Week 17: Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas & The Outback

Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has been on my wish list for a really, really long time, so I flew up to Port Douglas. Inside most corals, there are tiny plankton (a type of dinoflagellate) that live within the coral and give them their color. The years 2016 and 2017 were two really hot years which caused massive amounts of coral bleaching, roughly half of the reef. During a bleaching event, the plankton actually leave the coral when it gets too warm. These tiny plankton do photosynthesis which give sugars to the coral and without them, they slowly starve. If the water temperature cools down, the corals can accept these plankton back. Right now, the Great Barrier Reef seems to be in a stable holding pattern, although with global warming this is only a temporary situation. At the moment there’s some beautiful coral and fish still to seen, although there’s been a lot of devastation as well.

One of the most incredible sights in the Great Barrier Reef are the giant clams. I’d seen a couple big ones back in the Gulf of Tadjoura in Djibouti, but these are HUGE, over a meter across. I’ve previously only seen fossilized ones this big, so I thought they were extinct. But no, they are still living here on earth and they come in the most incredible variety of colors.


giant clams – all of these are about 3 ft across

There were lots of fish. Here’s just a brief view of some that live in the reef.


top: saddle butterflyfish, parrotfish, sixband angelfish
middle: dark-capped parrotfish, black & red anemonefish, longnose butterflyfish
bottom: double saddle butterflyfish, blackspotted pufferfish, trumpetfish

And, of course, the corals! I hadn’t seen blue corals in a long time, and this was a huge boulder of them, which made me really happy.


lots of corals!

I am at the point in my snorkeling career where I get sidetracked by many organisms, especially weird invertebrates. In the top row of the photo below are three different types of tunicates. These belong to the phylum Chordata because they have a notochord, basically the beginnings of a spinal cord. Chordata is the same phylum humans belong to, which makes these our closest evolutionary relatives that don’t have a backbone. They are also known as sea squirts and, in the Bay Area, we have a species that look like little grapes that are commonly found on the side of piers.

Also, feather stars are cool. They are a type of sea star, but they can sort of swim. One of best videos of a feather star in action was captured in Thailand.


top: green barrel sea squirt (Didemnum molle), solitary tunicate (Polycarpa aurata), bluebell tunicates (Clavelina puerto-secensis)
bottom: anemone and black & red anemonefish, feather star, feather star

Port Douglas

After my day of reef snorkeling, I  stopped in a wildlife sanctuary so that I could take a photo with a koala, and to feed some kangaroos.


me & koala, bandicoot, Australian pelican, wallaby

The Outback

Next up was Uluru, the giant rock in the center of Australia that white folks called Ayer’s Rock. It is made of sandstone that was uplifted around 350 million years ago. This rock was used for spiritual practices by the Aṉangu people and for many years they asked outsiders not to climb their sacred rock, but tourists continued to do so. Finally, this October, the rock will officially be off limits. There are traditional stories that relate to certain marks and features of the rock. It’s a beautiful place, even though there are flies everywhere during the hot daylight hours.

At night, there was a special light installation by Bruce Munro that includes over 50,000 individual lights. It seemed a little pricey, but I really enjoyed wandering around in the ever changing colors. On the drive between Uluru and Alice Springs, our group stopped and did a lovely hike along the rim of Kings Canyon.


top: Uluru, me & Uluru, Uluru
bottom: Field of Lights art installation, Kings Canyon rim walk, beehive rock formations

Near Uluru is another set of huge rocks called Kata Tjuṯa formed during the same geologic event as Uluru. This also has spiritual significance but gets far less visitors. I thought that some of the views were a bit nicer though and the hike was lovely.


Kata Tjuṯa


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