Recently, our group was fortunate enough to visit Fitzroy Island, a coral beach-laden paradise abutting the Great Barrier Reef. Our first stop on the island was at a sea turtle rehabilitation complex. We were greeted by Rinnie and Woodson, two young green sea turtles. Rinnie was recovering from being caught in an oil slick and Woodson from starvation due to overconsumption of plastic. We learned about how the volunteers at the center care for the turtles prior to releasing them back onto the outer reef.

After our visit to the rehab center, we spent a couple hours snorkeling on the reef. We had to dress in head-to-toe wetsuits that are insulated to combat potential jellyfish stings. Underwater, it was very evident why the Great Barrier Reef has a reputation for being one of the world’s greatest ecological marvels. The coral sand was dotted with parrotfish, angelfish, cowfish, needlefish, and jack. A few of our group members were fortunate enough to spot a green sea turtle, a black-tipped reef shark, a blue-spotted lagoon ray, or a cuttlefish.

After getting out of the water, shedding our stinger suits, and returning our masks and flippers, we broke up into smaller groups to explore different parts of the island. Some of us took a jaunt to Nudey Beach (no, not that kind of Nudey beach) while others paddle boarded, jumped on a trampoline in the water, or sat back to enjoy an ice cream cone. Others decided to try out the summit hike, an ascent up hundreds of stairs to the highest point on the island, where you can look out over the reef in all directions. The view atop the island was breathtaking and arguably justified the buckets we sweat on the trek up. After returning to base camp, we all refilled our water bottles with lukewarm water that had been sitting out in the sun for the whole day, boarded the boat, and enjoyed the breeze in our salt-stained hair as we relished every moment of the 45 minute trip back.

We’ve all heard about the wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef, but nothing can truly prepare you for the ecological treasures that lie beneath the surface. For me, it served as a potent reminder about why I study environmental science in the first place. Though we had the great fortune of seeing one of the places where the reef remains a haven of life and biodiversity, there are many places along the coast where coral bleaching provides only the opportunity to swim amongst skeletons. Seeing this firsthand helped me realize why I enrolled in SFS in the first place, and reinforced the notion that there are still beautiful places on this planet that cannot survive without conscious thought and relentless activism.

→ Tropical Rainforest Studies in Australia