I learned to swim when I was four. When I was five I would watch a black and white television show called Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges as “Mike Nelson”. Bridges’ character was a civilian diver that was regularly contracted by the Navy to perform various projects underwater. To say that I idolized Mike Nelson would be seriously understating my level of awe. I made my first scuba dive when I was ten years old, and by the time I got to college, I was a certified scuba instructor. It should come as no surprise that one of my childhood dreams was to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
Plagiarizing Wikipedia, “The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 mi) over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 sq mi). The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms.”
Why is this not one of the Seven Wonders of the World?
In 1998, the company that I worked for decided to send me to Australia to teach our clients the proprietary software we had sold them. It was a business trip, but… it was a business trip to Australia. I turned my trip into an expedition rivaling anything that Stanley and Livingston had accomplished before me. I can’t remember how much I paid in excess luggage fees, but scuba gear and underwater cameras are rather heavy. It would have been nice to have at least one Sherpa to help me carry everything, but somehow I man-handled all of my equipment alone.
I spent two weeks teaching computer stuff, blah, blah, blah, who cares? I scheduled a few personal days and flew north from Melbourne to Brisbane. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Australian outback, but I seriously doubt that you comprehend how desolate it really is. Whenever I fly to the west coast at night, the ground seems dark compared to the bright lights of Chicago or Dallas. However, there are always some lights along the highways, and in the small towns that are scattered across “fly-over country”. Flying north from Melbourne I sat in a window seat on the port (left) side of the aircraft. As I looked over the vast dark nothingness, I assumed I was looking out over the ocean. But wait! The ocean in on the starboard side of the aircraft. Looking more closely, I could see faint shadows of hills and valleys on the ground below. For almost three hours during the flight, the only light I saw was a campfire. No wonder Australians are so friendly! They’re lonely, and thrilled to death to meet another living soul. (I’m teasing, of course. I love Australians and their vivacious spirit.)
I land in Brisbane, and in the morning I board a large ferry taking me to one of the few islands on the reef that is large enough for habitation. Two hours later I step ashore to begin one of my favorite scientific adventures. Visitors stay in small, one-room shacks with a primitive bunk. Accommodations are a half step above sleeping on the ground, but after twelve years in Scouting, I find my environment exotic and exciting. We spend the first evening enduring a safety briefing that has us scuba diving in the swimming pool to confirm that we know what we’re doing. I am mildly insulted. Don’t they know I am a nephew of King Neptune? In the morning, we board a small boat that takes us to our first dive location.
I enter the water with two underwater cameras, and I marvel at the diversity of color that makes up this beautiful reef. Suddenly, I spot a large sea turtle about twenty feet below me. I grab my camera and get ready to take a photo. The turtle is so far away it would be difficult to find it in the picture. The turtle decides to swim in my direction. I wait so I can get a close up of this magnificent creature. Suddenly, I realize that the turtle is so close, I can’t get all of it in the picture. I take the shot, and as the turtle swims past me, I grab the top of its shell, and it pulls me quietly through the ocean for nearly fifty yards. I feel like Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus. (I don’t believe in Aquaman. That’s a fictional character.)
After several hours in the water we return to the island, and our family of divers agrees to meet in the restaurant for dinner to share our impressions of the reef. When I tell everyone about my experience with the turtle I am informed that for two weeks every year, the turtles come to this and other islands to lay their eggs. I didn’t plan it that way, but I have arrived at the perfect time to do some first-hand research on these aquatic wanderers.
Around 9:00pm I begin my venture down the beach. There is no moon at all, the primary factor in the turtle’s breeding schedule. I am not allowed to carry a flashlight because turtles who are confronted with a bright light will return to the ocean and not lay their eggs. And since these turtles are on the endangered list, any failure to lay their eggs could be detrimental to the species.
Walking down the beach at the water’s edge, I start to wonder how I’m going to find my way back to the restaurant, much less find a turtle that is actively avoiding human contact. Then I find a deep trench leading from the water up the beach. Dragging a 250 pound turtle up the beach is going to leave a trail that’s easy to follow. I follow the trench to the tree line, but it disappears in the weeds. I find a second and third trench, which only leads to more disappointment.
I start to acknowledge that I am certifiably insane. My friends and family have known this for years, but in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of the world… I am beginning to understand their concerns. I decide to follow one more trench before I put an end to this pointless odyssey. However, this trench leads a little further into the trees. As I enter the foliage, the leaves are blocking what little starlight exists, and it gets very, very black. As I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark, I hear a quiet voice say, “Don’t turn on a light.”
I almost void my colon.
When I am able to start breathing again, I realize that one of Australia’s naturalists is already there, standing in the dark. He was wearing infrared glasses so he could find the turtles using technology that I forgot to pack. He tells me that the turtle has dug the hole where she will begin laying her eggs. Once she begins depositing the eggs, she is committed, and cannot halt the process. After a few minutes, the naturalist tells me that I am free to take photos if I want. How? I am literally “shooting in the dark”. I reach out and touch the turtle’s shell so I can mentally estimate what I will be taking a photo of. I take three photos, wondering if I’ve been able to capture anything other than bushes.
Using my uncanny sense of direction, I follow my own migration path back to my humble hut, and fall asleep with a calming sense of accomplishment. I opt to fly back to the mainland in a helicopter that never got higher than 100 feet above the ocean. What a fantastic video that would have made. Quantas Airlines efficiently flew me and all of my expeditionary gear back to the states. Due to casual neglect and focusing on whatever new adventure might pique my curiosity, I didn’t get my film developed for several months. When I returned to the drug store to pick up my pictures, I discovered that my luck in Australia was complete. I have three photographs of a sea turtle laying her eggs that Life Magazine would print in a photo essay.
My mother didn’t think I was qualified to sail the oceans with Jacques Cousteau. It turns out I didn’t need the Calypso to experience the magical wonder of one marine creature’s life cycle.