11/30/13: Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
When you hear the word Australia you think of kangaroos, the Outback, the Sydney Opera House, and the Great Barrier Reef. There was no way we were going down under without, you know, going down under. The surface, that is. The Great Barrier Reef was a must. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world? Who can resist that? Not us. And that’s why we did what every adventure-seeking tourist with no diving skills and limited funds does: we signed up for a tour.
Seastar was the chosen company to lead our exploration of the Great Barrier Reef, and they did a fantastic job showing us the ropes, or fins, as it were. They doled out quality snorkel gear and gave us stinger suits to don. Australia was still Australia, after all, even when you’re beyond its treacherous shores. And the ocean was no less fraught with danger, in fact, I’m sure it just increased tenfold! The stinger suits were thin and covered the entire body like a glove. Head to toe. They even had little mittens sewn onto the arms. This would hopefully prevent any tentacles from reaching our skin, but our crew told us not to worry. The likelihood of us running into any threatening jellies was very low. It was the beginning of the jelly season and they had yet to see any stingers clogging up the water. Better safe than sorry, I always say. Besides, they made us look like superheroes!
As we sped away from Cairns toward the aquamarine horizon, I convinced myself that this was it – this was going to be my first foray into scuba diving. The Great Barrier Reef seemed too enticing a place not to have a go. Decision made, I signed my name on the dotted line and placed my life in the hands of Seastar and its crew. Katie toyed with the idea of joining me but ultimately decided against it. Innate fear of the ocean and all…
Our first stop of the day was Michaelmas Cay, a thin wisp of an island barely peeking above the water’s surface; a glorified sandbar, really, where thousands of birds flock to nest in the middle of the sea. As guests in their sanctuary we were only allowed to visit a very narrow bit of sand on one side of the island. I never touched ground, however, because I was too busy snorkeling and scuba diving. A regular Jacques Cousteau!
Being a first timer at the art of submersion, myself and a few other novices received a crash course from our PADI instructor, Ivan. He was funny, fast-paced, and patient with newbies. Honestly, you have to be when you’re dealing with people going under water for the first time. We were forsaking the breathing world for the province of fish with heavy tanks on our backs and tubes in our mouths. As you might guess, nerves are as much a part of the experience as excitement. I would say we were “fish out of water” but that metaphor faces some resistance in this scenario…
For my part, I was anxious only to jump into the water and show off my skills. I was, after all, in my element – a student with a brand new teacher to impress! Only straight A’s would suffice. Had I listened closely? Learned my skills? Did I memorized all the hand signals to communicate underwater? Yes, yes, and yes! (My life was at stake, ultimately, so it didn’t seem like the best time to slack off.)
I got my chance to prove myself when I finally stepped off the stern of the boat. Ivan met with each of us individually a few feet below the surface so he could test us. I watched his signs, followed his instructions, and received an A+ (naturally). Only then did he give me the OK to go below. A second instructor escorted me down to the ocean floor, about 10-15 meters below the surface. Every few feet I pinched my nose and blew, releasing the pressure in my ears. When I touched down to the ground he motioned for me to sit on my haunches and wait…and wait…and wait. It seemed a few others in my party were having trouble making the grade.
It wasn’t all bad, though. It gave me a chance to sit back and take in my surroundings. I was at the bottom of the ocean! A shallow part of the ocean, granted, but it was still an amazing place to be. Corals stacked on my right, a boat looming above, open sea on my left, and a long seaweed-ridden rope tied to the anchor next to me. Fish gathered in the shade of the ship and bubbles floated up my face. I’d traveled through space and entered another world, and I was loving it.
But time dragged on. The other instructor, who was also waiting patiently beside me, entertained himself by digging his fingers in the sand and pulling out his respirator so that he could throw back his head and blow big bubbles. It seemed like a fair way to pass the time, so I gave it a try. I took a deep breath and removed the respirator from my mouth. Glub, glub, glub. Giant puffs of air burst from my mouth in quivering globes. I did this trick several times, just for kicks. It felt natural, like I didn’t have a care in the world. (Though, when I think about it now I realize that breathing could’ve been one of those cares.)
In the end, only 4 of us were allowed to continue on to the next level, or sub-level, in this case. Ivan dropped down and took us all in hand, literally, because we were as hopeless as children learning how to walk. I pushed off the ground and rose weightless and out of control, twirling, flailing. Not until Ivan motioned for me to turn horizontal and kick did I remember I was underwater; that I needed to actually try and swim. I’d somehow forgotten that part. I rotated my body, flattened out, and gave it a go. Suddenly, I understood that I was in complete control. I chose my depth, my position, and where I was going. From that point on I was as good as gold. Once again I found myself anxious to get going and enjoy the underwater world around me.
Ivan didn’t disappoint. Our first stop was a colossus of a clam. The kind that I’d seen in cartoons but never dreamed were real. Giant clams are real! And one was waiting for us all alone in the middle of a white flat of sand. We sat around it like kids at a campfire. I followed Ivan’s lead, touching its inner flesh that glowed purple with green spots. It felt like the underside of a slug, slippery and slimy. In reaction, the clam jerked its shell. I pulled away, startled, laughter ringing from my mask. It was trying to close but its inner lips are so thick it can’t shut its shell entirely.
We then proceeded to fumble through the saltwater like an embarrassing troop of ballerinas; one flailing or floating or sometimes drifting to the ground. Like escaped balloons, Ivan collected each of us and reigned us in. We then proceeded to swim in the most rudimentary sense of the word. Once I got comfortable, though, I was able to break off from the pack and swim alongside. We passed hills of coral and a few small schools of fish, but we had to return to the ship quicker than I would’ve liked. A lot of time was wasted at the beginning, so our underwater expedition was cut short. In the end I felt like I saw more animal life while snorkeling, but I enjoyed the feel of scuba diving. I felt free, peaceful, serene; like I was one with the ocean around me. I’m keen to do it again someday.
Through all this Katie was up at the top of the blue snorkeling on her own and then resting on the shore of Michaelmas Cay. Despite being out at sea, submerging herself in a world that she fears, she never once freaked out. She was even willing to continue snorkeling at our next destination, Hastings Reef! This spot was a little more intimidating because there was absolutely no land to be found. You could spin 360 degrees and all you’d see is blue. Just under the surface, though, was a throng of life bubbling and bobbing.
The day was pristine. Best conditions you could ask for. Calm, sunny, not a ripple or wave as far as the eye could see. We both hopped back into the warm water, stinger suits wrapped tightly around us, and kicked along with our guide. She was one of the crewmembers and she led the way to some points of interest and was happy to unveil fascinating marine life below. She pointed out various kinds of coral, an un-puffed puffer fish, and even a “Nemo.” You may think I’m using this name to be cutesy, but the crew seriously referred to all clown fish as “Nemo.” I can only conclude that the film Finding Nemo brought a major boom to their tourism industry.
After the initial introduction we were free to swim wherever we liked. I was overjoyed! With snorkel in mouth, I drifted along the water’s surface for 2 ½ hours. Kicking, kicking, kicking, I couldn’t get enough of the spectacle around me, like a dream I didn’t want to wake from. I found myself transfixed by the hyper-color fish and alien life rising up to meet me in soft and jagged peaks. It was the closest thing to flying I’ve ever experienced. One moment I’d be close enough to touch a twist of coral, the next moment the ground would drop out from under me and I was sailing high above an underwater canyon. Mountains rose up and down like undulating waves below the ocean’s surface and I flew over them with glee. Wings at my sides, propeller on my feet, and water brushing past me like a strong wind.
Schools of fish gathered. Staghorn corals pointed. Brain corals twisted in tight pink ribbons. Giant clams were everywhere, wedged into a field of sea life with only their lips smiling out from a mélange of hues. Their siphons pumped water in and out like whistling mouths, purifying the ocean water with every breath. Later, I parked myself above a group of parrotfish chomping on coral. The crunch is unmistakable. They break off chunks with their jagged little teeth and, after consumption, release it back into the sea as pure sand. One broke off from the feeding frenzy and went for a swim. I stuck to him as long as I could, seeing if I could keep up with a fish. I did all right for a two-legged mammal, I think.
Once back aboard I found Katie relaxing and marveling at how long I was able to snorkel. She’d bailed out over an hour ago having had her fill, whereas I couldn’t get enough. It seemed I was a regular fish out there, only far less beautiful. I’ll need the Great Barrier Reef to rub off on me a little harder if I’m going to sport those vibrant colors.