I like adventure, but I’m not inclined to overly risky behavior. If something seems relatively safe and I’m interested in it, I’ll do it. Until today, however, I didn’t understand wanting to explore the deep sea. Whoever said, “oh look, a place where I can’t breathe, let’s go there” was crazy in my book. I’d rather have jumped out of a plane (again) than dive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that there are marine biologists and deep-sea divers who want to explore the blue below. The work they do is incredibly important, as it informs human health, economic, and social conditions. But I also thought those people were insane. Maybe it’s because I grew up with someone who worked on hyperbaric chambers and knew the dangers of the deep sea. Or because I’ve read too many stories of diving companies that chum on one side of the boat and throw divers over the other. Or because the ocean is designed to kill land-based mammals. Point being, I think my initial lack of interest and mild fear of diving was incredibly logical.
So, I have no idea how I talked myself into going diving on this trip, especially right after reading a horror story of an American couple who got left at sea in the 90’s by a dive company and weren’t reported missing for days. (Thanks, Bill Bryson, for that story.) I suppose my economic sense and my pride overcame my fears. It costs about $300 dollars to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, and $350 to dive. Since I obviously wanted to see the reef and my friends and traveling contacts mocked me mercilessly for being a wimp, I booked an introductory dive.
And it was the right decision. All of my aforementioned concerns were, quite simply, stupid. After two dives and one snorkel endeavor on the Agincourt Reef, I understand why people do this. I’m not hooked or ready to get certified, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat if it meant I got to see the kind of things I saw today. The company I booked through was top-notch. There were only five introductory divers, seventeen certified divers, and roughly twenty snorkelers. Our fabulous intro dive instructor clearly explained everything about how to not die and then got us hooked into our gear. At the first stop, Castle Rock, she took two intro divers, who used to be certified, and me out, so I basically got my own private instructor. For the first few minutes I could only concentrate on breathing and popping my ears, but after that, it was pretty spectacular. At Castle Rock, the following fantastical things were visible:
- Countless clownfish and anemones.
- Dory’s Dad. Or a very grown-up, big version of Dory.
- I think it was the one from Little Mermaid slinking in and out of its hole.
- Giant Clam. We saw it open and close as our instructor moved her hand over it and I half hoped to find Ariel or at least a pearl inside.
- White Damselfish playing fetch. Apparently, some white damselfish are territorial, or at least mildly OCD. If you move something into its’ territory, it will drag it out. Our instructor placed a small piece of dead coral in its’ space and we watched as it dragged it out. It was like watching a fish play fetch, which is exactly as cute as it sounds. (To be fair, not all white damselfish are territorial. Our dive instructor had played with this specific fish before and knew how it would respond. She was amused to note that a damselfish living on the other side of the reef didn’t seem to care when she moved something into its space.)
- Black Brittle Starfish. It looked exactly like the one my brother used to have in his tank, hiding inside a piece of rock.
- Parrotfish, which are so beautifully colored because they eat the colorful algae.
- Other fish of every shape and size.
All too quickly the dive was over and we were back on the boat. At our next spot, Turtle Bay, I went out with the two remaining introductory divers and our instructor. It was much easier to look around the second time, as I wasn’t as worried about forgetting how to use my equipment. Here, we saw much more colorful coral, including plate, boulder, and staghorn coral.
Not wanting to complete blow my budget and feeling pretty satisfied, I decided to snorkel at the last stop, Point Break. Our fantastic dive instructor (I can’t sing her praises enough!) came out for a while and showed one of the other introductory divers and me the highlights:
- A massive 2,000-year-old coral!
- More Giant Clams.
- Massive Sea Cucumbers.
- Finger coral and boulder coral sitting above the water level. They look quite different in the sunlight than they do underwater.
- It was pretty interesting to get rained on while snorkeling. (Apparently this also happened during my first dive, but I missed it.)
- More fish, of every shape and color.
At every stop, I did see dead coral. Before heading here, I knew abstractly that a good chunk of the reef was dead due to coral bleaching. According to the crew, the recent news report that 90% of the reef is dead was faulty and inaccurate. Not being an expert, I cannot comment on the validity of this statistic or the state of the reef. I can say that I saw bleaching at every stop. At Castle Rock, the sea floor was littered with white, dead coral. At one moment, I felt as if I was floating over a graveyard, as all I could see was a field of white death.
My experience onboard was the complete opposite: it was full of life. Being on such a small boat with so few guests meant that I got to meet quite a few people, including two kiwis who shared stories of flooding on NZ, making me glad I hadn’t headed that way; two Sydney natives who gave me some tips for my last few days there at the end of the month; and a young woman from America. She had just finished five months as an Au Pair in Melbourne and was traveling around for a few weeks before heading home. As she was also solo, part of the introductory group, and was so fun to chat with, we spent much of the afternoon together comparing notes on Australia and life traveling. I also picked up quite a bit of fascinating Australian slang from her, but more to come on that later.
Hours later, as my heart rate finally settles and I start to absorb both the life and the death that I have seen, I feel grateful to all of those individuals who encouraged me to brave it and dive. Today may have been the best day in Australia yet. At the very least, it’s tied with Manly and the Blue Mountains.
Note: As I didn’t have an underwater camera with me, I cannot share pictures of the reef. Below are a few before and after shots from my experience. For those interested in seeing pictures of the reef, check out this gallery or use the all powerful google.