My Great Barrier Reef Diving Attempt
I had no intention of diving when I arrived in Cairns, Australia. I figured I might snorkel, but would see the Great Barrier Reef via a glass bottom boat. I have a fear of deep water that prevented me from ever having the desire to dive. Yes, I can swim in a pool, but I usually stay in the shallow end. There’s something about not being able to touch the bottom that freaks me out.
Several days passed in Cairns before I could muster up the courage to investigate a diving trip. I compared different companies, and settled on Reef Experience. For $185 (AUD), the shuttle picks you up at your accommodation, drops you off at the marina, you are served breakfast, lunch, and happy hour, as well as a choice of diving or snorkeling, equipment included. I consulted with one of the agents at their office at length. “Do you think my eyes will pop out?” “What if my eardrums burst?” “May I switch to snorkeling if I don’t like diving?” After a lengthy, incredulous gaze, she answered, “You will complete an introductory course that will teach you everything you need to know about diving. If you still don’t like it, you can snorkel instead.” I was sold on the trip.
We were welcomed by the crew, departed for Hastings Reef, fed breakfast, and the divers were called over for an introductory talk. Lucy was a young, enthusiastic presenter who I thought would make a fascinating primary school teacher. “Diving is easy if you remember three things! First, you need to remember to breathe normally. In…and out…. Second, pop your ears as you descend.” Lucy showed us how to pop our ears by plugging our nose and blowing. I prefer to pop my ears by moving my jaw around, and she said that would work as well.
“Third, communicate with your instructor.” She showed us some hand signals such as the a-okay and the thumbs up to return to the surface. I was relieved and encouraged that it wasn’t more complicated. Lucy counted off at least eight groups of 4-5 divers and said to listen for your group to be called. I was group five, so I had some time to snorkel before my introductory lesson.
After a few minutes of snorkeling, I noticed my diving group was checking in. I went over to the instructor and told him my name and number. I climbed down the ladder to the diving platform aft of the boat and sat down. My mask wasn’t fitting correctly, so I kept adjusting it and blowing through my nose to empty the sea water.
The girl next to me asked, “Did you snorkel earlier?” She was probably wondering if I had any idea what I was doing.
“Yes, but I really didn’t like the feeling of not being able to breathe through my nose.”
She said, “It’s kind of like you have a cold, all stuffed up.” Perfect! That relaxed me, and I tried to pretend as if I were congested. A large tank was affixed to my back, like a backpack, but the instructor had to make some adjustments to my equipment. Our group’s diving instructor was already in the water and was beginning the lesson! I started getting nervous. I was already behind in the course, as I couldn’t hear what she was saying. The instructor on the platform finished the adjustments just as Lucy swam up in front of me. I guess I needed one-on-one intervention and she was finished with her group.
My ears started to hurt. I tried to plug my nose and blow, but that didn’t work. Moving my jaw didn’t work. Then I couldn’t breathe.
“Are you ready? Just lean forward and put your face in the water.” I tried to move, but it was as if I had ten tons of bricks on my back. What was going on? I tried again and couldn’t budge an inch. To Lucy’s surprise, I began rocking back and forth to work up some momentum and eventually, ungracefully, splashed face first into the water. Okay, I just had to remember those three things: breathe, ears, communicate. “I have to see you keep your face in the water for five minutes,” Lucy instructed. I put my face in the water, breathing long, deep breaths through the regulator. I glanced down and noticed the rest of my group holding onto a metal bar attached to the boat about ten feet below the surface. They were already on the next step! Then I glanced down to the ocean floor. That did it. I lifted my face out of the water.
Lucy looked surprised, “You need to keep your face in the water for a full five minutes.”
I think I had interrupted her timer. “I know. I’m sorry. I just needed to come up for a second.”
We moved farther from the boat, as the next diving group was preparing to launch. The water was much more buoyant at this distance. At this point, sea water had crept into my mask and was stinging my eyes. I had ingested a fair amount of it as well. It was difficult to hear Lucy as the water slapped our faces and thrashed us around. I put the regulator in my mouth and she pulled me under a couple of feet. I was feeling good and getting the hang of it. Then I looked down. I panicked and looked up to swim back up to the surface. I couldn’t remember how to communicate to Lucy that I needed to ascend, so I just started swimming. At the surface, I ripped the regulator out of my mouth, lifted my mask so my nose was exposed, and gasped for air greedily.
Lucy appeared, “You need to communicate with me!”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this,” I told her reluctantly.
Do I really want to get out? If I do, I won’t have another chance to dive.
“Yes, you can. Once more, but signal to me what you need.” I tried it once more, and we descended about twenty feet this time. My ears started to hurt. I tried to plug my nose and blow, but that didn’t work. Moving my jaw didn’t work. Then I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was successfully breathing through the regulator, but suddenly I couldn’t remember what to do. I looked at Lucy, who was smiling and trying to gauge my concern. My survival instinct kicked in and I bolted for the surface, possibly kicking Lucy on the way up. I emerged, panting, and she was right behind me. What patience! She reviewed the instructions again, but I said, “I want to get out. I don’t want to go down again.”
She actually tried to convince me to try it again. What persistence! I thought for a moment. Do I really want to get out? If I do, I won’t have another chance to dive. When I’m faced with obstacles, I usually try and try again until the task is finished. I couldn’t believe I was actually contemplating failure. However, most situations don’t involve breathing impairment and survival skills. Ironically, and in retrospect, I think I would have been more apt to continue if I didn’t have snorkeling as an option. I was so disappointed in myself, but I was exhausted and needed to sit down and breathe as nature intended.
After lunch back on the catamaran, we travelled to Breaking Patches Reef, named for the waves that break directly over the reef that simulates “patches” from above. I donned my fins and mask again from the port side snorkeling platform, and set out with my noodle, without my wetsuit, for more snorkeling. I swam farther out to try to get some photos with my iPhone, suspended around my neck again. It was still hard to manage, so I gave up on the photos and just concentrated on the breathing. It was getting easier, and I wondered if I could have handled diving in the afternoon. However, in order to dive in the afternoon, passing the morning course was a requirement.
When I’m faced with obstacles, I usually try and try again until the task is finished. I couldn’t believe I was actually contemplating failure.
I looked around for something interesting, but really couldn’t see much so I got out. I mentioned to one of the crew members that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I couldn’t really see anything spectacular. She pointed to where the waves were breaking over the reef that was visible from the boat. “You need to swim out there. That’s where you will have the best view while snorkeling.”
Once more, I found myself on the snorkeling platform, donning my equipment, and launching off. I swam far out to the reef the crew member had indicated, but noticed no one else was out there. I looked back to the boat and saw that the instructors and crew members had their eyes on me. Well, I thought, they told me to try this area. This time, I left my phone in my backpack, as I didn’t want to wrestle with it. What a mistake! I put my face in the water and floated.
It was Finding Nemo Live, with fish swimming in schools, in and out of the coral. Fish of all colors and sizes were performing their daily duties. I swam around a bit until I had my fill of views and of ingesting sea water, then returned to the boat for our afternoon Happy Hour. It turned out to be a wonderful day. Even though I couldn’t dive in Australia, I improved my snorkeling skills, acquainted myself with the required breathing technique, viewed the Great Barrier Reef, and made some new friends.
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