Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef

Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef (cont.)
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The Only Way to Fly: Scuba diving off the coast of the Daintree. (Nathan Borchelt)

Because of the depth of water surrounding Mackay Reef, scuba instruction wouldn't consist of a many-houred training session in kiddie-pool-sized volumes. During the ride out, the guides—a mixture of Aussies, Kiwis, and Americans, all desperately in love with their jobs—had given us a quick rundown on the equipment, hand signals, and protocol we'd employ once submerged. Then we shrugged on full-body wetsuits (pigment-challenged divers take note, the suit covers everything save your hands and the back of your neck), snagged a mask and snorkel, and waited until the boat was moored.

After the snorkelers gleefully dove into the water, the divers were divided into groups of four. We shrugged on the tanks, dropped weights into the sleeves in our vests, and lined up to jump in. The instructor already in the water, I duck-flapped my finned feet up the edge and did as I was instructed. Mask on, respirator pinched gently between my teeth, one hand held over both, I executed an awkward goose-step into the turquoise water. The world exploded into a sea of bubbles, the weighty equipment instantly manageable, and once I remembered that I didn't have to hold my breath while underwater, I breathed deeply and then re-surfaced.

Once our group was wet, we followed our guide to the port side of the boat, where a metal pole dangled from the hull by two chains three feet below the surface. Communicating through hand signals, I kicked down, grasped the pole, and waited for the others to line up beside me.

Breathing underwater is an odd, obviously counter-intuitive task. But every time I'd start to over-think the act—noticing the stale taste of air or the bubbles percolating from my respirator—all I had to do was focus on the world around me. Even from that metal bar, the water was a scene to behold. A crowd of white-and-yellow fish congregated underneath the hull, swimming with idle, calm curiosity, while in the distance I could see shadowy forests of coral and the sporadic flailing of the snorkelers moving on the surface. All sounds muffled, all sights intoxicating...suddenly breathing underwater became as natural as breathing above the surface.

Unfortunately, an American woman in our group couldn't calm herself. She made it down to the bar, but no further. And once the panic took hold—hyperventilating, eyes wide with fear—it didn't let go. Our guide took her to the top, where she ditched the tank and joined her snorkeling husband.

Our group lessened from four to three, our guide again by our side, we dropped to the second metal bar, an additional three feet down, and went through the lessons a second time—clearing the mask of water and removing the mouthpiece, then putting it back in and clearing the respirator. Once everyone gave the okay signal, we were off.

Snorkeling may allow you to see the coral reefs and fish, the turtles and rays...but scuba diving brings the entire experience into a third dimension. The vibrant reefs become miniature landscapes with overhangs and valleys and coves, towering pieces of violet and pink, blue-tentacled coral wavering like inverted vines that concealed a family of clown fish, while fish of all shapes and sizes dart and swoop and sway above and below you. Two minutes after departing the lower bar, our guide motioned for us to gather around him near the ocean floor, where he coaxed a playful clown fish to swim through a loop he made by putting fingers and thumbs together. Moments later, a small ray passed beneath us, its wavering undulations causing small clouds of sand to rise as it skimmed inches above the bottom before disappearing into a maze of pink and green coral to our left.

In our first half-hour dive we'd seen more than I'd imagined possible. Giant clams, massive algae-farming fish that darted at my mask as I ignorantly swam into their territory, sea turtles skimming above us.... The Great Barrier Reef hosts over 1,500 fish species, 400 types of coral, 350 echinoderm species, 23 marine mammals, 16 species of sea snakes, six species of sea turtles, and thousands of mollusk and crustacean species. Unless you're a trained biologist or have a photographic memory, keeping track of all you see is damn near impossible. The guides can help ID what you saw when you're back on the boat, and they sell waterproof ID cards with pictures of fish and coral, but I surrendered all notions of knowing what I was specifically looking at and simply let the parade unfold.

In a heartbeat the guide signaled that it was time to surface. I knew we had at least another 15 minutes of air, but we begrudgingly followed him. After all, the day was only half over. An optional second dive could be arranged after lunch. Here there was no hesitation—we were going back in.

After lunch, Odyssey H2O typically pulls in their anchor and travels a short distance south to Undine Reef, but yesterday's tumultuous weather meant conditions at Undine wouldn't be as good as Mackay, so we stayed put. Indeed, when we got back in the water, the perfect morning conditions had become a bit muddy; slight water currents had stirred up the sand. Bad conditions in this water, however, meant you could only see about ten, 15 feet ahead of you, instead of forever.

As we swam after our guide past a coral metropolis and alongside a two-foot-long fish with a gaping mouth, an orange-and-blue body, and comforting eyes, it struck me: scuba diving is really the closest you can get to flying, ironic considering you're below the air your supposed to be flying through. But after corkscrewing in a 260-degree spiral, executing a very clumsy summersault, and skimming inches above the ocean floor, the paradox receded into sheer joy as we cavorted in the weightless realm of this beautiful underwater playground.

Access and Resources

Odyssey H20 ( www.coconutbeach.com.au/odyssey-h2o offers daylong scuba-diving and snorkeling trips for no more than 30 people to Mackay and Undine reefs, departing from Cape Tribulation Beach each morning at 7:30. Outings can sometimes be canceled on account of bad weather, so it's advisable to plan on spending a few days in the region so you don't miss out. Fees include coach transfers, lunch, morning and afternoon tea, and a lunchtime reef talk.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 15 Nov 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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