Diving Again After 8 Years, at the Great Barrier Reef

Diving for the first time since 2007 was much easier than I expected.

The Refresher Course at Denver Divers

I was nervous that I would have to relearn everything, so it was a nice surprise to discover that taking off my mask, replacing it, and clearing it of water didn’t scare me anymore. I couldn’t complete that skill during my open water test at Akumal, Mexico, in 2004. (I probably shouldn’t have been certified, but I was.)

The only skill I couldn’t complete during my refresher was getting out of the pool by placing my palms on the edge and hoisting myself up. It’s been 3 years since cancer treatment, including having all the lymph nodes removed from my right armpit, and my arms still haven’t recovered enough strength to do that. Not with a tank full of air on my back, anyway.

When we began planning this trip, we thought that Todd might also dive. But two firm “nos” from doctors later (as well as one unconvincing “maybe” from an “expert” in dive medicine in Denver), he decided he would not risk rupturing his ears while under water.

Todd's selfie while snorkeling GBR Sept 2015

Todd’s selfie while snorkeling.

And it’s just as well, because Australians are sticklers for diving safety. They make you get a doctor’s permission to dive if you have certain health problems (see the medical questionnaires on the dive shop websites). They don’t let divers certified for open water go any deeper than 18 meters.

But then, I never dove even as deep as 14 meters. So their rules didn’t inhibit me in any way. And, frankly, I felt safer because of their attention to detail.

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Reef Encounter: One Night on the Reef

We booked a 2-day, 1-night liveaboard trip out of Cairns, which would allow me to dive 6 times if I chose. After flying up from Sydney and spending the night in Cairns, which is a fun beach town, we boarded Reef Experience, which took us out to Reef Encounter, a larger boat that takes divers and snorkelers to  Norman, Saxon, and Hasting Reefs.

Looking at Reef Experience from Reef Encounter.

Looking at Reef Experience from Reef Encounter.

The Reef Encounter website calls them “outer reef” locations, even though there are smaller reefs to the east of them. But “inner” and “outer” differentiate between the reefs closest to shore (and a major commercial shipping channel) and those farther out. Some say that the reefs farther north (such as Agincourt or the Ribbon Reefs) have healthier coral and more fish life, but I can’t say from experience. The staff at Denver Divers recommended diving the Coral Sea farther north, but those trips are longer.

Reef Encounter.

Reef Encounter. Photo by Todd Bradley.

Todd and I had a good time on this trip. Most important, the staff were responsive. I will definitely remember the man who gave us the initial briefing on our way out to the liveaboard: his talk was informative and entertaining, and he had just enough of that devil-may-care Aussie attitude. As he recommended, I spent $3 on anti-nausea pills, so I didn’t have to sit on the stairs holding a small paper bag. I remember thinking, “Please don’t blow chunks as I walk down the stairs past you.”

One thing Matt emphasized was not touching the reef. On my first dive, though, our guide seemed to have a thing for brain coral. I saw him not just brush it but actually press his finger to it on more than one occasion, and he picked up one of the many sea cucumbers and threw it to another diver. Reef Encounter also has a photographer on board, and some of his pictures showed guests holding on to a part of the reef so that they could be photographed next to it.

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But my other guides did respect the reef. They showed me giant clams at least a meter across and sea cucumbers and table coral, which looks like a vase whose widening top has been bent and flattened. I had never seen that type of coral before, or the patches of bright chartreuse “grass” that moved with the current.

Table coral photo by Todd Bradley.

Table coral photo by Todd Bradley.

There were experienced divers on the boat, and they seemed to enjoy their stay, but my feeling is that Reef Encounter caters to tourists of the reef, which I was, rather than really serious divers. There is a glass-bottomed boat for people who don’t feel like diving or snorkeling but still want to see fish. If you are particular about your equipment, bring your own; some of the shortie wetsuits had holes in them, and my BCD was too big and kept riding up.

Lessons Learned

I learned some things about my limits.

On the first day, I did 1 snorkel and 3 dives, including a night dive. On the second day, I did two dives back to back, with a surface interval of only 45 minutes or so. It wasn’t enough. I enjoyed the second dive that morning, especially swimming past the small black fish with forked orange tails, but I kept thinking, “I am so tired. I can’t wait until this is over.”

I should have forced myself to get up for the 6:30 dive; people who went on that dive saw sharks and turtles. Then I would have had a longer surface interval before the 10:30 dive.

Diving strains my legs and shoulders more than I remember. On my first dive of the trip, I squatted to rinse out my mask and my quads couldn’t hoist me back to standing. One of the dive masters had to haul me up, which was embarrassing.

If you dive the Great Barrier Reef in spring, as I did, know that your wetsuit will feel clammy after your first dive. You’ll be warm as soon as you get it zipped up, but putting it on is chilly.

At some of the sites, snorkeling would have showed me as much as diving. I never came across the turtles and eels and rays that I regularly saw at Andros and Akumal. But then, I haven’t dived those sites since 2006 and 2007. Maybe I’ve forgotten that they also had drifts of coral fractured by wave action, and I do remember divers from Florida complaining about the low numbers of fish at Akumal.

I did see a wide variety of coral and fish, and Todd saw a shark while snorkeling and other big fish at night while the boat was moving to another site. Several huge blue-green wrasse (Maori wrasse, I think) circled us as we ascended from one dive.

Maori wrasse. Photo by Todd Bradley.

Maori wrasse. Photo by Todd Bradley.

Working to Dive

One last note: If you are looking for a cheaper way to dive, Reef Encounter will let you stay on board and work for dives and meals. At least one of the crew wore a T-shirt advertising this opportunity.

Featured image of purple coral by Todd Bradley.