Monday, January 23, 2006

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

We flew up to Cairns on the Thursday night, and the nice people from Dreamtime lodge picked us up from the airport. The ProDive bus was scheduled to pick us up at the ungodly time of 6.15am the following morning. Cairns is a bit like a sauna - hot and humid 24h per day, but luckily our room in the nice hostel had AC - our first encounter with such a device since we got to Australia, funnily enough. We set the alarms for 5.30 and went to bed. On the dot, the bus was waiting outside and we got down to the dive shop in town to pick up gear etc. I got myself a nice prescription mask which meant that I wouldn't have to dive with contacts. The whole thing was run with the customary smooth efficiency we've come to expect from dive operations. We soon found ourselves on the jetty, boarding the ship which was to become our home for the next 3 days, Scubapro II - 24 metres of steel cruiser with all the trimmings. The boat normally caters for 32 people, but on our trip we were 8 short which was quite nice. A random selection of divers from all around the world, Brits, Danes, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Icelanders and the odd Swede, all different levels of proficiency from total beginners to divemasters. Our crew consisted of mainly Kiwis - Will the skipper, Brad the dive supervisor and Steve and Kelly, instructors and Karen the Cookie.

The transfer to the outer reef was about 3 hours, and the seas reasonably calm. However, some people started throwing up pretty quickly after leaving the harbour. Sarah felt a bit queasy, but held it together. We were to cram in 4 dives on the first day, including a night dive, and it felt a bit like we were doing nothing else but diving, eating or sleeping. The diving itself was awesome, vivid colours, incredible marine life - sharks, turtles, rays and the normal array of aquarium fish. This place was where they filmed the Great Barrier Reef part of Disney's "Finding Nemo" and everybody was looking for Nemo's stunt double who's reputedly still hanging around the area. Sarah was especially taken by the turtles which seem rather unperturbed by the presence of divers - they just go about their business, gently nudging you out of their way if you're blocking a particularly tasty-looking piece of coral. The Trigger fish are not quite so friendly.

We got exceptionally well fed, too, which was good as diving is hungry business. The diving off this boat was quite different than what we've been used to - here you're basically chucked in and expected to get on with it unguided which at first felt a bit scary, but soon one is relishing the extra degree of freedom of not being bound to the pace (or heaviest breather) of a larger group. The second day was a much more relaxed affair as we didn't have to cram so many dives into such a short amount of time. We still managed 4 dives but the first one was a pre-breakfast 7.30am. Stef got to experience the chemical whipping of a bluebottle wrapped around his arm. A dash of vinegar took the worst of the pain off. The trip also included a couple of night dives. Deprived of one's sense of sight, the dive experience is a very different one, and the crew did their best to stir up people's nerves. "Who's afraid of sharks?" was followed by food scraps over the side of the boat, and suddenly there was the shark circling the boat. Some people did bottle out at that point. The first night dive was a bit uneventful, but on the second night we spotted Bryan the King Kong of turtles, who takes up residence in the same coral cave every night. Unfortunately, we had to bail early as Sarah's torch ran out of battery after about 25 minutes. Night diving is hard enough with a functioning light source.

The last day crammed three dives in before lunch and our return to Cairns. The first dive was arguably the most memorable of the whole trip. All the usual suspects were out and about. We even saw an octopus and a Giant Moray Eel, all out looking for their breakfast.

A very enjoyable and professional trip, with 11 logged dives, and ProDive gets the Sarah & Stef seal of approval.

We're flying back to the UK on Wednesday. We're spending the last few days just hanging out in Cairns, looking for things to do for free, seeing that we've now reached the end of our budget. In less than a week we'll be skiing in France, a nice 45 degrees temperature differential.

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