3 DAY LIVE-ABOARD ON THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
Waking up in my hostel dorm in Cairns, it saddened me to realise that my journey up the east coast of Australia was quickly coming to an end. I had seen and done so much in the last six weeks since leaving Byron Bay and now it was time for the grand finally: diving the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wanders of the world!
After spending most of my first day in Cairns researching and trying to decide what type of trip I wanted to do, I finally decided on a three day, two night live-aboard boat that included 8 day-time dives and 2 night dives. It was the most expensive thing I had booked thus far, but it was the Great Barrier Reef after all.
Encountering the Reef - Day 1
I arrived at the jetty at 7:30 the next morning ready to catch the Reef Experience - a boat used both for day trips to the reef and to ferry passengers to the Reef Encounter. Aboard the Reef Experience we were given breakfast (bacon and egg rolls) and some paper work to fill in before receiving our first boat safety briefing. After the briefing we were given the option to join the day-trippers on the bottom deck for a fascinating marine-biology presentation relating the marine life we would soon encounter.
At around 10 am, we hooked up to the Reef Encounter and made our way along the gang plank onto our boat and home for the next few days. We were given another boat safety briefing and were told a little bit about the boat and the daily procedures. We were then allocated our rooms. I was in a three share dorm down below deck, which had one bunk bed and a single bed with an en-suite bathroom and shower. Luxury compared to the hostels I’d been living in for the past six weeks. We dropped off our bags and got our swimsuits on before heading back to the deck to collect our wetsuits, snorkels and fins for our first encounter with the reef.
I jumped into the choppy waters for my first snorkel on the reef. The visibility wasn’t excellent but was better than all the other diving I had done thus far. Soon after entering the water I was greeted by a swimming sea turtle on the surface of the water. I swam up to him and then alongside him for some time, watching as he munched on a jelly fish. I continued my snorkel over the reef bed which was littered with beautifully coloured coral and an abundance of fishes of varying size, species and colour. I watched as divers glided between the coral beds far below me which got me excited for my upcoming dive.
We got back on board after about a 40 minute snorkel. I took off my wetsuit and got dried and dressed before heading to the saloon for lunch where we waited in anticipation as the food was set out. It was buffet-style, but seemed pretty fancy – for a backpacker at least. We had toasted rolls topped with rocket, beetroot and a chicken (or beef) schnitzel and camembert cheese coupled with a choice of two salads. We also had a selection of fruit and brownies for dessert.
After lunch it was time for our first dive. After our short dive briefing, I decided to take a guide for the first dive as I was unsure about navigating the reef and diving without a dive master/ guide sounded a little unnerving for me. I was in a small group of three divers excluding our guide and we were shown some of the furry sea slugs, beautiful coral and many beautiful fish. The dives were all restricted to 40 minutes regardless of your remaining air supply which never ran out.
We had a second opportunity to dive at about 3:30pm. This time, M (from Texas), S (a young English girl) and I decided to buddy-up and do the dive without a guide. It was fun exploring the reef by ourselves. We found a sea turtle, some reef sharks, an octopus and many other interesting fish and coral. When it got near to our surfacing time (the 40 minute limit), we realised we were quite lost, so we had to quickly resurface to located the boat before heading in that general direction.
M and I were chatting on the top deck and missed the night dive briefing. We were giving a quick re-briefing right before dinner. We were instructed on the use of the torches, about the different night signals and the altered sea life that we’d see at night – more sharks, sleeping turtles and predator fish. It was also strongly recommended that we take a guide for all night dives as it’s very hard to see and thus difficult to navigate the reef.
Dinner consisted of grilled salmon served on a bed of risotto and asparagus and was served around 6 pm. We then headed down to our rooms to get back into our costumes (or swimsuits as some call them) for our next dive – a night dive in the reef. I was so excited.
Whilst putting on our wetsuit some of the other divers mentioned how they had seen plenty sharks the night before. It made us a little nervous, but we put on our BCDs, did our buddy checks and nervously climbed down into the water anyway. Shinning my torch to inspect my surroundings, we slowly descended along the mooring line with my hear pumping unusually fast. During the dive, we spotted three white tip reef sharks whichwere easy to spot as their eyes reflected bright white. When I saw the very unassuming size of them I no longer felt frightened. The wildlife had changed dramatically from what I had seen during the day as there were only large, grey predator fish, reef sharks and sleeping turtles – who stuck their heads in the reef to sleep. All the other fish were hiding from their predators that seemed to only come out at night.
After the dive, we showered and dressed and enjoyed desert in the saloon before heading to the top deck for a beer and some southern hemisphere star gazing. There was a diverse mix of people on the boat – some Canadians, a Panamá-born family on holiday from Japan, a Texan, an English girl, and a Thai lady with her French boyfriend both now living in Bangkok. The age range was also diverse; from 19 to 60, which all made for interesting conversation.
Encountering the Reef – Day 2
It was barely getting light when we received our 5:50 am wake-up call. We met on deck for our 6:30 am dive. M, S and I were going 'guideless' this morning. So, after gearing up and completing our buddy checks, we descended into the water. We had to swim over to the reef with the visibility at about 10 meters. We carefully headed in what we thought was a south-easterly direction and then along the edge of the reef. We all wandered around, observing the early morning wildlife as the sun rose higher in the sky above. We made our way over the reef, instead of around, and I was now convinced that we were going to get lost. At the 20 minute mark, we turned around and headed back the way we had come, or at least we thought we had. We eventually arrived at a mooring line anchored to the reef. We were all super chuffed with ourselves thinking that we had expertly navigated our way back to the boat. So, nearing on the 40 minute mark, we began to make our ascent to the surface and as we penetrated the choppy waters, we found that there was no boat attached to the mooring line and that our boat was, in actual fact, miles away. We had somehow managed to swim very far away and now required rescuing. We waved our arms and M blew his whistle until we eventually got someone’s attention. We bobbed up and down while we waited for the little rubber dingy to come to our rescue. We had to take off all our gear before being able to climb onto the boat and embarrassingly returned to the mother ship.
We enjoyed our buffet style breakfast before the boat got moving to a new location. Once anchored, a free guided tour on the glass-bottom boat was offered. On board we were able to clearly see the reef and were told a little about the clams, the different coral and life down-under the sea.
After the boat tour, I decide to skip the remaining bit of the 8:30 snorkel/dive session and rather opted for the 10:30 dive. M and I partnered up gave navigating the new reef a go. We entered the water, descended and headed for the reef wall. There was an awesome “swim-through” section along the edge of the reef. We saw clown fish and more amazing coral and colourful fish. I was really starting to get addicted to this unknown life down below sea. The more I see it the more it amazes me.
We followed the reef wall, keeping the reef to our left for close on twenty minutes, in one direction and then headed back for the remaining 20 minutes. We swam back through the swim-through and then veered left toward the boat. We then made our ascent. We popped up close to the boat this time and I was happy that we hadn’t mess it up.
After our 12:30 lunch of salmon wraps, chips and salad, I headed out for another quick snorkel to explore the shallower sections of the reef. More beautiful fish and coral covered the ocean floor. I was back after 20 minutes – exhausted for the non-stop diving and snorkelling.
Later that afternnon, S and I had both decided to complete our advance diver’s certification whilst on the reef. So, after a much-needed afternoon nap, we watched a dive safety video as the first part of our diving certification. The video was followed by some paperwork and our Underwater Naturalist practical. We had to identify 5 types of hard coral, 5 types of soft coral and 10 species of fishes off a set of charts, during our next dive dive. I saw a sting ray, a unicorn fish, clown fish, finger and brain coral many other amazing creatures and corals.
After dinner we got geared up for our night dive - the second part of our advanced adventurer course. We descended into the dark, shark-infested waters feeling a lot more comfortable than the night before. The spot light from the main boat was shining this time. We followed our instructor through the dark water, observing the predators hunting below. We spotted a number of white tip reef sharks and other predators too. We then had to cover our lights so that the waters were as dark as the night. Our eyes slowly adjusted and we could eventually see one another whilst we moved along the reef. When we re-illuminated our lights and gave the OK signal, we spotted plenty more sharks nearby. After about 30 min we returned to the boat and made our steady ascent. Dessert was served, followed by the next morning’s dive briefing – our Deep Sea Dive.
Encountering the Reef – Day 3
We received our 6 am wake-up call and got ready for our next dive. We were doing our Deep Sea Diving test. All geared up and ready we swam to the front of the boat and slowly began our descent. We stopped at approximately 24 meters where Mac (our instructor) began demonstrating how we lose certain colours at various depths. The tomato he had brought down and turned brown – he took a bite. He then cracked open a raw egg. The yoke remained intact due to the increase in pressure so we were able to pass it around. We then had to do a hand-eye-coordination test to ensure we didn’t have narcosis from the depth. We all passed before continuing the dive. We saw more reef sharks and a ray on the sea bed. We ascended slowly and remained at 5 meters for a bit before surfacing. We were now qualified deep-sea divers.
After breakfast, it was time for our next advanced adventure dive – Navigation. After getting severely lost the previous day, this one seemed important. We were each given compasses and taught how to tell direction under water. We then entered the reef and tested our newly learnt set of skills, navigating along a bearing and then in a square and then back to the boat.
After navigation we had one last dive to complete our certification – Boat Diving. All we were required to do was to enter the water from a small rubber dingy. We were taken out onto the water and made to enter the water by falling backwards off the boat - pretty simple. We then continued the dive along the reef eventually arriving back at the boat as certified advanced divers.
Both S and I had decided to join the on board hostie program (which I had already per-booked). Our work started at 1pm, so after lunch we were taught how to make beds (incorporating hospital corners) and clean bathrooms.
After completing some hostie duties we were able to join in on the 15:30 dive session. I borrowed a compass and managed to excellently navigate myself and the other three hosties along the reef at Normand Fingers, but we accidentally dropped below 18 meters, making Saga and Kai “blow their tables” and thus they were unable to dive for the next 24 hours.
After our dive, we continued our duties which felt almost non-stop for the rest of the day, finishing at 9 pm. See my next post Life as a Hostie, for more about my stay working on the Great Barrier Reef.