myself hovering over a jungle gym of dazzling coral. Schools of tiny fish flitted past my outstretched fingers, while bigger ones—done up in flashy purples, greens, reds, and pinks—poked in and out of holes and gaps. A grumpy barracuda, the object of some scuba divers’ friendly pursuit, passed by my left flipper. In perfect quietude I swam through tunnels and peeked over the edges of coral cliffs. Because it requires sunlight to grow, the reef sits surprisingly close to the surface. But as I swam toward the darkening waters along its edges, I suddenly realized that I was flanked by unimaginable depths. While the reef itself has an average depth of only 114 feet, the average depth of the Coral Sea around it is 7,850 feet. In the end, that realization helped me decide I was ready to return to the boat. I retreated from the blurry darkness at the reef’s edge, telling myself as I swam off to think more about all the beautiful, colorful things I’d just seen and less about the abyss that was much harder to see, but not at all difficult to sense.

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Coral Imperative Coral reefs provide a valuable service not only to various forms of marine life but also to human communities, by acting as natural coastal barriers against giant waves and storm surges. Alas, they’re especially vulnerable to the rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification associated with climate change. As severe weather events increase in frequency and intensity, the protection that reefs offer us becomes even more critical. In 2012 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (gbrmpa.gov.au) published its Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan 2012-2017. The report outlines Australia’s multifaceted effort to preserve one of our planet’s most valuable ecosystems by, among other things, encouraging both industry and coastal communities to work with scientists in order to maximize the reef’s natural resiliency.

Bungee Jump off the 164-foot AJ Hackett Tower in Cairns, with gorgeous views of the ocean all the way down (and back up). ajhackett.com/cairns Party (and maybe even get some sleep) along with other thrillseekers at the dorm-style Gilligan’s Backpackers Hotel in Cairns. gilligans.com.au Cool off under the rainforest waterfalls of the Crystal Cascades, just a 20-minute drive northeast of Cairns, near the suburb of Redlynch. 1 4 onearth

winter 2013/2014

NORBERT WU/ MINDEN PICTURES/National Geographic Creative

floating above it all

Profile for OnEarth Magazine

OnEarth Winter 2013-14  

Generation Toxic, by Florence Williams

OnEarth Winter 2013-14  

Generation Toxic, by Florence Williams

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