"Let me tell you the Dreamtime story of how the Great Barrier Reef was created," says Sissy Mye, an Indigenous ranger aboard the distinctively decorated vessel taking us from Cairns to the world's most famous reef.
"This story is told by the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people," Mye continues. "They're one of the four traditional owner groups whose country stretches from Port Douglas in the north to the Frankland Islands in the south."
Mye has the elders' permission to tell this creation myth, on a crowded glass-bottomed boat above the coral bombies of Moore Reef. A mighty hunter (so revered he was allowed two wives) lived on the tropical Queensland coast protected by tall cliffs, Mye tells the largely international audience.
I can't do justice to her passionate rendition, but it goes something like this: One morning the hunter took the two wives fishing, knowing it was taboo to kill the sacred black stingray. But, vain and self-important, he sent his spear plunging towards the ceremonial fish. Once attacked, the black stingray beat its wing-like fins, causing a great storm and the ocean to rise.
Somehow the three humans survived and joined a clan protecting the cliffs. Together they heated huge rocks in a fire, hurling them as far as they could into the sea. And so the Pacific was pacified, and the Great Barrier Reef created.
We travel with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel, the first Aboriginal-themed reef operator in Australia's self-proclaimed "adventure capital". Indigenous rangers such as Mye are a crucial point of difference in a crowded marketplace.
They demonstrate how Indigenous Australians created fire long before most civilisations even had a name and explain how a woomera, invented around 5000 years ago, can propel a spear double the length of the thrower's natural range. They also reveal how locals would harvest the reef before European settlement. Men would go out, three or four at a time in the tropical winter, in tiny canoes to catch fish for their families, the rangers explain.
Now we know the creation myth we divide into two groups: snorkellers and divers to explore Moore Reef. My ancient dive card (issued before the divemaster was born) prompts hilarity, but the dive itself is highly enjoyable, not just for the swim-throughs and caverns but mainly for the unexpected health of the coral.
After a typical dive-boat buffet lunch (chicken, lasagne, sushi, noodles and lots of fruit), I skip a second dive and opt for a guided snorkel led by the onboard marine biologist at our second adventure site, Milne Reef. The advantage of snorkelling is that you can actually hear what the marine biologist wants to explain when you surface. On the 90-minute journey back to Cairns, Indigenous rangers again come into their own. They demonstrate how traditional weapons are made and best employed.
Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel is a subsidiary of Experience Co, which runs a smorgasbord of adventures from Cairns and Port Douglas, including Reef Magic Pontoon and rafting adventure Raging Thunder. It's the first to have a dedicated vessel decorated in Aboriginal motifs and a team of Indigenous rangers.
Heath Cuskelly, the company's activities manager, says the trigger was the realisation that 80 per cent of tourists visiting Australia don't engage in any form of Indigenous experience while here.
Cynics might claim it's merely slick marketing, a traditional dive and snorkel reef experience wrapped in Indigenous colours. True, passengers don't get to try traditional Aboriginal skills such as free diving or spear fishing (it is a marine reserve, after all). But Experience Co spent $2.5 million launching the venture and worked for a year with local elders to devise a program that represents the cultural practices of all four local tribes.
A clincher was the company's commitment to employ local rangers. Mye worked in retail before she before she became a ranger, but many of her Indigenous colleagues were unemployed. And that's got to be a win-win for locals and tourists alike.
Steve Meacham was a guest of Experience Co and Riley, Crystalbrook Collection.
An Urban King room at Cairns' five-star Riley, Crystalbrook Collection starts from $249. . See crystalbrookcollection.com/riley
Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel's basic all-day reef trip costs $199 an adult, $99 a child, $497 for a family of four. Extras include a snorkel safari, an introductory dive and a certified dive. See experienceco.com/