Coral Reefs are called underwater gardens for a reason, but the frenetically coloured plants and animals they support are so unlike any garden on land that a stroll (or float) though a coral garden is more like wandering another planet. This is true ‘before you die’ type stuff – yet really accessible. A trip to see a coral reef is a worthwhile excursion on any holiday - and trips to wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef provide the basis for an entire holiday by themselves.
The best coral reef gardens are found in shallow tropical waters, but there are pockets thriving elsewhere, and you only need a few pieces of plastic to take a walk amongst it all – and a snorkel if you’re unsure. If you don’t like the water, a glass bottom boat will do just as good a job at getting you immersed in the unexpectedly hyper-coloured world of coral.
Coral reefs, though, are in serious danger around the world, so always be sensitive to what the locals advise or don't advise - above all, never take coral or shells from a reef
Coral is best experienced with the fingers. Some of it grows in spongy masses, some in long spindly webs, some to look like hands, some like spiky leafless bushes and some can only really be called brain-esque in appearance, but it's the textures which really fascinate. Reaching out your fingers you might feel a nip or get suctioned by one of the coral's tenants, or surprised by the sharp surface of something that looks so smooth or the fleshy-ness of something that looks so rocklike. It just feels alien.
Most people would say coral is best experienced with the eyes, but my eyes just want me to touch it. It's an understatement to say a coral reef is a rainbow of colour, a rainbow implies the colour is ordered but a reef is a visual cacophony of colour, favouring the warmer, more vibrant rainbow's edge – the red, pink and purple end. That's before you get to the fish and other marine life that live in, around and, off the reef – more alien shapes and more flamboyant colour. I want to touch them too – feel the imagined smoothness of scales and the presumed rubbery-ness of stingray skin – but luckily for them they're much too fast, nothing short of little darters darting. But their bright dress is there to attract attention from other animals, in this case me.
A snorkel will get you amongst a coral metropolis, a full diving kit for deeper exploration or if you’re not as drawn to touch things, you can play reverse goldfish in a glass bottomed boat. Once you’ve travelled to the right location, reefs grow only in a band between 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator (coral has a preference for sunlight.), it doesn’t take much to get in amongst the gardens of coral. It’s fragile stuff though, and ‘a look carefully and touch gently' rule applies, despite the enthusiasm of my fingers.