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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