Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Cairns - The Great Barrier Reef

The main event for me in Cairns was to dive The Great Barrier Reef, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.  I hadn't dived for nearly ten years, so this seemed like the perfect place to get back into it, and I can assure you it won't be ten years until I dive again.

Managed to get a picture with Frank, the famous Humpheaded Maori Wrasse. He loves people and apparently has a great memory and recognises many regular divers.
While in Cairns, I actually managed to do 12 dives in total over two overnight liveaboard trips out to the reef.  The first time was on my own, and then I took Eunji out there with me for the second trip.  She isn't a diver, but there were snorkelers on board also.  Fortunately, each trip out starts and finishes with a snorkel for everyone, so I was able to get out there with her a couple of times, which was nice.

First time I'd seen a cuttlefish.  Their colour changing is quite incredible.
Anyway, the first journey out on the reef and I was a smidgen worried about my first dive.  Truth be told, when I first learned to dive I was pretty terrified.  I am not a strong swimmer and deep water has always been a bit scary for me.  When I was in Melbourne, I did a bit of open water swimming with a group of people on a Saturday.  Unbeknownst to me, the first time I showed-up I went with the intermediate group by mistake instead of the beginner group.  To warm-up they swam about 250m out to a buoy.  I was quite confident I could swim that far, so although intimidated, I gave it a go.  However, once I saw the bottom disappear my heart started pounding, and my breathing patterns were interrupted completely, so I had to turn back.

There is another cuttlefish in this picture, but it is so well camouflaged, it is difficult to spot.
This is a feeling I surprisingly never got while diving, it seems to be a surface of the water kind of fear, a fear of sinking.  When you scuba dive though, the idea is to sink, and once I was underwater for the first time, I was comfortable and surprisingly relaxed.  So although a little anxious again this time, all my fears disappeared as soon as I sank below the surface.  To be honest, scuba diving is both one of the most exciting and relaxing activities I have ever done.  What you see underwater is often awe-inspiring, but getting around is super-easy and peaceful once you have some control of your buoyancy.

"I can mention many moments that were unforgettable and revelatory. But the single most revelatory 3 minutes was the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on a coral reef " - David Attenborough.

I was going to get a refresher course, but the instructors thought I'd be alright just going on a couple of guided dives first, which was great anyway because they knew where to go on the reef, making for a better dive.  It is actually quite difficult to navigate if you just go with a buddy sometimes.

The diving was perfect really, all the dives weren't super-deep and there was no current in the water and very little swell, all excellent for reconnecting with the skills.  The lowest I got down to was about 20 metres, but most of the action was at about 10 metres anyway.

There was plenty to see; sharks, giant trevally, turtles, cuttlefish, moray eels, nudibranchs (kind of a colourful slug-like creature), stunning coral structures, and plentiful colourful reef fish.

The highlight of the dives on this first trip was an extremely friendly green turtle that actually approached a few of us right up close, seeming genuinely curious.  A couple of the instructors picked-up some bits of algae/seaweed and offered it to the turtle, which brought it in very close, and it appeared not to be scared of us at all.  Fortunately for me, the cameraman was in the right place at the right time as I turned my head, sensing the turtle was just over my shoulder, and he got the perfect shot.  This picture will definitely be on the wall back home in England.

What a picture!
The second time was even better diving.  It was noticeable right-away how much more control of my buoyancy I had, something that makes diving super-easy and relaxing.

I was quite impressed with Eunji on this trip, I was a little worried that she might not be that comfortable with the snorkeling.  The reason for this is that the Great Barrier Reef is out there in the open ocean, so even though the reef makes the waters calmer, the boat still has to anchor just outside the reef, making for a daunting swim over the abyss to the shallow reef.  It was clear from our first snorkel together that she was pretty nervous and uncomfortable.  She persevered, however, and got gradually happier during that first snorkel.  The next snorkel she did without me with a guide and was back a little before me when I was diving.  The following snorkel we were back at the same time, and then after that she was in the water for far longer than I was.  I think she really enjoyed the trip, not just for the reef itself, but the whole experience on the boat, which was excellent.

The highlight dive for me was the morning dive on the second day.  Straight-away, about 15 metres down under the boat, there were about 15 sharks prowling the sandy sea floor.  These consisted of the usual white-tip reef sharks and also the bigger grey reef sharks, coming it at about 2.5 metres in length.  Other great variety on this dive included nudibranchs, large groupers, turtles, stingrays, and large shoals of fish.

The night dive also brought some interesting sights; one being a large grouper eating a parrot fish and having the tail sticking out of it's mouth.  During night dives you generally see much more predatory behaviour, with giant trevally, in particular, using your torchlight to hunt fish in the dark.

Our room for the night.
I also witnessed the very odd behaviour of a parrot fish.  At night parrot fish blow themselves a mucous bubble which surrounds their whole body, hiding its scent from predators and perhaps acting as an early warning system of an attack.  They then eat this mucous bubble for breakfast in the morning.  Bizarre and fascinating to see.

It was really great to see the changing colours of cuttlefish, one of my favourite creatures on the reef.
It was brilliant to get back out there again so soon, and amazingly, it is only another couple of weeks until my next dive, this time at Poor Knights Island in New Zealand, apparently one of the best sub-tropical dives in the world.  It will take a lot to beat this experience, however, and I'd thoroughly recommend it to anyone coming to Australia, whether you are a diver or not.  Beautiful nature, fantastic food, amazing service, and a very well organised and comfortable boat, which made for happy, enthusiastic guests who all seemed to get along.  The icing on the cake was seeing some humpback whales on the boat on the way back to Cairns, what an experience.

The boat anchored at 3 different dive sites over two days on the reef.

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