It wasn’t really part of the original plan, but in the mad rush to plan something, Arlen and I ended up booking a trip to Cairns to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I didn’t make it up there last time I was in Australia, and it seemed like a shame to let the opportunity pass me by twice. I’m happy to say, it ended up being an awesome choice. All in all, I think it was one of the best tourist experiences I’ve ever had, and really the only thing I can think of in terms of wildlife viewing that compares to being on safari in Africa.
Cairns (basically unpronounceable by me, but something like “Caans”) is one of Australia’s great northern outposts. Originally a mining town, Cairns is now all about tourism, primarily because it makes an excellent launching point for trips to the reef.
On the day we arrived, the temperature was about 34 degrees, which isn’t all that bad, but the humidity was out of control. Just walking across town to the dive shop was about all we could manage until the sun went down. Fortunately, our plan was to set out early the next morning on a 3 day live-aboard dive trip. Once we got out of port, the weather was perfect.
We actually got incredibly lucky with the timing. Queensland recently got hammered with cyclones. If we’d chosen a different departure point, we might have had to cancel. If we’d been a week earlier, the water would have been totally murky. As it was, I couldn’t imagine the water being any clearer, with something like 20m visibility.
I’d only gone scuba diving once before in my life, in Mexico, and that didn’t exactly involve any real training, so I decided I would do it right this time. The typical certification course through PADI takes 5 days. Fortunately, I was able to do the classroom and pool portions in Toronto before leaving Canada, and was therefore able to jump right into the training dives from the first day on the boat.
We ended up booking with a company called Pro Dive, and they were truly professional from top to bottom. There were 30 divers on the boat, about half of whom were already certified (including a group of four who’d been referred from another company, whose boat had crashed into the reef the day before they were supposed to set out). There were also six crew members, including the captain, a dive master, two instructors, and Donnie, the Scottish cook (an oxymoron, I know). The boat easily accommodated all of us with two outer decks, a spacious mess area, and cabins below.
The trip involved 9 dives over the three days, including a night dive, plus two more for those already certified. Running an operation on that scale requires some serious organization, and the crew was all over it. They transitioned seamlessly from teaching to prepping to diving to cleaning up. Every time we came in from the water, Donnie had a hearty meal prepared for us, and he even managed to bake something like two cakes per day.
The diving itself was absolutely amazing. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the combination of the coral and the aquatic life was simply mind blowing. I guess I was mostly imagining scores of tropical fish, but what I hadn’t counted on was how personal the whole thing would feel. It was certainly cool swimming with the reef sharks, rays, and turtles, but the best parts were things like the little Nemos, which just hang out in their anemone, always to be found in the same place.
The night dive was the only one which felt a little out of control. Someone had trouble equalizing on the way down, and for a while it wasn’t totally clear what was happening, but we eventually got it sorted out. We each had a flashlight to explore the space around us, but on the way back to the boat, we shut them all off, leaving only the light of the glowsticks on our tanks.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera for the night dive, but here’s a sampling of photos from the last day.