Described by Sir David Attenborough as the greatest natural history experience of his life, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the focus of the naturalist’s latest documentary. Sarah Marshall visits the remote Lizard Island, where some of the filming took place
Exploding in the darkness, thousands of astral flecks dance and sparkle, forming brilliant clusters like galaxies in the night sky.
Alien shapes float past me as I hang weightlessly, freed temporarily from the constraints of gravity and suspended above a world which I struggle to identify as my own.
Only when I hoist my head out of the salty seawater and fill my lungs with air do I finally return to reality.
Above, stars beam brightly from another universe but just metres below, in a liquid underworld, there’s an even more extraordinary spectacle to behold.
I’m lucky enough to be witnessing coral spawning, a mass reproduction which happens only once a year around the time of a full moon.
Guided by torchlight, I’m snorkelling along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where millions of coral polyps are simultaneously releasing egg and sperm bundles in what resembles an underwater meteor shower. Eventually they will rise to the surface and fertilise, then sink to the ocean floor to become part of the largest natural structure on Earth.
Measuring 2600km long, made up of 3000 coral reefs and hosting more than 1600 species of fish, the Great Barrier Reef is, according to naturalist Sir David Attenborough, “one of nature’s greatest wonders”.
The wildlife enthusiast first dived here in 1957, and almost 60 years later he’s completed a three-part series due to be screened on BBC One this Christmas. Travelling on board 56m research vessel Alucia and using a Triton submersible, he took part in the deepest dives ever attempted on the Barrier Reef.
During a three-week filming schedule, he visited Lizard Island, a remote, granite continental island 33km off the Queensland coast, where I’m fortunate enough to be experiencing the remarkable coral spawning.
After a 50-minute flight from Cairns in a Cessna light aircraft, stingray-shaped Lizard and neighbouring smaller islands (part of the Lizard Island Group) come into view, with turquoise ribbons fringing each land mass. From above, it’s easy to identify the damage wreaked by two cyclones in 2014 and earlier this year, when almost 85% of vegetation was lost.
Following a major refurbishment, the island’s only hotel, the upscale Lizard Island Resort, reopened in June, allowing tourists the opportunity to explore this protected National Park.
To get my bearings, I hike to the island’s highest point, Cook’s Look, famously scaled by explorer Captain James Cook in 1770, as he searched for a safe passage through the surrounding shoals.
I set off on the three-hour round trip at 6am to escape the searing heat, making my way through a mangrove swamp and scrambling across steep boulders sprouting kapok trees between crevices.
Yellow-spotted monitors - who inspired Captain Cook’s choice of name for the island - skulk timidly into the shade, as trilling, yellow-bellied sunbirds compete with the constantly whistling wind, while flitting through wispy fronds of purple kangaroo grass.
Excavated shell middens indicate Lizard’s first visitors came here more than 3000 years ago, when young Dingaal Aboriginal males would learn survival skills during a rite of passage. Surveying the terrain, I imagine it would be extremely challenging to make a living on this rocky, weather-beaten land.
From 360m above sea level, I try to pick out Lizard’s 24 white sand beaches, seeping into the South Pacific Ocean and the Coral Sea.
The resort can arrange trips to the pristine outer reef, where dive sites include Cod Hole and the ominous sounding Snake Pit, although these are not daily. In fact, anyone wanting to scuba dive should plan to stay for at least three or four nights, to allow rest periods before and after flights.
Short on time, my boyfriend and I use a motorised dinghy boat to explore the island’s shallow fringing reefs and go snorkelling.
“People say, ‘What is the most magical thing you saw in your life; the most magical moment?’,” says Sir Attenborough in the first episode of his new Great Barrier Reef programme, due to air in late December.
“I always say, the first time I put on a mask and went below the surface and moved in three dimensions with just the flick of my fin.”
Those words resonate with me as I immerse myself in another awesome world, where time is quickly forgotten as minutes slip easily into hours.
Breathing through a snorkel, I hover above a garden of furled, stony rose petals and clusters of tangled branches. Clown fish peer through the waving, rubbery fronds of anemones and giant clams, some as big as a suitcase, gape open, revealing their colourful treasures.
But damage caused by successive cyclones is obvious; calcified coral skeletons litter the seabed and remains of much larger corals are signs of a once healthy fringing reef. Over time, they will grow back, but it could take up to a decade. Yet even in it’s damaged state, it’s still an astounding place.
The alarming deterioration of coral reefs is a worldwide concern, with various theories proposed for the rapid decline. In search of answers, I head to The Lizard Island Research Station, one of the world’s leading on-reef research facilities. Lizard Island Resort arranges regular tours to the station, for 65 Australian dollars per person, with money donated directly to the facility.
Set up in 1973 with support from the Australian Museum, the station originally consisted of six academics camping on a beach in army tents. Now it accommodates 350 researchers every year, whose work focuses on the health of the Reef and ways it could be better managed.
TV crews, including Attenborough’s team, also come here to film; recently a BBC crew were gathering footage for a nature documentary about oceans, due to air in a couple of years.
I’m guided around the centre by Jamie McWilliam, a Scottish PHD student conducting research into sounds transmitted underwater.
“In the last 30 years, there has been a 50% decrease in coral,” he tells me gravely.
Climate change, and subsequent rising water temperature, is one of the key causes of coral bleaching, while fertilizer run-off from the land is also highlighted as a killer. One of the main threats to the Great Barrier Reef is the crown-of-thorns starfish, a parasite ballooning in numbers due to disruption of the delicate marine ecosystems.
Jamie is confident though that with care and attention, the beauty of the Reef can be saved.
David Attenborough has an equally positive outlook. As he says: “It would be untruthful and unnecessarily sensationalist to say, ‘Oh yes, it’s all ruined since I was there last time’.
“The beauty is so profound and deep, and the wonders to see are so sensational that even if they have diminished, it’s just one of the most wonderful places in the world.”