The Culture of the Reef
Below me, a coral bommie glistens as the sun’s rays pierce the rippling water, creating a fittingly magical sparkle to the inaugural Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel tour. Schools of trevally and red bass follow the leader and moray eels pop their heads from dark hideouts, careful not to get too close to the action. Clownfish disappear into the wobbly arms of anemones, while colourful angel and parrotfish dart between green, blue, brown and pale coral – a contrasting reality of the state of the world’s largest living organism. Vibrant coral clings to life while others have noticeably succumbed to the impact of the modern environment.
We’re here in Cairns with Experience Co, a company that offers adventure-focused tours in 30 destinations across Australia and New Zealand, and the flagship company for Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel. Since arriving just a couple of days ago, we’ve taken a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef, gorged on a delicious seafood lunch in Turtle Bay near the Yarrabah Community, and rafted down the rapids of Barron River. But it’s the dive tour out to the reef that is the real showstopper on this trip.
When we learn that 80 per cent of international and domestic tourists don’t engage in any form of Indigenous experience while travelling within Australia, the importance of an Indigenous-lead tourism initiative like this becomes obvious.
As we board the new boat, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags wave on the back deck, while the hull is decorated with the vessel’s logo, a colourful piece of artwork created by a local Gimuy Walubara Yidinji elder and artist, and inspired by the totems of the Traditional Land Owners of the region – the tentacles of a jellyfish, the wings of a sea hawk and the body of a turtle merge together to create the shape of a stingray. The vessel’s crew line our entrance to welcome us, including Indigenous rangers representing local Aboriginal tribes and the Torres Strait Islands. There’s no shortage of dive and snorkel tours in the Great Barrier Reef, but what makes Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel really stand out is its emphasis on Indigenous cultures and storytelling.
As the ship’s engine rumbles and we feel the boat start to push away from the dock and out to sea, Blake Cedar, who goes by his traditional name Rex, opens the tour with an Acknowledgement of Country and introduces the team. It’s just a taste of what’s to come, but an important part of the afternoon as we recognise the culture and history of Sea Country and its people.
We’re heading out to Moore Reef, a cluster of coral outcrops also known as bommies. It’s a one-and-a-half-hour journey, and my motion-sick-prone self wishes teleporting had been invented. I’m a water baby who loves being on the ocean, but my sight, inner ear and sensory processors don’t seem to work in harmony. I’m determined to find my sea legs on this trip though, and I settle in to a spot at the back of the boat, thankful there’s enough distraction on-board to keep my mind occupied. Rangers approach guests with a display of hunting tools, instruments used for ceremonial dances, and a hand drill used to make fire.
“You know that big long spear I showed you before,” says Jai Singleton, a 22-year-old Indigenous ranger who’s part of the Yirrganydji tribe. “Well, the first time I ever went out [hunting] for a turtle with my uncle, we had one of the big spears – they’re big and thick pieces of wood. Uncle hit the turtle but when he threw the spear back he hit the person driving the boat, knocked him out. Next minute, the boat was going around in circles.” It’s a funny memory of one of his earliest hunting experiences, a cultural practice Jai now takes very seriously.
“There are people that go out hunting, they do wrong hunting. They go out and take five turtles, that’s not good. Our people didn’t do that – we take one turtle and we go home and share that with the family and use everything. The only time they went out hunting for turtle was for ceremony. But people who go out every day, it’s ridiculous. That’s why you don’t see as many turtles now.”
Jai’s passion for his culture stirs a pride that’s hard not to rally around. He points to a murky beach we’re passing. “See there, that’s Yarrabah Mission,” he tells me. I later discover this sandy beach, Mission Bay on Gunggandji land, is not far from where we had dined on a champagne seafood picnic lunch just 24 hours ago – a contrasting experience to the one Australia’s Traditional Custodians and South Sea Islanders lived through during the years of the Stolen Generation. It’s this mission where Jai’s great-grandparents met. He tells me the tale of his great-grandmother who was taken from her family and her home in the Wujal Wujal camp and moved to the mission at the age of nine. Here, she met Jai’s great-grandfather, and they were married at the young age of 17-years-old just so they’d be allowed to legally leave the mission.
“For my dad, to see us have a job like this, he’s so proud. For his mother to come from where they came from, and then to see us today, he’s never been so proud.” Jai’s story is just one of many on the boat, and one that will continue to stay with me long after we’ve docked again in Cairns.
At the reef, I’m keen to zip up my stinger suit and dive into the water, but in a bid to get the full experience, I opt to see the reef from the dry deck of a glass-bottom boat. It’s just one of the experiences on offer. Others can take a heli ride over the reef.
The noisy engine roars and bubbles pattern their way across the glass. Rex stands at the rear of the boat, and with permission from the local Elders, he shares the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji tribe’s Great Barrier Reef creation story.
It’s a story of a hunter who spears a sacred black stingray, and his people who protect their land from the stormy aftermath by creating a rocky barrier, which we now know as the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a sacred story full of symbolism and deep significance to the Traditional Land Owners, and one that, out of respect for the people, I won’t share in its entirety.
Rex joins me for lunch and I’m keen to quiz him on the cultures of Sea Country. When I ask what working on this tour means to him, he responds with a similar pride I had previously seen in Jai. “I’m a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man, and I want to teach people about my culture.
This is my land, and my sea, and I want people to learn about it and respect it. To teach people how to preserve the ocean so that future generations can enjoy and experience it just like I did and the people before me.”
Rex is 21 years old. He was raised by his mother’s family in the Torres Strait before moving to Cairns to attend school.
“When I was a kid, I lived with my grandma and I repeated preschool twice because I didn’t know how to speak English, and for traditional reasons, I wasn’t going to school much.
“Growing up, I was really culturally connected. My grandparents were culturally strong and I was raised traditionally. But once my nan passed away, I moved to Cairns and stayed with my mum, who wasn’t very culturally connected… She put me in school and I learnt English really quickly but I realised, as I grew up, I had drifted away from my culture. Culture’s not taught in schools, which is a really big deal because we have kids going there and they’re learning the right things… But they’re just not learning everything they should be – our culture.”
Rex goes on to explain the concept of a totem, of which his is the hammerhead and tiger shark. I learn the northern islands of the Torres Strait have cultural similarities to Papua New Guinea, while the southern ones are more closely aligned to Australia’s Aboriginal cultures. More than 40 minutes go by and I’m still listening with fascination at the complex trading history of the Torres Strait. I’m perplexed at just how little I know about one of my own country’s Indigenous cultures.
Milln Reef, our second dive spot, is a 1.2 kilometre stretch of coral that’s considered one of the most beautiful in the region. Rex and I stop what’s turned into a passionate discussion about how we can work together to improve the country’s understanding of Indigenous cultures, and he prepares for the introductory scuba dive. His excitement is contagious.
“I love the reef,” he tells me jumping up from his seat. “It excites me every time I come out here and knowing I’m culturally connected to the ocean, it’s beautiful. One of my goals is to study marine biology so I can help the reef.” And with a shoulder shrug and a smile, he disappears to find his wetsuit.
My green gills are urging me to do the same, and I’m desperate to feel the cool water on my ailing face. A looming aeroplane ride stands between me and a scuba dive, but I pull on my stinger suit and mask to spend the rest of the afternoon in the water, safe from impending sea sickness. I start with a snorkel safari with the on-board marine biologist, Amandine Vuylsteke, and reef ranger, Enaz Mye, who goes by the name Sissy. Between watching fish and kicking my fins, Amandine talks us through the state of the reef, its sensitivity to climate change, the impact of humans and points out various fish, coral species and other marine life.
I follow a parrotfish over the reef, and spy a starfish lying on the sea bed below. The reef is a combination of light ripples, colourful coral and bubbles caused by the 20 or so people who are also in the water flapping their fins. Then, before I have time to steer myself in another direction, I’m besieged by a fluther of jellyfish. It’s the season for them in Far North Queensland, and I start to panic. Alongside crocodiles, which I’d so far managed to avoid, irukandji are my worst oceanic nightmare. I thank my lucky starfish that a layer of fabric stands between me and the transparent stingers. When I climb back on the boat out of breath and in an obvious state of trepidation, I realise my suit, as one person on the boat points out, looks more like I’m dressed for the cover of Sports Illustrated than a dive, with the zip sliding its way down to my belly button. Thankfully, the floating bobs were not irukandji and far less deadly.
Distracted by my efforts to try and keep lunch well inside my belly for the journey back to Cairns, my mind wanders back to something Jai had said during our discussion.
“When you look at someone like me, with fair skin and coloured eyes, I have to try really hard to convince people that I’m an Aboriginal man. Going to school every day, I was called black and white names by both sides. I’m not good enough for anyone – not good enough for the black fellas, not good enough for the white fellas, so I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he tells me.
“But my father, and his dad, we’ve always been a part of the reef, hunting and fishing. So to now get to come out here where this is our office is amazing. It’s an honour to show our guests. There are a lot of untold stories that anybody else can tell until they’re blue in the face, but it has to come from the people themselves. And it’s my pleasure to share it.”
And in that simple reality, the importance of an extraordinary trip to the reef like this one becomes abundantly clear.
All Australian airlines offer direct flights to Cairns from major Australian cities. From Melbourne, Virgin flights start at about US$162 one way.
The newly opened Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort, is Cairns’ first five-star hotel in 20 years. Sitting on the Esplanade overlooking the Coral Sea that eventually turns into the Great Barrier Reef, the Riley boasts 311 rooms and is full of elegant details, high-tech features and touches of fun. With three restaurants to enjoy (including the city’s highest rooftop bar and restaurant, Rocco), a huge swimming lagoon and manmade beach, the onsite Eléme Day Spa, and experienced curators on hand to organise anything you want to do in Australia’s Adventure Capital, Riley is a great option for those looking to explore the reef. And take our word for it when we tell you to give the luxe linen bathrobes a go. Prices start from US$134per night.
Cairns is known as Australia’s Adventure Capital with a range of experiences for people of all ages. For more information regarding what’s on offer in the Tropical North Queensland city, go to:
Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel is an Experience Co-owned business. The full-day excursion departs from Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal, and includes a glass-bottom boat tour, cultural presentations, snorkelling, lunch and optional diving and helicopter tours. The tours costs US$86 per adult.