Going Under, Down Under
What better place than on the Great Barrier Reef to finally have achieved a life long dream of scuba!
What is that one thing that you have always dreamed of doing? Well for us, that was scuba diving. Limited for the past few years by cost, we decided in Cairns that we had had enough of just snorkeling and staying at the surface. Thanks to our parents as an early Christmas gift, we booked our PADI course through the Cairns Dive Centre and excitedly waited to begin our classes. I can say for sure that I haven't been this excited to go to class in a long time!
Friday morning rolled around, and at 8:00 AM on the dot a CDC (Cairns Dive Centre) bus pulled up to the curb. "You all ready to scuba?!" the driver asked us ecstatically as we piled into the Toyota Hiace. The driver introduced herself as Joey, and informed us that she would also be our dive instructor for the duration of the course. While wheeling through the roundabouts that speckled Cairns, she asked all of us if we had ever been diving before, of which only one person had years back. With a guarantee that we would love it, we pulled into the dive shop to fill out waivers and begin our training.
We transferred to the training center which was situated on the outskirts of town by the boat yards and entered the classroom that overlooked the training pool. Smelling of chlorine and used dive equipment we began our introductory lessons from PADI. While interesting for bit, the hour long PADI videos did seem to drawl on. Entertained though from the overacting of the videos actors we made it through the first few course and broke for lunch. I do have to say though, while the videos were very informative they seemed very focused on advertising and on the ability of choosing color matched scuba equipment.
Terms and the name of parts of equipment were thrown around, and so many acronyms to keep track of made the task seem very daunting. Thanks to Joey though we made it through bit by bit since she took the time to review the videos and go back through any topic we had questions on. Reviewing al the equipment only made us more excited to actually get in the water as we discussed the use of regulators, rescue breathing, the yoke that attaches to the first stage and the tank and so many other pieces of critical equipment. Joey also happens to be another badass adventurer herself! I noticed on her backpack one day some patches from Quark Expeditions from the Antarctic and I asked her about them. Turns out she is one of the lucky people who have been able to adventure down to the frozen continent. Antarctica being my dream destination I of course was keen to ask her as many questions as I could think of about the Antarctic. Seeing my excitement about it, thanks to Joey we now have a possible connection to the Antarctic as she so generously gave me a discount voucher for Quark Expeditions! I really can not thank her enough for that and how much that means to me as Antarctica is my ultimate dream expedition. So maybe now we'll be venturing to the Antarctic at some point in the future!
Now came the fun part. The part where we could finally strap ourselves into the BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), pull on our flippers and seal the mask on our face. They say you never forget your first breath under water, and I can guarantee you that is true. As we kneeled down in the pool and the water crept over our heads, I inhaled a breathe of the cool air through the regulator and let it out with a deluge of bubbles. I've snorkeled before, but nothing quite compares to looking up at the waters surface and taking in gulps of air. I will admit, that I may have had a bit of difficulty controlling my breathing at first as a slight sense of claustrophobia set in. Just breath in and out, breath in and out. I kept trying to breath through my nose, and would find myself inhaling without breathing out, wondering if scuba was for me. But I just kept thinking it through, in and out, and soon I was relaxed and kneeling on the pools bottom amazed that I was actually breathing and stable underwater.
The first major challenge overcome, we began the skills portion of our class. we practiced a range of skills from removing our regulators, breathing through our dive buddies emergency regulator, and then mask clearing. It's a bit of a challenge having to force yourself to remove the only piece of equipment that allows you to see underwater and orient yourself. But with a bit will power we each pried off our masks one by one and cleared them by letting forth a big exhale through our noses. I do need to practice this a bit more though, as every time I tried to clear my mask I could only halfway clear it before having to stop, and every time I tried it I somehow managed to get a decent amount of water up my nose and down my throat. This basically comprised our first two days in the pool, bouncing from classroom to pool practicing rescue maneuvers and emergency scenarios, preparing us for our first actual ocean open water dive!
As daybreak broke on Sunday we all excitedly piled into the dive shop van and headed towards the wharf where our boat was waiting to take us out to Fitzroy Island. Having already been to the island we were already excited to go out and explore, but now we also had the anticipation of diving for the first time in a real setting! The slow and cumbersome boat chugged through the waves about as gracefully as an elephant, slowly bringing us to our destination. Finally after an hour or so long ride we arrived at the pier of the island and disembarked, making our way to the dive shop. Gear in hand we suited up, performed our safety checks, and walked awkwardly to the beach where we would make our first dive. The warm water gently lapped around our ankles as we waded into the aqua blue sea. We all rendezvoused around Joey and she made the dive signal to which we all deflated our BCD's and let ourselves sink below the surface.
Holy shit, we're underwater, in the ocean, and still breathing. We gently landed on the seafloor in a small plume of sediment, even through the masks and regulators you could see the twinkle in everyone's eyes of excitement. This just brought the meaning of a pow wow to a whole different level as we sat in our circle around the instructor awaiting instructions. As we sat, fish swam around us and the soft corals gently bobbed in the current making you feel as though you were one with the fish. Looking down at our dive computers we discovered we were 8 meters below the surface. It was so beautiful, the colors of the water refracted the golden sunlight in streams down on us and the dull outlines of boats anchored bobbed at the surface while a total sense of serenity completely encapsulated me. Now I understand why they say it's so easy to get hooked on scuba.
After we surfaced we all let out laughter and compliments to each other on how well we handled our first dive. Everyone was so excited and enthralled at the prospect of going down under again that we hurriedly replaced our air tanks and mustered again around the instructor ready to go to our next dive spot. We trekked down a little trail weighted by our equipment and soon found ourselves on another pristine beach surrounded by anchored boats. We waded back into the sea and submerged ourselves gently below the small swell. It's one thing looking down the anchor line of a boat from the surface, but it's a whole other looking at the anchor resting on the bottom and looking up at the underside of the hull. One thing is for sure diving really changed your perspective on the ocean.
We swam out at around 6 meters deep and soon found ourselves beside massive walls of coral and live rock. On the bottom were giant sea cucumbers lazily slithering along the bottom as bright blue and yellow reef fish darted rapidly around. In between breathes you could hear the crackle and munching of parrot fish snacking on the hard coral and the whirring of a boat propellor in the distance. This made snorkeling seem boring, now instead of looking down and seeing the world in a two-dimensional view the seas had become a 3D landscape of unique topography, towering hills and cliffs and winding labyrinths with crooks and crevices for small sea critters to hide in.
Our air limit reached we reluctantly returned to the terrestrial world, invigorated and ready to tackle the next and final day of diving out on the Great Barrier Reef! Up early and ready for the excitement of our big dive we were all biting the bit in anticipation on the long boat ride out to the reef. Two hours and some change later we arrived at the mooring floating in a bright blue oasis speckled with the dark outlines of coral reef. This was it, our big dive where we would go down to the limit of our depth. Gear strapped on and feeling like a pair of badasses we big stepped off the swim deck of the dive boat and plunged into the warm ocean water. We all swam up to the mooring line and after flashing the dive sign we began to monkey climb down the line. Stopping at 8 meters we removed our masks once more and cleared them, and resumed our descent.
We descended down the line, below us all you could see was blue and above the outline of the large dive boat slowly evaporated into blue streams of lights. We stopped and Joey pointed to the dive computer, at which to my surprise I read our depth at 18 meters deep! I looked around amazed at being swallowed into the endless blue water. I couldn't see the bottom nor could I see the boat above, just our one mooring line slowly disappearing into the horizon above and below. It's crazy that even at that depth you don't feel the pressure, and with properly equalized ears it was very serene floating at neutral buoyancy. I imagine it's much the same feeling of weightlessness astronauts experience, albeit maybe a tad wetter.
After checking that everyone was ok, Joey led us out away from the mooring line towards the drop off. Soon a dark and looming wall of coral appeared through the indigo seas. On one side the wall climbed towards the surface, and the other side steeply dropped off into the darkness below hiding any number of sneaking sea critters. Below and beside us cruised schools of large fish and the sharp orange corals stuck defiantly out from the rock edges. There's almost nothing more nerve wracking than gliding less than a meter over delicate coral and trying not to touch the fragile creatures and irrevocably damage them. Up to our safety stop at 5 meters we went for a few minutes, and then back to the surface to conclude our second to last dive. We burst through the waters surface so enthralled that we had just scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef.
Back on board we ate lunch and received our dive briefing about our next and final dive site. This site was called The Horseshoe and was made of tall towers of coral all arranged in a, you guessed it, horseshoe shape. We remounted our freshly filled scuba tanks and once again plunged into the water. Releasing the air from our BCD's we were once again enveloped in the marine world. Following Joey we swam towards the stacks of coral arranged in steppes of bright blue and white and orange colors. She led us through a crack in the walls that must have only been about two meters wide and soon we found ourselves weaving through a canyon of coral, completely immersed in the bright and vivid colors of the reef. Super paranoid about kicking or touching the coral I kept my hands tight against my sides and slowly kicked so as not to risk damaging the reef. It was incredible to be so fully engulfed in the walls of the coral and feel just like one of the hundreds of fish that swam rapidly around us. Joey excitedly pointed to two clown fish that timidly stuck their noses out of a swaying sea anemone just like a scene from Finding Nemo! I couldn't believe the beauty and terrain that we were looking at as we weaved in and out of tall stacks of coral and under overhangs and through narrow winding canyons. Unfortunately it always has to come to an end, air depleted we resurfaced for a final time and laughed with amazement at the experience we had just had. None of us could believe how cool and unique it was to dive in and among the reef like that and see the reef from such a unique perspective.
Clambering back on board the dive boat we were met with congratulations and high fives from the crew as we were now officially PADI certified! Already our minds were racing with the possibilities of adventures to be had in the submarine world and where we could potentially dive again. After the experience on the reef we were also inspired to try and make a meaningful impact on our planet. The importance of marine conservation was especially underscored by seeing first hand the beauty of the reef, and seeing the side by side comparisons of bleached and dying reef to the live and thriving corals. Who knows, maybe one day we may just find ourselves scuba diving for conservation work! In the meantime though there are things we can do to try and minimize our impact on the oceans, such as recycling and only supporting sustainably sourced seafoods. Remember to also say no to drag netting which destroys the sea floor and gill netting which hooks a lot of sharks and other species unnecessarily.
Bucket list item completed, we're excited to see where our new found skill takes us. Now we can explore both the surface and subsurface of our wonderful world. I think it's fair to say that Anna and I have now fallen victim to the hook of scuba diving. We also can't say enough how awesome the Cairns Dive Centre was! If you ever find yourself in Cairns and want to dive on either a tour or to get certified we really suggest you check out the dive centre, you certainly won't regret it!