The Great Barrier Reef: like a really big, cool fish tank


Ever hear of Eileen and Tom Lonergan? They were a couple from Baton Rouge who went scuba diving off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 1998, and accidentally got left behind due to a faulty head count taken by the boat crew. No one noticed they were gone until their bags were found in the boat two days later. A vast search followed, but they were gone. Eventually their empty wet suits, tanks, and dive jackets washed ashore. Most likely they met a shark or dehydration. If all this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because the Lonergans’ deaths inspired this a few years back, which scared the shit out of me, Roger Ebert, and anyone else who had had spent the previous three decades in intense therapy due to this.

I was still scared when we got on the dive boat, partially because it looked a lot like the one in the movie and partially because we were in roughly the same spot of the Great Barrier Reef where the Lonergans’ bodies were most likely feasted upon. But mostly I was scared because I am a pussy. "It’s not even scuba diving," Sarah said when I mentioned my trepidation. "We’re snorkeling."

The difference, by my estimation, was negligible. Both involved looking at fish while pretending to breathe underwater, and both started with an S. When we dumped off Hannah on a babysitter, Kara (who also happened to be our waitress at lunch yesterday—it’s a small island) and said goodbye to our daughter, I might’ve made some drama queen comment like, "If we don’t come back, we want you to take care of her, Kara." Why not? She’d been pretty good about refilling our waters.

What hostile creatures lurk beneath the surface? Let’s strap on an uncomfortable mask and some plastic fins and find out!

It would have been pretty difficult for the boat to leave us behind, considering the only other people on board were a crew of two, an Indian family of four, a young  English woman who never shut up, and two Japanese women who refused to get out of the boat. No one was leaving anyone behind, except maybe the Brit-chippy, whom the tour guide appeared to be considering feeding to a barracuda.

One tumble into the water and I realized why the Great Barrier Reef is the Yankee Stadium of snorkeling. Despite the overcast skies, massive waves, and lousy visibility, it was still the most gorgeous sight on earth on down there. The coral alone—a multitude of rocky, smooth, weedy, colorful habitat waving in the water—was jaw dropping, to say nothing of the never-ending array of creatures scurrying around us. Even a certified  scaredy-cat like me can’t help reaching out to see if all these exotic species are real.

I forgot the lost-at-sea horror stories and got carried away by the current and the adventure. At one point, I saw something huge lurking in the distance, and swam toward it. Whatever it was, it swam away. Without thinking, I followed it, and when it moved so quickly I couldn’t keep up it became apparent that I was chasing a shark. Then, for no apparent reason, the beast switched directions and it became apparent that I was no longer chasing a shark: It was chasing me.

Not sure, but that’s when I think I pissed myself. Then I swam off as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. Before my life even had a chance to pass before my eyes, I looked over my shoulder. The shark was gone—and whether it had ever noticed me to begin with wasn’t clear. I rushed off to find Sarah, who was 20 yards away canoodling with a bunch of cuddly fish that looked like this fella, but when we returned to the site of the "chase" had occurred, there was nothing there but mossy coral, waving in the shadows. Spooky.

The boat, I should mention, did not leave us behind. But I did get a really bad sunburn on my back.