Go to the Great Barrier Reef. I was told to do it and now I am telling you. They are right. It is amazing. You'll see more wildlife in an hour than you might see the rest of your life. I'm writing this over two months after I was there and I can still remember it like it was yesterday.
Under the sea is a mystery.
My experience at the reef almost didn't happen. I didn't have time. I didn't plan ahead. I had been told to dive instead of snorkel, but I wasn't certified. As I was sitting at Clem's place in Sydney, I was trying to find a liveaboard SCUBA course that would allow me to get up to the reef and back in six days. There was only one available for the days I could go. The trick was I had to get up at 4am to get my flight up to Cairns. From there, I would take a cab to the school where the SCUBA course would already be started. If I was less than an hour late, they would still let me sign up. Luckily, I made it without any hang ups, mostly thanks to Clem driving me to the airport.
Our first afternoon, we got out of the classroom and into the water. It was very uncomfortable for me to breathe underwater. I've been holding my breath underwater for thirty-three years and my mind wasn't make it easy to relax and do something different. Between that discomfort and my leaky mask all the skills training was hard for me. Luckily, my instructor finally told me that my mustache was causing the leak and let me go shave it quick. On my way to the bathroom to shave it, I also saw a sign about not flying 24 hours after diving. I had 10am flight the morning after our scuba trip ended. Uh-oh.
Typical reef scene (photo by professional).
After two long days in the classroom in Cairns, we were off to the reef and after two terrible nights in hostels, I couldn't be ready to go fast enough. My first night in the hostel I had accidentally been assigned to a girls room and when they came back from partying they complained and I had to be moved. It was hot. It was muggy. It was a party town and all I wanted to do was sleep. It wasn't a good combination. Luckily, being on the boat was the perfect combination for sleeping, diving, and having a great time. One guy made the spot on observation that almost all of our time on the boat was spent horizontally, either face up sleeping or face down diving. We were diving four times a day and after each dive we would eat and then a lot of us took naps. None of us figured out why the one hour dives where you are supposed to move slowly were exhausting us so much. It was a simple, good life.
Sunset our first night on the boat.
On the boat, we had to complete four more training dives before we were certified to go off on our own. Even though the first four dives were instructional, we still got to see a lot of great stuff. In fact, we may have seen more because our instructor knew where to look. For some reason, I never thought fish were territorial creatures. I figured they moved around more, but they don't. Our instructor said he could count on finding the same fish or turtle in a spot on all but a few dives over the summer.
James, my dive buddy, and I preparing to dive.
When we were finally certified James and I had a lot of luck diving. We saw all the regular fish, but we also saw sharks, turtles, rays, and more critters than I could ever name. We tried our hand at photography and pretty much failed. You have to be really still. You have to get close to the fish without scaring them which we don't move slow and relaxed enough to do yet. It was amazing to see the ease with which our instructor moved through the water compared to us as we chewed through our oxygen by working too hard. One of our most memorable dives was a guided night dive where we saw a turtle that must have been 4.5 feet across and two bull rays that were at least six feet across. Just amazing. When we were coming up from that dive, we could also see the smaller sharks swimming around us, but we would usually just catch the glint of their eyes before they turned away. It was a little bit exciting and a little bit unnerving. Unfortunately, I had to miss our final dive because of my early flight after the trip. I was bummed and moped about before I finally put on my big kid pants and went out for a solo snorkel. I still had an amazing time. It might have been one of my best times out. I didn't have to worry about my oxygen. I didn't need to keep track of my buddy. I just got to focus on the reef which kept offering up unexpected treats at every turn.
My underwater coral shot . . . after I scared the fish away.
One of the funniest things about the trip was the non-stop talk about Nemo, Dory, and all the other characters from Finding Nemo. The movie was so popular that a lot of people come to the reef asking to see those characters by name. I also enjoyed washing our dishes. We would rinse them with a hose over the side of the boat. This brought along quite a few fish who wanted a free meal. When our cook would wash the pots at night, she would often be visited by sharks. A couple people were able to touch them.
Almost all of the rest of these photos were taken underwater by a professional. They are just a small cross section of what we saw. These are the fish I could remember. I am forgetting more than I could ever remember. I can't imagine being a reef naturalist and needing to identify all the different fish. The more time you spend with them, the more familiar you become, but you can only go down for an hour at a time. It must take a long time to remember them all. I would look at pictures on the boat before and after every dive to try and identify more fish, but the volume and quantity just overwhelmed me.
Blue spotted lagoon ray.
Christmas tree worms.
Clown Anemone fish - Nemo!
Coral rock cod.
Diagonally banded sweetlips.
Scubapro at sunrise.
White tip reef shark.
Me at sunset.
In retrospect, I wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reed instead of snorkel it. I didn't need to. I would have seen 95% of the same stuff. However, some of those most amazing things that I did see were at the depths that only diving would let you visit. However, now I am certified so I can check out other dive sites around the world. My next one might be in September in the Red Sea, which I was turned onto by my instructor. My Pro Dive Cairns instructors, Al and Masao, especially Masao, were one of the biggest reasons my trip was great. I'll certainly remember the wildlife, the sunsets, and my fellow divers, but they took what was an unnatural and uncomfortable experience and eased us all in. Most of us struggled at some point (especially taking our masks off underwater) and Masao walked us through it and kept us calm. Absolutely brilliant and recommendable (this is not a paid endorsement).
First night's sunset.
My Scuba class, Team Masao, making the sign for a clown fish..