Chapter 21: Finding Nemo

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Friday, January 16, 2004

Hello. My first morning in Cairns (Thursday, January 8th) was a productive one. First I moved into the clean, modern, friendly, and (most importantly) air-conditioned Global Backpackers right on the main square downtown. Next I popped into the Qantas offices and switched my flight from Cairns to Darwin from the 12th to the 15th. Then I stopped in at the Cairns Dive Center (CDC) to change my liveaboard diving trip so I'd depart for 3 days on the 12th. Finally, on the advice of the CDC, I went to the medical clinic to get my ears checked out. Ten minutes and $50 later I walked out with an antibiotic prescription and a list of things I could do (take Sudafed, drink lots of fluids, etc.) to virtually ensure that I'd be well enough to dive on the 12th.

I spent the next four days laying low in Cairns trying to get healthy. The details aren't too exciting, so I'll run through the highlights. That afternoon I finally got my digicam photos transferred from my compact flash card to a CD, and I hunkered down in an internet cafe on and off over the next several days uploading pics to this site. I'm pleased with the way most of the pics came out - it was my first time seeing any of them blown up larger than a postage stamp, so I was hit with waves of nostalgia for people I'd met and places I'd visited just a few weeks ago!

My new roommates were a funny bunch: one was a Korean who spoke little English, one was a Canadian named Chris, and one was an Englishman named Phil. I had dinner with Chris and Phil, and then I went to buy a beach towel and rest while they went out drinking. Phil came back to the room at 3-something in the morning, completely hammered, and he was followed by Chris a few minutes later. After trying to sleep for a few minutes, Phil got up, sat himself down on top of the poor terrified Korean, and started babbling semi-coherently about how hot he was and how he was lost and just needed to sit for a second. Eventually Chris and I convinced him to go back to his own bed, but he found it to be soaked (I don't want to know), so he passed out on the floor instead. Ah, these are the hostel memories I'll treasure.

Friday I relaxed by the artificial lagoon on the Cairns waterfront, worked online, read my books, popped my assorted meds, and browsed some shops. Cairns has a pretty spiffy downtown shopping scene and mall for its size. Too bad the prices for T-shirts and shorts are just as high as the rest of Australia! The days ran together a little, as Saturday and Sunday were much the same as Friday. The weather was consistent too: hot and humid. At least it wasn't rainy all the time, as it's supposed to be during the "Wet" season, although we got a few fierce downpours. Sunday afternoon I loaded up on some used books, as I wasn't sure what I'd find to read in Bali. Among other things, I picked up Bali and Thailand guide books, and a novel called "Tomorrow, When the War Began" by Australian author John Marsden. It's the first in an acclaimed series of books that's aimed at young adult readers but also enjoyed by adults (kind of like the "Harry Potter" or "Narnia" series). By Sunday night I was feeling 90% better, so I started packing and looking forward to my dive trip.

Monday morning I checked in at the CDC, filled out a bunch of paperwork, and sat through a briefing on how the next few days would work. I also met the 3 other people enrolled in my Advanced dive course: Simon & Carrie from England, and Kathryn from Melbourne. Simon & Carrie were a couple, so Kathryn was my dive partner for most of our 10 dives. We climbed aboard the "Sunkist" boat, which takes the CDC day-trippers out to the Great Barrier Reef, and drops the liveaboard divers off on the "Kangaroo Explorer," which houses about 50 divers at a time and stays out on the reef 24/7. Once on the KE the 8 or so new arrivals got a tour of the boat, ate some lunch, and got our room assignments. I took one of the upper bunks in a nice, clean cabin, and then explored a little. The KE is about 80 feet long and has 3 levels for the passengers: the sundeck/library on top, the cabins in the middle, and the dining area/lounge & dive deck on the bottom.

We had arrived at 11am, and we were in the water for our introductory dive by 1pm. The system ran very smoothly: the dive tanks were set up along two benches at the back of the boat, and each diver was assigned to a bench seat for the duration of their stay. We'd leave our gear (mask, snorkel, fins, BCD, regulator) at our seats, and the dive tanks would always be filled before a dive. When it was time to get in the water, we simply suited up in stinger suits (again to prevent death by jellyfish), strapped our gear on, did our buddy check, signed a log, and hopped off the back of the boat.

The first 24 hours on the boat were a crazy blur of non-stop action. After the first dive we met John, our Advanced instructor, filled out yet more paperwork, and briefly went over the course material for 2 of our required dives: the Underwater Naturalist dive and the Night dive. By 4pm we were back in the water carrying plastic-coated underwater wildlife field guide cards, trying to identify fish, coral, and other critters. I spotted Nemo (a clown anemone fish), many types of Wrasse, a cone snail, butterfly fish, and countless others.

My first night dive was at 7pm, and it wasn't as scary as I'd imagined. Well, my flashlight died, and that was freaky, but the assistant replaced it right away so it was no big deal. The coolest parts of the night dive were the glowing red eyes (shrimp) and the bioluminescent plankton that glowed blue when you covered your torch and waved your hand violently through the water. CDC had a 10M/30 min rule for night dives, so that minimized any potential problems. After the night dive we sat with John for MORE coursework (the Deep & Navigation dive sections), and then collapsed into bed by 10:30.

They banged on the door at 5:20 with a joyful cry of "Sun's out - time for diving!" which was a blatant lie as the sun hadn't risen yet, and it was in fact raining. I woke up with a minor sore throat but I figured it wasn't bad enough to stop diving. I was right, it turned out - it was persistent and annoying for the remainder of my stay on the boat, but it never got worse, and my sinuses and ears were fine throughout. The Deep dive at 6am was really fun despite the fact that I was half awake. We went down to 27M, and John had us answer some basic math & geography questions on a slate, so we could see if our mental processes were affected at that depth. Mine weren't as far as I could tell, but some other people added when they should have subtracted, or spelled things wrong.

The Navigation Dive was at 8am, and that was fun too. We had to navigate underwater using only a compass, and then using only landmarks and our senses. Very interesting, and something I could use some practice on, judging by how easily I got turned around on subsequent dives! After lunch we had a briefing on the Photography dive from the resident underwater photographer, and then we got to rest for a few hours. John left the boat at 2:30 when the Sunkist came calling, so he signed our papers and proclaimed us "Advanced." For the five remaining dives we would all be on our own (with our buddies, of course), which was exciting as I'd always gone with a dive master up until then. At 4 Kathryn and I did our photography dive; she rented a camera while I took my Canon IXUS 400 in its waterproof case. There was a lot of surge on that dive, so it was hard to get good shots. We did a night dive by ourselves at 7pm which was pretty exciting, but only because it was so dark and we had no guide. I went to bed very early that night, as I was completely exhausted!

5:20 didn't seem nearly as harsh on Wednesday, and I was psyched to get back in the water. The 6am dive was one of the best, and scariest! The first thing they warned us about was the Titan Triggerfish. Remember the tiny fish in the Cook Islands & Fiji that tried to attack? (see: Rarotonga) Well, these were the big, BIG cousins of those fish, and they had the same temperament. The staff told us that as long as we didn't stray far off to the right of the boat we wouldn't encounter any, but of course there was one at the bottom of the mooring line as soon as we went down, and from there we saw yard-long specimens everywhere! We skillfully avoided them, and 3 minutes into the dive we found a green turtle! We followed it for a while, then saw some amazing broccoli & cauliflower-shaped coral, and then saw a sting ray?Eand then realized we were totally lost at 22M down. Everything looks the same when it's big expanses of sand dotted with coral! Knowing we couldn't have gone too far, we came up with plenty of time to spare and found that we'd ended up a fair distance out in front of the boat.

For the 9th dive Simon joined us, as Carrie was feeling sick. I brought my camera and got some great pics of green turtles, fish, and other divers. I really started to get a feel for how to use the camera underwater, and it's an addictive feeling! The last dive was equally good - we did a few swim-thrus and found a wicked-looking moray eel! From noon until 2:30 we sat around chatting on the sundeck, and then the Sunkist came and whisked us back to Cairns. The city was covered in ominous clouds on the way back, and it looked eerie and depressing after the brilliance of the reef. I booked back into Global, re-stocked the cough & cold section of my first aid kit, met my new roommate Nick, had dinner with him and an English girl named Michelle, and then packed up and got ready to leave the east coast.

This morning I got a good and much-needed haircut from a funny effeminate Spaniard from Barcelona, spent more time uploading photos (my GOD that's a time-consuming process!), and then took the shuttle bus to the Cairns airport. The flight to Darwin this evening was easy (if boring), as was the shuttle bus to the Darwin Center City YHA. It's a shame I won't get more time to spend in the Northern Territory, because Darwin seems like a funky city, but when I had to choose between time in Darwin or time on the Reef, there was no competition. The hostel is clean and well-run, so at least my short night here should be pleasant. Next time you hear from me I'll be in Asia, which is a cool thought. Until Bali...

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