Bucket list: dive the GBR, Not on bucket list: get lost on the GBR

Diving the GBR was definitely one of the highlights of this trip. In fact, the only reason why I flew to Australia before going to NZ was to dive the GBR. It did not disappoint.

I thought Sydney was hot until I arrived in Cairns (pronounced “cans” like beer cans, but say it with an Aussie accent). Unfortunately, my hostel didn’t have AC, which made my hostel in Sydney feel like the Ritz. *sob* It’s funny how your perspective changes from place to place.

While in Sydney, I befriended a German girl, Gina. She had left for Cairns two days prior and since she didn’t have any plans, she booked the same hostel and dive trip as I did! On this trip, I met a lot of other travelers in hostels, which I surprisingly enjoyed! Many of the travelers I met were European and I found having lived in Switzerland helped me connect with them. Thanks Whitaker! The world is small, especially when you’re backpacking.

I had a full day in Cairns before I left for the reef. I started off the morning with a trip to the Cairns Botanical Gardens to go on a birdwatching tour. When I arrived, I met Bob and John, two rather old gentleman who are keen on birds. We saw a Papuan Frogmouth!! (Jal and I were looking for the frogmouth that lives in Centennial Park, but we didn’t see it the evening I took a tour.) Frogmouths are majestic, nocturnal birds that look kind of like owls. They’re not classified as raptors because they catch their food using their beaks and swallow their prey whole. Thus they have weak(ish) legs and very strong (and big) mouths. In front of the frogmouth’s beak is a tuft of feathers that help it sense soon-to-be-dinner. We also saw megapodes, which are birds that have (guess what?) massive feet that they use to build mounds. Instead of incubating their eggs by sitting on them, these birds lay their eggs in the mound, which heats up from the sun.

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After the bird watching walk, I walked the Red Arrow Trail and part of the Blue Arrow Trail in the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park. It was way too hot and I didn’t have enough water so I turned around and walked back to the visitor center, where I collapsed in a chair and slurped a mango smoothie. (I wonder if they put milk into the fruit smoothie because it was so creamy.) Back in the Cairns ‘city’ center, I ashamedly went to the mall where I sat in the food court, soaked up the AC, and read the afternoon away (Douglas Adam’s So Long and Thanks for All the Fish). In the evening, Gina and I went to Reef Teach, which is a 2 hour course on different corals and fish that live on the GBR. Very informative!

Liveaboard Day 1 (Saxon reef and Norman Fingers)

Gina and I caught the shuttle at 7:15 for the docks and boarded the Reef Experience, which was like our taxi boat to the Reef Encounter, our liveaboard dive boat. On the ride to the outer reefs, we met Tess from Victoria, Allie from Seattle, and Tobi from Munich. After transferring to the Reef Encounter and listening to a morning debriefing, we had our first water session. Each day, there were 6 water sessions (6:30, 8:30, 10:30, 13:30, 15:30, 18:30). The dive boat limited divers to 4 dives per day, so you could either rest or snorkel during the other 2 sessions. Obvi, I snorkeled.

My first snorkel was incredible! The coral was unbelievably beautiful (pinks and yellows and blues!) and so full of life. I saw heaps of parrotfish. (Australians and Kiwis use “heaps” heaps in conversation.) After our dive debriefing, we were split into dive buddies. Tobi, who had just gotten certified a month prior, was my assigned dive buddy.

Interlude: on all my previous dives, I have always dived with a dive master. I simply follow the dive master and we somehow always magically end up back at the boat. Turns out, in Australia you dive with just your dive buddy unless you specifically hire a dive guide. Before our first dive, the crew asked if anyone wanted to hire a dive guide. Tobi and I looked at each other (he had 4 dives prior to this trip and I had 10), and we decided we would try navigating by ourselves…

Our first dive was supposed to be easy navigation wise. We were supposed to swim along the wall of the reef. At our halfway mark (by air or time, whichever came first), we were supposed to turn 180 degrees and swim back to the mooring line. Now the whole time we’re swimming along, I’m constantly looking at my watch, my air, and our direction instead of at the coral and fish. After 20 minutes, Tobi and I turn around. We swim for another 18 minutes but don’t see the mooring line or boat. During the dive debriefing, we were told that all divers must be back after 40 minutes. If you’re not up by 45 minutes, they send in search divers. After 50 minutes, they call in the Australian Coast Guard. Because we didn’t want to trigger an alarm, we decided to surface, even though we had no idea where in the ocean we were. On the ascent, during my safety stop, there was one point when I looked around and could ONLY see blue water. Where is Tobi?? I made several circles and could only see blue. No people. No reef. No fish. Just blue. Following PADI guidelines when you can’t see your dive buddy, I surfaced immediately, skipping the rest of my safety stop. I found Tobi at the surface. Turns out he couldn’t get control of his buoyancy and accidentally surfaced without doing a safety stop. But seriously, that was possibly the scariest 15 seconds of my life, when I felt like I was all alone in the deep blue sea.

At the surface, we could thankfully see our dive boat. We had swum WAY off course. Instead of ending up at the stern of the boat, we were about 30-40 meters from the bow of the boat. The dive master jumped into the rescue boat and came out to pick us up. I would’ve felt even worse about our navigation blunder had not the Israeli man and son (who collectively have 400+ dives) also gotten lost on the reef.

After drinking a gallon of water and inhaling blueberry muffins to calm myself down, I decided to sign up for the advanced open water certification. The cert consists of 5 dives: fish and coral ID, night dive, deep dive (30m), navigation, and boat dive. The big plus was that I’d be with a dive master for the 5 dives! No more getting lost. Tobi signed up too.

On our fish and coral ID dive, we saw a unicorn fish, 3 white-tipped reef sharks, and lunar coral amongst other fish and coral. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my gopro, so no pics. On our night dive, we saw giant trevallies, which are large, silvery fish that are extremely agile. I also saw a potato cod!! There were also tons of reef sharks.

Liveaboard Day 2 (Norman Fingers)

Given the previous day’s rather stressful dive, I slept really well and didn’t want to get out of bed. But the wakeup call was at 5:50 and up I got. In the morning, we saw that conditions had changed drastically overnight. Whereas the first day we had sunny skies and clear blue waters with visibility up to 30m, gray storm clouds and choppy waters greeted us in the morning. Our first dive of the day was our deep water dive, but due to conditions, the deepest we could go was 22m. For fun, Fabien (our dive instructor) cracked an egg to show how the egg (yolk and whites) stays together from the pressure. We also saw several reef sharks and 2 stingrays!

On our navigation dive, we still had low visibility. Tobi and I had to navigate from the boat to the reef wall, do an out and back, and swim in a square before navigating back to the boat. We used dive compasses. I didn’t see much on this dive because I was so focused on navigating. I felt pretty stressed on this dive.

On our third dive, we did a boat dive and had to navigate back to the main vessel. This dive was awesome since I felt more comfortable with navigating. We got into the water by flipping backwards out of the little boat. I saw a bird wrasse, a clownfish (!!), and giant clams! We also swam through a little underwater arch/tunnel.

During my post-lunch snorkel, I saw a oblique banded sweet lips, which is a beautiful yellow fish that has dorsal stripes AND black spots. Since Tobi and Tess only signed up for a 1 night trip, we had to say goodbye.

The night dive was similar to the previous night’s night dive. Lots of reef sharks and giant trevally. I prefer day dives because you see more types of fish and you can see the vibrant colors on the reef.

Liveaboard Day 3 (Norman Fingers and Norman Wild Side)

Got up nice and early for the 6:30 dive. Since I had completed my advanced OW course and Tobi had left, I decided to hire dive guides for the rest of my dives. (I wanted to enjoy the reef and watch the fish and coral rather than worry about navigation.) I saw more giant clams and reef sharks as well as two turtles and a trumpetfish! On my second dive, I saw these adorable damselfish. They kind of looked like mini Dorys. I wish I had caught a better picture of them. On my third dive, I went with Allie and our highlight was seeing a spotted sweetlips. During our snorkel, we saw some reef sharks, a HUGE anemone, and several clownfish.

I love diving and the zero G feeling! It’s so chill and I’m always amazed by the diversity of fish and coral in shape, color, and size. I felt exhausted back on land, but it’s the best kind of tired in the world! I was very sad to leave the boat. I love waking up by jumping into the ocean, looking up fish in the fish identification books, breathing the crisp night time breeze, and falling asleep to the lull of the waves. 10 out of 10 for liveaboard dive trips.


Had an idea for an app while on the dive boat…but first someone needs to make a case for phones that is waterproof up to 30m for at least an hour at a time. The idea is to make a fish identification app. The user would point their phone camera at a fish and take a picture. The app would identify the species based on facial recognition technology or something along those lines. The fish ID database would be stored in the app, therefore you wouldn’t need wifi. You could also sell different databases for different regions of the ocean e.g. databases for the GBR, Micronesia, Caribbean, etc.

 

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