25 Mar 2008

Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Hello from Cairns, in tropical north Queensland, Australia! I'm currently staying at Gilligan's Backpackers Hotel & Resort, a gorgeous and well-known hostel, with a large pool and a bar that is groovin' every night.

Reef EncounterThe past two nights, however, I spent on a small cruise ship out in the middle of the ocean, and I still haven't got my land legs back. As I sit here and type, the computer seems to be moving slowly up and down.

Staying on the boat was a really relaxing and immersive way to experience the Great Barrier Reef. It is a two-hour (or more, when it's choppy) boat ride just to get out to the reef, so if you just do a day trip, you don't have much time to go snorkeling, and you can only dive if you have been certified. However, because we stayed so long, I was able to snorkel and dive in two different reefs at three different sites, and stay in the water for as long as I wanted to.

The Scuba-Diving All-BlacksWhich one am I?

I mentioned that I went diving. I've never been scuba diving before, but they had instructors right on the boat that taught us the basics. We were able to go out in groups of four for introductory dives, which lasted anywhere from 20-30 minutes and went up to 10m in depth. The picture above is from my first dive. Even though you are with other people, diving feels like such a solitary experience. You can't talk (obviously) and the only thing that you can hear is the sound of your own breathing. This was a bit off-putting at first, but I soon got used to it. By the final dive, I felt much more confident moving around in the water and using only my flippers to propel myself.

Even though diving is a really cool experience, there is so much to see by just snorkeling as well. The vast diversity of life on the reef is incredible, and there is so much of it to watch. There are fish of every color and pattern and so many of them have bright, vibrant colors. I found Nemo (or his closest relative, fish of the Nemo's exact species do not live in the Great Barrier reef) and some of the Tank Gang from the movie. I saw a sea turtle and a huge manta ray, but unfortunately I did not see any reef sharks. Don't worry, they are small and eat fish, not humans.

Suiting up for a Night DiveOne of the coolest experiences was my night dive. After the sun goes down, you can opt to go diving in groups of two with one instructor, your only illumination being a handheld flashlight. I was a bit apprehensive but it turned out to be an exhiliarating, almost otherworldly experience. Many fish hunt during the night, and they like light because it allows them to see their prey better. We were followed around during the dive by a group of 7 or 8 large fish. As soon as we trained the light on a small fish ... BAM! a large fish swooped in and chomped him up. We were only allowed to make two kills each, so they were exciting occurences. They other cool thing that we did was go all the way to the bottom, where we knelt in the sand and shut off our lights. As you can imagine, it was pitch black. Then our instructor started shaking his flashlight, exposing the bioluminescent particles that absorb energy during the day and give off light at night. With some trouble navigating (we had to surface once or twice), we were able to make our way back to the boat, feeling proud of our accomplishment.

I'll have some more pictures once I get back to Sydney - pictures of hot-air ballooning, more cute koalas, and even a wombat. I'll leave you with one more ridiculous-looking picture of me posing with an anemone...