Our first day in Australia started early. We awoke at six am to get ready for our full day out on the Great Barrier Reef, a place I had dreamed of seeing for as long as I could remember. I don’t really think of myself as having a “bucket list” since the list of things I want to do in my life is long, constantly evolving, and somewhat difficult to keep track of. I will say that if I did have a bucket list, SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef would have remained consistently near the top.
We met our Reef Experience tour, which we booked through our friends at Percussive Tours, at the Marlin Marina and were immediately ushered on board the sizable vessel that would be our home for the next eight hours. Before our departure, we filled out liability waivers and were seated at a table in the boat’s dining room. The tour included a breakfast of fruit and cold sandwiches, which was served as we pulled away from the marina, leaving Cairns in our wake.
The rest of the morning was filled with safety briefings, and a short presentation by the expedition’s marine biologist, who was offering a guided snorkel for 25 AUD a person. Vince and I decided to add this to our day to appease my obsession with anything and everything ocean related. Then we were called for a meeting with our dive instructor who gave a much more serious talk about how to use our equipment and stay safe on our introductory dive. In all honesty, I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into at this point. I had been dreaming of trying SCUBA diving since I was a kid, but faced with the immanency of actually doing it, my mind began to formulate every worst-case-scenario in the books. I was incredibly nervous as we donned our stinger suits and walked onto the swim deck where guides helped us on with our weight belts and oxygen tanks. The weight of all of the gear was suffocating and did nothing to calm my frazzled nerves. We were in the second group of divers and would have to undergo a short safety test near the surface of the water before we would be allowed to go deeper. Although my heart was pounding, I slid right into the water when our turn was announced, and started breathing through my regulator. To my great relief, all of my anxiety faded the moment I sunk under the glassy surface. I had no trouble breathing through the regulator or clearing my ears, and I passed the safety check with ease. After that, our guide escorted us deeper into the water, and we stared in awe at the beautiful corals that surrounded us. The dive felt like it flew by once I became comfortable, and when our turn was over, we grabbed our snorkels and jumped back in the water to explore more.
The coral in the Great Barrier Reef was incredible, with a much wider range of colors than I’ve seen in the Caribbean. Some of the corals glowed in unnatural looking neon hues. I was overjoyed to be drifting over the most expansive reef I had ever seen, but I was having trouble getting enough air because the valve in my snorkel was broken. I had to clear it after almost every breath, and eventually my fingers and toes began to tingle from the lack of sufficient oxygen. I was about to return to the boat, when a whitetip reef shark swam underneath me.
This was my first underwater shark sighting (I once watched a basking shark breach near Bar Harbor, Maine, but I was aboard a whale watching tour boat), and I was beside myself with excitement. The shark smoothly glided below, with no regard for me whatsoever, and I watched until it faded into the green abyss. As I recovered from my elation over the shark sighting, I looked down to see yet another fascinating creature, a giant clam.
I circled around examining it, but by this time I was sorely in need of air, so I told Vince I was heading back to the boat. I pulled myself onto the swim deck just as they were announcing lunch, which consisted of a couple of meat options and variety of delicious salads. Vince joined me in the dining room, and as we ate, the boat moved toward our next snorkel destination, where we would be going on the marine biology tour. Once we were full, I took the opportunity to exchange my faulty snorkel, and then we went to the top deck to look at the reef from above the water. The day was perfect for being out on the ocean. The water was as smooth as glass which meant no worries about getting seasick, and great visibility for snorkeling.
Soon we were at the next snorkel spot, and we jumped in and swam away from the boat with the marine biology tour. We ended up being very glad we went with this option because we got to stray much farther from the vessel this way, and the marine biologist pointed out many different creatures as we floated along a deep drop-off. Every so often, he would free dive to the ocean floor, and bring up something to show us. At one point, he retrieved a mushroom coral and held it above the surface to show us the slimy membrane it produced when exposed to air. He also showed us a few soft corals we could touch, and some sea cucumbers. The coral in this area was spectacular.
By the end of the tour we had seen clownfish, a couple of wrasse, and two more whitetips. Just as we were nearing the boat a green sea turtle emerged from the deep. We gave it its space, watching as it drifted through the sea and back out of sight.
Back on board, the crew had a snack of cheese, crackers, and wine waiting for us. We spent the cruise back to Cairns on the upper deck, looking at the gorgeous ocean view and reveling in the day’s adventures.