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Quote of the Day - This star constellation will be our guide and point of reference from the beginning to the end. - Andrea Vogel
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MIPTC's South Seas Journal: Underwater In Australia's Great Barrier Reef Day Three

Orion, one of the most recognizable star clusters in the night sky because of his three-starred belt, is far north of its typically mid- to southern position where I usually spot it, despite living in Southern California.  Here in Down Under, Orion looks out of place, but I quickly realize that I'm the one out of place. 

Given my new-found location in the Earth's rotation, that old Christopher Cross song, Sailing Away, plays in my head, reminding me to look for the Southern Cross, a mythically beautiful set of stars for someone who's never been South of the Equator.  We'll likely have one of the best places to see it.  Out in the middle of Osprey Reef, a ten-hour boat ride from the Northeast side of Australia, there's no land in site, and there hasn't been for the last eight hours.

We're truly in the middle of nowhere, looking for a coral reef a mile or so long and perhaps half a mile at its widest in order to find an anchorage point for tomorrow.  Our skipper tells us that when Captain Cook first explored Australia in the early 1700's in a tall ship, he managed to find his way into one of the slots in the Great Barrier Reef, but it took him months to find a way out.  Then again, he had only square sails and a sextant.  We have GPS.

At 2:00 a.m., it's deep into the night, and all traces of light have disappeared except the twinklers above.  The dark blue ocean pulls light into it like a black hole, and the sky is otherwise inky black, offering no hope of spotting the horizon, given the blend of blue to black.  Even so, you can spot the entire lateral circle of the horizon:  the sky encompasses 180 degrees edge to edge in all directions -- and the stars end where the ocean begins.

Despite the innumerable white dots, there it is, in all its glory, Southeast in the celestial globe and a much larger constellation than I could have imagined.  The Southern Cross.  The five stars of the Cross symbolically positioned on the Australian flag do an injustice to its size, which seems to stretch a good one-fourth of the night sky from the constellation's top to its bottom. 

They glow a very hot white compared to the other stars, almost planet-like in their brilliance.  Or perhaps its just my imagination.  No matter; they're glorious, in a word, despite a full moon competing for attention. 

The sky is a prelude to our upcoming night dive on the reef.  We drop in to the dark blue, primordially pulled into the warmth of the water to spot fish and other nocturnal critters.  Our torches (that's Australian for flashlights, mate) illuminate the depths and highlight those fish who  would otherwise hide, a dangerous result for some of the smaller fish:  the Trevally fish has learned to use diver's spotlights on the small fry almost as a "for sale" sign.  You shine your light on a small fish, and a big, two-foot long Trevally swoops past you into the beam of your light and whoosh, there's no small fish at the end of the beam anymore. 

At the end of the night dive, we pop back up to the surface with no doubt where the horizon exists since we're on it; experience is a pretty good teacher.  Above, the stars still twinkle and shine their flashlights down on us as we ironically bob in the waves. 

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by J. Craig Williams on Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 19:54 Comments Closed (0) |
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