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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Great Barrier Reef First-Timer - Page 2

Written by Shelly Hallman
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My lanky divemaster, Mark, appears at the top of the stairs, his eyes shielded with thick black sunglasses. He motions for me to follow him and I scramble after him in relief. Down below hoards of divers, some experienced and many others novice, are elbowing for space on the astro-turfed second level known as the diving platform.

I follow the back of Mark’s shaved head over to a row of tanks in metal troughs. Three of my classmates are already lined up. There’s Ben, the botanical curator from Alice Springs, and Rich and Kat, the young English couple, standing beside him with pinched up faces.

“Put your packs together and meet me over here.” Mark’s lilting Irish-Aussie accent dances with authority around the nerves of his pupils.

With fumbling hands I get to work screwing the first stage onto the O valve with the regulator hanging to the left—or is it to the right? I’d put the pieces together numerous times in the preceding 48 hours but this time I’m not in a classroom readying to jump into the safe confines of a pool—no, today I’m going to step out into the Pacific Ocean with 60 pounds of equipment strapped onto my back and waist. The only thing I can think of is how badly I screwed up my last skills test in the pool yesterday. I put the regulator in my mouth upside down when I was reaching for the alternate air source.  All I got was water when I was expecting air.  Already at the bursting point, I instinctively swam to the top and surfaced gasping for breath.  In a matter of seconds all the confidence I’d achieved over the last two days of classroom and pool exercises was gone.  If I do that out here, I’m dead.

There really isn’t any time to dwell on it. Ben the curator and the pinched up English couple have finished assembling their dive packs and the four of us are being ushered to the side of the boat. My heart flops around in my chest like a frantic fish. A blond photographer hanging onto the side of the boat stops me, lifts up my mask and swats away rogue hairs.

“Look at me.” He waits for something. “Smile.” Oh yeah, duh. “A’ight. In ya go.” More assembly line efficiency.

With trembling legs I look heavenward at the searing Aussie sun, take a long breath that I hope won’t be my last, and jump. Legs and arms flail as my body sinks momentarily then rises back up to the surface. I sputter, shocked for some illogical reason at the taste of salt that dries my lips and tingles my tongue. Mark is at my side bobbing in the waves. He reaches out and pulls me by the top of my jacket, like a mother dog picking up a puppy by the scruff.

“Hold on.” Mark guides my hand over to a heavy chain covered in green slime. I’m in line right behind Ben, Kate and Rich. “Now follow me… SLOWLY.”

Mark starts working his way down the chain and disappears underwater. Ben, Rich, Kate and I do the same. I put one hand in front of the other. Slowly. Then I’m underwater. Silence. Mark lets go of the chain and motions for us to do the same. I let go but something’s wrong. I start floating back up. I think I’m going to explode. I make the “something’s wrong” motion. Mark grabs a hold of my flipper just before I rise above his head. I don’t know what he’s doing but he’s got me in his arms and appears to be shoving something inside my vest. He lets go. I float in space. Relief.

(Page 2 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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