Eric Duff: Into the Pacific, Part VII: ‘Australia, the land down under’

Eric Duff: Into the Pacific, Part VII: ‘Australia, the land down under’

Captain Cook encountered Australia in 1770 as he was looking for a way home. Australia had already been discovered by the Dutch but was still largely an unknown continent. At first, he was dumbfounded by the Aboriginal people he met there. They were entirely disinterested in trade, or in him and his crew for that matter. After spending some time observing the Aborigines, he had more flattering things to say. “The natives… may appear to be some of the most wretched people on Earth, but in reality they are far happier that we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences (sic) so much sought after in Europe; they are happy in not knowing the use of them.” (from Cook’s log on the Endeavor.)

According to Paul Theroux in “The Happy Isles of Oceania,” freedom is perhaps the quality that best defines Aboriginal culture. In general, the native people of Australia do not like to be hemmed in, be that with laws, land boundaries, jail cells or even love. Most Aboriginal languages, and there are hundreds, do not have a word for love — only friendship. In this way their culture is distinct from the Polynesian, where the idea of romantic love is deeply embedded in myth and legend. Perhaps this comes from being accustomed to having a whole continent to themselves. Archaeologists suggest that the first inhabitants of Australia arrived more than 40,000 years ago, making them the oldest continuous population in the world. At the end of this journey, we are in Cairns (pronounced “Cannes”), in the northernmost part of the state of Queensland. This is where Captain Cook nearly ended his expedition as well, when he stumbled on the Great Barrier Reef, sitting just off the north eastern coast of Australia, and almost lost his ship.

When I was certified to dive on the island of Roatán, off the coast of Honduras, it was a revelatory experience. For the first time, up or down didn’t matter. Barracuda, sharks, amazing coral formations and all manner of fish were now in full view as we swam among them. For the great masters of dream analysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, water was a symbol for the unconscious, by which they meant all that is out-of-sight, mysterious, and unknown to the conscious mind. Before the creation of scuba gear, penetrating beneath the surface of the ocean was very difficult. Humans caught glimpses of sea creatures as they emerged, or of the remarkable fish and mammals they brought up from the depths. During the 20th century, with the invention of modern scuba gear and other technologies, we were finally able penetrate below the surface, and see what was hidden beneath. The wonder and the mystery don’t go away, anymore than they did after Leeuwenhoek invented his microscope, allowing us to see organisms that make up most of life for the first time, or when Galileo looked though his telescope and saw moons and planets we had never seen before.

My time on the Great Barrier Reef was both humbling and encouraging. We found ourselves on a small boat with young adults less than half our age, many of whom had been diving seriously for years. My diving skills improved, and I was able to see some of the beauty of this largest reef structure in the world. The full causes of coral bleaching are still unknown, but the damage is visible and can be charted over the decades. Global warming, along with certain chemicals used in sunscreens are the most identifiable causes so far. There is still so much we don’t know about this beautiful planet. The good news is that we are never too old to learn and discover new and amazing things about it.

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