Diving the Reef and the Curse of Natural Buoyancy

Trip Start Sep 10, 2012
Trip End Dec 12, 2012

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Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Thursday, October 11, 2012

'Scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef' appears on most bucket lists and other such lists. We can confirm that, for once, all these lists are completely right!

We spent 4 days out on the reef. We were supposed to spend 3 but by day 2 were so addicted to scuba diving that we extended for an extra day. The boat was named Kangaroo Explorer and was surprisingly comfortable, particularly as we were randomly allocated to one of the luxury double cabins. The small crew included a skipper (who we only saw once a day emerge from the steering room, where he slept as well!), instructors, trainees (paying off their dive courses with volunteer work), two chefs (who swapped during our cruise) and ‘hosties’ (responsible for cabins and internal affairs). Both the crew and the passengers were international and came from Australia, UK, France, Greece, USA and the Cayman Islands, to name but a few.They were all good fun and we really did have a lovely few days out on the boat.

Our routine went roughly as follows (note: at the outset of this cruise we had declared we would make sure we got plenty of sleep as we would be in a proper bed for once –this did not happen!) – wake at 5.30am, dive at 6am (nothing like an early morning dive to wake you up), breakfast at 7, dive/snorkel again at 8.30, dive/snorkel again at 11, lunch at 12pm, dive/snorkel at 1.30pm, afternoon tea at 2.30pm, dive/snorkel at 4pm, dinner at 6pm, night dive at 7pm, sleep (you could only do four out of the six dive sessions to avoid nitrogen poisoning but you could snorkel the other sessions). As you can see we spent practically all our time either eating, diving or sleeping! It was actually quite exhausting but really enjoyable.

Now, the diving: to complete our open water qualification we had to do 4 more dives with our instructor. During the final dive we were presented with our dive cards underwater which was a huge relief as Glenn had continually threatened to snip them in half if we did anything stupid. The entire certification dive was filmed by Craig, the videographer (from Bristol as it happened) and inevitably we bought this DVD (with the soundtrack chosen by us). It’s a great DVD and I’m sure we’ll have multiple viewings with an obliging audience when we’re back.

Once we completed our course, the next 3 days were ours to enjoy under the water. Everything you have seen or read about scuba diving the reef, about the bright colours, thousands of colourful fish, etc is absolutely spot on! We swam alongside sharks, sting rays, turtles, fish smaller than your finger, fish bigger than May, rainbow coloured fish, giant clams, and coral all colours of the rainbow (though rarely red as red sunlight gets absorbed quickest so you can only see red coral very close to the surface. Highlights include:

1) Sharks – we saw about 6/7 reef sharks (some we probably saw twice) on our dives, they are 1-2 metres long and quite inquisitive. So sometimes they come quite close to have a good look at you then swim off. The most amusing episode was when we were returning from a dive and a shark appeared under the boat. Ben immediately swam towards the shark to get a closer look and got about a metre from it, May swam in the opposite direction!

2) Giant clams – these come in all colours and Ben could never resist sticking something (his hand, his flipper, a camera, his fiancée, etc) in them to make them close. Men!!! If they can stick it in, they will!

3) Cleaning wrasse – these are tiny blue and yellow fish who clean other fish. So we could swim over these ‘cleaning stations’ and watch as they darted from fish to fish cleaning them, no matter how big or scary the fish was.

4) Sting rays – these are actually quite small but have a razor sharp barb in their tails which they use if you really annoy them. Famously, this was the case with Steve Irwin who tried to pick one up and got fatally stabbed in the heart.

5) Maori wrasse – named because someone thought their lips and the patterns on their body look a bit like the Maori. These fish are huge and very friendly. At one point one emerged behind May which prompted frantic turn around signals from Ben and a horrified look on May’s face when she turned (the fish is about the size of her, and much heavier).

6) Night diving – this is very scary and disorientating, particularly our second night dive on a reef with a very strong current. May couldn’t read her depth gauge in the dark (she thought she was at 4 metres, but was actually at 14 metres!) and went too deep until Ben dragged her up again and we got swept quite a way from the boat.

7) Weightlessness – Diving is all about buoyancy and balancing the air in your lungs and your wetsuit against the weight of your equipment and the weights you wear around your waist. At the start we were a bit hopeless and breathing far too much (it takes time getting used to breathing smoothly under water) but by the end we were pretty steady. Ben in particular could use his big balloon lungs to rise and fall simply by breathing in and out (at the start they just caused trouble as he had too much air in his lungs and needed 10 kg of weights to keep him under the water – in his words "I’m just naturally buoyant"). It is like flying, or being in space (and really lazy - the lazier you are, the less air you need and the longer you can stay under the water). It’s incredible!

8) Christmas tree worms - they come in various colours, usually a vivid blue. Fun fact: snap your fingers at one and it immediately retracts into its little hole in the coral. Wait quietly for a while to see it shyly come out again a minute later. May had a lot of fun playing with these little creatures made famous through the film, Avatar.

With practice, we improved massively and could last 50 minutes (the legal maximum in Queensland) underwater by our third day. We think we have found a sport we can both really enjoy. We intend to do some more diving on our honeymoon, if not sooner!

Anyway, check out the photos and short videos! We’ve included loads from an underwater camera we borrowed from David, a septuagenarian snorkeler from Seattle. There are hundreds more and lots of videos too.
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