The amazing Great Barrier Reef: Our first scuba diving experience
September 27, 2019
As a child, I would look forward to Sunday mornings when Jacques Costeau, the French oceanographer and explorer would present “The Secrets of the Sea” on Doordarshan. I would be glued to our newly acquired colour television, fascinated by the colours beneath the sea. Never did I foresee that in this lifetime I would get an opportunity to see those brilliant colours for myself.
On the 15th of September 2019, I experienced the most beautiful moment of my life, when I entered a world more enchanting than I ever imagined. My husband, Subodh, and I were in Cairns in Australia, after attending a conference in Darwin. And we decided to explore the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Site and the world’s largest coral reef system. Located in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, this living and breathing structure can be seen from outer space. The Great Barrier Reef is the most outstanding coral reef system in the world because of its great length, number of individual reefs and species diversity.
After exploring several options, we signed up for a cruise with Reef Magic Cruises in Cairns, who turned out to be super professional in their approach. The company owns an eco-friendly marine pontoon located in the outer Great Barrier Reef. And once you reach the pontoon, you have the opportunity to spend four to five hours exploring the Reef by yourself. From the moment we boarded the high speed catamaran to take us to the pontoon, the way safety instructions were drilled into us, made us sure that we were in safe hands, regardless of one’s swimming ability.
Now I can swim a bit, but I am no great swimmer, while Subodh can’t swim at all. I had done a bit of snorkelling in the Maldives and enjoyed it. So I was all game for snorkelling, but I was hesitant about something as adventurous as scuba diving. Nevertheless I signed up for both activities. There were options for all kinds of people. You could go on a glass bottomed boat, you could travel in a semi-submersible vessel with running commentary about what you were seeing, and for an extra price, go on a helicopter ride. If you didn’t want to do any of these, you could simply soak up some sun and enjoy the buffet spread.
We were first met onboard by Caitlin, a marine biologist, who allayed all our fears. We signed up for a guided snorkeling tour with her. She also gave a great presentation about the wonders of the reef and the conservation efforts.
My start wasn’t great. The seas were rough and the 90 minute ride from Cairns Reef Terminal to the pontoon made me terribly sea-sick. A number of other tourists suffered the same fate, but the manner in which the staff assisted us, was exemplary and way beyond their call of duty. There was medication on board which made me feel better.
When we reached the pontoon, we all got a chance to get into wet suits and found masks, snorkels, flippers and life vests of our size. The wet suits were useful as the water was cold. Caitlin eased both of us into the water with our snorkelling gear. But the earlier sea sickness, the rough waves and a few gulps of salt water made me queasy. I put my head into the clear water, saw the beautiful coral and then suddenly realized how deep it was. I panicked! It took me a few minutes to be comfortable again, and then on it was magical.
It was then that Wally, a huge Humphead Maori Wrasse decided to swim with us. Apparently it is a local resident and who enjoys swimming with snorkellers. Wally never left our side and enjoyed being patted by Caitlin. He returned that afternoon with a number of his girlfriends for the fish feeding session.
Caitlin was super enthusiastic and took us on a guided tour to the edge of the Reef, telling us all about the corals and marine organisms. It was fascinating to learn from her. Corals are marine invertebrates which exist in colonies. Corals which contain calcium carbonate are hard corals. Soft corals do not have exoskeletons and can be seen moving. The world under water breathes and moves like you never expect it to.
After the guided tour, I was summoned for the scuba dive. It turned out that everyone else had finished their dives and I was the last one who had signed up. I was asked to answer questions on a form about all possible risk factors. After detailed instructions about how to equalize the pressure in my ears every few metres by doing the Valsalva manouvere, I was made to sign an informed consent form. As I still appeared unsure, the instructor suggested that I should do a helmet walk instead of a dive where I needn’t even wet my hair. I listened to him for fifteen minutes and then said I wanted to do the introductory scuba dive. What was the point in coming all the way and being scared of wetting your hair! He looked so exasperated at my dithering!
I was then allotted an individual trainer named Aaron, who was from South Korea. Aaron turned out to be super gentle and confident. I was fitted with all the diving gear and I carried the cylinder and descended onto their activity platform beside the pontoon, where Aaron tested if I could breathe properly. Two dips later, I realized that he had taken me deep under the ocean. There was no time to think or ask questions. I was actually under water!
It was then that I noticed the world around me. It was stunning and full of brilliant colours. I forgot all about worrying whether to breathe through my mouth or my nose. I was simply in the moment, doing whatever came naturally. Who cared if you died after seeing such amazing beauty!
The diversity of marine life that I saw was astonishing. Schools of fish swam past me in such an organized manner. The corals were full of life, moving ever so gently. Incredible colours of every possible kind: pink, green, blue, even purple. Corals of so many varied shapes. It was a world beyond imagination. And the silences spoke so much. Away from the chaos of the world above, this was a special world like no other. I was incredibly lucky to even be here.
After I finished my dive, I urged Subodh to do the dive too. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity which would never return. He agreed and enjoyed his dive. He came back as fascinated as me. He even saw a giant clam snap shut. Since he did the dive, he has been talking about being reborn as a fish in the Great Barrier Reef in his next birth!
On the ride back to Cairns, Caitlin gave us another presentation about the Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) which was really insightful. These are large starfish that receive its name from venomous thorn-like spines on its surface, resembling the biblical crown of thorns. The adult crown-of-thorns is a predator that usually preys on reef coral polyps. Outbreaks can damage large reef areas in relatively short periods.
We are both so excited about visiting one of great wonders of the world. Have to do scuba diving again! The underwater world is impossibly beautiful and beckons seductively.
(All underwater photographs by Nate Morris. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )