One last dive in the Great Barrier Reef

The next morning, we woke up bright and returned to the lovely town of Port Douglas to do our last of three dives (this time we would be leaving from Port Douglas as opposed to Cairns).  I was really getting hooked on diving.  I loved the thrill, the adventure and the insanely surreal scenery below the water.  I could hardly contain my excitement!

Here is a view of the gorgeous coastline.

The pretty marina in Port Douglas where we would be meeting our dive boat.

A younger me (8 years ago!) in front of our ride, the Quicksilver.

En route, elated to be doing my third dive of the trip to 30 feet, in the Great Barrier Reef.

This time we went to the Agrinaut reef.  The boat was a bit smaller than the Osprey that we took out of Cairns for our first two dives.  It only held about 55 people which was great.  It was also a nicer boat and offered a more relaxed atmosphere compared with the fun-loving, crowded party boat in Cairns.

It took an hour and a half to get out to the reef where we would do our dive.  I stood outside, watching the beautiful coastline and enjoying the breath-taking surroundings.  About a half an hour before reaching the reef, we had a very informative instructional meeting on our dive.  I learned that the reason why my ears were hurting so bad and still plugged was due to not properly clearning my ears. I would have to be a bit more careful since we were going even deeper than before.

We arrived at the sight and my dad, me and a father and son pair were the first group to go.  Our instructor was a guy from England who was extremely funny as well as very knowledgable about the reef.  I felt safe in his hands despite the fact that I was a little nervous about the upcoming dive.

The reef was much deeper and darker than the last two I had been to.  It was also not as clear which caused some concern (i.e.  sharks!).  For some reason, I was way more anxious this time.  Perhaps it was fear or else my poor painful ears.  We descended holding onto a rope through the deep, dark water.  I had a hard time relaxing and breathing.  I was scared.  We went about 15 feet down and my ears began to feel an enormous, painful pressure.  They were driving me mad but I tried to ignore it and concentrate on breathing.

We had three safety activities to do:  Mask clear, take the regulator out of your mouth and clear, and do a regulator switch.  I successfully did the first two but for some reason I freaked out on the last one.  When I switched the regulator back, my mask filled up with water and I swallowed some ocean. I panicked and before I know it, I was up at the top gasping for air!   My instructor was of course right there by my side, telling me not to worry and trying to calm me down.  I know that what I did was a big mistake.  You are not supposed to just take off like that.  But I was afraid and I panicked.

I had to try to relax and pass the third test or I would not be able to dive.  So I held back all my fear and went back down once again to give the “regulator switch” another try.  I couldn’t believe how frightening it was to take be without oxygen 15 feet below the surface.  But it was.  I knew my dad was right there by my side so I held back my fear and knew what I had to do.  Before I knew it, it was done.  I didn’t drown.  I made it through and it felt good to overcome my fears.

We descended slowly so my ears would adjust and met up with the others who were waiting.  I was unexpectedly calmer perhaps because I was trying so hard to relax.  After five minutes of going down, we were finally on the bottom of the reef and kneeled down to have another nature lesson on giant clams and sea cucumbers.   I tried not to look up….it seemed so impossibly far and felt like being trapped inside a glass coffin.  It was frightening to me despite my enthusiasm and euphoria from seeing all the fish and corals below.

We swam over to the corals to explore their incredibly brilliant colors.  It was surrounded with life and vibrant colored fish.  I forgot about my fear and embraced in the sensational beauty of the reef.  The corals and fish at this site were by far the most brilliant and magical I’d seen.  If I close my eyes even today, I still can picture the swirling tentacles swaying back and forth of the soft corals.  They were so alive.  It was phenomenal.  I wish I had an underwater camera to capture it all but even so, there really is no way in my opinion to see it except for yourself.

After thirty minutes we surface and I couldn’t believe how pumped with energy and excitement I was.  What an incredible high!  Unfortunately my ears were very plugged and at this point, I could not really hear a thing.  I had to pass on the next dive at site two because I couldn’t risk further damaging my ears.  We were off to Melbourne the next day and the thought of flying made my ears hurt even more.

We arrived at the second site and were surprised to be greeted by a school of baby reef tip sharks swimming near the boat.  Although they were only three feet long, the thought of jumping in the water and swimming side by side the sharks made my skin crawl.  I have a deep-seated paranoia of sharks!   Eventually I did get in the water to go snorkeling and see the “Barracuda Pass”, a pinnacle of coral that was surrounded by sharp-toothed scary looking barracuda.  There were tons of different kinds of fish in all shapes and colors.   Some were so huge it was mind-boggling.

We boarded back on the boat and went to site number three where I did a “snorkeling safari” with a group of thirty others and a guide.  It was fun if you didn’t mind getting accidentally kicked by a fellow swimmer.

By the time we boarded the boat and headed back to Port Douglas, I was completely exhausted and famished.  It was my last dive of the trip for we were leaving tomorrow to Melbourne.  Yet I hope it is not my last dive ever!  I dream of someday going back and showing my children this unbelievably magical, alive underwater playground.  Let’s hope it is still around to show them. 

Stay tuned…next post is on lively, playful Melbourne. 

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Searching for Sharks in the Great Barrier Reef

We woke up the next day excited about our adventure once again on the Great Barrier Reef.  Throughout the night I had strange, colorful dreams of the exotic fish and spectrum of magnificent colors I saw in this underwater playground.  It was so unbelievable that I could hardly wait to get back out there.

We took the same company Quicksilver out to the reef, and arrived an hour and a half later.  The main highlight at the reef was a fish called “Wally”;  a giant, four-foot long Napoleon Maori Wrasse who you could pet like a dog.

Wally first swam up to the dive boat as if coming over to meet good friends. He was not the least bit shy. In fact, he was playful, fun-loving and seemed to truly love people!

As soon as our boat appeared, so did Wally, a giant dog-like fish who loved to be pet and fed. 

We pet him from the dive boat, then loaded on our gear and jumped in the refreshingly warm tropical waters. There, Wally awaited our arrival and followed us along our dive. He was the biggest fish I’d ever seen and it was an unbelievable experience. It was like having a dog along on a walk except this was a giant, over-sized tropical fish lovingly named Wally by the crew.

Apparently Wally is famous. I did a search on goggle and found this cute link of a local Aussie girl who frequently visits Wally the fish. Here is the link that I could on the Cairns, Australia online journal (article written in 2008).

After we jumped into the water, next on the agenda after ogling over Wally was to do a few safety tests such as the awful mask clear and even worse, the regulator clear (this one freaked me out because you had to take your mouth away from the oxygen supply).  Then we descended slowly, going down down down and having my ears pop and clog like crazy.  I couldn’t believe the terrible pressure on my ears.  It drove me mad yet the sight of our gigantic, loveable Wally the fish made me forget about my discomforts and embrace in the moment.

I had never swam with a large fish before.  I must say that it was the wildest experience I’ve ever had.  I felt like Wally the fish was my pet dog, following us around, playing, hanging out and having fun.  It was so strange.  He was so unbelievable.  I wonder if he is still alive today, greeting the multitude of divers and snorkelers like he did eight years before.  I hope so.

Taken once inside the water. Up close and personal with Wally the fish!  Just look at those enormous lips!  Doesn’t he look like he’s hiding a smile?

He is gigantic and so adorable.  It is too bad I only had a cheap Kodak underwater disposable camera.  Imagine what the colors would be like if I had a real underwater camera!  Wally was beautiful with shades of pastel blue and pinks. 

Wally looking for some love and attention.

We swam for a while, going deeper into the waters, marveling at the insane display of colors which unfortunately there was no way to capture given my cheap camera.  Close your eyes and image corals as far as the eye can see in brilliant hues of reds, pinks, purples, yellows, oranges, golds, blues, reds and greens.  The vibrant colors blew me away.  So sad I could not have captured them on film!

I tried to adjust to life underwater.  I found it difficult and somewhat scary to breathe out of a regulator.  I had to really take deep, full breathes to get enough air.  If you panic, it is very bad and can be extremely dangerous.   So I tried my best to just relax and not freak out the further we went below the surface.  Fortunately you are not allowed to go much deeper than 20 feet without being certified.  But 20 feet felt frightening to me.  Like being trapped below a glass box.  I constantly looked upwards to make sure it was still there.  I had a hard time relaxing but once I was able to relax and let go of my fears, I found the experience to be sensational.

When we reached the lowest point we would go, twenty feet below the surface, our guide instructed us to kneel down on the sand for our “nature” presentation. He showed us a giant clam and we all got to hold a sea cucumber. It was fantastic!

I surfaced up and snapped this shot of our dive boat off in the distance.  We would swim to the boat and then move to another site for dive number 2. 

We did another dive, this time I was less fearful except for the thought of seeing a random shark in the reef.  I knew it was highly unlikely but the thought of seeing an enormous, hungry JAWS was lurking around my brain.

We swam with hundreds and hundreds of brilliantly colored fish, found an electric colored eel hiding in the corals and tried our best to take in all the wonders of this colorful underground world.  It is certainly a fascinating place.  I sure hope that Global Warming does not take it all away from future generations to see.  It would be a tragedy.

After a quick lunch, another amazing opportunity was presented to the guests.  The opportunity to see the reef from above.  Of course it was expensive but as my favorite motto goes When in Rome, we decided that we had to do it.  We had to take a ride in a helicopter above the reef.

We took a small boat over to the heli pad awaiting us not far from the dive boat. 

Me feeling out of my mind excited to board the helicopter for a ride of a lifetime.

We climbed on board and were off on our ten minute adventure flying over Australia’s world-famous Great Barrier Reef.  The views from the flight were out of sight.  I could not believe how enormous the reef is.  It stretches for over 1000 miles long and is the only living organism that can be seen from space.  It was ungodly beautiful from the air.  Almost (and I saw almost since under the waters it is so incredibly spectacular that nothing can top it) as beautiful above as it is below its waters.

From above, we could see sea turtles and all kinds of gorgeous corals lumped together in various shades of blues.  It was absolutely spectacular!  It also was quite thrilling to fly at such speed and angles.  At one point our pilot informed us that we were in search of the elusive sharks who swim across the borders of the reefs.  We flew in search of sharks hoping to catch one that we could trail.  Unfortunately none were to be found.

Below are some of the magnificent views of the Great Barrier Reef from the air.  Breath-taking, isn’t it? 

After a fabulous adventurous day, we were elated and celebrated with a bottle of ice-cold Australian Sav Blanc on the boat ride back. I sadly said goodbye to the amazing Great Barrier Reef, wondering what its future would be and hoping that it would not all disappear with the unstoppable global climate change our Earth is enduring. For wouldn’t it be an unbelievable tragedy if the reef was no longer there to inspire, amaze and mesmerize the world.  I hope it will still be alive and thriving for future generations.

To read more about the documented disappearing of the Great Barrier Reef:

“Ocean acidification, global warming, and the Great Barrier Reef”

“Great Barrier Reef to be decimated by 2050”

“Global Warming Threat to Great Barrier Reef ”

“Global Warming. What you need to know: The Great Barrier Reef”

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Taking a Dive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

I had always dreamed of going to the world-famous Great Barrier Reef.  It is one of those talked about, revered places that a true traveler must visit and explore.  Thanks to our vacation package with Qantas, a three-day stop over in Cairns was on the agenda.  We could have gone to see another natural wonder, Ayer’s Rock in the Outback, but in my opinion a rock could not hold a candle to the Great Barrier Reef, a hidden underwater fantasy land that is like no place on Earth.

Per Frommers Australia Guidebook (ed. 2004), Exploring the Great Barrier Reef:

It’s the only living structure on Earth visible from the moon; at 348,700 sq. km (135,993 sq. miles), it’s bigger than the United Kingdom; it’s over 2,000 km (1,240 miles) long and is home to 1,500 kinds of fish, 400 species of corals, 4,000 kinds of clams and snails, and much more.  The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a World Heritage Site and is the biggest marine park in the world.

The more I read and learned about this incredible place, the more I had to go and see it for myself.  I’ve been snorkeling many times before in the tropical waters of the Caribbean, yet I knew it was nothing in comparison with the mighty, amazing Great Barrier Reef.  Plus, I was also quite interested in checking out the tropical rainforests near Port Douglas.

We took a final send off morning run near the harbor in beautiful Sydney and then went to the airport to catch our two and a half hour flight north to hot, humid, tropical Cairns.  We lucked out by scoring another emergency row exit seat where I took this picture of the landscape out the window.

As we made the approach for our landing, I caught site of the Great Barrier Reef out my window and could not believe my eyes.  The azure blue colors of the waters were mesmerizing and I couldn’t wait to actually see it for myself.

We landed in Cairns near the end of the day, just in time to reserve our trip to the Great Barrier Reef the following day and have a nice dinner on the boardwalk.  It was sizzling hot and the sun was shining brightly, something that we had been lacking in Sydney.   I didn’t find Cairns (pronounced Cannes) to be anything exciting since it is mostly a touristy beach town.  Yet Cairns did have a certain kind of laid-back Aussie charm which was nice after all the hustle and bustle in Sydney.   The locals were extremely nice, friendly people who really made us feel welcome and at home.

Lovely, tropical Cairns (photo taken in the direction of the harbor).  The launching off point for ventures into the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking down the other direction.

After checking into our hotel and instantly changing into shorts and t-shirts, we headed on a short 15-minute walk to town.  The hot, sticky air felt like paradise after being in chilly, rainy Sydney.  It was wonderful to be so wet and sweaty!

We walked straight over to the marina to the nearest reef tour booking office to reserve our trip to the reef the next day.  It was overwhelming to choose what tour, company and boat to use since there were over 600 boats offering tours on the reef.  It made me dizzy just thinking about it.  But luckily we had excellent advice and ended up selecting a great company.

After a fabulous outdoor dinner at an Italian restaurant right on the water, we returned back to the hotel to get some sleep before the big day ahead.

The next morning we met our tour company at the marina at 8:30 am sharp for our departure out to the Great Barrier Reef.  Our boat was called the “Osprey” and it was a 100-foot catamaran that held up to 100 people with crew.  The Osprey was written up in Frommers  as a great first experience on the reef with a lively, fun crew, and it certainly was.

Setting off from the marina towards the Great Barrier Reef…..

The night before, when we signed up for our tour of the Great Barrier Reef, I made my decision that I was going to try diving.  I just had to do it.  You only live once, right? (unless you are a cat and are lucky enough to have nine lives).

Yet as we cruised away from the marina towards the Great Barrier Reef, I began to have doubts and concerns.  Would there be sharks?  Would it be scary?  What if I had an accident?  I am traditionally a huge worry wart!  But when I looked at the beauty of my surroundings, I decided that I couldn’t possibly chicken out.  I was seduced by the promised beauty shown in the fancy, glossy brochures at the booking office.  How could I possibly not check it out, after I’ve traveled so far to finally see it.

On board of course my dad and I being huge extroverts, met lots of friends.  Here is an Irish couple on a year long around the world tour.  I couldn’t have been more jealous. 

My father is actually a certified diver.  He got his certification years ago and afterwards never did it again.  Yet he wasn’t going to let his daughter go on her first introductory dive all by herself.  So he decided to join me.

After an hour and a half, we arrived at our destination:  The Norman and the Hastings Reefs.  The scenery was spectacular and I could not believe how pure and surreal the water looked.  It was magical and I felt like a mermaid waiting to rejoin her kingdom.

We began by jumping in and doing a half and hour snorkel around the reef to get a taste of the hidden treasures that buried inside.  I was a little timid and afraid to jump in.  I have this crazy fear of sharks and big, toothy fish.  So I let the other guinea pigs jump in first.  When I hear their elated cries of excitement and joy, I dove on in and…..WOW!!!!!

The reef was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life.  There were fish in all colors (electric blues, pinks, oranges, yellows, reds and pinks), shapes and sizes, brilliant, surreal and amazing, swimming in huge masses along my side.  The corals were the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.  An array of rainbow colors so brilliant and fluorescent that it hurt my eyes.  I had never expected to see so much magical, surreal beauty.  It literally took my breath away.  So I had to surface for some air and a photo opp:

There was only one other large diving boat nearby.  Otherwise we had the entire place to ourselves to explore.

The new divers were then briefed on an introductory course on the basis of diving.  We would be going in groups of four with one instructor.  I was with two guys from Austria, my dad and one guide/instructor from Australia (who by the way had the sexiest accent ever).  It was going to be me and the guys!  I was excited and nervous all the same. 

The group before us getting ready to launch off into the waters.

I got into my wetsuit (the water was very warm, around 85 degrees but colder deeper) and got fitted with my weight belt and dive gear.  I couldn’t believe how heavy the oxygen tank was.  I could not move with it on and needed help so I wouldn’t tip over.  Once the four of us were ready, we were gently pushed off into the water and WOW!  Completely, utterly f-ing unbelievable!  I felt like I was on another planet!

I only wished I had invested in an expensive underwater camera to take pictures of this magical world beneath the blue waters.  The colors, the fish and the corals that I saw were so spectacular and mind-boggling that it blew me away.  I was only under water for twenty minutes or so until it was time to come up.  But I decided right there and then, that I was addicted and had to come back the next day for another dive.  I could hardly wait!

Stay tuned….next post will be seeing the Great Barrier Reef both above and below its magical waters!

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