The one where I get my PADI Open Water certification; befriend a bunch of backpackers; learn that you can vomit in a regulator; and get my first taste of backpacker accommodation.
Pretty Darn Awesome
The vastness of the Pacific Ocean rises and falls beneath me like the breast of a sleeping woman. Even in a bedroom boasting hot showers, TV, and an iPhone dock I can feel the ebb and flow as the sea churns around the Ocean Quest.
Our triple decker live aboard may be named like a mid 90s sci-fi, but it’s decorated like a 1950s pleasure cruiser. Foreign couples happily snap photos on the sun deck while Ruus and Sjos suck down ice cold cans of VB in the lounge in front of the flat screen and discuss the AFL grand final in Dutch.
Fallon’s asleep in her cot beside me after a long and exhausting day of scuba, snorkeling, and travel. Eighteen or so meters beneath me the Great Barrier Reef goes on as if completely unaware of the sixty or so people drinking, lounging, and chatting above them. Does a clown fish sometimes poke his head out from his anemone home to investigate the strange lights overhead? Do sea turtles or sharks sometimes break the surface of the churning sea to marvel at the harsh coughing of somebody on the smoker’s deck?
Will they someday find a way to pay brief visits to our world? Unlikely, but the image of a turtle family oohing and aahing silently as they observe a pair of drunks fighting is an odd one.
Seasickness and Scuba Do Not Mix
Fallon and I woke at 7am and hurriedly packed up our room so we wouldn’t miss our 7.45 am pick-up. I remember the disinterested glance the cowboy hat wearing German girl I now know as Arlette threw our way as Fallon and I crammed into our seats humming the tune of ‘I’m on a Boat’ by The Lonely Island. Funny how much change a day can make.
Cairns’s unpredictable weather treated us to a downpour as we drove to the marina, but the sun was fairly scorching as we stepped onto the deck for our briefing. I was nervous. Fallon was excited. As life or fate would have it, my role as reluctant participant and her role as gung-ho enthusiast would be reversed by the time we arrived at the reef.
The ride out was choppy. The boat crested waves and found air before crashing back down and showering anybody sunning themselves on the aft deck in a fine salty mist. Sea sicknesses tablets sold at a buck a pop were raking in the cash. While Fallon and Karin (our Swiss training buddy) alternated between rolling their eyes and vomiting, I curled up and fell asleep. Let it not be said that I would not have made a good pirate. I’ve got sea legs to rival the saltiest of swashbucklers.
After ninety minutes we arrived at our dive site and began to prepare. Despite having practiced ad nauseum the day before, we all made mistakes – but the crew were pretty good about helping us out and guiding us to the side of the boat for our giant stride entry. We might have been a lot more nervous had we not all been so concerned with the routine. Inflating and uninflated our BCDs; setting up our weight belts; clearing our regulators; and performing a buddy check make it hard to focus on the fact you’re about to put yourself in a place people weren’t really ever meant to be.
It was overcast and windy – the sky grim and the sea not as welcoming as any if us would have liked, but we gripped the mooring line and began our steady descent to a depth of twelve meters. I arrived at the bottom surprised that I’d managed it. I was kneeling in sand surrounded by coral. Angelfish and a dozen other brightly coloured ocean denizens flitted about me completely disinterested in my presence. Despite our trainers requesting we not stir up the sand, I couldn’t held but reach down and grab a handful of the soft, cool sand and let it filter through my fingers. Looking up, I could see the surface and the silhouetted forms of snorkelers braving the rough waters.
It was then that I noticed that Fallon was not with me. I searched anxiously around me before letting my gaze trail back up the rope. A stray flipper bobbed in the water. About three meters from there, Fallon was being calmed down by our mohawked and heavily tattooed Irish guide. She’d had a panic attack almost as soon as she’d uninflated her BCD for descent.
Mark, our guide, helped her down the rope and soon we were having a leisurely swim through the reef. We were supposed to practice skills, but I think he gave those a miss so Fallon could adjust. It was so serene. All of my worries about breathing correctly and being able to equalize evaporated as we swam around coral beds and posed for photos with a giant clam. I’d like to say we glided, but most of us alternated between kicking too much or not enough. Buoyancy control is, I learned, a skill that you develop over time.
Before I knew it, we were surfacing and the men were told to tow in the women. Fallon threw up as I got her to the boat, so I took off her fins for her and helped her I onto the boat. Her sea-sickness and resultant dehydration were threatening to derail the trip she’d been so excited about.
Ruud, Sjos, Arlette, and Karin all checked on Fallon with me in a nice sign of dive team unity. And while Fallon picked me up a plate from the buffet, I spoke with Mark about potentially letting Fallon skip the next dive and make it up later. I’ve got to commend the people at the Deep Sea Diver’s Den. They were really understanding and supportive, and their staff took time out of their own personal time to arrange alternate dives so she could get her certification.
After lunch it was time for dive #2, and I’d have to tackle it alone after Fallon pulled out looking particularly green around the gills. This time we practiced a lot of skills and did a little less sight seeing, which was good for my confidence. Things like clearing our masks after letting water into them; removing our weight belts and BCDs in the water; and performing a buddy assisted emergency ascent.
After surfacing and drying off, it was time for our transfer to the overnight boat. We were greeted in the stately dining room with apple tarts and then shown to our rooms. Then it was time for the third and final dive of the day. With Fallon needing to make a dive up and being behind, they made her sit the dive out and I was again buddyless. She apologized a lot, but it wasn’t her fault so I wasn’t bothered.
Making New Friends
The water at the new site (coral garden) was particularly rough as we trailed a line alongside the boat. My goggles were bumped loose continuously and I was battered against the side of the boat before we reached the mooring line and performed a descent without using the rope for purchase.
My buoyancy was all wrong though, and I kept bobbing to the surface until our new guide, Adam, provided me with an additional weight. We descended to twelve meters and again practiced skills such as the oral inflate pendulum, the full mask clear, and a little compass work.
Then it was a free swim through coral canyons again. We trailed an absolutely beautiful sea turtle for a while, but reef sharks continued to be elusive. I was envious of Adam’s control. He moved through seemingly tight spaces between banks of coral with apparent ease while I had to continually check my fins to make sure I wasn’t battering a little Nemo or Dory.
After we emerged and showered, Fallon went in for a guided dive. It felt amazing to be dry and clean after a day of being wet and salty. Our night was suitably relaxing. We shared roast dinner with Chun (Peter) from Hong Kong and had a few beers over dessert with Peter, Karin (Switzerland), Arlette (Germany), Ruud, and Sjos (both Holland). It was a lot of fun shooting the breeze with people from such varied backgrounds. Peter regaled us with tales of playing rugby as a child in Hong Kong; the Dutch boys advised us that Holland is not at all like Amsterdam, and Fallon and I shocked and amazed them with stories of various Korean oddities and quirks.
We were both in bed and fast asleep by 9pm – which has to be some kind of post high school record for me. But we’d had a full day of swimming and lugging around scuba tanks on our backs, and scuba is a lot more tiring than the serene movements might make it appear.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, a sixteen year old Chris came out to the reef with his family. Our holiday in Queensland was coming to an end after two weeks in Mooloolaba and one in Townsville, and our last big treat was to snorkel on the reef.
One of my favorite boasts about being Australian has been to recount that day, but embellish by saying I had scuba dived instead. In truth, the offer had been there, but I had balked at the idea and contented myself with paddling gamely around on the surface and occasionally duck diving a meter or so to inspect a particularly interesting fish.
Was the reef as vibrantly colored as I now remember, or have time and youthful imagination brightened it’s red and blues to colors not known in nature? It’s hard to say, but this same reef is not the one I remember. It’s beautiful in a far more real way – in contrast to the Pixar fueled images that so many might have.
But I’ve drifted off topic. For the last ten years, I’ve told people that I scuba dived that day. Now, much older and wiser, I can say it without a word of bombast or exaggeration. Moreover, I’m a certified scuba diver – able to dive anywhere in the world. And while I’m some way off of being able to investigate wrecks or plunge the deepest depths – there’s an awful lot of the world that has suddenly become accessible to me.
Shelly Beach, where two years ago I spent my twenty fifth birthday drinking, barbecuing, and swimming – suddenly gained a previously unknown world of sting rays, sharks, and fish for me to encounter.
I love this. I love the sense of calm you get when the tumultuous surface dwindles above you and there’s only the sound of your breathing and the low hum of ocean.
And you’re flying above beautiful mountains of coral and seaweed in which thousands of species so few get to encounter are going about their daily lives. There are vast, soft beds of sand upon which you can settle and gaze about you in wonder. Solemn, silent awe.
Our last dive was hard. With breakfast still heavy in our bellies, we took our last giant stride of the weekend and practiced our CESA. That’s a controlled emergency ascent without air. We came up from six meters, careful to take the requisite thirty seconds to avoid a lung injury. It’s harder than it sounds.
But after that it was more sedate stuff. We settled onto a field of sand between mountains of coral that towered up beyond our sight. We were eighteen meters before the ocean’s surface. Occasionally a curious fish would pass us by, and the sun was periodically blotted out by the hazy figures of divers higher up.
On the sea floor we removed our masks and cleared them. We practiced a hover, and then it was off to explore.
It was at a depth of perhaps ten meters that I felt most like I was airborne. The coral beneath us was eight to ten meters distant and we six glided effortlessly alongside one another above it all. Karin’s smiling blue eyes said it all, and I grabbed Fallon’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze before soaring off to the right and finding my own space.
It’s a fleeting thing, though. Soon we were back on the surface and stripping down for our debriefing. We filled out our logbooks, signed our final paperwork, and were handed our temporary cards. We are certified divers, and now a whole world of reefs, wrecks, sea beds, and kelp forests are open to us.
This might just be the most elated I’ve ever felt. It’s good to be alive.
The above was all written over the two nights we were in Cairns to complete our Open Water Scuba certification last weekend. We stayed at the Caravella Backpackers on The Esplanade in Cairns and did all of our training and diving with the wonderful people at the Deep Sea Diver’s Den.
If you’re ever in Cairns and looking for an affordable place to stay, I can’t recommend Caravella highly enough. The staff were friendly; the rooms were Spartan but comfortable; and the Mud Flat cafe attached served up a pretty good selection of snacks and light meals.
As for Deep Sea Diver’s Den – I really would recommend taking any courses or dives you wish to do with them. Their dive shop is well stocked, their staff do a fantastic job with teaching and training, and they definitely have a good idea of whereabouts on the reef you’re going to get the best conditions. As I said earlier, they went above and beyond to help Fallon get qualified, and put together a great value package for the two of us.