Going Down Under

I’m sure that most people are probably aware of the fact that in recent years there have been increasingly large bleaching events on various coral reef ecosystems. One that always makes the headlines is the rapidly decreasing Great Barrier Reef. Since I’m already all the way over here anyway, and it does seem like time is very important here, I decided to make the relatively small hop over to West Island (also known as ‘Australia’) and travel up to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef. While searching for trips, I found one in particular that looked amazing – a 3 day live aboard trip where you can do up to 11 dives on the reef! Over the course of the trip, I did 10 of the dives (and went snorkelling for the last one because of Queensland diving and flying regulations), and got my Advanced Open Water certification.

Landing in Cairns was interesting… Bearing in mind that my flight had left ChCh (in autumn) at 6:15 in the morning, and so I had spent the night at the airport, I wasn’t really dressed for 28˚C weather. Once I got to my hostel, I basically spent the rest of the day chatting to the others in the room before an early night for the early wake-up. My pick-up from the hostel was at 6:10, before we went to the Pro Dive shop to sort out equipment. As this is Australia, we just needed to collect a BCD that fit, fins and a snorkel and mask – no need for dry suits, or even wet suits here! They shuttled us over to the boat, and we ate breakfast while they started assigning us numbers (I was 25) and rooms. The boat was a 27m long vessel with three levels. The bottom level is basically just cabins (I was down in one of these), the middle had a few more cabins and the kitchen and dining area. Out the back you had all of the diving equipment. Up on top you had a deck to relax on and the last few cabins. It was all very compact (understandably), and I think could host a maximum of 38 people. I reckon that if it weren’t for the case that all we were doing was eating, diving and sleeping the boat would be a bit cramped for that many people.

As the boat set off, they got us to sign a few forms and watch a health and safety video. Leaving Cairns was a bit rocky, and not all of us coped too well. I normally do fine on boats, provided that I’m out on deck and not trying to read anything. If I’m inside and reading something, that’s not good – and like I just said, we had to fill in forms. The 3 hour trip out to the reef was not as pleasant for me as it could have been, and I’ll leave it at that. (Just to note though, that is the only time in this entire trip I got sea sick, so that’s good!!) Although we don’t have to wear wetsuits, we all have stinging suits to wear as it is the end of jellyfish season. They haven’t had someone stung before, and they don’t know if it’s because of the suits, or there just haven’t been any around, but it seems better not to risk it anyway. We’re doing 4 dives today, one of them a night dive. Although we were all buddied up, for the first dive most of us went on a guided group dive, just to get a feel of things.

The coral, while not as bright and colourful as you see in some pictures, wasn’t bleached, which I was very relived to see. This trip I was going on was about a week after a large number of articles had come out about the state of the GBR, and Cairns had been marked as a badly hit spot so I was a bit worried about what we might see. Something I love about diving is that you can get up close to things and view them from all around. There aren’t really any limits to the way you can view something. You can swim all around it and then go over the top, or lower down if you so wish – it’s great! This first dive was interesting, as everything was new. The last dive I did was in a flooded Welsh quarry in a dry suit, before I got my prescription mask, so this was a very different experience. We saw fish flit in and out of the coral, and even saw a nudibranch (sea slug) moving along. There were quite a few sea cucumbers in the sand, and they were huge! They had to be at least half a metre long, and probably about 20-25cm wide. Although I know that parrot fish aren’t the best ones for the reef, I quite liked seeing them as they’re very bright and colourful.

We did a number of dives on the same reef. As we went down the line to the blocks (which keep the boat anchored in place), so fish would come by and nibble at the algae growing on the rope. Between dives we would either be eating or sleeping – not a bad life, really!! The third dive of the day was the first of the AOW dives, which I was doing with two other people: Brandon and Joel. Our instructor for our navigation dive had previously worked closer to the equator, and so found the 28-30˚C water of the GBR cold. My dives from Bangor were in 8˚C water, so this was quite nice for me. To get the AOW certification, we needed to improve our navigation skills, and find a way to measure distance using kick cycles. We had to swim a 30m line in a certain direction, and then in a 30x30m square. We also had to repeat these skills during the night dive. We were split into groups for the night dive (those who wanted a guide, those who wanted to dive by themselves, and those of us doing the certification). We were the blue glowstick group! After we did our navigation skills, we could just enjoy the dive. Our instructor had a UV torch, so we got to see some of the corals glowing in the dark, which was really cool! The organism that we saw the most of during the night was definitely the red bass. These fish have learnt to use the torch beam to hunt with. Before starting the dive, we were told to limit our ‘playing-God’ to three. I found it much more fun to watch the bass try and attack empty water, though some small fish did have a few close calls.

A highlight of the first night dive was definitely seeing a sea turtle. At first, we all had our torches on, but then we switched to just the UV torch so we wouldn’t disturb it as much. We watched the turtle swimming about, and as it swam it came closer and closer to me. I moved back a small amount, because I didn’t want to startle it, and by this point it was nearly headbutting me. I think it must have realised that there was an obstacle in its way, so it turned around (nearly kicking me in the process – but I don’t really care when it’s a sea turtle)! It was amazing to be so close to it! We headed back to the boat for a snack and then one of the instructors, Terry, started telling us about our AOW dive for the next morning. Since with the AOW cert you can dive deeper, we had to do our deep dive, and so Terry told us about the potential effects of narcosis. We were told about a couple of people – one of whom decided to use his dive computer as a spade, and another who would constantly look over his shoulder thinking he was being stalked by a fish. Since we would only be going down to about 26-28m, it was unlikely that any of us would feel these effects, but we had to know what could happen just in case.

Our first dive the next day was at 7:30 (before breakfast), so we had to get up bright and early! We weren’t going to have breakfast until after the dive, so it was pretty much, grab an apple, suit up, jump in. Terry was going with us for this dive, as Brandon, Joel and I were doing our deep water dive. As we went down, Brandon was having quite a bit of trouble equalising once he got below 10m (which had happened to me the dive before – don’t know why it happens), so in the end, Terry took him back to the boat, while Joel and I had a look at the coral bommie next to us. When Terry came back, we continued on our dive to 26m. To be honest, I didn’t actually realise we were quite so deep. Especially when you’re following a gently sloping sandy sea bed, you really don’t notice it. At around 20m, we saw an amazing Gregorian fan!! Out of all the things we saw on the training dives, this is the one thing that we only saw at this place, and I’m sad I wasn’t able to get a photo of it, but it was nice to have seen. Anyway – if I hadn’t done this AOW course, I wouldn’t have been able to dive deep enough to see it anyway, so there’s that. While we were down there, we had a few skills to do – my favourite of which being multiplications. Terry had a table of numbers, and a few on the side. He would point to one of the numbers and we needed to point at it, touch our nose, point at two factors that would multiply to that number, touch our nose again, and point at the answer. This is apparently meant to show us that our thinking process and physical awareness changes as we get deeper – but I don’t think either of us had any problems. Maybe 26m wasn’t deep enough for it to noticeably effect us. We started heading back (as there was a limit to how much time we could actually stay down there without needing decompression). There was a blue spotted ray feeding in the sand that we could look down on as we swam up. Something that I really felt when we were halfway up – so with about 15m of water above us, and 10m below us – diving is kind of the closest you can get to ‘flying’. You have the move anywhere in any direction, which is a pretty amazing feeling.

We moved on to another reef after this dive. To complete the AOW course, we now just had to do two more skills dives – we were doing Underwater Naturalist (and the number of people who thought I said ‘naturist’ there is surprising…) and Underwater Photography. We did the naturalist one first, and were given a few plastic sheets with species on, and the task to find at least 5 new coral and 5 new fish species on the dive. This was done in quite a shallow area, and I don’t think we got deeper than 8m on this dive (no need for a safety stop – yay!!). As we were so shallow, we were more effected by the surface swell, and sometimes had to swim quite hard to avoid bumping into the coral. We did find the number of species we needed to – but we stopped trying to identify them ‘in the field’ pretty soon. We spent about 20 minutes or more after finishing the dive discussing what we saw, rather than spend our dive time looking at the plastic sheets rather than what was right in front of us. I spotted a bumphead parrot fish from a distance that was quite big (and a fast swimmer), and Brandon spotted a very large blue spotted ray hiding under one of the bommies. At the end of the dive, we saw a white tipped reef shark. It was a great dive!

Terry joined us for the next dive, as did Flora (Joel’s wife). Now, one of the things that we found out in the theory for underwater photography is that you need to compensate for the rays of light being absorbed by the water – at the depth that we were diving, red. Joel had the bright idea of getting a red filter before the start of the trip (Brandon had thought of this too, but his filter was too red). I did borrow Joel’s filter for part of this dive, but my lack of filter is the reason that my photos are very blue and green. In reality, the reef was more colourful than my pictures show, but I haven;t had time to try and play around with them yet. I’m glad Terry went with us on this dive, as he took us through some blind swim-throughs that we certainly wouldn’t have gone through otherwise. These were tunnels through the coral that we couldn’t see the exit too (hence the blind part). If you didn’t know the reef well, you might think they were caves, and could get in a tight spot. These definitely forced us to perfect our buoyancy!! They were great fun to go through. We also found Nemo on this dive – which is always great. After this dive, Terry got Joel and I to fill in the forms for the AOW cert, as we were now officially Advanced Open Water divers!

The last dive of the day was a night dive after dinner – this time, just in our dive buddy groups. We could join in the guided reef tours, but Terry had semi-jokingly warned us against this, as the Open Water people had just got their certifications, and would be far more likely to kick up a lot of sand, so we’d probably see more if we went ahead of them in our small groups. Before we got in, we couldn’t help but notice that the lights of the boat was attracting a lot of attention in the water. The spotting of a number of sharks was causing quite a few people to get a bit nervous. Luckily, they moved a bit further away as we started getting in the water. I’m not, and wasn’t scared of the sharks, but even so – I was aware of the fact that even though they’re far more scared of us than we are of them, they probably wouldn’t be too happy if a large number of people started jumping onto their heads (which I don’t think is an unreasonable annoyance). Although we all started off heading in our different directions, all of our small buddy groups ended up in the same place eventually. We were trying to find the 1.5m, 100+ year old sea turtle, Brian. Sadly, none of us found him as he wasn’t in or nearby his cave when we were diving this time. We got to play around with the red bass again. My favourite fish of the night was the one trying to hide under a branch of staghorn coral. If you were directly on top of it, you couldn’t see the fish. From any other direction, however… I also saw small shrimp hiding in the coral – their red eyes flashing in the dark. For the most part, we didn’t actually see sharks on this dive (despite the number around the boat before we started), but there were definitely quite a few circling us while we did our safety stop, which was cool!

The final day of the trip – we had quite a bit to try and cram in today, so the first dive was at 6:30 (wake up 5:45). We jumped into the water as the sun rose. For this dive, my buddy was just Joel, as Brandon still needed to do his deep dive. I know we had just done our navigation skills, but they do say practice makes perfect – and clearly both of us were in need of more practice. We set off across the sand towards a big coral bommie that we could swim around. We ended up slightly deeper than initially planned because the sand slope was misleading, but we’re AOW divers now, so technically we were still in our range. Partway around the bommie, we could see bubbles from the deep divers. I particularly liked swimming close to the small fish, and seeing the feathery hydroids, and the colourful parrotfish. We had been told that for each dive, we should head back at 100bar or after 30 minutes, whichever came first. Joel reached his 100bar before me, so we started heading back (and here is where our navigation skills need more practice). To be fair, we did head back along the right angle, but between the bommie and the boat there weren’t really any particular features we could use to help us. We decided to surface (give our safety signal) and look around to find the boat. Which we had somehow managed to swim a long way past. Oops. We went back down to swim back, and found another white tipped reef shark. This time, we didn’t swim past the boat, but we did have to do a second safety stop. By the time we got back on the boat, Joel was below his recommended 50bar BOB (back on boat), but we were fine.

The boat set off to another reef for the last two dives. I could only do one more of them actually diving, so I really wanted to make the most of it. For this next dive, Joel and I were joined by Brandon and Flora again. This bommie was a very long one (that we wouldn’t have time to go all the way around), but it was quite steep, so we could go out at one depth and come back at a different one. We also had to keep an eye on our depth gauge, as it would have been so easy to just go too deep. As there weren’t too many paths for us all to take, at some points it did get a bit ‘busy’, which is really funny when you consider how much space we all had. At one point, we went for a hunt under the boat. A few days before a couple of mantis shrimp had been seen under the boat, so there was a chance we might too. We weren’t successful, but it was fun trying to find one. After we got back on the boat, we had a snack and took a group photo before getting ready for the final dive.

I was joining the only two snorkelers for this last trip (though some of the other divers were going snorkelling for the same reason as me). These two actually missed the boat on the first day (they thought we had to be at the dive shop at 8am not 6am), so they were dropped off yesterday. After spending most of the last few days diving, snorkelling did feel a bit more restricting than the diving. Despite the fact that I had much less equipment on, I couldn’t get up close to the coral, and I had less freedom for where I could actually swim. It was still great fun though – I didn’t mind too much that I couldn’t dive this time, as while snorkelling we could go over the tops of the bommies that are too shallow for diving. We did have to deal with the swell all the time which made things more challenging, but didn’t take away from the fun. I found clownfish again, and saw loads of parrot fish. Writing this is making me realise that I need to remember the names of more of the fish – that could make this a more exciting read!! We swam around until we noticed quite a few divers getting back on the boat (no dive watch to keep track of the length of the trip), and decided to head back too.

We ate our last meal on the boat after this dive (off paper plates so there would be no washing up), given the instructions for what we needed to do when on the way back, and started making our way back to Cairns. About half of the people went to the outside decks, and the other half stayed inside. Most of us inside started the way back by filling in our dive logs. After the first 30-45 minutes of this, and chatting, everyone seemed to start dropping off, which was quite funny. It was probably only 1pm, and yet nearly everyone on board was asleep or dozing. It does make sense after the amount of diving we had been doing – we all had to crash at some point. Needless to say, the journey back to Cairns was fairly uneventful as a result. When we eventually got back, we had to wait while they stocked up the boat for the next trip, and then collected our things to go back to the dive shop and pay for any extras (no money changed hands while on board, and quite a few people had ‘bought’ things like chocolate bars, or fizzy drinks during the trip). We were dropped back off at our accommodation, and had the afternoon to do not a lot (well, I can’t speak for the others, but I didn’t do a lot beyond re-arranging my bags for my flight the next day). In the evening, quite a few of us met up at a local bar / restaurant (the Bavarian Beerhouse – which I found quite funny, seeing as I was in Australia, but surrounded by all the beers and flags from near home). It was a nice, friendly way to end the trip.

(If you’ve got all the way down here – I just want to apologise for the delay in posting this. Part of my excuse for the wait is that I have been busy, but I also didn’t get around to it. This is definitely the post that took me the longest to write – I think I started it a month or so again. I hope you enjoyed it!!)

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