Reef Encounter: Finding Nemo

Australia's Great Barrier Reef holds surprises for all - not least a certain fish younger divers might just recognise. By Isabel Lloyd

My hand hooked firmly into his weight belt. Tom floated a foot or so above me, legs bent behind him, arms outspread like a skydiver in freefall. His eyes huge behind the mask, he gave the signal for "look at that", pointing towards the medusa head of a purple anemone beneath us. Pouting among the mass of pullulating fronds was a small, familiar orange fish with two white bands across its middle. So that's why he was excited. To hell with global warming - we'd found Nemo.

To a child, diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef is unforgettable for all sorts of reasons, but top of the list must be seeing something that simply may not be there much longer. Coral bleaching due to rising sea temperatures, the depredations of the crown of thorns starfish, pollution from urban water run-off, commercial fishing - all are having a negative effect on this, the only congregation of living organisms so large it can be seen from space. Number two on the list, though, is meeting cartoon film stars in the fishy flesh.

We had gone in search of clown fish - a Nemo's proper designation - with the help of the team at Lady Elliot Island, a minute coral cay at the southern end of the Barrier Reef that looked, as we made our landing approach in a cramped Seair twin-prop, like a splodge of guano dropped in the sea. (It's a suitable image: the island has no more than 50 guests at a time, but houses 100 times that number of birds, who skreek and splat noisily all over their rookeries in the casurina trees.) As the plane banks towards the grassy airstrip it gives you a grand tour of the island - which, being less than a mile wide, doesn't take long. In quick succession, you putter over a turquoise lagoon, a bone-white rubble beach, a lighthouse, trees, birds, thatched bar, cabins and tents. Bingo - you've landed.

Bingo is what Tom and his brother Jack played on the first night - Reef Bingo, hosted by a caller who also happened to be a very enthusiastic marine biologist. "Look at your cards, everyone," she said. "Who's got the single-cell algae that live inside coral polyps?" "Me! Zooxanthellae!" shouted Jack. ("Is that the same as Legs Eleven?" muttered my husband, and left for bed.)

This is how we learned about the reef's chief enemy: the overheating seas. When coral gets too hot, explained our bingo biologist, it is abandoned by its symbiotic best mates, the photosynthesising algae that provide it both with food and its Fauvist colours. If temperatures stay too high too long, this "bleaching" becomes irreversible and the coral dies. .

Wetsuited and booted the following morning, we humped our heavy scuba equipment into the boat for a five-minute chug to the Coral Gardens, one of the island's 14 dive sites. Once at the right spot, we dropped into the water, accompanied by Filsa, our qualified guide. I ran through the dive plan one last time with the children - stay between me and the instructor, watch your buoyancy, no annoying your brother - and then down we went.

It was a revelation. The waters were so thick with life it was like swimming through fish soup, a veritable bouillabaisse of species swarming about the great bulging heads of coral, all of it vivid with the lysergic colours - tangerine, crimson, saffron - of some 1960s music archive footage. Within seconds of submerging, Jack came face to face with a (harmless) reef shark; minutes later we witnessed a stately fly-past by a pair of giant manta rays. As we hit 11 metres, we hovered above a stingray as it flip-flapped itself into the sandy bottom next to a resting leatherback turtle.

When we broke the surface, 30 psychedelic minutes later, Tom pulled the regulator out of his mouth, and swivelled towards me. "Wow, Mummy," he said. "It's so much better in real life."

Indeed it is. So I only hope his children get the chance to find a Nemo - at somewhere other than the local multiplex.



Accommodation at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort (00 617 4156 4444; includes tents, cabins and rooms and starts at £50 per adult and £35 per child (aged four-11), half-board.


Australian Tourist Commission (0906 863 3235; calls cost 60p per minute).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific