Crammed on a wooden bench, slightly damp and smelling of salt, I sit among fifty-odd strangers, shoulders touching, as our boat the Reef Quest charges out to sea. The air is thick, the kind of choking tropical atmosphere that I imagine one could swim through. Every molecule of my sun-burned body is consumed by anxiety. With each slap of the catamaran against the ocean’s choppy surface I am transported closer and closer to the Great Barrier Reef. In less than ninety minutes I’m going to become a scuba diver—and I don’t know how I feel about that.
Let me be clear. I never wanted to be a diver. In my thirty-one years of existence I’ve aspired to become all kinds of things: skateboarder, snowboarder, surfer, and wakeboarder. But diver? That never entered my mind. Not until I found myself stuck in between Sydney and the Gold Coast of Australia with a big gaping hole in my itinerary did I ever entertain the notion of strapping a tank of oxygen to my back and jumping into the dredges of the ocean where sharks and stingrays swim.
“What do you mean you’re not going to Cairns?” It was the day after Christmas, or Boxing Day as the Aussies call it, and I was lying in bed chatting with my boyfriend on Skype. “You can’t be this close to the Great Barrier Reef and not go. Diving the Reef was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It is totally different than snorkeling. It’s the closest you will ever get to being an astronaut, and the most peaceful thing you will ever experience. The sheer amount of life and color on the reef is amazing.”
The next morning Craig sent me two links to open water dive courses in Cairns. Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified. I’m an athlete, but I’m also clumsy and accident-prone, and I usually partake in sports where I can still breathe if I mess up. But I summoned the courage. How could I say no to “one of the most amazing experiences in life” when it was just a “click” away? Fast forward twelve days and I’m following a bouncy blond tourist down a boat dock, feeling like I’m walking the plank of a pirate ship. They don’t seem to speak English and definitely don’t share any of my trepidation about stepping aboard the vessel. Snorkelers. Definitely snorkelers.
Once on board I follow the queue like a cow. A young man with a clipboard asks my name and tells me I am a number eight.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s your danger level.”
Danger level? What the hell does that mean? I don’t have time to ask, the line is moving past the benches and coffee bar to a sporty looking Asian girl in a yellow and navy polo. She sizes me up and hands me a wet suit, flippers, and mask.
I climb the musty stairs to the upper deck, arms full of gear, feeling like I’ve just entered the McDonald’s assembly line of diving. I put my gear in a big tub, worried it will get lost and someone else will get my flipper, then I turn to the wooden benches wrapping around the upper deck. There’s nowhere to sit. A balding man covered in body hair senses my conundrum and inches over to make space for me to squeeze in between him and a young girl in a Speedo one-piece.