Diving on the Great Barrier Reef
Our first day in Cairns I made arrangements to dive the next week at the Pro Dive shop where I took classes and went on a three-day trip to get PADI certified. The Pro Dive team are very experienced and knowledgeable about all things diving and the many responsibilities of supervising student divers and more experienced divers.
The next Friday, January 17, the weather was cool, overcast, with occasional showers; not the best weather for sailing 52 km to the Great Barrier Reef. But we left the dock at 7 AM, sailing through the shipping channel out onto the Coral Sea. The water was choppy, the sky overcast, with dark clouds on the horizon.
January is the ‘wet’ in northern Queensland when weather can be unpredictable. (The last week in January, cyclone Dylan slammed into Queensland, flooding Townsville and other towns on the coast. Dylan arrived during the ‘king’ tide which is what Aussies call high tide.)
Aboard our boats were 24 students in three classes of eight who’d taken two days of classroom and pool orientation for PADI certification. They were younger, in 20’s and 30s, from Germany, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Australian and even the US. Eight of us were certified and would have 11 dives over the three days, weather permitting.
We dropped anchor about 10:30 AM at Milln Reef where we have dove in ’12. The surface water was still choppy, the wind brisk, and it looked like we might have a storm before the day was out. While students were being briefed about their first dive, our team of eight certified divers entered the water for our first dive.
It was only a 35 minute orientation dive; we had two more dives at Milln before we left later that afternoon for another reef.
After lunch and an hour and half rest, we had dives 2 and 3 with breaks in between. After each dive, the instructor logs your time in the water and the deepest depth of your dive. These calculations determine the time you need to be at the surface for nitrogen that has accumulated in our blood stream to leave.
The best dive of the first day was the our night dive at 7:30 PM. During the dive briefing, our instructor handed out glow sticks, plastic tubes the size of a stub pencil with colored chemicals, deep blue, green or pink. Snap the tubes, and the sticks glow. You attached glow sticks to your tank so you can follow other divers; your instructor has two so you know who’s in charge.
When we were on the duck board, the dive supervisor handed us waterproof torches, small flashlights with a cord for wrapping around your wrist. Our instructions were to not shine torches at anyones face, and particularly not at eyes of turtles or sharks.
Diving at night is ethereal; you jump into black water, adjust your BCD (buoyancy control device), and as you descend, sweep the bottom with your torch to get oriented. All around, glow sticks and cones of light from the torches are illuminating the dark coral ‘bommies.’ When someone spots something interesting, they wave with their torches so other divers can see eyes of fish hiding in the coral. Fish eyes at night are spots of yellow, red, and orange shining like laser beams. Spooky, but cool.
Before every dive, our instructor briefs us about the area where we would be diving; where coral banks or ‘boomies’ were, the depth to reach them, currents, and compass readings to each area.
Divers have dive computers attached to their BCD: a compass; a computer recording current depth, deepest depth, time under, and time at most recent depth; and gauge recording air left in your tank.
You start with 200 millibars in your tank; instructors recommend return toward the boat at 120 mb, surface at 70 mb, and board the boat with 50 mb. Each time you board the duckboard, the supervisor records your time under and maximum depth. He/ she has already recorded the time you entered water and time out of water. This security system lets instructors follow the progress of each diver — and make sure no one is left in the water.
Relaxing between dives
It’s not all briefings, suiting up for dives, debriefing, getting ready for next dives. Sometimes you just hang around the boat, schmozzing with other divers, hearing their travel stories and backgrounds, and enjoying the incredible experience of being on the reef.
Meals were terrific on board; beans, sausages, eggs, fruit, yoghurt for breakfast; fruit and veggie salads, cold meats, cole slaw for lunch; casseroles, salads, and pasta for dinner. Fruit, cake and sweet treats for dessert and between dives. You burn carbos diving and have to keep pouring them on so you don’t get weak.
Returning to port
After three busy days on the boat, eleven dives, lots of camaraderie, thrilling adventures below, it was time to return to port. Everyone pitches in, cleaning off equipment, washing them in tubs, storing gear, cleaning out bunks, packing your things for the three hour trip back to Cairns. It was a team effort all the way, crew and divers.
The return was in similar weather to what we’d experienced the first day; choppy, windy, clouds building up like a storm was on the way. But we had amazing experiences we’d remember all our lives.
(I have photos and videos of dives in the Great Barrier Reef. After I return from Australia, I’ll organize and publish them in a separate post: sharks, barracuda, string rays, moray eels, sweet lips, wrasses, parrotfish, and many beautiful coral.)
Next: Mt Barker in Adelaide Hills
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