Finding Nemo Lady Musgrave Island

Our first taste of the Great Barrier Reef was at Lady Musgrave Island in the southern reef. It’s a proper tropical island formed from washed up dead coral – known as a coral cay – and surrounded by shallow coral reef. As soon as we got close, we could see glimpses of colour speeding past under the water, offering clues as to the huge volume of life below the surface.

The deserted beaches are covered in coral fragments of assorted shapes and sizes, and dotted with twisted fallen tree branches from the rainforest interior, while clear turquoise waters lap at the shore. And of course, in the true spirit of Australia’s everything-can-kill-you fauna, we were quickly warned not to pick up any cone-shaped coral, lest we get fatally zapped by a tiny creature inside – for which there is no known anti-venom. I kept my flip flops on.

From a glass-bottomed trawler we got a clearer view of the fish and, excitingly, our first glimpse of green turtles just chillin’ on the coral in a little bath-shaped bowl – eroded by so many turtles choosing this spot for their R&R. These huge reptiles can live to be over 100 years old, though no-one really knows because many of the first turtles to be tagged and tracked are still going strong. One of them popped up to the shore to grab a breath of fresh air and say hello to the tourists – allowing us to see his grumpy face all the more clearly. They really do look like Victor Meldrew on a bad day. But they’re undeniably adorable nonetheless!

Knowing there were turtles nearby, we were eager to get our snorkels on and jump into the water for a closer look. Now, we have discovered from our travels that Australians are a bunch of total softies when it comes to the cold. And sure enough, every one of them paid extra to hire a wetsuit, even though the water was a balmy 22 degrees. Being the cold-hardened English that we are, we donned comedy snorkel and flippers and jumped straight in. Pah, that’s not cold if you’ve swum at Brighton.

I don’t think I’ve snorkelled since I was little, and then only in a vast empty sea, enthralled by tiny fragments of sand or pollution in the water. This was a very different experience. The first view was utterly spectacular, with schools of blue, pink, yellow and stripy fish swimming directly towards me, their mouths puckering open and closed. It was slightly unnerving being so completely surrounded by fish, initially unsure whether to be afraid of them, or afraid of hurting them. Splash, cough, splutter. I came to the surface with a mouth full of sea water. Fish can swim deeper than I can snorkel. Something I repeatedly forgot.

We explored further out across the reef, feeling like researchers for a David Attenborough documentary as bigger and brighter fish came into view. I could almost hear the voice-over. “The parrot fish is named for its bright colours and powerful beak, which it uses to rasp algae off the coral. The females are the dominant gender, able to transform into males if there is a shortage of eligible bachelors in town.”

We didn’t find Nemo, but we did see some of his fishy mates, and that surfer-dude green turtle. Nemo is still out there somewhere…