I have vivid memories of the glossy National Geographic photos showcasing brilliantly coloured fish and textured corals found in the Great Barrier Reef. Since this time, I wanted to explore the mysterious and strange underwater universe. With the rest of the world, however, I have been watching in despair as reports of the mass bleaching and death of corals in the reef as part of the onward march of climate change continue to be released.
When I found myself heading to Australia for a conference, I leapt at the chance to get a long-awaited taste of the underwater world. I splashed out and signed up for a 5-day PADI open water dive course, and it was THE BEST decision.
I was nervously waiting around my hostel, anxiously gnawing the nail polish off my nails, certain that I (a) I had not signed up properly and wouldn’t be let on the course (b) that I had booked with a fraudulent company or (c) that I would freak out underwater and everything would be terrible.
It turned out that none of these things were true! I had, in fact, signed up properly, Deep Sea Divers Den has been running since 1974 and is a legitimate operation which has certified over 120,000 divers. My instructor Jackie rocked up in a minibus with the other 5 people who would be my classmates.
We spend the morning in the classroom. The nerd in me oddly relishing the chance to shine on pop-quizzes and practice some rusty long-division. After lunch, it was time to suit up and jump in the training pool. We spend the next 4 or so hours practicing a range of skills. The first time descending to the bottom of the 3-meter pool was a little bit scary – there are so many things to think about! By the end of the day, I was feeling much better – excited, even, to learn more. However, still with enough mentions of exploding lungs to instil a very prudent level of respect for diving.
We started the day in the pool, doing a range of skills and our swim test. It was pretty astonishing to me how different I felt by the end of our pool sessions in terms of confidence. Because I feel much more comfortable with the gear and the basic procedures, there was a shift from trepidation to excitement.
Before I started the course, I was 90% excitement, 10% fear, but as the course start drew near, I started to get really nervous. The first day handling the gear and doing basic skills in the pool saw my fear level gradually dissolve and excitement started to creep back in as I started to see how fun this was. By the end of day 2, after aceing my written theory exam and feeling more confident in the basic skills, I am filled to the brim with excitement to get out into the reef. There still is a (well-founded) bit of fear, as we are going to be going deeper and in a completely new environment, but the process so far has been so excellent, I am allowing myself to ride the wave of excitement.
Early morning, the van collected us from our various accommodations and we were quickly shuttled to the harbour to alight SeaQuest, a day boat from which we would do our first open water dive, on the way to OceanQuest, a live-aboard boat. We got our first taste of salty, brilliant blue waters in quick order at our first dive off Saxon reef. Seeing the schools of fish swimming around us and the getting our first glimpses of coral was so thrilling. I had a few nerves for this first “real” dive, however, things went smoothly, and soon, I hit peak excitement, drinking in the incredible sights, feeling like an astronaut exploring a foreign planet (the zero-gravity feeling definitely furthered this feeling, as I would float away as I tried to sit on mooring blocks). After our dive, we snorkelled around, drinking in more of the vibrant colours and incredible textures without the distraction of watching air gauges and trying to maintain our delicate buoyancy. That evening, once aboard OceanQuest, we got suit up and lie on the duck board to watch the night shift of fish and sharks swim in the lights of the dive boat. Lying on our bellies, like sausages on a grill, we had our faces in the water as large bass and great barrier reef sharks swam by our faces, often slapping our faces with their tails as they turned to gobble up the fish food being sprinkled into the water. It was such an incredible experience!
The sun streamed into the small cabin in the morning, glinting off the ocean. After breakfast, we completed our last training dive to become CERTIFIED DIVERS!! We eagerly had our first unsupervised dive, and I was so proud of us for (a) keeping everyone alive and safe and (b) looking out for each other underwater. Our little group of 5 newbies did another dive together, which was the first time we encountered significant currents, which added a new challenge to our experience.
With these training dives and some unguided dives under our belts, the dive deck was starting to become a comfortable and beloved place. That night, as newly minted divers, we were able to participate in the night dive. We were assigned guides to take us into the (literally) shark-infested waters, discovering a very different underwater world swimming through the darkness.
I was up super early on our final day of diving, trying to soak in every morsel of floating life. I did an early morning dive with my diving crew, getting to see the day shift want up and start about their business of eating their mucous sacks that they had hidden themselves in, finding their way out of the nooks and crannies that they had spent the dark night. A highlight from this dive was to see a whole bunch of lion fish!
As much as I liked the experience of diving with my fellow beginner divers, it is really hard to attune to the marvellous sights that the GBR has to offer when spending a lot of time trying to make sure everyone was ok, making crucial navigational decisions, and so on. I decided to get a guide for my last two dives on the reef, so I could languidly swim along, seeing all the amazing things, without worrying that we might get lost in the foreign underwater landscape. These two dives were incredible – I saw tiny orangutang crabs, a whole family of Nemos, and a little flock of Dories.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realise the absolute necessity of a red filter for capturing underwater pics, so my attempts at capturing the amazing sights were woefully inadequate. I have borrowed a couple of pics from @divers_den’s instagram page to show you examples of some of the cool things I got to see (giant clams, lionfish, the great blue because of epic visibility on all our dives, clown fish, reef sharks):
Far too soon, it was time to pack up and take SeaQuest back to Cairns.
This was absolutely one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was amazing to go through a learning process that was so clearly demarcated – staring from complete ignorance to some competence in a few short days.
This experience was made all the more amazing by our patient instructor Jacki and the crew of people that I got to dive with and hang with – Mr. BzzNzz, Team Belgium, Jan, Stevie-baby, Kels, the Annas, and more! I dearly hope the universe (and the ocean) will bring us together soon! ❤