When people think of Australia, I assume the Great Barrier Reef makes the list of places to visit for most people! It certainly made mine.
In the attempt to be more flexible, I didn’t arrive in Oz with any pre-arranged plans to visit the reef. And fortunate, blessed lil me not only got to visit the famous natural wonder a few weeks ago, but I participated in a cruise and an intro-to-diving session from Sunlover Reef Cruises free of charge, thanks to fellow travel blogger (and travel partner) Brooke and Sunlover Reef Cruises.
I had never snorkeled or been diving before, so the chance to do both in one go sounded exciting…and I admit, intimidating! Just like when I went skydiving, I was pumped leading up to the event, and then the night before, a host of unwanted butterflies decided to make my stomach their new home. Would I panic under water? What if the regulator got knocked out of my mouth — would I be able to get it back in without taking in lots of water too? Wait…without contacts, how would I be able to see the instructor or any of the reef? I figured the first two questions fell under “normal fear of the unknown” but the “how am I going to see?!” issue was legitimate. I mean, it’s probably best to see the hand signals and facial expressions of your diving buddies, right?!
6 ways to see the Reef
We arrived at the Sunlover boat, which was much bigger than I expected. For some reason I anticipated a smaller vessel and crowd — perhaps because I thought everyone on board would also be 1) diving! However, I later learned that most people on the ship planned to 2) snorkel and participate in other activities, such as 3) Helmet Diving (you’re breathing through your nose & mouth unlike scuba!). If you don’t want to get wet, you can see the reef from a 4) glass bottom boat, 5) semi-submersible boat (both for free), or 6) helicopter (for a fee)!
Once on board
Once on board I met with the diving staff and presented my “I’m currently wearing glasses & don’t have contacts” issue. Not a problem! Sunlover has prescription & magnification goggles that I could use for free. Oh happy day!
During the hour and a half trip from Cairns to the company’s pontoon, free tea and coffee are provided and various snacks can be purchased. Once we arrived at the pontoon, all divers met for a brief, 15-minute info session, which covered the basics — hand signals, how to equalize our ears during descent, etc. At the end of the session, I felt I had a reasonable grasp of what was to come but hoped there would be more instruction!
At this point I had 50 minutes until my scheduled dive time and was told I should eat first or I wouldn’t get lunch as the buffet would be closed later. Yes, the BUFFET lunch is included…salads, items to make sandwiches, shrimp, fruit, and more. Unfortunately, those pesky little butterflies were performing a Riverdance number, and I could only manage a few bites O:-)
Soon enough I found myself donning flippers, a wet suit, and goggles that brilliantly mirrored my prescription. And shortly thereafter, Gemma called my name and those of two early-twentysomething guys to join her on the next dive.
Into the water
Gemma led us down onto a platform in the water to guide us through a few basic skills. We had to perform all four successfully or we would not be permitted to participate in the actual dive! Before I knew it, I was breathing under water with the regulator, retrieving the regulator, reinserting it under water, and clearing water out of my goggles while under water. At this point the butterflies had settled down and what was left was a healthy fear and respect for what I was doing. I practically heard a Tim Gunn angel on my shoulder saying, “Make it work!”
The first few moments were the most challenging as I sought to find a good rhythm for my breath, all while descending and equalizing every meter. Gemma was a great coach and paid very close attention to the three of us. Sunlover limits the number of divers per group to four — and I appreciated that even more once we were under water!
For the next 20 minutes or so, Gemma led us through the water and showed us interesting coral and fish. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was amazed to see so many shapes and colors of coral just inches away from one another!
Mid-way through the dive I felt so comfortable and didn’t want it to end! Thankfully once we were back on the boat, I grabbed snorkel gear and headed back into the water. After diving, snorkeling came easily, and I managed to see as much as possible in the little bit of time that remained. I would have loved to check out the glass bottom or semi-submersible boat too, but the dive began and ended later than scheduled.
On the journey back to Cairns, I smiled as I realized that the reef trip had been one of the single best experiences in Oz thus far. I had visited one of the most beautiful places in the world. I had snorkeled and gone diving for the first time. I conquered a host of butterflies & met my “do one thing” challenge for the day! And I’ve been inspired to take an entry-level open water diver certification course if time and money permit
With little to eat at lunch and a couple hours of swimming, my appetite was back! Thankfully the next few days would more than satisfy it…
Featured image from Sarah Ackerman on Flickr Creative Commons
The trip to the Reef was sponsored by Sunlover Reef Cruises and all words and opinions are my own.