The Great Barrier Reef has always been on my bucket list. I remember learning about it in school, and was amazed at the beautiful colours and variety of marine life. It has certainly been on my mind over the years, as updates on the Reef becoming increasingly bleached and dying has made major headlines. We knew that coming to Australia meant we were going to visit the Great Barrier Reef, the only question was: how do we want to see it? There are many options to choose from: the size of boat and number of passengers it carries, a daytrip or overnight stay, and activities such as swimming, snorkelling and/or scuba diving.
We booked an introductory dive with Cairns Dive Centre. The journey to the reef would take roughly an hour and a half, where we would scuba dive and snorkel, have lunch, snorkel again and then head back to land.
I’m On A Boat
Thinking back to my previous experiences with boats, I’ve only been on a few – nothing too large or fancy. Growing up, my grandfather had a boat on a small lake at his cottage, and I always looked forward to going on the water with him. The boat ride to the Reef was different, of course, and it was rough. The weather wasn’t necessarily bad for this trip, but it was a bit windy and overcast in the morning. The crew warned us to take a seasickness tablet (if we had one) before leaving the marina. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any left from our last boat trip (at the Whitsundays). I should have been better prepared… the waves at sea were much larger and we were moving at roughly 16 knots.
Luke, our host for the day, gave a quick speech and went over the signals of diving and what it would be like, answering any and all of our questions. He put us in groups and informed us who our dive master would be, before informing everyone that we’d arrive at our first site in an hour an a half…. I’m sorry, WHAT!?
I spent majority of the ride sat in the back of the boat, half laying back, with my eyes closed and a barf bag tightly gripped in my left hand. Thankfully, I wasn’t sick, but I wonder now if that would have made it easier for me. Matt was absolutely fine. I’m grateful he came to check on me a few times and brought a cup of water. Of course, it hits everyone differently and I don’t mean to put anyone off (the rest of the day and the return journey to the marina were absolutely fine)!
Matt went scuba diving once before in Surfers Paradise, during his last trip to Australia. I know how much he enjoyed it, because he speaks of it often. To be honest, I was rather nervous about the experience, especially because the boat ride left me feeling rather shaky. Everyone was excited to get in the water, but I was desperate to simply stop rocking and put my feet on solid ground.
Everyone was called back into the boat to go over the rules of diving, hand signals and safety underwater one more time – better safe than sorry, right? Matt and I were placed in group one, meaning we were the first in the water. All of a sudden, I’m at the back of the boat, putting on a wet suit, getting fitted for weight belt and slipping my arms into a life jacket with the air tank. Thankfully, Rob was talking to me the whole time and keeping me calm. He was so great, I really appreciate his help in getting me to the water.
Rob guided me down the stairs and onto the boat ledge that was resting just below the water. It felt surprisingly warm, and both Matt and I struggled to put on our fins as the boat was still rocking slightly.
Our instructor’s name was Ben. He quickly tightened our jacket straps, checked our flippers and then talked us through the safety brief and hand signals again. We put on our goggles, popped the mouthpiece into our mouth and one by one, descended into the water. There was a bar, about 5 feet below the boat, where we were instructed to wait until everyone from our group was there. Matt went down second and I followed after him.
Breathing under water was the weirdest feeling. It’s not something you can easily get used to, because it’s obviously not natural for humans. I remember tightly holding onto the bar beneath the boat and looking around. Everything was blue, and surprisingly clear. We could see Ben and the others above us, getting ready to come into the water. All I wanted to do was talk to Matt about everything I was feeling but it was probably best we didn’t talk, as that special mouthpeice was giving us life under the sea. The most reassuring part (at this point) was that we could also see the ocean floor, a few small fish and lots of coral – definitely no sharks.
With all four of us under the water, Ben follows and give us the ‘ok’ sign, asking how we’re doing. We reply with the same hand signal, as this particular signal is a question and an answer. We had to practice what to do if the mouthpiece came out under the water, and went over how to safely check our equipment. Finally, we let go of the bar and now I’m scuba diving, swimming on my own to the ocean floor.
Under The Sea
I wasn’t floating, but I didn’t know whether to swim up or down (where’s Ariel when you need her??). I couldn’t feel the weight belt digging into my hips or scuba gear on my back anymore, I was weightless and without direction. Having flippers on felt weird, but it helped me to move more quickly underwater and keep up with the group. Ben was taking us to the ocean floor, and reminding us to equalise every couple of feet. We could see Sam, the photographer, and we lined up for a few individual shots.
We weren’t allowed to bring any of our own underwater cameras on this dive, much to our disappointment. As it was an ‘introductory dive’, the crew of Cains Dive Centre wanted to ensure we were focusing on breathing properly, following the instructors and communicating safely. Put a camera in our hands and you would have a group of distracted first-time divers, and we may have never left the bar below the boat.
Sam got some great shots for us, including ones with a clown fish (Finding Nemo, anyone?). While I wanted to communicate that Matt and I should have a photo together, I didn’t really know how to tell the both. Not being able to speak was very difficult. Throughout the dive, I wanted to say things like:
“MATT LOOK AT THAT FISH”
“MATT DID YOU SEE HOW BIG THAT ONE WAS?”
“MATT WAIT FOR ME!”
“MATT WHAT IF THERE’S A SHARK??”
“MATT WE SOUND LIKE DARTH VADER HAHAHA”
Of course, I had a mouthpiece in to help me breathe, and it’s impossible to speak underwater anyway.
After photos, Ben took us on a tour of the reef. He led us in a group to look at different coloured bits of coral, fish and to see what other marine life we could spot (thankfully no sharks). Apparently, he saw a squid changing colour, but wasn’t able to communicate it to us as Matt and I were at the back of the group, and he obviously couldn’t just say something.
Sound is different underwater too. No matter how far away we were from the boat, I could always hear perfectly clear when the chains holding the anchor moved. Apart from that, I was listening to myself breathe and pretending to be Darth Vader (it was very hard not to laugh at myself underwater, but I was more worried I’d breathe in water).
Matt and I stayed side-by-side through the dive. Sometimes, he’s grab my hand and we’d swim together for a while. It was really comforting, as we didn’t have another way of communicating. Fish were swimming around us and in between us, it was wonderful to be a part of the reef. The coral was sometimes brilliant and vibrant, and other times washed out, an effect of global warming. Before we know it, we’re heading back up to the bar beneath the boat, and Ben is instructing us to come up to the surface. I would have done anything to stay below the water. I wanted to be part of that world forever.
That first breath of fresh air was a relief! Unfortunately, I felt really heavy again and my skin was pruney. I struggled to take off my flippers, but Matt helped and together, we returned our scuba gear. The air felt cold, so we decided to stay in the water and snorkel.
The Dream of the Blue Turtle
Matt and I quickly grabbed a fresh snorkel mask, and jumped back into the water. As we were the first dive group, there were another 24 people behind us waiting to take their turn. Others on the tour had chosen not to dive, and were snorkelling alongside the boat, so we swam out to join them. The waves were really rough and I was having a tough time breathing through my snorkel, so gave it about 10 minutes before heading back to the boat for lunch. Matt, on the other hand, stayed in the water another half an hour.
The boat was still rocking, and it was making me feel queasy again, so I had lunch on the open top deck. Suzanna, a member of staff, was responsible for watching all the snorkelers, and she quickly started chatting with me about my dive and what I saw. As we continue chatting, she casually points over the edge of the boat and says there’s a turtle in the area where some of the snorkelers are. Suddenly, I’m yelling to get Matt’s attention, and running down the stairs to throw him his phone in the underwater case. I frantically point to tell him there’s a turtle somewhere in thaaaat general direction and to swim out further. If I see it pop up again, I’d direct him from the top deck.
Matt didn’t need much direction finding the turtle though. He quickly swam away from the boat, and began looking. I saw it surface again but Matt was nowhere to be seen. Here’s why….
Not only did he find the turtle, but it was casually swimming there next to him! They weren’t alone for long, other snorkelers found out about the turtle and quickly came over to see it. Matt was lucky to have a few moments alone before everyone came rushing. He came back to the boat with a huge grin on his face and told me he had the best time ever. A sea turtle was on his bucket list of things to see at the Great Barrier Reef and he couldn’t stop talking about the experience. The video, if you haven’t already seen it, can be found here on our Twitter page.
Just Keep Swimming, Swimming, Swimming
The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming. We were taken to another location near the beautiful, breathtaking Fitzroy Island, but you had to pay an additional fee to dive again, so we opted to snorkel. I was getting pretty tired and took a noodle with me, which made looking for fish much more relaxing. We saw a sting ray, hiding between some rocks! I made sure both Matt and I kept a safe distance in case it decided to swim away unexpectedly, but it remained in the same spot while we were snorkelling.
We must have been out there for close to two hours. Matt and I had a laugh at the different coloured fish, and took turns diving underwater to get some photos. Like the dive experience, I felt comfortable and could have spent the evening in the water.
Sea of Smiling Faces
Unfortunately, it was time to get out of the water and head back to land. I’d almost gotten over my seasickness from the morning, and was nervous about the boat heading back to land. The water was much calmer now though, and we decided to stand on the bow to catch the salt air. Everyone was in good spirits, as we’d had a full on day out at sea. We were exchanging stories of our dives, what we saw in the water and if we’d do it again. Turns out, a few people saw a reef shark on the Fitzroy Island snorkel! It was a few feet long, but didn’t take any notice to the people swimming above it. While I was jealous for only a second, I’m glad I didn’t see the shark. I might have freaked out just a tad…
The crew had us sit down, and offered hot tea, biscuits and fresh fruit. I didn’t realise how hungry I was until the food was on a plate and in my lap, there one second and gone the next. Luke called everyone to attention and gave a wonderful speech, thanking us for choosing Cairns Dive Centre. He then began calling out our names, and gave us a certificate, congratulating us one by one on our first ever dive!
A Return To The Sea
I would absolutely choose to scuba dive again! The nerves I felt going into this experience were silly and wasted because it was such a fun day.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Cairns Dive Centre! Every member of staff we came across was kind, patient and friendly. There was no question too silly, you made us all laugh and feel very safe in a new environment. Our scuba dive was something I will never forget, and I highly recommend the experience with this company to any first time diver. You guys are the best!