Snorkelling on Sykes Reefs

Kareen Schnabel diving for samples.
Image: Gary Cranitch


Saturday 14 November 2009
"Another day at the office," laughs Kareen Schnabel as our boat speeds off.
I'm headed to Sykes Reef, east of Heron Island, for a morning of snorkelling with eight of the biologists on the expedition. Each morning they disappear on the boats and this time I'm determined to find out what they actually get up to.
Our trusty skipper Aaron Anderson steers our boat Anthius towards our destination as Heron Island becomes a dot on the horizon. Our small boat slices through the waves, gracefully flying over the larger ones and landing on the other side with a satisfied smack.
We finally reach Sykes Reef and toss the anchor overboard. It's a scramble as arms squeeze into wetsuits and feet fit into fins. In pairs the expeditioners disappear overboard.
The odd one out amongst an experienced group of divers, this is, admittedly, my first time snorkelling, but who better to learn from than a group of marine biologists. Aaron, a diving instructor, puts me through my paces, explains how a snorkel works and splashes water onto my facemask. I slip into my fins, adjust my mask and wave goodbye as I slide into the water under the skipper's watchful eye to join the other snorkellers.
It's not as cold as I'd imagined. I kick my fins into action and swim away from the boat before diving down as far as my buoyant wetsuit will allow me. The water is salty and I blow the ocean out of my snorkel.
The reef is shallow. There are some tiny blue fish here, a jellyfish there. I dive down to take a closer look and discover a pair of cuttle fish floating about.
Nearby Kareen, a squat lobster expert from New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, is diving down with her orange bag, hunting for samples.
Not far away I can hear Queensland University and Queensland Museum PhD student Holly Heiniger laughing through her snorkel as she squirts clove oil around a fish to anaesthetise it for her partner Terry Miller, a research officer at Queensland Museum, to scoop into a net.
Eventually I make my back to the boat when my legs have had enough.
After an hour in the water the biologists are waved back to the boat and as they climb aboard they excitedly show off their discoveries, some having collected samples for their fellow scientists.
"So this is what they do," I think as our boat bobs about, the sun shining on the faces of eight very satisfied marine biologists.