You can learn to dive almost anywhere in the world. You can do it over a matter of weeks in a pool the local high school or you can do it on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Which would you choose?
The Great Barrier Reef runs 2,500 kilometres along the northern east coast of Australia. The reef is a jungle of life just below the surface, one of the most densely populated areas on earth: 1,500 kinds of fish, 4,000 varieties of molluscs, and 10,000 species of sponge live on 2,900 individual reefs with 600 islands. 250 different species of marine polyps have been leaving behind their skeletons for millennia to form this coral reef. It's the largest structure on this planet created by living things, and it's still under construction.
It takes three and a half days to get certification under the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) when you do it full time.
Two days of classes and pool training in Cairns, followed by three days at sea. In the middle of the time at sea there's a minor ceremony and you're in.
I have nothing but good to say for our instructors. They spent as much time building confidence as they did imparting skills and cramming facts into our brains.
I was probably overconfident; I swim fairly well and I have watched most of the episodes of Sea Hunt. I wasn't showing off, honestly, but I did spend some class time standing on my head in the deep end or seeing how many backward loops I could swim without feeling too sick to continue. A few minutes in the water and I felt as if I had been born to play the title role in Flipper Come Home.
On day three we went to sea. Not a big boat, and not a luxury cruise, but enough to live on for a few days.
Surprisingly, you can't really tell that you're over the reef. The water seems shallow, and down under the surface there seems to be some dark spots, but the images of fantastic shapes and wild colours (such as the illustrations on these pages) are not at all apparent from the surface.
To get to the reef, even from 10 feet above it, there's lots you have to do: struggle into a wet suit (calves and forearms exposed, but your trunk insulated from the warm water), strap on a weight belt, (it seems unfair that the plumper you are the more lead weights you have to add to the belt). Get into your Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), a little jacket rigged to hold your tank and fitted with a handy hose that fills the jacket with air at the push of a button. Hang your big aluminum air tank on that, get your mask and snorkel on your face, suck in to make sure that the mask fits well and squeeze your feet into fins (only dry land people would call them flippers). Check your equipment, check your buddy's equipment and you're ready to ...
In fact you're ready to strip and scratch a thousand itching places. It's the same syndrome that makes kids need to go to the toilet as soon as they get into snowsuits.
With a full set of Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA), you feel about as agile as a beached whale at a disco. You're stooped over so that you don't fall backwards with the weight of the tank, the world looks foggy through your salty diving mask, all the weight makes you feel as if you're the bottom man on a 10 man pyramid, even in light seas the boat is not half as stable as dry land, and those fins on our feet aren't exactly made for tap dancing.
Somehow you slap step and waddle to the platform overhanging the abyss and look around. The boat is pitching and heaving behind you, the water sparkles, there's a few folks already bobbing in the water below. Prepare to enter another world.
Just step into it - easier said than done. Hold your mask hold your weight belt and take a big step into the air.
Of course there's a moment of hesitation. Let me be brave enough to admit that. Anxious as one is to actually do it, there's a moment on that platform when something inside you questions the wisdom of what you're doing. But I do.
Suddenly everything changes: The itching stops, the weight of the major appliances I'm wearing no longer exists, the fins cause each nuance of my ankle to move me in exactly the direction I was thinking of, and the world is stable the surface, up there somewhere, is moving a bit, but the world in front of my eyes is rock solid. It's a different world.
And what a world it is. I defy anyone to describe it well. The "view" below the surface is determined by the clarity of the water, but the tender way in which things fade into the distance convince you that the view goes on forever. The sound is all bubbles and sloshing. The light from the moving surface above tells you that you can swim up to heaven whenever you want it sparkles and shines.
Below, there is either a sandy bottom or the never ending depths. I find the depths only about as terrifying as the never ending heights of looking at the stars on a clear night, but the concept of floating above a the great unknown does terrify a lot of people. Colours underwater are not the ones you see in photos. The water tends to leach out the reds and turn everything a shade of green blue. But then your eyes compensate and your brain exaggerates reality to make up for the missing colours.
The shapes of the reef are more impressive than the colours. Forests of staghorns, clouds of mixed coral, boulders of brain coral.
And the fish life. It's a model of diversity and peaceful co existence. Creatures that are as different in size and shape as possible seem to get along side by side. If they have in mind that they want to eat one another it doesn't show. They're all feeding on the coral, you can actually hear the parrot fish biting off pieces and crunching it in their mouths.
None of them care what I'm doing. The Great Barrier Reef is a Marine Park, no fishing is allowed, and everything living there seems confident that you won't break the park regulations. I go about my business and they go about theirs. It's as if you've been accepted by the resident population as just another bit of marine life come to hang around the reef.
One of the most other worldly experiences is finding and changing your depth. As you descend the air in your Buoyancy Control Device compresses, becoming less buoyant, there is therefore the tendency to keep descending once you have started to do so. To compensate you push that handy button and add more air to the vest. Coming up the momentum works the other way, as the air expands you become more buoyant and you start to rise more quickly, so you must let out air. There are stories of yahoos who deliberately inflate their BCDs underwater so that they pop out of the surface like a missile.
Keeping an exact level is almost impossible. You rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. Soon you're using your breathing as well as your arms, legs and the angle of your body to navigate. It becomes second nature surprisingly quickly.
As in any other sport, people become greedier for more and bigger thrills as they become more proficient at it. Our instructors were enthusing about their experiences "diving walls" on the outer reef (straight walls of coral reaching downward into the inky depths). But in our first week as divers, no one felt understimulated. When first-time divers reluctantly came up out of the sparkling sea we were grinning and beginning every sentence with "Oh wow, did you see the ... "
And come up you must - your air supply doesn't last forever. Unlike the world of science fiction where every alien breathes air and most speak English, you and I can't live underwater forever. In my opinion we humans took a wrong turn somewhere in our evolution.