Friday, February 26, 2016

Scuba Diving in Cairns

I flew back to the East coast from Perth headed to Cairns to get certified in Scuba Diving.  The flight from Perth to Sydney was so smooth, no turbulence at all, and we got in early, it was great.  From there I was meant to have a quick transfer to get up to Cairns that night and start my training the next morning.  The flight was delayed slightly, but then we boarded, everyone was on and ready to go. But we didn't go. After a while, they told us there were some mechanical issues, but it was being taken care of, and they were just doing the paperwork.  And then we sat there some more.  Finally we pulled away from the gate, about an hour and a half late.  But then they returned us to the gate, still had some mechanical issues to work out. When we had been sitting on the plane for about 3 hours with very little update, I saw them starting to take the baggage off the plane.  They decided to get us off and switch aircrafts.  But when we were all off and they had found a new plane and pilot, they couldn't find a new crew (ours had already worked their hours), so we were being delayed until 7am the next morning, and only the people who had come from a connecting flight would be put up for the night (fortunately I had). So by the time I got to the hotel and checked in, I had about 5 hours until I had to be up to catch the shuttle back to the airport.  At least the morning flight got off the ground on time.  I had to forfeit a night at a hostel that I'd paid for, and got to my dive class a bit late, but I was just happy to have made it to Cairns, city of bats (or Fruit Foxes as they are known).

My Prodive classes began with some classroom learning of the basics, textbook and all. In the afternoon we got into the pool, proved we could tread water for ten minutes, and then learned how to assemble our gear, and swim in it.  Between that afternoon and the next morning, we picked up the basics, and proved we could handle most of the skills in a controlled environment.  Then we had to pass a written exam on all of the theory and practical skills we'd learned.  These two days were really tiring.  
I was staying in a quad-share room in a hostel (that turned out to have a reputation of being the party hostel, not quite what I was looking for just then) called Gilligan's. My roommates were two young girls who were there to get their partying on (and were usually getting ready to go out for the night when I was getting ready to go to bed -doesn't make me feel old at all), and a really quiet guy, who was keeping the same schedule as I was, so he could spend his days out doing all the activities the area has to offer, like sky diving and rainforest tours. 
After passing the written exam, we headed out for our 3 day 2 night live aboard open water training out in the Great Barrier Reef.  
On the boat we had 32 divers of varying skill levels and 6 crew (including the 2 instructors us 9 intro students had been working with in the pool), all paired off into rooms.  I took the top bunk. Aside from our tiny cabins, there were bathrooms where you would shower over the sink next to the toilet, a galley area where we ate our meals, and the outdoor spaces, lower and upper decks.
We set off for the outer reef, and as we got away from the shore, a storm picked up, raining on us and making the water really choppy.  Suddenly everyone was looking pale and taking up spots out back on the covered deck for air.  I've never had a problem with seasickness, but part of the ride, I wasn't feeling too great either anytime I was upright.  Lying down was much better.  But once we made it out to the reef, everyone had to snap to it, because our first dive was about to start.  

Out on Milln reef, we assembled our gear, which included a stinger suit (a thin full body suit appropriate for the warm water, meant to protect from stingers or jelly fish, prevalent in the area this time of year). We hopped into the water and descended down a line off the back of the boat for the first dive.  I had discovered in the pool, and this remained true in the open water, that one of my ears has trouble equalizing or clearing, so I have to descend pretty slowly, at the back of the class, making my way down as my ear allows.  The first dive wasn't too deep, I went to a max of 10.7 meters (I really only know everything I did in metric, so do your own conversions as necessary).  The first day's dives were mainly about showing we had mastered required skills like neutral buoyancy (floating so that you neither sink nor float), clearing our masks of water (I hate this one, the salt stings my eyes for a while after, and despite breathing through a regulator, not being able to see and having my nose full of water just feels like drowning), showing that we know the underwater sign language, switching to our buddy's backup respirator (in case of running out of air), etc. 
Between every dive, we were fed tons of food.  Large portion meals, plus cake for snack, and fruit and biscuits available at all times.  So after our first dive, we had lunch, and then could go for a snorkel to chill out in the water a bit before our second dive (after cake). The second dive was where we showed we could get down close to 18 meters, which is what an open water certification covers.  I made it down to 17.2.  That was it for the first day for us beginners, but the certified divers had 4 optional dives the first day, including a night dive, in the rain (and still choppy water), after dinner, before more cake. 
Just before our wake up call the next morning, the skipper moved the boat to Flynn reef.  We got into the water around 7am, to work on some more skills training.  Then up for breakfast and back down for the final dive needed for certification, where we practiced some navigation skills, so that we can find our way out and back to the boat under water.  I still need lots more practice on that, but I have the basics.  And then, ta-da! We were certified divers! 
I wasn't able to bring a camera on any of the training dives, but we found Nemo and Dori (so many Doris!), a moray eel, which was really cool (swimming by like one of Ursela's pets), a bat fish, a green sea turtle, a giant clam, and many other fish.  And on the deck of the boat between dives, we saw the rain cutting across the water toward us, had just enough warning to pull down some of our drying things and run inside. 

After getting certified, I went along for a night dive.  After the sun was down, with all of the lights of the boat on, small fish are drawn to the light, and reef sharks are drawn to them.  So going into the water, there were white tip reef sharks swimming all around.  We had flashlights attached to our wrists (to make sure we didn't drop them). The instructor took us out and after we made it down, took us around to show us other nighttime reef sights, like sea turtles and puffer fish.  I thought I might be freaked out by what I couldn't see, but the dark really didn't bother me, and with the bright lights of the boat, it was actually easier to find the way back than during the day.  
The last day on the boat, I admit I slept in through the 6:30am dive.  I was exhausted! But I went out for the next two dives before we headed back to dry land.  I'm still working on my sea life identification skills, so out with just my buddy and no instructors, I'm not totally sure what all I saw, other than a starfish (obvious), but see some for yourself: 
I'm also still figuring out how to get good shots of the fish with the wide angle of the GoPro, but I think the red filter I added helped the colors underwater. 
After the final dive and another meal, we turned back for the shore, another long and bumpy ride (but not quite so choppy). 

Back in Cairns, we had some swaying to overcome as we adjusted our sea legs to a more stable environment.  We were dropped off at our various hotels, and I found myself at the nicest place I've stayed the entire trip in my own room.  In addition to free wifi, I had a balcony, a view looking out over the city, a full tub shower (I can't tell you how much easier it is to shave legs not having to find a weird propped up position in a shower stall), a hairdryer, both a/c and a fan, a minibar, a sofa -I know these things all sounds pretty normal, but after a boat cabin and various hostels and a dorm room, it's pretty damn nice. 

The next part of my trip is a tour from Cairns down to Sydney, the last leg in Australia.  I'll be back with an update in a while.  
Thanks for reading! 

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