Great Barrier Reef/Diving, Australia (25th Feb 2008)
Courtesy of Pro Dive Cairns (one of the best dive schools in the world), we both now proudly possess a PADI Gold Standard Open Water certification and all the goodies that come with it including: a 250 page diver's handbook (which, being certified, we ostensibly know from cover-to-cover, kind of…), a diver's logbook, no decompression dive tables, and a temporary 90 day PADI membership card; our proper permanent membership card, which needs to be processed by the PADI head office in Sydney, will be mailed home within the next few months. One of the useful perks of being certified by the most worldwide recognized dive organizations is that, we are now listed in the PADI global online database, which means that should we go diving again whilst we are away our certification can be checked online by any dive shop in the world.Before we booked this trip we did all sorts of research in who was the best and what you get for your money and what we found is that the best thing to do is ensure the centre you are planning to learn to dive through is a 5 star, registered centre. This means that not only are the instructors trained and regularly examined by a PADI professional but all the kit and facilities are inspected as well, hence why we chose the more expensive, but world famous Pro Dive Cairns.PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is the world's largest diving organization, although the others such as BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club), and SSI (Scuba Schools International) are just as professional and train to a similar standard, we chose PADI just because the certification is so internationally recognized and anywhere in the world, even if the guys at a dive centre cannot speak very good English, they understand the word PADI.The whole purpose of the Open Water course is to introduce you to scuba diving and give you the skills needed to get a qualification that allows you to travel the world and scuba dive to a recommended maximum depth of 18 meters using compressed air with a buddy of the same standard or higher.This of course, meant early mornings for us once again, Pro Dive offer a courtesy shuffle service from the hostel to their training facility and they like to get the most out of their days, so we were being picked up at 7am for the next two days. One problem for us was aside from it being early mornings; they didn't actually have our hostel listed on the pickup sheet so we had to walk 10minutes to the closest one they knew.Arriving at the Pro Dive's training centre it was clear to see that they were a real professional outfit and proudly displayed a plaque stating that they were a five star centre and had a trophy cabinet crammed with all sorts of trophies for excellence. After we checked in we were sent into one of the classrooms where we met our instructor, Dave, From England of all places. He gave us a quick talk about himself and where he had dived etc and showed us his PADI card which said he was a Master Instructor, the highest professional level of diver. Dave went on to explain how the Open Water qualification is the first major instructional level for scuba diving and how the course itself is divided into five modules and combines classroom theory, confined dives (in the pool), and open water dives (out on the reef) where you have to be able to demonstrate diving techniques to the instructor before sitting a final exam.Each model covers the basic diving principles to be applied and introduces you to the kit you will be wearing. There are some facts and figures to remember as you work through, such as the pre-dive buddy check (you always check your buddies' equipment and then they check yours before a dive):1.BCD (Buoyancy Control Device)2.Weights (to help you descend)3.Releases (to get rid of the kit in an emergency)4.Air (to breathe!)5.Final CheckSo how do you remember that order for the exam? How about, Bruce Willis Ruins All Films or Blonde Women Really Are Fun (apologies to Bruce Willis fans and Blonde Women who are not fun). These were just some of the rhymes that we were taught to try and remember the order easier. As you can see pretty simple stuff so far! At the end of each module is a knowledge review, a kind of self-test with questions that prepare you for your final exam in which both of us scored 100% on four and 90% on the other.The book and training videos were typical cheesy and featured a stereotype British guy doing everything wrong but provided a solid base of knowledge and gave a good introduction to the sport from planning your dive, calculating your dive plan, looking after your equipment, reading the currents, and most important of all how to ensure that you and your buddy remain safe at all times.For our particular course, the training was spread over two days and on day one we were in the classroom in the morning and the pool in the afternoon; day two was the opposite and ended with the exam. Typically this part of the course normally takes place in a local swimming pool or a very sheltered piece of water, but with Pro Dive being one of the best in the business, all our training, both classroom and pool work, was done at their state of the art training centre where they have a purpose built dive pool, that is 1.5 meters deep around the sides and 4.5 meters deep in the middle part.The first, and probably the hardest training exercise was the swimming test that you have got to do, which ensures you can swim 200 meters and then float/tread water for 10 minutes; evidently if you cannot swim there is no point diving, as swimming like a brick will always take you to the bottom but never up again! We both obviously managed this OK, and Mark raced ahead to finish before everyone else in our group. During the two pool sessions we practiced assembling the kit, wearing it, and most importantly moving through the water in it, all of which we found surprisingly easy and straightforward to remember. The main skills you learn apart from how to swim underwater and hand signals are mainly emergency procedures such as mask removal and refitting underwater, sharing air, emergency ascents, and getting another diver to the surface.The three most important skills you learn to achieve at this stage are the never hold your breath underwaterand how to achieve neutral buoyancy with the aid of your buoyancy control device; getting this right means you can hang weightless with no effort whatsoever the most amazing feeling ever. It did take us a few attempts to get this perfect as the volume of the air changes so easily with depth and before you know it you are flying back to the surface or sinking to the bottom. The final skill, is probably the most important, equalizing / popping your ears as you go down, which one of the girls in our group found out. The guys teach you to either hold your nose and blow, wiggle your jaw side to side or to swallow a bit of air, and you will relieve the pressure and it won't hurt when you under the water. Kara found the nose holding the easiest and Mark was a jaw wiggler.From the very moment we arrived, had could already see that one particular girl just wasn't going to be cut out for diving, she couldn't remember a thing, struggled with the swim, equipment and finally when we did our first deep pool dive (4 meter) she forgot to equalize and *pop* there went her eardrum, perforated, and bleeding, straight to the hospital for her, and no more diving! It just goes to show that if you don't take it serious then injuries will happen and that diving can be very dangerous if you don't follow the simple rules.On the second day of pool work after doing our skills were got the opportunity to try out some pro equipment and try on a range of different masks etc to see which would be the best for us when we get out to the reef. Both of us tried on several masks but none seemed to be "just right" so we settled for the best of a bad bunch. The main difference that you can actually notice is when you are allowed to try the split fin carbon fiber fins, which make swimming so much easier and the power you get from each kick was about twice as much as what we were getting from the straight plastic ones.After demonstrating our abilities in the pool we had "The Exam". The exam is pretty much idiot proof providing you read the questions and know how to work out decompression pressure groups from the dive table, which had been our home work. The exam was a mere 50 multiple choice questions broken down questions that are basically to test your knowledge of each individual module in the course and ask a general mixture of questions across the entire 5 modules; less than 20 minutes later we walked out of the room both having scored 96% at the end of the day and would probably have got 100% if we had bothered to check through our answers before handing it in, but as the pass rate is only 75% we weren't too worried about dropping a mark or two.Having passed the exam and being competent with our abilities in the pool next came the real fun part, the part of trip we have been looking forward to the most, getting aboard the ship and sailing out to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park where we had to do four more training dives before getting certified; although the training dives are still under the supervision of an instructor it is fantastic and you don't actually have to do any new skills just a repeat of what we did in the pool and at a greater depth. The final thing we had to do before getting to go home and get a good night's sleep was to go down to the Pro Dive shop in the city centre and arrange our rental equipment that we would be using for the next three day when we were on the boat. As both of us had had a few problems in the pool with finding a well fitting mask, Mark treated us both to our own top of the range dive masks and snorkel, because it would have been a waste of money to go out there and either not enjoy it because the masks leaved or were uncomfortable and at the end of the day they weren't ridiculously expensive, however they weren't cheap either! Round the back of the shop they had a store room where we each got a big crate to label and fill with all the stuff we would need in our size. By six we were home and had an early night as the pickup was 6am and then we had two dives to do and they said you would need some energy to make sure you can get used to being under the water.Before going on to tell you all about our diving experience, here are a few interesting facts and figures about The Great Barrier Reef:The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from the space and is the world's biggest structure made by living organisms.There are about 400 types of coral, 1,500 types of fish and 4,000 types of mollusk.The site is protected by The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park which helps to limit the impact of human use, mainly due to over fishing and tourism.The dive trip was a live aboard trip, meaning instead of going in and out everyday which some of the cheaper companies do the boat is moored semi-permanently on the reef, so as to maximize the time for diving and the amount of dive you can do. After another early pickup we went down to the Pro Dive Shop and picked up our gear before heading to the marine, where SCUBAPRO 1 waiting to take us on a three hour boat ride out to the Reef. The boat itself was brand new and purpose built for diving expeditions, which makes life to much easier and the whole crew, from the chef to dive leader all of whom were qualified dive masters or instructors - very reassuring!Quite a few people experienced a bout of motion sickness on our ride out, in particular Patrick, a French Guy who was sick all over the top deck in front of nearly the entire boat. The skipper, Fozzy reassured us that even the most hardened sailors still get seasick from time to time, typically when they are tired and their brain can't process the motion properly, which is probably why Patrick was like he was since he only arrived in Australia on an overnight flight from France in the early hours.Pro Dive was a completely professional outfit with all sorts of roll calls and safety checks in place, most of which are designed to make sure they know when you get in and out of the water, and that nobody gets left to the sharks in the Sea. We were first given a brief in the lounge area and assigned a safety number; Kara was 20, Mark 21. After being introduced to all the instructors, the skipper and the cook, we were given the keys to our cell… The room we ended up in was on the lower level and although it was only a place to sleep, we felt a bit hard done by when we saw the other rooms some other people had, but we figured it was luck of the draw. We got the no window, bunk bed version as appose to the nice double bedrooms, never mind.On the way out to the reef we sat on the top deck and quickly made a few mates where we watch the mainland disappear into the horizon as we sailed out into water that was all kinds of beautiful turquoise and blues. As we were sat around chatting the instructors came up and split us into our groups, and this made up for our bad room. The boat had 32 people onboard, 22 doing the Open Water certificate (us), a couple of snorkeler's and some guys who were already certified and didn't need an instructor. We got put into the smallest group, with another couple, Lorraine and Jason from Ireland and a Dutch guy called Brett and that was it, the other groups were an 8 and a 9 which meant that we would spend less time waiting for people to demonstrate skills and have more time to have guided dive, a real result! We also ended up with the same instructor who had taught us our pool skills, a Kiwi called Ant.Before long we had moored at the first reef we were going to dive and explore, Milln Reef (Petaj). It was around 11am when we got in the water and although we knew the water was nice and warm, we all decided that we would wear our wetsuits just in case and since it was our first open water dive we were a little bit nervous even if nobody would admit it.Stepping off the boat and into the water for the first time was pretty nerve racking and not knowing what might be down there made us even more nervous. We swam out to the front of the boat and held onto one of the mooring ropes and waited for Ant to come and give us the signal to go down. We had had a briefing on the boat and knew roughly what we would be doing and what skills we would have to do at the bottom. Since this was our first dive the max depth was agreed on beforehand of 12M. After the first couple of meters went to plan, everyone began to calm down and enjoy the feeling you get when you experience the sensation of weightlessness under water. Hanging there watching the fish go by as you breathe underwater is like nothing we have ever experienced before and it is totally amazing. One of the things that we weren't expecting is that it's amazingly noisy underwater; there are all kinds of snaps, bloomps, crackles, pops and other strange noises as you swim around the coral.Shortly after reaching the mooring blocks at 8M we moved off to the side and quickly got on with doing the before practiced and agreed skills, after which the real fun began. We were guided by Ant around the site and saw so much marine life it is unbelievable, sharks, fish, all types of coral, giant clams (1.5M ), it was truly amazing and even better than we could have ever imagined, the only down side is that time seemed to tick by ten times faster than usual and half an hour seemed to have only lasted 2 minutes.On day one aboard the boat we managed one more training dive and it seemed to be even better the second time around as everyone was becoming used to what to expect and how to move around etc, and this dive also ticked off a few more of the skills we had to do. As promised, everyone was shattered and by 8pm we were some of the last people to bed, feeling well and truly worn out.Day two started just as early as the last couple of days and by 6.30 we had done our briefing and were out on the dive deck getting ready to jump in the water and explore some more. The boat had moved a bit after dinner the night before and we had stayed on the same reef but gone to a new section (Whale), which was the instructors' favorite site. As a rule when doing multiple dives on one day, the first dive should be the deepest, getting shallower each time you go in the water and since the plan for today was four dives so this first one would be to 18M, our max depth at Open Water level. The two morning dives went well with no problems and by dinner time we were certified divers and were awarded our temporary cards and the right to go out on our own, unsupervised into the great beyond.Our final dive of the day was an optional night dive, where you go underwater with high powered flashlights and glow sticks. It really was quite cool though, because some creatures come out at night that you don't normally see during the day, we saw a big crayfish poke his head out from under a coral outcropping, and our lights reflected off his beady little eyes, giving us a little fright and you never quite know what it is till you get a bit closer.Speaking of beady little eyes on night dives, we were warned by Dave (one of the instructor), that if we could see two little lights in the distance that were reflecting our torches to point our flashlights away, then point them back. If the little lights were bigger, then it was probably a shark coming towards you.At that point, he suggested that we form "The Ring of Steel" where everyone lays on the surface in a circle with our tanks facing outwards and should all just point our torches at, the biggest guy in our group and let the shark have at him! He says this with a completely straight face, and then goes on to say that while the shark is busy with the weakest link we'll all just surface, and later we'll let Fozzy know where can go pick up his regulator and dive tank. By this time there are a few wide-eyed guys sat around the table who have taken the bait and total believed Dave's story and are petrified, while the rest of us are laughing hysterically. As if Dave's little briefing hadn't scared enough people, when we were out on the dive deck getting ready, the Jaws music started pumping out of the boats stereo system at full blast, making some of the girl want to not do the dive.At the end of the night dive we did a safety stop for 3 minutes at 5M near the back of the boat where we saw loads of sharks circling looking for their evening meal, and as we shined our torches on the big fish that hung around the boat (Red Bass Snapper and Yellow Tailed Fusilier) the sharks came flying in for the kill, it was amazing to see these predators in action like this only a few meters away from us.Day three was all about fun dives, and we had been given a schedule that allowed for three dives, if we stuck to certain depths, for certain times, this is where it kind of went wrong, for Mark at least… Since the boat was setting off back to Cairns at 12.00 the dive schedule was meant to go something like: Dive 1 à 6.30am - 7.30amMax Depth 18MCut off Depth 20MDive 2 à 8.30am - 9.30amMax Depth 16MCut off Depth 18MDive 3 à 10.30am - 11.30amMax Depth 14MCut off Depth 16MThe cut off depths had been made these particular depths so that you would have enough time to let the residual nitrogen out of your body and allow you to make all three dives and if you went over the cut off depth you had to miss the next dive.Dive 1 started off great and we saw all kinds of marine life, which can be seen in our photos, as we hired the underwater digital camera for this dive. The only problem is that since we were concentrating on taking photos and posing all the time, we didn't realize that we had both gone past the max depth for the dive and Mark had gone past the cut off depth by 0.1M (20.1M) which meant he had to miss the next dive for safety reasons; Kara had also come very close to the cut off as well and recorded a depth of 19.4M. We spent most of this dive with our dive buddies from our training group, Lorraine, Jason and Brett and for the first time we all managed to control our breath much better and lasted over 40 minutes on this dive.Dive 2 was the first dive that we had been apart, Mark had to sit on the side and take photos, but not before convincing Kara she should still dive without him. Kara thought that this dive was ok, but since we hadn't moved sights, it was more of the same and just not as comfortable when diving with a stranger as your buddy.
Dive 3 and Mark could get back in the water, much to Kara's relief. This would be our final dive and afterwards we both agreed that it was the best site by a mile. The corals and marine life we second to none, and although we didn't see turtles or many sharks here, everything else made up for it, there was all the types of coral we had be told about, some many of the different fishes and even some more of the giant clams, which were Marks favorite thing he saw. The site itself was called Ski Slopes on the Flynn Reef and as the name suggests, it was like a ski slope going deeper and deeper covered with swim-through's, overhangs and like mentioned an abundance of marine life combined with corals such as staghorn, table, fire, plate and boulder coral heads. Again we managed a longer dive; in fact it was our longest yet at 45 minutes mainly due to us staying in shallower water where more of the marine life was.
By 12 we were back aboard the boat, had packed away our equipment for the final time and were heading back to home. To conclude, "The Reef" is astounding. The sheer topography of sites, the coral bommies, the animals, large and small all are fantastic; it's a place that is hard to describe with words and will only ever really be appreciated when you have been there and had the kind of one to one encounter that we are so lucky to have done on this trip, it really is an unbelievable place that until you have set your own eyes upon you can never truly appreciate. The bommies contain a fascinating array of species which change as you spiral towards the surface, and as you swim towards the open ocean side of the reef it becomes much more uniform creating a wide belt of broad corals plains and tiny channels, with swimming pool like depressions to explore. In the channels you can see the reef sharks slowly patrolling their domain, giant clams up to 6 feet wide placidly filtering the seawater, and giant fish bathing in the sunlit water. It really is magnificent.