07 September 2009

the great barrier reef and 12 tips for new divers

After being in the red desert center of the continent, flying over the water into Cairns couldn't help but make me smile. And we got a nice sunset to boot.

Cairns isn't much of a destination, but as the entry point to the Great Barrier Reef, it's pretty spectacular. We decided to go all out and splurge on a PADI open water diver certification, and my partner says it's the closest thing he's experienced to flying.

Being perfectly buoyant in water and breathing underwater just seems wrong-- is there any domain we humans haven't conquered? But it is an amazing feeling. Yes, there is a ton of gear, and there are gadgets and meters you have to monitor (so you don't, you know, run out of air and die). And yes, my tank and inflated vest felt like they were bigger than I was...

But being able to just sit on the sandy bottom of the ocean, waiting to see which fish approach you is unbeatable.

"Finding Nemo" was spot-on with their interpretation of the reef:

I didn't know there were so many different kinds of coral:

My favorite was the blue-tipped coral and the blue coral:

And diving really does bring you closer to all the fish than snorkeling can:

There were the usual suspects:

Some fish looked happy:

Others, not so much:

We saw fish that were camouflaged:

And some that were easy to spot:

There were lots of parrot fish (we even saw a blue one that was over three feet long!):

And some things fell somewhere between coral and fish:

I didn't mean to sound so Dr. Seussy. But I found all of the contrast fascinating. And sadly, we didn't get pictures of the best creatures because we saw them all on our night dive.

I was terrified, to be honest, when I was suiting up and looking out at the dark ocean. The wind was blowing, the waves were rolling and our instructor had scared us with the 'ring of steel' joke. (This is apparently the joke used to scare every new diver on their first night dive. He says very solemnly that we have to remember these instructions when we see a shark. He then proceeds to diagram how we swim towards our instructor, forming a 'ring of steel,' thus (ha ha) protecting him from the shark.) Right. Nervous laugh.

And sure enough, as soon as we descended below the surface, we saw a huge shark. Well, I think a six-foot shark is pretty huge-- apparently, it's just 'normal.' It started to approach us (yikes), then swam by and continued on its way. We had torches (Aussie for flashlight), and I was relieved to find night diving not as frightening as I'd thought it would be. Visibility in daylight was about 12 meters because it was a bit choppy, and visibility with a torch wasn't much less, so it was fine. And realistically, if something (a rabid shark, for example) was to speed towards you, you'd have the same chance of seeing it either way.

We saw a huge turtle, too-- the shell was also about six feet in diameter. Apparently, it's the resident turtle of the area, and someone decided to name it Brian. It looked like a swimming table. It swam right towards me (sea animals are often attracted to light at night), and I flailed ungracefully, trying to get out of its way. But it was awesome-- it felt like I was swimming with a peaceful dinosaur. You didn't want to get trampled, but you knew it would probably not eat you or rip you to pieces for fun.

We stayed on a boat in the Great Barrier Reef for three days and did eight dives. It was nonstop dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, sleep, dive, etc. But it was great. We met some great Dutch/German/Irish/English divers in our training course, and our small boat only had about two dozen people aboard. I would highly recommend taking motion sickness pills if you take one of these small boats out to the reef, though, as lots of people (possibly including my partner and me) got sick on the way out. We slept on the way back to Cairns and were fine. So, you can try sleeping, too.

Other tips if you're interested in learning to dive:

1. If you have your own gear (fins, mask, etc.), bring them. The gear they lend you is often sized Small, Medium and Large, which means most of it will be a little large or small. And fins that don't fit properly can cause horrible blisters and rub your skin right off after all those hours underwater-- and raw skin is no fun. Some people put socks in their fins, so you can try that, if all else fails. (Masking tape, not bandaids, were the usual remedy to these blisters/raw skin areas, and that isn't fun at all.) If you don't have your own gear, no worries-- the rentals aren't perfect, but they are included in the price and will get the job done.

2. BUT, if you think you'll dive/snorkel frequently in the future, buy some gear before you go. My partner and I got some decent quality masks/fins/snorkels when we got married last year (yes, we registered for snorkeling gear), and you'll save a ton of cash if you buy them online, for example, rather than at the pro shop. Our mask/snorkel/fin sets were Mares and other similarly respected brands and cost less than $100. In the dive shop, the same combination of gear would cost around $400. In case you're interested, we got our masks and fins at joediveramerica. And don't forget your underwater camera! They are very expensive to rent and generally not included in your diving package.

3. Bring motion sickness pills. Really. Even if you don't think you'll need them. If you're diving in Cairns, you can pick them up cheaply at any of the pharmacy shops (called chemists in Australia). You are pretty much expected to dive as soon as you reach the outer reef. The last thing you want to be is retching your brains out.

4. Bring a warm sweatshirt (or the like), but don't wear pants. The boats are often heavily air-conditioned, and it's often super windy on the decks outside, so you'll want something warm to snuggle in after diving and being wet. We spent the entire time on the boat barefoot (it's required), and the ground often gets wet. No one wants to wear pants that are wet on the bottom. Ick.

5. Eat! A lot. You can burn 800 calories per hour scuba diving, so load up accordingly. Don't bother bringing snacks, though. We had leftover food from our campervan adventure in the outback, and we didn't even touch it. They feed you really well on the boats, and there are always cookies, crackers, fruit and coffee/tea available for munching on. (Not that there is much downtime between diving and meals and sleeping anyway.)

6. Drink lots of water. It's easy when you're so busy to forget to drink water, but they give you a plastic water bottle, and you should just keep refilling it and chugging away. After being in saltwater for so many hours, I'm surprised none of us just pickled up.

7. Get your sleep when you're on the boat. They recommend that you don't drink while you're on the boat, but you're allowed to BYOB. (They even have a fridge for you to store your booze.) But, after all that diving, you will probably be absolutely knocked out at the end of the day. So, be nice to your hardworking body and let it rest.

8. When you're above water, you can use your snorkel instead of your regulator to save your air for your dive. Just keep your BCD (vest) inflated, and you'll be able to swim to your point of descent without wasting any precious air.

9. When you're underwater, relax. As a beginning diver, you won't see every little nook and cranny that an experienced diver will. You may screw up your navigation skills, misread your compass and get totally lost. You'll probably run out of air in half an hour while the pros are still wandering about 60 minutes into their dives. But enjoy the magical flying feeling and have fun exploring whatever you have time for. Breathe slowly and deeply, make sure you dive with a buddy, and most importantly, make sure you and your buddy agree on a dive plan before you're underwater. Underwater sign language is really limiting.

10. Equalize often. If you hold your nose and blow or wiggle your chin or try to swallow before your ears feel pressure/pain, and do it often as you descend, you'll be a lot more comfortable diving. Take your time going down-- if your ears hurt, you can come back up and equalize before descending further.

11. To avoid bumping into other divers, feeling rushed or getting crowded at dive sites, I found it best to be last in. It took my ears a while to equalize, so I liked to descend slowly-- and having no one behind us took the pressure off (no pun intended). Even if you're last in, you still get the full time diving (according to how much air you have). Just remember to start ascending when you have 50 bar of air, and remember to pause 5 meters below the surface for 5 minutes to avoid decompression sickness.

12. Have fun!

We were exhausted at the end of our dive trip, but we were so glad we did it. And once you're certified, you're certified for life.

We sailed back into Cairns and were lucky that our flight left about 24 1/2 hours after our last dive. You're not supposed to fly within 24 hours of your last dive, so we just made it.

We flew out of Cairns...

back to Sydney...

and then boarded another plane to Christchurch, New Zealand.

Up next, the most beautiful country on earth (in my opinion).

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