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Displaying items by tag: Great Barrier Reef First-Timer

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Great Barrier Reef First-Timer

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. 

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.

DSCN2288I follow the others to the ocean bottom. We kneel in a circle around Mark. He holds his hand in a fist then opens his palm. A flat worm floats up, no bigger than a centimeter and as thin as paper. Black, decorated with electric blue it’s entire body ripples like the ruffled hem of a young girl’s dress twirling on a dance floor. Somehow I completely forget that I am several meters underwater and breathing out of a strange plastic piece. All of these extraneous details are lost in my fascination with the tiniest of ocean life. There are schools of colorful fish, big fish and zebra-striped fish swimming all about us, but I am spellbound by this thing floating before my eyes.

I focus so intently on imitating Mark’s moves that I forget about the others until one of them swims underneath me or knocks me with their arm. I refocus on Mark just as he stops and makes the sign for stingray, points, then lowers himself down. He nudges the stingray with the tip of his flipper; it stirs from the sandy ocean bottom. Ben freezes, hovering in place as the stingray swims right at him, avoiding him at the last minute, the sides of its body rippling hypnotically.

We all kneel on the ocean floor again. Mark points at us to take our masks off one at a time. Obediently, I take my mask off. I clinch my eyes tight and hold my nose and take a deep breath through my regulator. I blow out through my nose and feel the bubbles dance up my cheeks and over my forehead. Just keep breathing, I tell myself. Time slows to a stand still. I finally feel Mark tap my shoulder, indicating that I can put my mask back on. Slowly, I lift up my mask, thumb held securely in the nosepiece to ensure I don’t put it on upside down. I carefully slip the mask over my head and back onto my face. Pressing the top of my mask against my forehead, I lift my chin up and blow hard out of my nose. Three more blows and my mask is clear of ocean water. I’ve passed my first test, but I know it’s not over. Mark points at Ben and me and motions his hand twice across his throat—the alternate air source sign. My stomach drops. I look at Ben. His brown eyes are calm behind the shield of his diving mask. Riding on his confidence, I mimic Mark’s sign motioning my hand two times across my neck, squelch my fear and take the regulator out of my mouth. As coolly as I can, I reach for Ben’s alternate regulator and put it in my mouth. Air! I’m breathing air again! I’m not dead, I haven’t exploded, I’ve passed the test!

DSCN2408Now that the pressure to not die is gone I fully absorb the alien world surrounding me. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple; all the colors of the rainbow in vivid detail burst from every direction. From the teacup-size yellow fish swimming and twirling in pairs to the deep purple and pearly green of the giant clam that snaps at my hand, the sheer amount of life and color is amazing—just like Craig said. I feel like an astronaut, peacefully floating in space for the first time; truly one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.

©Shelly Hallman

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