Learning to Dive on the Great Barrier Reef

by Johnny Lucas

Intra-Planetary Travel

Scuba diving is like a trip to another planet, probably better. That stride off the platform of the boat, the free fall of just 10 feet, the splash landing onto and into the face of another world. It's a small step for man, but giant step for any warm blooded life form.

You can learn to dive almost anywhere in the world. You can do it over a matter of weeks in a pool at your local high school or you can do it on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Which would you choose? So did I. You meet the reef out at sea, bobbing around on a boat 60 kilometres from land. You look around the surface of the water which is as flat as the prairies and even bigger. You can see that the sea is shining in slightly different shades of translucent blue indicating that there is something down there and close.

You take that step, the known world rushes by. In the next second you're staring face to face at another realm: shapes and colours that look as if they were designed by a Dr. Seuss on mind expanding drugs; fish, recognizable and not, all perfectly at home in a fantastic world that you could never have seen before even in your imagination. Each fish seems to have been designed by an artist bent on outdoing the previous one with a display of madness.

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. You get certified and you can go out diving, with just your buddy, obeying all the rules and time and depth restrictions that you have spent the last few days memorizing and understanding. Considering that it gets you into places a mere astronaut will never see, it's well worth few days of preparation.

My preparation began in Canada when I scheduled my annual check up to double as my pre diving medical. For me that medical grew to a series of additional tests, all fairly normal for anyone whose body is in the "used" category. I had hearing tests and enough breathing tests to make me high from hyperventilation. At the urging of my GP, I made sure that all my basic systems were functioning. When I got to Australia, none of these tests mattered. There's a flat policy of ignoring foreign medical tests and doing their own: pee in the bottle, the close-your-eyes-fold-your-arms-stand-on-one-leg test, blow out into this hose, "how do you feel?", fine, fine. There's the usual lengthy checklist of possible afflictions to deny that might be tolerable above water but could do you in underwater: Asthma? Chronic Heart condition? Over 40 years old?

I asked if Australia had discovered any cure for that "over 40" category. "No mate, it's just there to get our attention, we've had pensioners on this course."

The medical test, and most of the course, is aimed at healthy young travellers. The medical exam confirms that no one is secretly suffering a collapsed lung.

The doctor, a specialist in diving medicine, confided that "Diving really isn't very good for you. The body has no mechanism to get rid of the gas that get dissolved in your blood it's not a condition that's been encountered at any other stage of our evolution. But at the depths you're going to, it really doesn't matter."

Of course, he was right (doctors always are, aren't they?). On your first diving licence the maximum depth permitted is 18 metres, and that was not reached very often. Even from that depth we were instructed to come up slowly and in stages, so we didn't come close to getting the bends.

I have nothing but good to say for our instructors. In the two days in the classroom and in the pool they were thorough and attentive. 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. Most other would be divers had a point of hesitation: breathing underwater, moving and swimming under so much gear, taking off the mask underwater, buddy breathing with two people on one air supply, my fellow would be divers balked at some of this on the first pass.

I wasn't showing off, honestly, but while people were facing these challenges, (and always overcoming them to their great pleasure), I was 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. This is the Pacific Ocean, you can hardly see the land and can hardly move in all this stuff as it is. Do you really want to throw it all this paraphernalia in the water with while you're inside it?

In the context of standing on the platform, I don't know that this is an answerable question, but after looking forward to the moment for months, flying for 24 hours, practising in a chlorinated pool, imagining it many times, and somehow getting to be there and everybody around thinks that it's the thing to do, the answer must be yes. So, while all this is going through your mind, and your body just wants relief from the sweaty itching of the wet suit and from the weight on your skeleton from all the contraptions, the step is taken.

How wide should I scissor the legs? One last look at the wide and sparkling surface followed by a flicker of recognition for the underwater world that flashes through the mask, and you bob to the surface, and you're looking at the side of the boat.

At this point you put your hand on your head, forming sort of an "O" to indicate that everything is OK it's a kind of private language we divers have. But that glimpse beneath the waves and the very bearable lightness of being in the water has made you desperate to get back under where you belong.

I struggle to get down. I really should be wearing another lead weight, but I've already got more than any of those 20 year olds who have 3% body fat and I can fake it. I actually swim downwards for the first 2 metres until the pressure forces air from my flotation device and wet suit and I arrive at neutral buoyancy so that I'm the same weight as the water I displace and neither float nor sink.

The itching has stopped, 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.

Then I notice: everything has changed, not just the itching and the breathing. All the magic that happened on TV when someone said "Beam me up Scotty" is as nothing compared to what has happened to my surroundings in the last 15 feet. Reality has new rules, the world is a different place.

And what a place it is. I defy anyone to describe it well. There are no points of reference to the environment in which our language was developed. 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 still comes from above, and above also represents the "other world". Kind of like knowing 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.

I have snorkelled on reefs before, but that experience does not compare to scuba where you can stare at these fellow creatures in their home environment, face to face. 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.

There are tiny nervous fish darting in and out of the crevices in the coral, there are flattened angel fish, looking as if they were raised in a trash compactor and manta rays which are flattened in the other direction whipping shyly about the bottom. Bright red spiny lobsters crawl backwards to avoid being stared at, their antennae flailing the water behind them.

The most unusual fish I encountered were a few small squid or large cuttlefish. I have seen and enjoyed them dried and barbecued in most Asian countries. Living in their natural habitat they are like a slightly firmer version of a jellyfish. But they are the ultimate in fish which seem to have been designed by a committee: eight translucent legs coiled in a spiral behind a blimp like body of grey slime, trimmed in a single fringe that approximates an undersized tutu. They have the size and delicacy of a prize pumpkin.

I came across three of them hovering in the open in a sheltered pool, apparently gossiping about the events on the reef. As I edged closer they edged away. When they finally decided to break up the discussion and go about their business, they moved off in three directions, not much faster than I could swim at full speed. They moved not by some propulsion of their legs, but by ruffling their tutus this trim around their hefty bodies rippled in the water and took them where they wanted to go.

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.

2,700 words

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, Travel@JohnnyLucas.com. © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 11, 1997