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aerial journeys

Up down under

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NATURE'S MIX: GBR has 190 types of hard corals, over 100 kinds of soft ones and many varieties of native sea plants

The Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure visible from the International Space Station. But you don't have to go to outer space to get the best vantage point. Try a chopper.

Flying over the most extensive reef system in the world is truly one of the most spectacular aerial journeys one can take.

And I have an eleven-year-old from Las Vegas to thank for it. I had just got out of the turquoise blue waters of the reef's world famous Green Island after a snorkeling trip, all excited at the sight of a dwarf minke whale, when I heard a helicopter land on its white powdery beach. An American family had planned to take a 45-minute ride for a bird's eye view of the reef, interspersed with the most magnificent coral spots. But the kid didn't feel up to it.

With a window seat going empty, the family was more than happy to have me on board. Green Island is a beautiful 6, 000-year-old coral cay located within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The first complete view of the island - its coastline ringed by short, scrubby vegetation which abruptly changes to a dense, shady vine-thicket rainforest as you look inwards, took my breath away.

Isolated and serene, it stood out among miles of ocean that could put even the brightest of blue and green to shame. White-bellied sea eagles that at first competed with our man made machine for the top flier spot soon gave up. The white coral-sand beach gleamed at a distance. As we started moving away from the island, the clear waters of the sea started to show. It was so clear that you could see the smallest of fish scurrying around. A school of striped surgeon fish danced in sync while a couple of green sea turtles floated lazily. Rock surfaces underwater with vibrant star fishes covering them, seemed like an underwater milky way.

White frothy waves piled onto each other as they hit the outer boundaries of the reef. Among colours that ranged between blue and green, a white speck appeared - it was a large pontoon. We got off on a floating helipad and were ferried by a glass-bottom boat to the pontoon. Here we changed into diving suits and jumped into the warm water.

Since human interference is prohibited in most parts of the national park, only a designated area is used for scuba diving or snorkeling. You could also take an underwater submarine with glass walls to get a ringside view of sea life - colours that could outshine even a rainbow.

There are over 190 different types of hard corals and over 100 types of soft corals, besides 120 types of native sea plants, in these waters. The best thing about Green Island is that it is just 27 km from Cairns and a 45-minute ride across the sea by a fast catamaran. With a circumference of just 1. 6 km, Green Island is the only coral cay with a rainforest on the Great Barrier Reef. Sand cays are islands that form on top of existing reef structures - they are basically large piles of sand, coral rubble and broken shells. Waves push the rubble debris into a pile on the leeward or calm side of a reef flat. This pile later grows into a small sand island. Sea bird droppings cement the sand together so that it does not get washed away. The Green Island is home to over 55 species of birds. Green Island was declared a national park in 1937. The waters around it were declared a marine park in 1974.

Great Barrier Reef Helicopter Tours are organised by many travel companies and are easily booked. Cost: around $450 per person for 2 people (Rs 24, 000 per person)

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