Posted by: Tommy | August 1, 2011

What’s so great about the Barrier Reef?

The reason we learned to dive, over a year ago, was because we knew we were heading to Australia and couldn’t fathom not diving the Great Barrier Reef.  We’ve been glad we learned in Egypt, in the Philippines, in Thailand and especially in Borneo.  But we’ve finally reached Dive Mecca.  Cairns, Australia and the jumping-off point to the Great Barrier Reef.

We had planned to dive on Tuesday – Anna’s family was arriving Tuesday and would be jetlagged, so we’d get our diving done and meet them in the afternoon, when they’d (hopefully) be awake.  But when we started doing research in Cairns, we learned that all of the day-trip boats take snorkelers and divers on the same boat.  Jack and Sally had said they wanted to take a snorkel trip, so we decided to surprise them at the airport instead and do our diving on the same boat as their snorkeling, so we could all spend the day together.  Jerry gets seasick watching boats on TV, so he planned to stay behind, no matter what the rest of us did.

The airport surprise was fun and Jack and Sally immediately agreed to go diving/snorkeling on Friday.  We spent the next two days getting acclimated and finding the right boat to take us our to the reef.  In preparation for our trip, we all went to a program called Reef Teach – which was phenomenal.  It was a 2 hour class taught by a local marine biologist who dives the reef every day.  He talked for an hour on coral – different types, challenges they face, what makes them the myriad of colors you see underwater- and about identifying fish – there are 7 main types of fish, each with hundreds (thousands? millions?) of varieties and we learned about identifying each main type.  During the second hour, we talked about the big stuff you see here – whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles etc. – each accompanied by spectacular photos.  By the end of the program (which finished with pictures of pygmy whales playing with divers in shallow water, getting our hopes up even higher for the next day) we couldn’t have been more excited to spend a day on the reef.

Anna at Reef Teach with her favorite type of triggerfish - a dead one!

We woke up early (6 am!) the next morning and drove out to the boat.  Sally, Anna and I took 2 seasick tablets each – Jack took 1, claiming that he doesn’t get seasick.  We made it to the boat on time and claimed 4 seats.  While we were walking through the cabin to our seats, I overheard one crew woman say to another, “You got sick last time, right? Make sure you take at least 2 tablets today, it’s going to be as bad as it ever gets today”.  Perfect!

And they weren’t wrong – we’d been moving for 3 minutes when the first tourist filled the vomit bag (conveniently located in the seat back pocket).  The crew was vigilant and came around frequently to collect used bags and issue new ones.  And to remove people from the bathrooms who skipped the bag and made an unsuccessful run for the toilet (5+ of these in two hours).  Luckily, Anna, Sally and I made it through with light nausea.  And apparently the 2nd tablet is key, because Jack lost his breakfast before being banished to the back deck for the remainder of the boat ride.

It was cold, overcast, rough and windy – but we still had high hopes for the diving day.  This is the first place we’ve ever been that allows you to just jump in and dive yourself with no guide or divemaster.  In fact, they charge you an extra $22 if you want a guide.  So we opted out of that and decided to do our first solo dive.  And we learned something – you really need a good plan before diving solo.  I wanted Anna to lead because she swims slower than me, but she wanted me to lead so I could be triggerfish bait – but we didn’t work that out before being 50 feet underwater.

The water was cold – 72 or so – and there was a strong current.  The only thing we saw that was interesting was the only thing we didn’t want to see – a huge triggerfish.  Rather than swim toward it, we opted to turn back around and end our dive after only 40 minutes.  We got back to the boat and, shivering, crawled out of the ocean.  Jack and Sally were getting back at roughly the same time from their snorkeling – they’d had a rough time, being battered by waves while swimming on the surface of the rough water.  And they were just as cold.  The boat was out of towels, so we were forced to share 1 between the 4 of us.  At least Jack and Sally had seen a turtle – much better than Anna and I had done.

We ate lunch on the boat, which was fortunately much calmer lying behind the breaker of the reef.  2 hours later, the boat moved to another diving spot on the reef and we geared up for our second dive.  We opted to pay for the guide this time to avoid the underwater argument about leading and hopefully to see something awesome, since we found nothing on our solo dive.  Jack and Sally (along with half the customers on the boat) decided it was too cold, too rough and too much of an ordeal (no one had seen anything but that turtle the first time out) and they skipped the afternoon swimming session.  If Anna and I had to be on the surface, I’m sure we would have made the same decision.

Instead, we geared up and joined a group of 5 guided divers.  And it was quickly apparent that Anna and I were the most experienced divers in that group except for the guide.  The crew found out that one lady had been certified 15 years prior and hadn’t been diving since then…but they told her certification was for life and encouraged her to dive with us.  4 others had just finished their open water class and were diving for the first time.  These 4 took turns kicking Anna and I in the head, mouth, arms, etc. for the full 30 minutes that the dive lasted before they all ran out of air (I’ve been there too, but now that I’m not it annoys me when other people do).  We still had air left, but we were freezing cold and still hadn’t seen anything, except for a giant clam that was awesome (bright purple inside, with flourescent green spots).  No whales, no dolphins, no sharks, no turtles.  We did see 1 huge bumphead parrotfish, but that was the sum total of interesting fish that we saw on the Great Barrier Reef.

On the way back, we all fell asleep.  We were awoken once when the boat stopped and someone yelled “Whale!”.  I saw a small part of a whale breaching, but only a bit at a far distance.  All in all, a disappointing day.  I’d say the diving was even worse than in Mozambique.  And next time the Old 97’s ask me “What’s so great about the barrier reef?” I’ll know that the answer, so far for me, is “Nothing.”


  1. It is so sad to hear you didn’t have fun. When I was there in January the Reef was amazing. Next time you two should go to Oz in the summer, not winter.

  2. It was tough snorkeling – both Jack and I found it cold and fighting the waves to get out to the reef was really tough. But I am really glad I can say I saw the Great Barrier Reef.

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