For our final week of mystery travel, Stephanie flew us to Cairns, Australia. At the airport, I expected a shuttle to take us to our next destination. We even got in line at shuttle kiosk. So I was surprised, and a little apprehensive when she changed course a minute later and casually strolled us over to a car rental counter . I have never driven on left-hand side of the road, and have never driven a car with right-hand drive. We needed a car, however to get to the town of Port Douglas Australia – a resort town on the Great Barrier Reef.
OMG! The. Great. Barrier. Reef. How cool!!! We were completely excited. Too bad we can’t just stroll into the water and swim to the reef. It’s about 60 kilometers off the coast, so we bit the bullet and booked a boat trip out to the reef for some snorkeling. The company we went with had an optional scuba upgrade, and after much deliberation, we decided to give it a shot. We did a scuba intro a few years ago on Maui, and although I loved it, Stephanie did not feel comfortable with it despite the fact that she was certified when she was in high school. There is, however, only one Great Barrier Reef, and we were really at it and so Stephanie decided to give it another shot. While we sailed out to the first of three sites, we got a safety and orientation briefing from a knowledgeable Dutch diver and marine biologist named Herold. We told him about Stephanie’s apprehension, and he took her under his wing immediately.
When we had our first introductory dive in Hawaii, we were able to walk right in from the beach. This time, we had to hop off the boat into the ocean. We held on to the ships mooring line as one-by-one they took us through some basic safety skills just under the water. We needed to demonstrate that we could (a) remove our breathing regulator for a moment and blow bubbles under water before replacing it, (b) “lose” the regulator completely and recover it again, and (c) clear our mask if it filled with water. I was surprised and disappointed to find that on the second skill, I had a mini-panic attack. I was able to get my regulator back, but I couldn’t bring myself to inhale through it. As I surfaced and regrouped, I thought, “This is ridiculous. I’ve done this before, and had no problems.” A short self pep talk was all it took to get myself in gear again, and soon we were ready to go. I reminded myself that I had much more air than they would let us use, and that yoga breathing would help keep me slow and calm. (There really is no other way to be when you’re diving.) Stephanie, on the other hand, passed her skills test with flying colors, and was ready to go.
As we set off with Herold (and only one other diving newbie), the beautiful, surreal world of the reef opened up in front of us. As avid snorkelers, we have seen many reefs before, but as we descended deeper, this was completely different. The coral, untouched by careless humans, was larger, more varied, and more colorful than any we had ever seen. It was insanely beautiful. Too bad we weren’t allowed to bring a camera on this dive. The highlights included an anemone clownfish (aka, Nemo), darting in and out of his anemone, and a gaggle of reef sharks hanging out under a ledge. Actual sharks! Chalk off one more item – swimming with sharks – that I never really thought I’d do in my life. Before I knew it, the air indicator said it was time to return to the boat.
At our second stop, we opted to snorkel. The water was kind of rough and choppy, and we ended up getting a pretty good workout. There were channels in the reef, and it was along the sidewalls that the fish liked to hang out and feed. Stephanie even got to see a big fish gobble up a little fish! There were tons of colorful fish at this reef, but they would often swim deeper, and it was frustrating not to be able to follow them. We would dive down as deep as we could, but we were still in our scuba wetsuits which made me feel more buoyant than I was used to. Stephanie managed to get some good photos by diving down over and over.
After lunch, there was one more site, and we went for another dive, and this time, we were allowed to bring the camera. As soon as we went under, I spotted a small grey reef shark swimming around. We saw a small octopus who would pop in and out of his hole, and this time Stephanie was overjoyed, because she had never seen one before. We also found a big grouper-like fish called a Many Spotted Sweetlips. This has since become my new nickname for Stephanie.
On our first dive, I would start to float upwards every time I took a full breath in, so for the second one, I had them give me an extra weight. This time, of course, I found myself sinking constantly. A few puffs of air into my vest, and I was now perfectly weightless again, and able to direct myself wherever I wanted. I found it fascinating to flip on my back, and look at the surface far above me. Well, it was only about 35 feet, but it felt far above. Herold had this jingly thing he would use to attract our attention. It was really cool how the sound carried through the water.
One thing we had to re-learn were hand signals used for communicating. When we snorkel, Stephanie and I use a thumbs-up gesture to indicate when we are ok, or that we have seen something that the other person pointed out. When diving however, thumb up means “I want to return to the surface.” “Okay,” or, “Yes I see it,” is signaled by making a circle with your thumb and index finger. Fortunately, Herold would wait for me to correct myself without assuming I needed to surface.
As we sailed the hour-plus distance back to port, Herold showed us his books of fish, and helped us to identify all the sea life we had seen. The day was ending too soon, and this reef could take years to properly explore and enjoy. I can certainly see the allure of this sport. (Too bad it’s such a crazy-expensive hobby.) Neither of us ever believed Stephanie would enjoy diving again. But thanks to Herold, we were both able to enjoy it at what is regarded as the best site in the world!