One of the natural wonders of the world is the Great Barrier Reef, a 2800 kilometer long group of 3000 reefs, quays, and 900 islands in the Coral Sea off the northeast Queensland coastline. More than 400 species of hard and soft coral inhabit the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism in the world, visible from outer space. It became a World Heritage site in 1982 in recognition of its unique features as the largest reef in the world. Hundreds of sea and shore birds, sharks, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, sting rays, and tropical fish inhabit the reef, making it a highly desirable area for marine ecological study and divers.
When we were planning our winter Down Under, the Great Barrier Reef was high on the list of Australian destinations along with Alice Springs. Our week in the Red Center had been an exhilarating experience; we expected Cairns and the GBR to be the same. We weren’t disappointed
The day after we arrived in Cairns, I signed up for the five-day PADI diving course which included two days in the classroom and pool and three days diving off Cairns near the Continental Shelf.
Diving is regulated by Professional Divers Instructors Institute (PADI), a southern California-based organization that provides instructional material and issues credentials for divers who want to rent equipment, tanks, and regulators from approved dive shops around the world. Show your PADI card and you can get air in your tanks or rent equipment.
The local company offering the course and dive trips was Pro Dive which has a retail outlet in downtown Cairns and training center with offices, classrooms, and two pools about a mile away. Coincidently, the Pro Dive training center was just a few blocks from where we were staying with our friend, Heather.
Back to school
Early Friday morning, I woke up early, had a cup of coffee, piece of toast, kissed my wife goodbye, and walked to the Pro Dive training center to be a student again.
It had been decades since I had walked to morning class. I was a little giddy, anticipating meeting new classmates, listening to lectures, learning about scuba gear, and swimming. Not many educational experiences offer swimming as part of the curriculum!
Gap Year Classmates
The ‘student body’ was about thirty, mostly young Europeans traveling on their ‘gap year.’ We had met many ‘gap year’ travelers already in Australia. Some were college students taking time off between semesters; others were young professionals between jobs or careers.
Popular destinations for these young adventurers were Nepal, Thailand, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Australia offers one year visas for foreigners under the age of 30 to work in the country. We met several who worked a few months, then used their earnings to travel around the country.
Interestingly, we met few American ‘gap year’ travelers. With the high unemployment rate in the U.S — especially among younger workers and recent college graduates — I thought more young Americans would be traveling the world instead of posting resumes on line or going to networking mash-ups.
In the classroom
After a brief orientation led by a certified Dive Master, we were divided into classes of six and sent to classrooms or the pool. My classmates were five young men, three Swedes and two Germans; average age about 26. Add my age of 67, it would probably have been about 40!
Other classes had about the same composition, young Europeans with a couple Asian women. There were only two other Americans, an Asian couple from Los Angeles.
Class room instruction started with morning lectures, discussions, equipment demonstrations, videos, and tests. Our instructor was Raf from Konstanz, Switzerland, who had been a dive instructor in Mexico and the Caribbean. A good bloke, excellent teacher, and eager to help us all get certified.
In the afternoon after a quick lunch in our classrooms, we put on dive gear and got into the pool to test what we had learned in class. We changed breathing devices — regular and auxiliary regulators, snorkels — took off and replaced face masks underwater, removed and put back on CBD’s (wrap around jackets with sleeves for breathing hoses and inflation devices), and teamed with our ‘dive buddy‘ to practice emergency procedures including an emergency ascent.
My ‘dive buddy’ was Nicholas from Sweden, a nice fellow who was very technically oriented and a quick learner. He was especially helpful when it came time to read charts and graphs after we began diving on the reef.
Three Days on the GBR
After two days of classes, taking tests, familiarizing ourselves with our gear, we were ready for the real test — diving on the reef. On Sunday we boarded the Pro Div boat at 7:30 AM to sail an hour to Milne reef. After we arrived, we had a brief orientation about Milne reef, put on about 100 lb. of equipment and weight belt, did a safety check with our dive buddy, checked breathing devices and CBD’s, cleaned lens on our masks, and stepped down to the duck board on the stern. We put on fins and masks, logged in with the dive master who records each diver who enters the water, and waited in line.
When we were ready, we took a giant step off the duck board and plunged into the water. We inflated our CBD’s and waited for Raf to give us the signal to switch from snorkel to regulator. He gave us a thumbs up and we deflated our CBD’s and lined up on a tow line to descend hand over hand to the reef about four meters below.
When we finished our first dive, we surfaced, took off gear, and went into the cabin to document our dive in our logbook. We recorded our depth and the time down; charts and graphs told us how long we had to wait before our next dive to minimize the danger of nitrogen in our bodies.
We had about an hour before our next dive. When we descended, we continued our underwater tasks, removing and replacing masks, communicating with our dive buddy, and practicing emergency procedures.
After our second dive, we returned to the cabin and recorded our dive information and discussed the next morning dives. After our second dive on day two, we would have four supervised dives and be certified by PADI as Open Water divers.
First evening on the reef
We had a healthy dinner that night of salads, fruit, pasta and spent the early evening relaxing in the cabin, sharing dive stories, and listening to a lecture about night dives.
Onboard were certified divers taking a night dive that first evening. We listened to the master dive instructor lecture about the first night dive. After our second day, we would be certified and take our first night dive that evening.
It was a thrill to know that in less than 24 hours, we would be night diving, carrying ‘torches’ and have a fluorescent bulb attached to our regulators, looking for tropical fish on the reef.
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Next: Adventure diving on the Great Barrier Reef
As many of you know, I also write mysteries and romantic suspense novels.
I recently published my first international thriller, Thirteen Days in Milan, which is available on Kindle as well as other ereaders, tablets, and smartphones.
I’m back in Europe for the summer to hire a translator and to research my next book which will also be a thriller based in Milan. I’ll be posting soon from Milan, Stresa, Zurich and other locations.
I have a few posts on another blog, Anatomy of a Thriller, where I write about the process of researching and writing an international thriller. I’ll add more posts there as well.
Please share these links with writers or readers who might be interested.