Dive Right In

Me, giving the peace sign underwater

I’m now a certified SCUBA diver. Plus I’ve now had showers in two moving vehicles. But I get ahead of myself.

Cairns is a city set up for diving. No, really. Want to leave tomorrow at 7.45? No worries, you can book less than 12 hours in advance. Not certified? No worries. You can do escorted dives, “no school” scuba, or learn right on the Reef, no pool work required. But wait — you need a physical before you dive. No worries, there’s an office with docs 24 hours a day — no appointment required. (In my case total visit time was under 20 minutes.)

So it was that early Wednesday morning I took a ship out to Hastings Reef, on the outer Great Barrier Reef. The hour didn’t amuse me, but my outfit did. I’d donned a Nautica “Great Barrier Reef” shirt that had never been this close to the Reef, a pair of Ripcurl surfer thongs, and Billabong boardshorts. I’d chosen it all because I found the prospect of a landlocked Iowa boy decked out in the stuff to be delicious irony.

When we arrived at Hastings, I took a launch to the catamaran that would be my home for the next few days. I was doing a “personalised instruction” course that would allow me to get certified in a short amount of time.

After dumping my stuff in my room, I met my instructor, Damien. He was young, enthusiastic, and experienced as hell — over 4,000 dives before he stopped counting. Things were looking promising. He said we’d begin the instruction later in the day, and why don’t I go for a snorkel before we get into it?

So I did. And I sucked — water, that is. The trick to snorkeling is to get the head at the right angle (supposedly 45°) such that you can peer down whilst still drawing in air. That’s the theory, at least, but in practice it seemed to be that I was taking a mouthful of seawater every second breath. Since my brain was severely unimpressed by the concept of ducking my face underwater, and thus “every second breath” seemed to be quite rapid, I was taking in a lot of saline.

Then the fish came.

Wally, looking frightened.

I was minding my own business, wishing I had one of those flash snorkels that have a purge valve at the bottom and a flap at the top, when I noticed this huge fish — and it noticed me. Its huge bugged-out eyes made it look permanently terrified, but its behavior was precisely the opposite: it made a bee-line towards me.

Now I won’t say I was scared, but I will note that I am unsure of the precise protocol as to how to behave when a big-ass fish suddenly seems to think he’s Sam the Wonder Dog coming for to carry me home.

Rapidly relocating seemed a sound choice — but did I mention I’m basically crap with fins? Yes, other than breathing, moving, and dealing with the wildlife, I’m a natural when it comes to bodies of water that can’t be found within a thousand miles of my hometown.

But I’ll tell you a little secret: scuba is actually easier than snorkeling. Once you get past the first few holy-crap-I’m-underwater moments, you don’t have to think about keeping your head a certain way or how to remove seawater from a particularly persistent wave.

And that’s how you’re free to focus on things such as Wally, my aforementioned fishy friend. Seems Wally actually “went mad” (as the Captain put it) a few years ago and will now come to the instructors when they raise their hands a certain way. Not that he needs to be called; as I found out, he’ll approach snorkelers, though he prefers divers. In both cases, he doesn’t mind one bit when you “pet” him. He really does think he’s a puppy.

The other life in and around Hastings and Saxon reefs wasn’t quite as tame, but still beautiful. I was able to experience it with Damien as we swam around over the course of 6 dives, taking in tons of fish, varied coral, the enchanting way that other divers’ air bubbles looked like drops of mercury — plus the odd shark and sea turtle.

It wasn’t all sight-seeing, as along with 3 Brit boys I did drills such as the “Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent.” It wasn’t all diving, either, as I had plenty of homework to complete before I could get my card. (Including a few videos to watch on the ship’s WEGA. But I also managed to slip in some pleasure viewing from the onboard video library.)

Still it all seemed to go by quite quickly, and after a final lunch I was back on a launch, again headed to the “day boat” that would be my taxi to the mainland.

Once I climbed aboard, I noticed the vessel was doing a good business, with hardly an open bench to be found. I moved out to the bow and stood in the foremost part of the ship, which was empty. Soon it was clear why, as a bunch of spray from the port side drenched me. I looked up to the wheelhouse, where the crew was laughing, and I grinned right back — then flipped around, making motions as if to offer my dry side to the water. (I wasn’t convinced the first splash was pure chance.) Seconds later, I had no dry side. Unfortunately, this time I wasn’t wearing my boardshorts (which, I’d come to find out, have a purpose above merely being dead-sexy: they actually dry really fast.)

The logical approach when one is being buffeted by wind and surf is to get thee to shelter. However, as MJG once pointed out, one should never assume that I will always follow the logical course of action. I stayed planted right there, wind and water be damned.

Moments later, I was rewarded. I caught a glimpse of something long and silvery beneath me. It was a dolphin, skimming just beneath the surface, right in front of the ship. As I watched, the first was joined by another, and the pair zipped along together, closer to me than to any other person aboard. When they disappeared below, I looked up and caught the smiles and grins of the crew, who high up in the wheelhouse had been the only other people to notice the dolphins. I gave them a wide smile and a thumbs-up right back, thinking what a way to end my first visit to the Reef.

Note on photos: I took a roll, but they’re not so good. It’s a combination of too-fast film and too-slow operator. Plus I really needed a light source. The water leaches away color even more than I expected. In the photo of me, for example, the weight belt is actually hot pink, the snorkel an iridescent yellow, and I’m actually tan (well, burnt.)

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