Down Under, Down Under

There are few things in life that are as magical as being able to breathe underwater. One of those things, however, is breathing underwater while swimming through a piece of the largest living structure on earth.


The Great Barrier Reef is the most biodiverse marine ecosystem on Earth and spans the entire upper half of Australia’s East Coast. It’s home to 600 types of soft and hard corals, more than 100 species of jellyfish, 3000 varieties of molluscs, 500 species of worms, 1625 types of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins. It’s so spectacular, so rich in wildlife, that it’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around. Even seeing it firsthand hardly does it justice: in my three days and two nights on the Reef, I’ll have seen less than 0.00005% of it.


That said, 0.00005% is infinitely more than the 0% most people see, so I’ll do my best to describe it in a way that’s a bit more enjoyable than “x species of fish, y species of coral, z species of sharks.”


Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?


It’s my first morning in Cairns and I’m about to bust out of the van I’m so excited to reach the wharf where our transport boat is parked. After hours of paperwork and waiting, we’re finally about to get out onto the reef.


Knowing myself pretty well after these 20+ years of existence, I take a couple of anti-motion-sickness pills as we’re waiting in line to climb aboard.


Boy am I glad I do.


The waters between the Reef and shore are notoriously choppy and as we bounce along the hour and a half rollercoaster ride to our first dive site, my fellow passengers start dropping like flies. Within fifteen minutes, the main cabin goes from being packed with passengers to being all but empty as more and more people get up and stagger their way up the lurching pathway to the back deck to vomit.


Even with two doses of Aussie Dramamine in my system, I’m bordering on nausea and am glad to be seated at the window where I can watch the horizon tilt back and forth and pretend the back-and-forth lurch of the boat is just like a fun amusement park ride, nothing more.


Eventually the boat slows and the dive briefings start. Due to the fact that I’m already eating nothing but lentils and oatmeal to be able to afford this trip, I pass on the $15 guided dive and pair up with Ben, a British man from Melbourne who seems to know what he’s doing.


We gear up, giant stride off the back of the boat, and descend. Sure enough, Ben knows his stuff. He leads the way and I follow along, oohing and aahing at the incredible beauty around us. Within minutes we’ve seen a green sea turtle, a small spotted stingray, and a white-tipped reef shark. On every side around us, huge stacks of coral soar towards the surface as a rainbow of tropical fish dart to and fro around them. The shark cruises past in a flash of gray, entirely uninterested in our presence, while fish nearby go about their business — equally uninterested in the presence of the large toothy predator. When we come across the turtle, my day is made. It’s about four feet long, and three feet wide, and just floats peacefully above a bit of coral, digging it’s sharp beak into the little nooks and crannies to dig out hiding fish and bits of algae. We drop down onto the ocean floor right in front of it — I’m talking no more than a meter away — and just sit there watching as little black damselfish disappear into its mouth. It cares not at all that we’re there watching it — in fact, for the turtle, it’s as if we’re not there at all. For me, though, it is the most incredible experience in the world.


Due to my excitement-induced heavy breathing (and a small water leak in my regulator that I tried to fix in the first ten minutes of the dive by purging the regulator), my air runs low in just over half an hour and we have to head to the surface even though Ben still has double the air I have.


Despite the short length of the dive, we’re both on high from seeing a turtle, a stingray, and a shark in just one 35-minute dive. The boat moves to a new dive site and then we’re back in the water once more. Sure that my high rate of air consumption last dive was due to nothing more than my faulty regulator (which I got replaced shortly after the first dive), I jump in with Ben ready to stay under for ages to explore our new dive site.


Alas, I’m just an air guzzler. We swim around together for a while, ogling at the fish and the coral and even spotting a pair of clownfish hiding in a gorgeous orange-pink anemone (Nemo?! Is that you??). At around the 20-minute mark, we see another spotted stingray digging in the sand just two meters from where we are. Ben points it out and then motions that we should follow. As much as I would love to, I motion that I have only 60 bar left (you’re supposed to be at the surface with 50 bar of air, for safety reasons). There’s no sign for “I’m sorry” in scuba signals, but when we surface I apologize profusely. I cut our dive short by half: since I blew through nearly all my air in 25 minutes, Ben had to surface with 120 bar left in the tank. Sigh, #diveprobs.


He says it’s not a problem but I can tell he’s disappointed…who wouldn’t be? This dive trip was expensive. Luckily, he’s also doing his Advanced Open Water course on the Liveaboard boat, so he has nine more dives ahead of him. Nine more dives that — in all probability — will pair him with a better diver than me. Frankly, we’re both more confused than anything. I was only consuming a bit more air than he was in the first half of the dive but then, in just under ten minutes, I managed to blow through nearly half my tank, and there were no leaks we could find in the equipment.




My heavy breathing aside, we’re all in high spirits as afternoon approaches. With two dives done, it’s now time for half the boat to head back to Cairns and the other half of us to transfer to our Liveaboard boat.



The view out the back of OceanQuest, our Liveaboard boat (this is where we’ll all chuck on our gear before hopping into the water just behind that railing)


Our Liveaboard experience starts off with a delicious fudgy-walnut brownie, some real brewed coffee (goodbye instant coffee, hello luxury…), and a safety briefing. Then, it’s into our gorgeous, wood-paneled rooms to drop our stuff (I get one all to myself, what what?!), then back out to meet our Advanced Open Water course instructor and get ready to hit the water once more. 


Our instructor’s name is Paulo and, along with being a wonderful teacher with a cool Italian accent, he happens to be the perfect homing beacon underwater. Unlike everyone else I’ve dived with thus far — with their identical black-clad bodies and tied back hair — Paulo is bald as can be. Few things are easier to spot in the big ol’ blue than a bright, shiny bald head (in the best way!).


The next two days pass in a blur of delicious meals, hot tea, and…oh right…dives on dives on dives. Most of the dives consist of us descending all together, performing a few skills, and then exploring the gorgeous reef around us.


To be more specific, each dive session starts off with a dive briefing, in which a group of people best described as just really freaking cool give us the low-down about where the best areas are for sea life and cool coral structures. Then, it’s off to get ready with us — meaning we put on cold, wet stinger suits and goggles that threaten to make us as bald as Paulo with the amount of hair they yank out. We shoulder our BCDs, pull on our snorkels / masks and fins, and kick things off with a very official-feeling giant stride off the back of the boat. “O.K.” signs get thrown up to let our friends aboard know nothing about our condition has changed in the five seconds between stepping off the boat and hitting the water, and then we all kick our way to the side of the boat.


You know the movies where people fall overboard and there’s always that shot of the waves coming at the camera and then washing over it (usually accompanied by sputtering, drowning-type sounds)? Well picture that, only without the whole drowning part, and that’s our view as we use the line tied to the side of the boat to drag ourselves through the choppy surf to the drop sight off the port side. Here, we all throw around O.K. signs and then descend into the perfect expanse of turquoise below. There’s something extra special about descending here. It’s not that the visibility is all that special — unlike reports I’d heard from friends who’ve dived the Great Barrier Reef, choppy waters mean the water’s decently cloudy, with only a maximum of 10 meters or so of visibility. No, for me, it’s the feeling of being suspended, in every sense of the word, in time and space. Everything around you is this perfect, soft blue, with nothing to break it but the silhouette of the mooring line and the fuzzy image of your fellow divers. Every sound is muffled and seems to echo from every direction and none, all at once: the soft clang of the chain line against its cement blocks, the splash of chop overhead, the bloopbloopbloop of the bubbles rising from you and your fellow divers, each slow, Darth-Vader breath in…and out…


From here it’s all fun and games and unimaginable splendor. Sure, we have skills to do on each dive for our Advanced certification course on the boring, desolate stretch of sand at the base of the boat, but when we finish those skills, we get to do what we came here to do: see the Great Barrier Reef.


Soaring towers of coral appear out of the shroud of hazy blue water in the distance, teeming with the kind of life I thought could only exist in animated movies with talking fish. Butterflyfish and damselfish dart anxiously out from their coral homes and back again, clownfish hide in anemones, their striped bodies just barely visible through the medusa’s dancing tentacles. Parrotfish, with their smile-like beaks and simple, cartoon-character eyes, scoot past in a flash of shimmering blue and green and pink, while the occasional reef shark slices through the water in a flash of grey fins. All around us, on every side, explodes a kaleidoscope of color — coral and fish of every shape and size and hue surround us as we float carefully through their pristine world. Sea turtles, so relaxed and unassuming and yet so hypnotic with their arresting grace, soar effortlessly through the water, surfing the currents that waft the rest of us back and forth like leaves in the wind. Every dive holds the same raw, unrivaled beauty — the same inconceivable, breathtaking abundance, the same heart-stopping display of life left untouched — and yet each and every dive is still exceedingly and indescribably unique. And so it follows that without fail, after every dive, I’m left utterly awestruck.





Of course, above water isn’t bad either…



An especially extraordinary part of our “Liveaboard Experience” on the Great Barrier Reef is the fact that — since we’re out on the Reef overnight — we get to do night dives before bed. As reliable as those aforementioned moments of indescribable awe underwater are, those same moments — only in the dark — aren’t as easily replicated, or even described. Our first day on the Liveaboard boat consists mostly of getting acquainted with each other, making our way through coursework, and eating delicious hot meals. With so many fun but oh-so-ordinary shenanigans, the night sneaks up on us. Before we know it, it’s nearly time for our night dive briefing and we head out onto the back deck to peek into the waters below. To help build up the hype, the captain turned on the big flood light at the back of the boat (you know, right below the platform we’ll giant stride off of to get into the water in under an hour), just for us. In the eerie glow of this back light, we watch as the shadowy figures of big, two-foot long trevally, six- to ten-foot long black-tipped reef sharks, and a grouper the size of a motorcycle circle calmly in the water below.



Color me stoked.


We brief for the night dive, suit up, strap our new piece of gear (an underwater flashlight) to our wrists, and hop into the water. As soon as my body hits the water I throw up the O.K. signal, stuff my snorkel in my mouth, and plunge my face into the water. I swing my flashlight around, lighting up the shimmering scales of the trevally and the stoic, savage grace of the sharks as they swim peacefully under the chop that throws me back and forth on the surface. Once everyone’s in the water, we snorkel our way to the line on the side of the boat and drag ourselves to the mooring line. Keeping our flashlights moving in the hopes of seeing more amazing wildlife, we throw up our O.K.s and descend, excited to see the same world of the afternoon alive with new characters. Nighttime is when the predators wake up and start their day of hunting in the labyrinth of coral surrounding us. If we’re quick with our skills, we might just get to explore that maze with them.


We have some mad skillz to show off on the ocean floor (for our course) but we finish in no time and head off for a bit of exploring. Even with the…well…zero visibility afforded by already sediment-filled water being submerged in darkness, the bottom of the ocean is alive with activity. We kick gradually through towering stacks of purple-tinged coral, eyes wide at the wonder that surrounds us. Sharks glide overhead — ever indifferent to our awe — while fish dart to and fro, as watchful for predators as we are (albeit for different reasons). During our dive briefing, we were warned: don’t shine your torch (Aussie for flashlight) on any fish for too long, otherwise you’ll make your new fishy friends into dinner for a bigger fish. I don’t want to give any one fish an unfair advantage (plus I’m partial to Nemo) so I keep my flashlight moving, taking in the beauty of the shy, spotlit damselfish and butterflyfish as quickly as possible before bathing new targets in my light.


The dive must end all too soon (…at least I can rest assured I’m not the only heavy breather), and we surface slowly, eyes still glued to the sharks and the enormous trevally circling under the boat. When it’s time to get out of the water, I lag behind, my face still underwater. Staring into the gloom below and swinging around my flashlight, I follow the every move of the sharks below, praying they’ll come closer. Unlike the trevally (the real bullies here), the sharks ignore all of us. Luckily, as I float there spectating, a few treat me with such great indifference that they swim just meters from my dangling legs. Woah! Meanwhile, the trevally swim aggressively at my fins, legs, chest — charging and darting and slamming into me as if to say Wut?! You got a problem? Huh? HUH?!


Before long, Paulo makes it clear I do, in fact, have to get out of the water, and I climb back aboard. We take off our gear, dry off, debrief, and then — after a quick shower largely spent flailing against the back and forth pitch of the shower walls — bedtime. Our gloriously early start tomorrow is rapidly approaching.




My alarm goes off at half past five and I sit bolt upright in a fit of frantic confusion and knock my head on the top bunk. Ow. Stumbling out of my gently rocking bed, I soon find myself much better acquainted with the wall on the other side of the room than I ever needed to be. Sigh…between my exhaustion and my underdeveloped sealegs, I’m doomed to be even clumsier than usual. Clinging carefully to the swaying walls of the room, I get dressed, douse my face with water, and head out onto the back deck.



I suppose there are worse things than an early wakeup call on the Great Barrier Reef…


It’s chilly out, and half the gang is nursing plastic mugs of instant coffee as we gather in the damp dawn air for our pre-dive briefing. This morning, Paulo informs us, we’ll be reaching our maximum depth (the notorious “deep dive” of our Advanced Course) before the sun has properly risen and, ideally, we’ll do a bit of exploring, too. Dawn is the time when the ocean “changes shifts”: all the nocturnal sea life (sharks, rays, etc.) wrap things up for the night while all the diurnal sea life (tropical coral fish, sea turtles, etc.) start their days. It’s when the entire ocean is awake and active, all at the same time and in the same place. There’s nothing better than diving at dawn on the Great Barrier Reef, they tell us.


Well, nothing better except diving at dawn while drunk off nitrogen narcosis.


Wait, Ailish. What in the world is nitrogen narcosis?


Well, imaginary reader, I’m glad you asked.


Nitrogen narcosis is what happens when you dive so deep that the pressure of the surrounding water causes the little bubbles of gas in your body tissues to become more readily absorbed, making you feel really quite drunk indeed (think of it like inhaling nitrous oxide, or lots and lots of helium).  It tends to happen mostly at depths of 30m or more (our dive site this morning only goes down to about 26m…drat!), but we’ll give narcosis a shot on this dive anyways by descending to the ocean floor behind the boat and doing a few simple math problems to see where our heads are at.


Despite my excitement at the possibility of getting tipsy without having to spend a fortune at the boat’s bar, I’m not expecting much when we make it to the ocean floor. Sure enough, my dive computer reads 25.9m, my basic arithmetic skills are as…well…basic as ever, and I feel only as drunk as one normally feels after getting up at half past five in the middle of a perfectly good break from school. Don’t get me wrong…I feel elated as we kneel on the sand 85 feet below the surface of the water, but no more than usual.


Depth reached, we do a bit of exploring (though sadly, there isn’t much near the sandy deep part of this site) and then head back up to the boat. Once back on board and dried off, we sit around for our debriefing and for a little info on our next dive while the captain moves the boat to our next dive site. Expecting just a quick little move, I didn’t bother taking motion sickness medicine. As it turns out, neither did one of the other girls in our Advanced course group.


Within minutes of the engine turning on, the boat starts lurching violently from side to side. In the sitting room where we’re gathered, the tables and chairs slide listlessly to and fro like scenes from Titanic played on a loop. My fellow motion-sickness-prone friend is doubled over within minutes, and stumbles out onto the back deck to vomit in the fresh air. Not yet nauseous but fearing the worst, I head outside, too, wedging myself between the railing of the top deck and the outside wall of my cabin to watch the horizon reel back and forth between the ship’s brine-battered bars.



Not only a fantastic sea sickness prevention method, but also a fine view.


Luckily, our move takes no more than fifteen minutes and we’re soon back on track for our packed schedule of dive briefings, delicious meals, and…oh yeah…dives.


The day flies in a blur of water, skills tests, and lasagna (mmm, lasagna). By mid-afternoon, we’re done with our course and have nothing more to do but fill out paperwork. It’s official: we’re certified Advanced Open Water and Adventure Divers.



YES. I’m one step closer to becoming a dolphin.


Now that our course is done, we’re free to do fun dives to our heart’s content (actually to the extent of our no-decompression limits, but I digress). The boat we’re on has a two-day Liveaboard option, so with half my new dive friends gone, for our next dive I jump into a group with two couples from my dive course…and a guide…which costs $15…sigh.


Despite my cheapness, the dive turns out to be amazing and — I’ll admit it — it was worth the money given what we saw. Within minutes of our dive, Kelly, our guide, leads us straight through a narrow stretch between two towering coral bommies. We kick along, so absorbed in admiring the coral that if she hadn’t motioned to us, we’d have all missed it: right under our noses (or bodies, rather) sits an enormous clam. Its outside is the color of dead, sand-covered coral and rock, allowing it to blend right in on the ocean floor, wedged as it is between the patches of brighter, more lively coral. Between its two dirty-looking shells, however, is soft, silken tissue of the deepest, most regal-looking purple I’ve ever seen. Bright yellow lines — part of its vascular system, perhaps? — criss-cross through its velvet skin, which twitches then disappears between its two enormous shells as Kelly motions to watch and waves water towards it. Even with its shells slammed shut, lime green tissue tinged with more of the same, velveteen purple peeks out from in between the shells, betraying its now otherwise unassuming exterior. We move on, but I still can’t stop thinking about the clam: if I’d crouched down next to it, it would have been about my size (only, you know, clam-shaped). It must’ve weighed nearly four hundred pounds!


The day continues to fly by and, before long, it’s time for another night dive. Having already paid for one guided dive, I decide what’s $50 more? and sign up for the Fluoro Dive for my last night dive of the trip. Despite the hefty price tag, it’s going to be worth it, I think. Fluoro Diving is a new diving adventure everywhere, but is especially new for Deep Sea Diver’s Den. The way it works is as follows: the dive guides will give us all an extra plastic layer to put over our goggles before we suit up and then, on the way to the water, they’ll hand us a UV flashlight rather than a regular one. We’ll all hop into the water together and descend as a group, making sure we don’t lose anyone in the low(er) visibility afforded to us by our new goggle covers, and then we’ll head over to the reef to start the Fluoro Dive in earnest. The purpose of all this craziness? Well, as it just so happens, many coral and fish species fluoresce (hence the name “Fluoro Dive”), and all we need is those little bits of yellow plastic strapped to our goggles and our bright purple lights to see those little guys light up the reef like the Las Vegas Strip.


The group is mixed as far as skill level goes and, with the lack of visibility at night exacerbated by our yellow goggles, we’re told the plan is for everyone to drop down onto the ocean floor and spend the dive leaning in towards just a handful of coral bommies, but nice and close (and ideally nice and calm, too, to keep from ruining the visibility by kicking up sand). Then all we have to do is shine our lights on the coral in front of us, sit back, relax, and enjoy seeing our world down under in a way few ever have or ever will.


We suit up, grab our new fancy goggles, strap our UV “torches” to our wrists, and jump into the shark-infested water behind the boat. Sadly, with our fancy new goggles and dim purple lights, the water is darker than ever, and I can spot only a few shark-shaped silhouettes as we descend down to the ocean floor. The sites we see below, however, quickly make up for it. We form a line, single file, on the ground and shuffle towards a coral bommie. Leaning in so close my face nearly touches the coral, I shine my light forwards and the whole wall of coral lights up like a neon sign.


Little, softly swaying polyps glow bright yellow and green while the tough coral skeleton beneath them burns bright blue. Spots of neon orange and psychedelic pink light up in splotches while teeny, tiny little worms — I’m talking no longer than the tip of a pencil and much thinner — spin crazily into the block of light coming from the UV flashlight in a spectacular show of ever-changing color. Pushing my face closer to my beam of light, I watch its shimmering little body sparkle in an infinity of rainbows before shuffling my way around to the other side of the bommie. Softly fluorescing fish swim past warily as more of the rainbow worms spin forward from the surface of the coral. Miniscule, neon yellow fish poke their little faces out from the dazzling kaleidoscope of polyps, scanning the open water anxiously for predators. Startled by our clumsy, blustering movements, they dart back into the vivid, softly swaying tentacles of their homes, shrinking back until they’re nothing more than burning yellow spots on a fiery blue surface.


I’m at the very back of the line of nearly fifteen divers on this fluoro dive and, as such, am subjected to the sandy onslaught that comes as people kick away from one bommie to the next. Grumbling to myself as my world of tiny yellow fish and dancing rainbow worms is turned to a wall of flowing sediment, I push up off the ground and follow the others to the next bommie. Even with the irritation of being at the mercy of others’ ability (or lack thereof) to move along ocean floor without kicking up a sandstorm, I could cry I’m so blown away by what I’m seeing. Plain and simple: it is the most magical thing I think I’ve ever seen.


As with all good things in life, our Flouro Dive must come to an end, and we soon find ourselves back at the base of the mooring line. We ascend slowly as a group and, once back at the surface, I join several others in taking off my yellow plastic goggles cover to enjoy the sight of sharks circling below.


Just like last night, I have to be reminded that I do in fact need to get out of the water, so reluctantly I hop back on board and wrap up the evening much as I did last night, only this time with an earlier bedtime…after how my wake up call went this morning, I’m hoping a little bit more sleep will go a long way.




The next morning we get the same bright and early start but this time, we’re course-less. Hoping to avoid spending money I don’t have, I pair up with another solo diver and we hit the water with plans to see as much as possible before we surface again and they move the boat. He only has his Open Water Certification and takes my completely misguided self-confidence in my new Advanced Open Water Certification a bit too seriously, telling me I can navigate. I did really well in the navigation part of the course, but once we’re underwater and there’s so much to look at, it takes me about five minutes for me to realize I’ve lost track of which way the boat is. Oops. With a combined 50% navigation skills and 50% luck, I manage to lead us to the bottom of the mooring line (score!). After a bit more diving through the usual gorgeous underwater scenery chock-full of a spectacular array of colorful fish, another giant clam, and a cuttlefish, we head back to the mooring line and ascend. When we surface, we do find ourselves next to a boat…just not the right boat.




We’re not terribly far off — just maybe 10m away from…well, the front…of our 30m dive boat. As we swim through the impressive chop surrounding the boat to the rear of our boat, I apologize profusely, promising my partner-in-dive (slash begging him to take) navigation authority for our next dive (assuming the poor guy is brave enough to dive with me again at all…).


They move the boat again before the next dive, and I return to my spot on the top deck for the ride. When the boat stops, we suit up and listen to our next dive briefing. Contrary to what I had thought, we’re in a completely new reef location today (I thought we’d go back to the same one from two days ago). The guides give us the low-down and my partner-in-dive from last dive (Hans) and now his friend, Adam (who’s decided to join us), mistakenly put their faith in my navigational skills again. We all gear up, hop into the water, and descend together, with me feeling rather apprehensive indeed. Despite my best efforts — really, I do try — the world we’ve found ourselves in quickly distracts me from any thoughts of where we’re going.


The reef plummets down in front of us for more than 85 feet and every square inch of it is covered of the most spectacular array of coral I’ve seen since getting here. Schools of fish glide in big, shimmering sheets around the enormous structure and we follow them, twisting and turning and floating along this massive wall of coral. I don’t want to knock the reefs we visited yesterday and the day before but, really, they absolutely pale by comparison. Here, I feel like I’m swimming through Finding Nemo. Here, I feel like I’m seeing the Great Barrier Reef as it must have been before big, hulking ships from Europe came to this country and claimed everything as their own.


We kick forwards and within seconds are swallowed up by a labyrinth of massive coral monuments. Everywhere we look is a mosaic of color and life. Fish dart to and fro, anemones sway rhythmically in the soft ocean currents, and — as we make our way further into the maze of coral — turtles start popping up everywhere. We follow them calmly but swiftly, getting eye to eye with them as the soar peacefully through the water.


I cannot even begin to describe how perfect this dive is.


My entire experience on the Great Barrier Reef has given me the rare opportunity to experience something inspiring free from the constant impulse to press a camera against my face to capture it indefinitely. Today, though, I’m especially grateful for this. I’ve long struggled to find a balance between enjoying the moment for myself, now, and enjoying the immediate satisfaction and delayed enjoyment that comes from getting the perfect shot. Usually, I try to do a bit of both — snap a photo here and there, then sit back and take it all in — but sometimes (e.g. if I’m in a hurry or, as occurs more frequently, when what I’m photographing is) I miss my opportunity to take it in and am left with only photos, many of which turn out to be complete crap. This time, though, in this most stunning and inspiring of places, I have only my memories. Despite the frustrating inability to show people what I saw, I feel so unbelievably blessed to have been able to just enjoy this world for myself — to swim alongside sea turtles and not think about getting the best angle, about composing the shot just so, about trying to work with the lighting (with which I have very little experience underwater…).


No, today is an exercise in living in the moment, just like these sea turtles. Finding Nemo really did do such a great job of encapsulating these guys with Crush and his pals. Turtles are not only one of the most stunning, awe-inspiring creatures under the sea due to their grace and agility and general cute turtle-ness, but they also, I think, in some way, encapsulate exactly what we all want in life: to be carefree and relaxed all the time, just swimming along without a worry in the world.


As if seeing half a dozen turtles isn’t enough, we also see a school of my favorite fish — rainbow parrotfish — and a white tipped reef shark, too. By the time Hans and I start running out of air (Adam is part-fish and has hardly used any air…he’s at 110 bar!! That’s unreal!) I’ve led us on a series of wild turtle chases at greatly varied depth across a fantastic range of stunning coral bommies that has, for all its beauty and excitement, left us (read: me, the person who was supposed to keep track of everything) completely lost.


I honestly don’t even feel mad, I’m just so unbelievably stoked about everything we’ve seen. All the same, we have to make for the surface so we do, hoping for the best. Alas, we are pretty darn far from the boat. After making Hans swim for the boat last time, I leave it up to the him and Adam as to whether they want to swim or ask for a pickup. Hans definitely does not want to swim — not after our fun little impromptu snorkeling sesh this morning — so we throw our fists in the air (the international call sign for a boat pickup) and wait there, feeling a little embarrassed. I’m a bit surprised they don’t charge for boat pickups (after all, a monetary disincentive would certainly make amateurs like me try a little harder at good navigation), but everything becomes clear when the boat comes for us.


I thought we’d clumsily clamber onto the little rubber dinghy pickup boat and ride back to the main boat in style, but no: they toss a rope to us and say “Hold on tight!” As fun as it sounds, the rope is less than an inch thick and as they fire up the engine and speed off at perhaps 20 mph, the allure of a pickup disappears completely: having our gear-laden bodies dragged behind a boat at speeds better suited for fun stuff like tubing is no walk in the park.


Still, though…totally worth it.



Me looking spiff in my dive gear (if I may say so myself) and — in the background — my extraordinarily patient friend, Hans


Our next dive of the day is to be our very last one and, finally, after twice leading us astray, my buddies agree to not let me navigate. I’m feeling blessed to be able to dive this site again and — what’s more — not have to stress about the fact that I’m definitely not going to get us back to where we started. Adam turns out to be a damn-good navigator, and as we dive around enjoying ourselves, he constantly knows where the boat is. We swim through more schools of dazzling rainbow parrotfish and stumble across several giant clams hidden amongst the mosaic of coral between the towering reef walls. Kicking softly through the the nooks and crannies of the jungle of coral bommies, I look down and spot the smooth, shiny brown surface or a turtle’s shell. Clapping my fist against my hand in a failed attempt to get the others attention, I spaz out a bit until they look my way and I motion with my hands: Turtle!!


I swim down to it slowly and calmly until I can see its face and body, hidden amongst the coral. It has its fins wedged carefully into small crevices within the coral so that all it has to worry about is how long of a nap to take. There’s no current that can touch this little guy here. I float there next to the turtle, watching it sway peacefully back in forth by a few inches in the current all while struggling myself not to float into the coral walls around me.


After just a few short minutes, I have to say goodbye to my new friend and follow my dive buddies back towards the top part of the reef. Rather than ascend in open water, we decide to ascend surrounded by the magnificent forest of brightly-lit coral and the schools of brilliantly-colored fish spiraling every which way through it. It’s a bittersweet moment when we find ourselves back at the boat. Bitter, of course, because this is it…my Great Barrier Reef experience is over. Sweet, of course, because I’ve had the most sensational three days…well…sweet because of that and because we actually made it back to the boat (I told you Adam is half fish!).


All jokes aside, as we clamber up the ladder and back onto the boat, I’m overwhelmed by how content I am. I’m sad to leave, but these last three days have been absolute heaven, and with my next three weeks are looking equally amazing, I suppose I can’t complain too much. Besides, I think my body (namely my right ear) has decided it’s had its fill of diving for the time being. So for now, Great Barrier Reef, it’s goodbye. But I’ll be back before you know it…


…in two days, in fact.





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