I was in Cairns, Australia, and it was time to go diving at The Great Barrier Reef! I received my open water 20 dive certificate in Thailand six months earlier because I wanted to dive at this iconic site. Thailand is about one-fourth of the cost to get certified, so I took advantage while I was there. It also has warm, clear, and calm water – perfect for diving. It was a long road and a struggle for me to get certified, considering it was my very first time diving.
Since getting certified, I went diving in Vietnam a month later. The conditions there were cloudy and, overall, just not much to see. I was also stabbed by a sea urchin, which was very painful. When I went diving at the Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth, Western Australia, it was a horrible experience. I didn’t realize it was an intermediate site or that there would be nine people to every guide. It had been six weeks since that terrifying experience, and I didn’t want to end like that.
Our brains are fascinating. I knew if the last memory of diving was at the Navy Pier in Exmouth, where I had to surface and swim back against horrible waves, I wouldn’t want to dive again. My brain would convince me that diving was dangerous and terrible. I was determined to correct this.
I took an Uber to the pier that morning and boarded the medium-sized boat. There were 36 people on the tour, but everyone was signed up for snorkeling. I was the only person who signed up for diving.
There weren’t many seating options, just a few tables inside and a bench on the second floor. I sat inside at the table so that I could fill out the paperwork required. It would take about two hours to get out to the reef.
The forms asked about medications, and I listed thyroid. The girl said that might be a problem, and she had to check with the crew. I was worried and quickly Googled about the safety of diving and thyroid medication. Thankfully, it said that it was ok. The girl came back and said the captain approved the dive.
I drank the offered coffee and muffin while I filled out the forms. I went to the top deck to check out the views, but bags were blocking seats on the wrap-around bench, so I stood around. Then, I went back to the inside. There was a small door hatch the provided access to the front bow. I climbed on there, and it was windy!
After two hours, we arrived at the first site – a snorkeling location. I signed up for snorkeling too. We couldn’t dock at the island, so we had to board a smaller boat that took us there. They split us up into two groups, and our group hung out on the white sand until the rest of our group arrived. The island was full of turtles and birds! It’s all protected, so ropes blocked access to them. If you crossed the rope, it was a $5,000 fine.
Our group had a tour guide named Nacho. Once we got our fins, goggles, and mouthpieces on, we swam into the reef. Nacho paused occasionally and provided information about the fish. It was hard to hear him at times with the group, but I enjoyed all of the beautiful fish!
At one point, a massive school of fish approached and swam away in unison. It took my breath away, being that close to so many fish and feeling their power as a group. The water was so clear that I could see everything below us.
Some of the fish were giant! They were fat, round, and strange looking. The fish were every sort of color in the rainbow, and most were extremely bright! Nacho told us that we could go off on our own for an hour and return to the boat once we were finished. I explored on my own but kept an eye on other people, so I stayed somewhat close. I didn’t want to be drifting off to sea all alone. Especially considering Queensland is the state that has accidentally left divers behind, never to be seen again.
After an hour, I made it back to the boat, and it was lunchtime. The boat drove us to another location while we ate. The reef is gigantic, 2,299 kilometers long (1,429 miles). It’s the largest reef in the world at 214,042 square kilometers (133,000 square miles). There isn’t anything near the reef, except the occasional island.
When we arrived at our destination, I got set to dive. My instructor was Elaina. She was from Spain, had long dark hair in a braid, and was petite. She had a thick accent, so I listened intently. She was super sweet and friendly. I told her, “I’m still a new diver. Please don’t yell at me if I’m doing something wrong because that makes me more nervous.”
I explained that this would be my ninth dive, and my last experience was awful. I told Elaina that I am very buoyant, and it’s hard for me to sink, so I need a lot of weights. I was also still working on my breathing, like all new divers. Elaina was amazing! She understood, listened, and reassured me. She was patient and really put me at ease.
We put our wetsuits on, and Elaina helped me get my tank strapped on, which is always super heavy. We jumped off the back of the boat, holding our masks and weight belts as we plunged into the water. The water was warmer, so we wore “shorty” wetsuits. When I dove at the Ningaloo Reef, the water was colder, and we wore full wetsuits with hoods, which really disrupted my mask.
Elaina and I used a rope in the water that was tied to the reef to pull ourselves down. Once we were at the bottom, Elaina waited for me to feel comfortable letting go of the rope. I was afraid to let go because I tend to float up. Then I panic, breathing heavier, making the problem worse. Surfacing too fast can cause the bends.
I let go of the rope, and we started swimming. Elaine stayed by my side as my buddy and pointed out beautiful fish and coral. We swam across the reef, and I was amazed at the little colonies. The reef was heavily damaged a few years earlier when the ocean temperature rose one or two degrees. It “bleached” the coal, which means the warmer water killed the coral, turning it white.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the reef was still intact and starting to return to life. When I was traveling in Asia, a few travelers told me that the reef has been destroyed and isn’t worth seeing anymore. But they were wrong. It’s so vast that there is still a lot to see.
While snorkeling, I noticed dead white coral, much more than the Ningaloo Reef, but there is still a lot of life there. As Elaina and I cruised the side of the reef, I was still working on my breathing. The fear from the last experience was still in my head. I started to float up and looked at Elaina, like, “I don’t know why I’m floating,” and she grabbed my hand and pulled back towards her. Then she added weights to my vest.
We continued looking at the coral and fish, and I realized that my oxygen was down to 50 PSI. I showed Elaina, and she gave me her spare regulator to put in my mouth, using her oxygen. We swam close together for a little while longer because my regulator was attached to her. Then we slowly surfaced. She had me use my regulator once we started to emerge.
We climbed back on the boat and switched out our oxygen to get full tanks. We jumped back into the water, and I did much better! I was controlling my buoyancy so well that Elaina gave me the “cool” hand signal. We cruised along the reef and saw a Nemo fish with a little baby. Elaina pointed out the coral that collapses if you get near it. It was so cool to watch! There was just a small current, and it was a clear day, perfect diving conditions.
By the time we surfaced 40 minutes later, the waves were much more substantial! It was a challenge to climb back on the boat. Once we were all aboard, the captain started driving back to Cairn. The waves picked up so much that people were throwing up into little baggies.
I took some motion sickness pills that I brought and looked at the horizon while standing in the back of the boat, getting fresh air. I held on to a poll and watched as more and more people asked for a barf bag. It reminded me of the boat ride to Rottnest Island to see the quokkas.
I asked Elaina if it’s always that rough with large, powerful waves because I experienced this a few times on the west coast. She’d been there for two and a half months, and it’s always like that in the winter. Trying to distract myself, I told Elaina about how beautiful it was at the Ningaloo Reef. She said she really wants to go there one day.
I was thrilled when the boat docked, and I was on land again. I walked around for a bit, picked up some Vietnamese food, and took an Uber back to my Airbnb.
I was exhausted from the day and didn’t want to pack my bags to check out the next day. I also really wanted to see more of the Daintree Rainforest north of me. I extended my stay by three more nights, which allowed me to explore the tropical North Queensland.
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