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Nemo, Turtles and Sharks – Life on The Great Barrier Reef

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It feels like a lifetime ago since our last post – I’ll do my best to take up where I last left off.

Australia Day in Airlie Beach was fun, but nothing overly exciting to report…think of Whyte Ave on Canada Day, except that most of the crowd was international. We had a decently late night, which left us in a bit of shambles for another long driving day…and this time, we were racing the clock. We had to have our car back to Hertz by the end of the business day in Cairns. We barely made it – Scott returned the car just as they were locking the doors, and the lady almost didn’t take it. Boy, were we lucky, as we would have had to keep it for another 3 days while we were on our drive trip, since we were departing earlier than their operating hours the next morning!

Yay we're home! Wait... what?

Yay we're home! Wait... what?

Oh and we passed a town called Edmonton on the way!

The next morning, we had to be at our dive shop at 6:15 a.m to board our 3-day liveaboard on the Great Barrier Reef. Scott woke up with a sore throat which was a bad omen – the last thing we needed before 3 days and 11 dives was a sick kid. We must have looked quite a sight – exhausted from Fraser, the Whitsundays and Australia Day all in a row, we were in dire need of a few days off. We got onto our boat and were completely antisocial as we ate our delicious breakfast (freshly made croissants, fresh fruit and other wonderful items) and got assigned our room. Unfortunately, we were given a bunk and not a double bed, which put us into an even fouler mood…but went off to nap for a few hours while we made the trek out to sea. We were very excited for this trip – we had purchased a top-of-the-line boat with Pro-Dive…one of the most expensive available because we wanted access to the outer reef (it’s supposed to be way better), good food, and a private room.

Kenna looking hot in her stinger suit...

Kenna looking hot in her stinger suit...

Our first dive was at 11 a.m, and we had our first briefing which was 30 minutes before. At the briefing, we discovered we’d be doing all of our dives on our own and NOT guided. This freaked us out a bit…Scott and I have done approximately 10 dives in about 3 years, and never on our own. My navigation skills are shoddy on land at the best of times, and underwater is a whole new story. Our dive master was very sympathetic and gave us a good solid briefing with compass degrees and landmarks and a touch up class on how to use a compass….so we felt better. We were still a little nervous, but what the hell. Our whole motto for this trip has been to “embrace what scares you” so we got suited up and ready to rock. The water temperature in Cairns is approximately 29 degrees at this time of year, so a wet suit is unnecessary – however, it is stinger season, and we had to wear thin stinger suits that covered our heads and hands. We were told that the killer irukinju (I think I spelled that wrong) jelly fish are rarely found out on the reef, but if you run into one of those suckers, you likely won’t know it until you are paralysed with pain. They are smaller than the size of your baby pinky (so you can’t even really see them) and the survival rate is quite low if you get stung by one. Scary stuff.

Anyway, so off we plop into the water, ready to try our first solo dive. Navigation co-ordinates and landmarks memorized, we started dropping down the line, but something wasn’t right. Scott wouldn’t give me the okay sign and kept pointing to his ear. He couldn’t equalize. Frig. So, up we go, back to the surface to talk to the dive master. He gave Scott a few tips which included snorting some of the salt water to clear his sinuses and told us to give it another try…and if he couldn’t do it, I could go with the dive master and a German brother and sister duo – she had only ever dove in a lake and was freaked out about the open water. So down we went again…and this time I could tell Scott was pushing himself. He kept giving me the okay signal, but I could tell by the squinched look on his face that he was NOT ok. I kept signalling for us to go back up – but stubborn as the boy is he kept trying to go down. Finally, the pain became too much and he conceded – and we arrived on the surface just in time for me to join the other group and for Scott to take off his gear and snorkel around instead. Damn. He’d never had equalization problems before, so what was going on?

A turtle swimming to the surface

A turtle swimming to the surface

So, off I go diving, and I didn’t feel good about the whole situation. We had never dove apart before, and I was concerned about his ear. The dive turned out to not be very good – the German lady was freaking out the whole time, so it ended up being a dive where we did a lot of sitting around, waiting for her to calm down. My first glance at the reef was pretty cool though – I saw lots of fish and lots of coral. We had been told by a few people on our way north that the GBR is dying and is nothing compared to what it was 30 years ago…it is dying off and will likely be extinct in 50 years. I must admit, this seems true – what was likely once a very vibrant and beautiful reef is no longer full of the colour and vibrance that photos make it out to be. It’s still stunning, but truly a shell of what it what was.

When I arrived back on the surface, I found Scott who had seen a green turtle while snorkelling. I was kind of peeved….but at least he had a good time even though he couldn’t dive. He admitted to me that it felt like he had a cold, so the prognosis for the trip was not looking good. He went and had a quick nap before our next dive at 3 p.m. I tried to make some friends and find alternate dive partners, since it was looking like he’d be out of commission for most of it.

For dive two, the chef of the boat, Pauline, came with us. How she has time to dive, I have no idea…she is a phenomenal cook, and made the most wonderful meals – lots of salads and fresh baked items were at our disposal. After every dive when a meal wasn’t being served, she always baked a cake from scratch, complete with icing from scratch. It was amazing. Dive two was shallower (they always progress to more shallow dives throughout the day to avoid decompression sickness) and Scott managed to make it part way down. That dive was spent with him hovering about 3-4 meters above Pauline and I which was uncomfortable – it’s very disorienting being in the water, and made it hard to find him. Anyway, we managed, but again didn’t see anything too exciting.

A reef shark

A reef shark

We moved sights for the third dive, and had a much better time. This dive was quite shallow, and so Scott managed OK – just the two of us went together and we had a nice time. Things were looking up a bit.

Our last dive of the day was at night. Now, diving is a pretty tiring physical activity (Cheryl & Kelly: if you think swimming makes you ravenous, it’s nothing compared to diving!) so everyone was pretty zonked after completing three in one day (Scott and I had only ever done two in one day before)….but most of us had never done a night dive before. Now, the concept of diving at night scares the pants off me…it took me a long time to become ok with jumping into the middle of the ocean with no land in sight…but at night? AT NIGHT?! When it’s black and sharks are most active?! C’mon. To make things more exciting, the dive masters attracted a few reef sharks to the back of the boat by feeding them fish. Joy. Embrace what scares you – right? So, off we went, with little glow sticks attached to our air tanks and flashlights in hand.

I won’t lie – I didn’t enjoy the night dive. It was black and scary…it felt like we were astronauts landing on a planet. The sounds were completely different and the shadows of big fish swimming by looked like ominous beasts. It didn’t help that everyone in our group was somewhat freaked out, so we kept together quite tightly…which resulted in bumper cars.

Nemo!

Nemo!

Because we couldn’t see very well, we also kept bumping into the coral…no wonder this beautiful phenomenon is dying…arseholes like us come on it and can’t see what we are doing and kill it! We didn’t see much on that dive aside from a few large fish looking for prey, and little fishie eyes glowing at us from within the bomby corals, but we did see a small red lion fish. When we got up to surface for our last piece of cake, I wasn’t sure I’d do it again. Scott felt similarly.

Day two started mighty early, and not well for Scott. He was feeling even worse from the day prior, so he decided to stay in bed and nap. It was at this point that I noticed we had critters with us in our cabin: there were small blood stains on my sheets and a few really nasty bugs. BED BUGS. I had been a feast for them all night. I was pissed – we had spent oodles of money to get a top of the line boat and this is what we get? Bed bugs? Frig. I told the crew who didn’t seem too concerned (apparently they are quite common) and they sprayed our room a few times. No luck…I got eaten the second night as well…and this created some stress for Scott and I upon disembarking the boat, which I will get to later.

Pufferfish

Pufferfish

Anyway, so I got up for the 7:30 dive and found a few buddies – Cyril from France, Amie from Britain and Christie from the U.S. This was my first amazing dive, and I hate to admit that I think it was because I wasn’t hampered by Scott’s troublesome ear and shallow diving depths. We were at a spot called “the whale” which was a very large pinnacle that you had to drop onto from the surface. The four of us paddled out and dropped onto it, and it was amazing. The descent was quick and amazing…and didn’t take 10 minutes and 50 bars of air like my previous descents with my sick buddy. We dropped to 22 meters – so quite deep – and saw tons of amazing fish. As we were coming up the side of the pinnacle, I saw my first green sea turtle…and was in awe. She was feeding on the algae that grows on dead coral (they only eat this, and jelly fish!) – and was absolutely beautiful. We got quite close and she paid us absolutely no attention and just kept on munching. I’ll never forget seeing my first turtle….they are such gorgeous and amazing creatures. I was sad Scott wasn’t there to experience it with me. We came up for a delicious breakfast and man were we hungry – a deep dive with no food in the tummy makes one really want to eat!

Scott decided he was going to do the next dive, but I was being a bit of a wanker….telling him how amazing it was to just drop onto the whale and how nice it was to be unencumbered by a sickie. What a jackass I was. He then decided he didn’t want to hold me back and was going to stay on the boat. I felt like a big arse, and managed to convince him to come in after profusely apologizing. We had a lovely shallow dive together and managed to see TWO more turtles! It was heaven! We also caught our first glimpse of a shark, and saw my absolute favourite fish…anemone fish. These are clown fish – like Nemo. There are about four varieties that live on the reef…and unfortunately, there are few true species of them left. This is because of the movie “Finding Nemo” – apparently after its success, more fish capture people have gone onto the reef to poach them and sell them to jerks who buy them for their fish tanks. Horrible. The reason they are my favourite fish is because of the way they act when you peek out at them….at first they take on this defensive look and try to head butt you. Then, they realize that they are tiny and you are a giant, and they start to look a little panicky and swim around their anemone, protecting it. Finally, they realize that you are not going to hurt them – curiosity sets in, and they start to give you this little inquisitive look to figure out what the heck you are. I just absolutely adore them – they have the most personality of any of the fish on the reef, and I really feel that the “Finding Nemo” creators got their personality right on the nose. :)

Stingray

Stingray

Scott managed the third dive of the day as well (another really shallow one spent at around 5 meters) and it turned out to be quite great. Our navigation skills weren’t excellent, however, and we had to do a long surface swim to make it back to the boat.

Night time came and it was time for our second night dive. Again, the crew managed to attract some leopard sharks by feeding them fish, and told us to jump on in. Scott and I were on the fence about this dive – he wasn’t feeling great, we didn’t enjoy the previous night dive, and we were on our own to self-guide ourselves this time. We finally decided we better “embrace the fear,” and geared up to take the plunge and brave the black waters on our own. I made up a new hand signal that meant “I’m freaking the F out and need to surface immediately” and off we went. It started off pretty rough – we were heading 300 degrees to a large pinnacle which was almost too large to see in the dark. We went through a period of complete blackness (at which point I gave Scott the freaking out signal, but he ignored me), before nearly running right into the pinnacle. Upon seeing it, Scott made a little “woo hoo” noise in his respirator. We had made it! All by ourselves! We were supposed to look for a very large green turtle named Brian in a cave at the bottom of the pinnacle, but couldn’t find him. We managed to see a few really vibrant crayfish, however, which was cool…and because we were alone, we could turn off our flashlights and make complete darkness around us…only to wave our hands and activate the bioluminescence of the plankton around us. It was pretty amazing. We managed to find the large beacon of light that lead us back to the boat and did our safety stop under a swarm of red bass and a few leopard sharks, all hoping for some food from the boat. It was actually a moment of complete calm and serenity for me…just hovering 5 meters from the surface, in the darkness, lit by the boat, watching the gorgeous creatures. I actually think I sort of enjoyed the night dive the second time around. :) After eating more cake (and singing a birthday song for our skipper, Oscar), it was time for bed. And boy did we need it.

Feeding the reef sharks off the back of the boat

Feeding the reef sharks off the back of the boat

Night two was actually awful. A cyclone from Darwin had started to make its way over to us, which resulted in the boat rocking like mad all night. The crew did not sleep, and moved our boat to calmer waters in the middle of the night (which were only marginally calmer). Scott hardly slept at all, as he had started developing a cough and the rocking made it hard to sleep…and I started to get sea sick again. They moved the boat a second time at 5 a.m., which woke us all up, and once we were somewhat settled onto our dive site, hurried us off for our super early dive at 6:30. Scott decided to skip out the whole day. His health had really deteriorated, unfortunately. I just wanted to get out of the damn cabin, as I had been a feast for the bloody bed bugs again.

The first morning dive was pretty rough. I went with three other girls, and the surface was very choppy and a current was starting to develop under the water. The highlights for this dive were a giant wall of sand that looked like a ski hill, and a huge colony of giant parrot fish hanging out under our boat that we admired during our safety stop. The visibility was pretty crappy for most of the dive though. We had a very short interval before the second dive, and managed to lose one of the girls,who decided she wasn’t up for it. The second dive was actually pretty awful. The current under the water had become really bad and completely dragged us off course. We didn’t see much (the only cool thing was a trumpet fish) and while we were doing our safety stop, we managed to get blown about 20 meters away from the boat which resulted in a seemingly olympic swim through gale force currents back to the boat. Christie and I decided that we were done…it wasn’t a fun dive and our bodies were exhausted from being put under pressure so much. One dive takes up about 750 ml worth of water from your body, and you can bet we weren’t drinking enough to keep ourselves hydrated – it’s nearly impossible. It was the end. It was sad to leave it on such an imperfect note, but we had an amazing experience over the full 3 days anyway.

PHOTO 243The ride back to the harbour was insane. It was so choppy, our boat was literally jumping several meters into the air before crashing back down. It resulted in most of us feeling quite nasty (even though we had taken our seasickness meds!) and very grateful to be back on land. All of us spent the rest of the day in an exhausted stupor, and feeling like the earth was moving. Our sea legs still haven’t really left us over 48 hours later….even as I write this from the plane to Darwin. The world continues to roll around on me (and Scott says it does for him too).

All we wanted to do was sleep when we got back to land, but Scott and I had those damned bed bugs to deal with. Thank god we only had a few clothes and small bags with us, so it didn’t contaminate everything. We took everything to the Laundromat and washed it in hot water and put it in the dryer for over an hour. What we couldn’t wash, we doused in boiling water. It seems at this point that we are bed bug free. Yay. Hopefully we won’t run into those nasty creatures again, but we’re not confident of that.

We spent our last day in Cairns lounging around by the lagoon (man made, like Airlie Beach, since you can’t swim in the ocean due to the stingers) with a few of our friends from the boat. A few of us went for dinner that night and said our goodbyes – we were all still pretty exhausted. It feels kind of like we have a really giant hangover, likely due to the sea motion and total dehydration. Scott is ok, but has a bit of a cough and still has plugged ears. I must admit, neither of us is very excited for our Kakadu camping trip tomorrow…but the adventure must go on!

Click on the gallery for a pretty awesome slideshow of what we saw.


3 comments to Nemo, Turtles and Sharks – Life on The Great Barrier Reef

  • Dad

    What a bummer for Scott but I remember our diving instructor telling us that if you have a cold or sinus problems it is almost impossible to equalize. Tell Scott he did a great job getting any dives in at all battling equalization problems like that.

  • Cheryl

    Awesome! Diving the GBR – that’s something to check off the bucket list. By the way Kenna, I’m very jealous of your ears. I love the ocean and all its critters, but I can’t even clear my ears at the bottom of a pool. Whenever I go snorkelling I try and try to equalize, and I can never do it. I can do it in the air, but never in the water. I don’t know if I will ever be able to dive. :( Any tips?

  • Meredith

    Oh how jealous I am! ABSOLUTELY incredible! I want to do a trip like this! Maybe I should start saving my pennies!

    AMAZING! HAVE FUN! xoxo

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