I am floating on my face in 50 metres of clear, water. Beneath me I can see large turtles, neon-bright tropical fish, a brilliant blue starfish, swaying pink anemones and coral as far as the eye can see. Here, in the calm waters of the Great Barrier Reef, the water is so clear and deep that I feel like I am flying.
The swarms of colourful fish, shimmering in the sunlight, look like city lights seen from an airplane. It's almost enough to give you vertigo.
At first I have eyes only for the fish, but then I begin to notice the spectacular coral. It's a veritable rain forest: large man-high clumps, delicate fans, tiny stars, lettuce like growths, and "brain coral" which looks exactly like a human brain. The eerie blue light and bizarre landscape gives the reef a strange, otherworldly feel. I could easily be on another planet. <b1>
Our sleek catamaran, complete with underwater viewing platform, has whisked us from Cairns to this part of the Outer Barrier Reef.
It's only my second time snorkelling, and I am a bit nervous. Our sunburnt guide is cheerful in the way that only Australians can be.
"Well, we rarely see sharks, mate. You might see the odd reef shark, but they don't bite. Or hardly ever." Great. Hardly ever. That's once too many for me, I think to myself.
"But watch out for the poisonous jellyfish," he continues.
"They could kill you." Another snorkeller tells me about the American couple who went diving near this very reef in 1998, then were accidentally left behind by their boat because of a counting error.
No trace of them, or their bodies, was ever found. I go up to the instructor and repeat my name twice, very loudly I don't leave . until he takes it down.
But once we get off the boat, I forget about the perils of the sea.
Snorkelling is easy for even beginner swimmers, once you get the hang of breathing through your mouth and keeping absolutely still.
For the non-swimmers, there's a ride in a mini-submarine. But it's tame compared to matching strokes with a giant turtle, or swimming through a shoal of lemon yellow butterfly fish.
I snorkel gingerly at first, but see nothing more alarming than a manta ray whisking swiftly past. Then comes the highlight of the trip: a cluster of three-foot long giant clams, their thick, green lips lazily opening and shutting with the waves. They look exactly like the clams that swallow hapless scuba divers in under sea movies.
Sharks and jellyfish aside, the most dangerous thing on the reef is man. Pollution, overfishing and global warming are threatening the reef. A chilling recent report on global warming warned that the reef could become extinct in as little as twenty years. Forget the casinos of the Gold Coast. Go see the reef while you still can.
(Kavitha is the winner of this week's HT Cafe's ‘Ticket to Ride' contest)