Learn to Dive on the Barrier Reef

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The list of ‘must see’ sights in Australia is a lengthy one – but in my eyes the #1 thing that any visitor to Australia needs to see is the Great Barrier Reef. The only living organism visible from space isn’t just big – it’s breathtakingly beautiful and it won’t be there forever.

It’s a sad truth that there’s every chance that our grandchildren won’t get to experience the Great Barrier Reef in its current splendor, so if you’re in Australia and have the chance – you owe it to your as yet unborn descendants to see it first hand.

There are snorkeling trips and glass bottom boats aplenty all the way up the reef, but if you really want to experience it – you need to strap on a BCD, insert your respirator, and descend to where Sebastian and Flounder serenade Ariel. I’m showing my age with a Little Mermaid reference there.

Photo by Simon Starr

Why Scuba?

It’s true that snorkeling affords a fantastic view of the reef’s brightly coloured fish and coral. In particularly shallow areas you can duck dive down and snatch a longer glimpse at a clown fish of Nemo fame or a particularly interesting piece of coral. But beautiful as those moments might be, they’re also far too fleeting.

Getting to know a giant oyster

With scuba diving (dependent on the depth you dive too) you’ve got far more time to take a deep breath and explore the reef from a fish eye view. It’s one thing to float eye to eye with a clown fish just below sea level and quite another to swim in the wake of a sea turtle or watch in delight as a giant oyster closes at the slightest touch.

 

Scuba is also a passtime that can be tailored to most anybody. Adrenaline junkies can take their early learning and turn it into shark dives, wreck dives, and caves dives – whilst pleasure divers will find no shortage of peace and quiet in the serene silence of the sea floor. While the basic certification (the Open Water) qualifies you to dive all over the world to a depth of 18 metres, further training opens up a whole new world of possibilities when touring a new country.

If over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, how much are you missing by restricting your travels solely to land?

Where to Learn

If you’re not certified it’s easy to get from diving rookie to certified diver. Dive shops all over the country offer courses, but when my girlfriend and I decided that we wanted to learn – we decided we wanted to learn right. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s premier diving sites, and we were going to learn there.

It’s no surprise that the city of Cairns, gateway to the reef that it is, has an abundance of companies offering to teach you to dive. Diving Cairns, Scuba Dive Cairns, and Pro Dive Cairns are all viable options with decent reviews.

However, we opted for the Deep Sea Divers Den and found them to offer a great package that isn’t just diving lessons, but a unique reef experience.

I’ve written an entry about our experiences learning to dive, so by all means go and read that for a more detailed account of the experience. This entry is about the nuts and bolts rather than the emotions and sights.

The Den, situated a little off the Cairns’s backpacker trail, does offer pick-ups from most hostels and hotels – and you’ll be grateful for their well air conditioned vans if you’re in one of Cairns’s hot and humid patches. These come in between the tropical downpour patches.

The Den’s facilities offer all you need to go from rank amateur to seasoned veteran. A well stocked dive shop greets you as you enter, and outside there’s a heated and covered pool for training; classrooms for the theory; and even a doctor’s office for the all important dive medical. Having everything located on site makes the whole experience a bit less daunting and before too long you’ll feel comfortable waddling around in your wet-suit and fins.

Their staff, a friendly bunch of diving enthusiasts from all around the world, offer language support for those speaking Korean, German, Japanese, Italian, and French.

Yes, Yes – But how much?

Photo by The Lightworks

The Diver’s Den offers a range of introductory packages (as well as refresher courses for experienced divers who are a little long out of the water). They also support eLearning, which allows you to complete the theory at home and cram the normal four day course into a slightly more manageable three day chunk.

 

The starting rate is for four day course. That’s two days of classroom and pool training, and two days (one night) out on the boat.

This includes all of your gear; training; all accommodation and food while out on the reef, is a very respectable $665 for a double cabin. That entitles you to four training dives on the boat as well as the option for additional dives (one free and additional ones at the cost of equipment here) as well as two lunches, a breakfast, and a dinner out on the very comfortable Ocean Quest.

This course gets you fully accredited, but if you’re after more dives on the reef there is also a five night package for $810. If you want six nights, that also gets you your Advanced Open Water certification – but weighs in at a handsome $1180.

Can’t afford the live-aboard experience? $570 gets you the four day course with day trips instead of an overnight stay. Not a bad option if you want to save some extra pennies and just slum it in a hostel.

The Nuts and Bolts

As I said above, you get quite a bit for your buck in there. Having done the online learning course to cut the excursion down to three days rather than four, I can’t give an appraisal on the classroom – but I’ll say right off the bat that the pool training is harder than virtually anything you’ll do out on the reef.

That should be a big comfort. By the time you’re out in the ocean and preparing to go under, you’ve already done more unaided swimming and floating than you’ll do out on the reef. Following the health check and a quick refresher, you’re put to the task of swimming 200 metres and floating for ten minutes. It’s a tad draining, but it’s not a race, so take your time and tough it out. It gets easier from here.

The view out on the roof. Photo by Karin Knaus

Pool training starts with learning about your equipment and how to use it and then you’re in the pool for a long time. You learn everything from the basics of clearing your mask underwater (an important one) to the more advanced techniques such as the CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent) for use if you somehow run out of air and your buddy isn’t there to help out. You’ll be working in a group and people are going to make mistakes – so my advice is to just have fun, pay attention, and don’t sweat it if you stuff it up the first time.

Your time in the pool and in the classroom is how you earn the more relaxed days out on the boat. An early start sees you jetting out to the reef where the crew put on a pretty respectable cold meat and salad lunch buffet. These tend to be pretty standard across the board with day trips to the reef.

You’ll do three dives on your first day out – two from the day boat and a third once you’re settled in on the overnight boat. These dives vary depending on where you are and who your instructor is – but at the end of the day you’re out exploring the reef, doing a few skills to show you paid attention, and meeting new people.

Regardless of who your trainer might be, I can safely say that every single crew member and instructor we met over the course of two days was a pleasure to meet. They’re a bunch of colourful characters who aren’t too busy to stop and help you out or have a quick chat. A fine example of this was Fallon’s brush with seasickness on the way out that threatened to derail her whole experience. One crew member stood with her while she was sick and even after she’d stopped vomiting, different people would stop by to check on her.

It went beyond common courtesy too. With Fallon missing two dives due to being sick, the guys took time out of their scheduled free time to take her out on dives of her own – one of them at the ungodly hour of 6am!

The cabins are small but comfortable. Photo by Arlette Ka

After your three dives you’ve got a chance to clean up and get some rest. The cabins all have showers and bathrooms, and there’s TV and electricity so you can charge your iPhones and unwind a little. No telephone signal out there though, so don’t get any ideas about updating your Facebook status.

Dinner for us was a good old fashioned roast in the rather elegant stateroom, and it’s a great opportunity to get to know more of your diving buddies. We were lucky enough to strike up a friendship with a pair of Dutch boys, a Swiss girl, a German lass, and a friendly businessman from Hong Kong.

If you’re not taking the optional night dive, there’s also the opportunity to have an icy cold beer and retire to the large living area to watch some TV on the flat screen or play some cards out on the deck.

Your final day on the boat consists of your last training dive, after which you’re certified and free to go on a free dive without an instructor. There’s also the opportunity to take your Deep Diving course, which extends your maximum allowable depth down to 30 metres and lets you play an interesting game of keep away with hungry fish and an egg.

Letting Fallon know I'm ok before going down for my second last dive

Alas, we weren’t staying on for another night, and so we had one last lunch on the boat and headed back to the mainland where we were dropped off at the front door to our hostel.

 

I can’t recommend the Deep Sea Diver’s Den enough when it comes to seeing the Barrier Reef and getting scuba accredited. They offer advanced courses, rescue courses, snorkeling, and even introductory causes without the rigor of full scale training – so don’t be put off if you’re not interested in sitting in a classroom. There’s plenty of variety for all walks of life.

 

The crew and staff are fantastic; the food on the boats was great; and the entire experience turned me from a scuba skeptic into a scuba addict. I can’t wait to get out again, and I might someday make a return to Cairns to do it all over again with the guys and girls of the Diver’s Den.

Links

Deep Sea Diver’s Den

Caravella Backpackers: For affordable accommodation on the mainland that is serviced by a good cafe, a pool, and friendly staff – it’s hard to beat Caravella. Right by main drag and close to cafes and night spots.

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