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The moment I was submerged in the sea, there was silence all around me. The noise of life — the blowing wind, boat engines roaring, voices and birds — it was all plugged up and replaced with the demure buzz of lapping ocean water.

I spent five days at the Heron Island Research Station, situated in the Great Barrier Reef. We were there to do a research project for a marine environment class, but most of our time was spent snorkeling in the Reef. I have never seen such a complex, thriving world that is invisible to me at ground level.

In the water, my initial fear of the ocean was tempered by the absolute beauty that spanned so deeply below me, right before my eyes. The sun’s rays gently penetrated the water, making the light dance on the coral. The waves crashed in the distance, and I let the current slowly pull me along. There were schools of fish in more colors and intricate patterns that I have ever seen.

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It was like watching The Rainbow Fish unfold before my eyes — my favorite book when I was a child. I used to read and reread that book all afternoon, amazed by its colors and the rainbow fish’s sparkling, glittering scales that he ultimately shared with the other fish.

Our afternoons were spent on the beach: eating apples and drinking coffee; exploring the island; and torturing abalone, clams, sea cucumbers, and sea hares for our research projects. We did a “walkel” one afternoon, which is a coral reef walk with your snorkel.

The highlight of my trip (of my life, honestly) was our night snorkel. It was absolutely pitch black outside — I couldn’t even see where the night sky ended and the sea started. No lights from cities or buildings or light posts. I stood on the deck looking out into this black abyss and wondered what was really out there. There was only the light from a blanket of stars overhead, more numerous and bright than what I have ever seen in the desert.

We went out in our wetsuits, fins, goggles, snorkels and flashlights and illuminated the sea with rays of light, disturbing creatures from crevices and corners. One night, we also went out and witnessed an amazing, beautiful sight — green turtle hatchlings emerging from their nests and running for the sea!

The most incredible experience of my life was seeing a loggerhead turtle that was about 2 meters long in the water. There he was, calmly swimming less than a foot below me, while my heart almost burst with fear, apprehension, and wonder. I was stunned into silence; I could not piece together sentences to explain how I felt. We also saw eagle rays, small sting rays, a wobbegong shark, blacktip sharks, parrot fish, surgeon fish, threadfin butterfly fish, and countless other organisms that I don’t understand much about…

It was a world of faces I have never seen before. I gawked at them and they probably looked at me, both of us puzzled and inquisitive about the other’s existence. It was a perchance meeting of two worlds, so far apart. On our last night, we went out to the jetty hoping to see our loggerhead friend one more time. My friends and I sat out there with some drinks and talked for hours, and he finally came, calmly cruising by as we gaped.

I wish I could share how much I felt during my trip to Heron with everyone. My life has not been the same since I’ve left.

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