To the seagull flying above me, I imagine I look like a tiny black smudge on a canvas of translucent blues. Floating in the ocean, my mind wanders into abstraction, but my eyes search hungrily for the vibrancy of life underwater. I am at Julian Rocks, a pair of small rocky islands that lie in the Pacific Ocean, 2.5 kilometres from the shore of Byron Bay in eastern Australia. It’s a cold, wet day and the sky looks fearsome. Armed with a snorkel, mask, and flippers, I’ve taken the plunge into the ocean. This is my first snorkelling experience, and it’s meant to be a pit stop en route to the real deal at the Great Barrier Reef further north.
The guide at the Byron Bay Dive Centre demonstrates a few SOS signals to our group of eight before we slide off the raft close to the rocks. The water is a notch above 21 degrees and the sudden warmth is welcoming. I am spellbound by the view underwater. Like a child following the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, I follow tiny crimson and ochre fish that seem to lure me deeper into the ocean, for a more dramatic show.
A large school of green fish swim by and, adding to the palette, glittering silver bubbles emerge from the divers below. I watch in envy as they swim closer to the coral near the ocean bed. They seem to be pointing at something. And then suddenly, as I watch rays of sunlight penetrate the surface of the crystal-clear water, I see an enormous stingray swimming upwards, close to where I am. I force my head out of the water to inform my fellow snorkellers, but instead I am faced with another marvel. Staring straight at me is a green turtle. Calm and unperturbed, it looks like it will break into a smile. I want to touch it. I look back into the water again and the stingray is even closer.
At this point, unable to express my excitement appropriately underwater, I find myself taking in enormous gulps of air and water while bobbing my head in and out. The diving instructor thinks I’m having an episode and rushes to save my life. I have forgotten the “I am fine, just please leave me alone” signal he taught me earlier. I get to dwell in the psychedelic underwater magic for a few more seconds before I am “rescued.”
A dash of mystery adds more flavour to my experience here. The Bundjalung Aboriginals of New South Wales have various legends about these islands which are a part of the state. One story says that Julian Rocks was formed when a canoe carrying two lovers was struck by the spear thrown by one of their spouses. It split into three pieces. While the middle portion sank, the front and back floated above the water, eventually transforming into rocks.
Two days later, I am sailing from the city of Cairns towards Michaelmas Cay in the Great Barrier Reef. The two-hour luxury catamaran ride is spent lounging under a perfect sun, chatting with fellow travellers from all over the world about the amazing marine life that we are about to encounter in technicolour HD.
Happy to have got a primer at Byron Bay, I feel more confident about my snorkelling skills. Leaving behind the sandy island and the blue sky spotted with sooty terns, I step into the reef ’s shallow waters. I swim just a few inches above broken white coral and try hard not to graze myself. The water diffuses from aquamarine to deep blue and the carpet of soft coral goes from grey to sober shades of green and orange—a far cry from the colour burst I was expecting. “This can’t be it,” I tell myself as I venture deeper into the ocean. While drifting through a gulley over a giant open clam, I see a catamaran approach the shore. This is the third one since ours got here. In the last few hours, the 360×50-metre cay has become progressively more crowded. There must be over a hundred people here. No wonder the larger fish are holidaying elsewhere.
My search for something a little more spectacular takes me a few hundred metres away from the shore. An hour later, feeling disappointed, I decide to head back. The turtle, the stingray, the mass of psychedelic fish that I had encountered at Byron Bay have made this experience pale in comparison.
Looking back, I realise that I’d treated lesser-known Byron Bay as a mere pit stop. I was so focussed on my final destination of the Great Barrier Reef that everything else in its periphery remained blurred. I’d failed to appreciate the value of that magical experience, except in retrospect. It’s only when we shift our gaze that we find the charm in a place we never knew of before. The surprise that comes along with the discoveries in a small locale eventually makes the trip a journey of a lifetime.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “The Real Catch”.