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  Field Notes From
Kingdom of Coral

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From Author

Douglas H. Chadwick

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From Photographer

David Doubilet

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by David Doubilet

image: starfish
At the Great Barrier Reef

Field Notes From Photographer
David Doubilet
In the spring, a huge gathering of fish called many-lined sweetlips congregate in the northern barrier reef at a place called the Cod Hole, a series of big coral heads protected from the outer edge by the ramparts of the barrier reef. These beautiful yellow-striped fish with big pinkish lips swirl around in this mating aggregation. It’s very impressive and one of the more gorgeous things about life on the northern reef. Since the Great Barrier Reef extends so far off from Australia’s shoreline, much of the time it can be terrifically rough. From Gladstone we went out past Heron Island to a place called the Swains, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) offshore. The passage out was quite smooth. After a couple of days of diving, we headed back toward Heron Island. But instead of a calm return, the seas mounted until they reached 15 to 16 feet (5 meters) with winds gusting to 45 knots. Our 60-foot-long (18-meters-long) boat tossed around violently. The captain hurt his back very badly, and the crew—his children—were sick all the time. These were some of the roughest seas any of them had ever experienced. At times we were pulling 60-degree rolls. I’m a terrible sailor, so when that happens I take to my bunk. But this was an emergency so all of us took watch, no matter how bad we felt. We got beaten to hell by a steady beam sea for almost 24 hours and we slowed down to about six knots. The winds increased by the time we pulled into Heron Island. Day after day it stayed at a steady 30 knots out of the southeast, which made diving very difficult. But that’s how it is on the barrier reef. It can turn on a beautiful face, and then turn terribly ugly. Stone fish are the most venomous fish in the world. They look exactly like stones and are about the size of a round loaf of bread. On the reef they are completely camouflaged. They can be very beautiful, ranging in color from white to red-maroon to yellow-orange. But along their dorsal are 13 defensive spines, and if you step on them they will inject a venom into you that causes intense pain and even death.
I went to a place called Pixie Pinnacle and, when I reached toward a piece of coral, I missed touching a stonefish by inches. This fish is designed to lie in wait for its prey. Normally sedentary, when it strikes it moves forward not much more than its body length, propelled by its muscle structure and pectoral fins. Its complicated jaw literally shoots forward and outward, allowing the fish to inhale its prey. When it swims, it bumbles slowly along the side of a reef. Then it settles down among the coral and blends in until it seems to disappear. If you see a piece of reef that looks too good to be true, it’s probably a stonefish.

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