Think everyone who hits up Cairns fully intends to see the Great Barrier Reef. It is essentially the reason Cairns is Backpacker Central – and I am no exception. After a few days in Cairns and looking over the many, many different tour options, I chose an overnight trip with the Rum Runner Cairns. In addition, I also chose to do my Advanced Open Water course which would allow me to go down to 30 metres rather than just my current 18.
Unfortunately, since the trip starts at 7, I had to roll out of bed and drag my stuff into the luggage room before wandering down to the harbour while still half asleep. Really need to get back into the swing of getting up early – there’s only a smattering of people dotted around our dock, and as it happens, its going to be a very small group. The boat can take 16 people not including crew, but this time around was sitting on just 7. Some were introductory divers, others were certified, and others were just there to snorkel. I was going to be the only advanced student.
Which immediately presented problems after the safety orientation at the front of the boat when I was given the Advanced PADI handbook. I had to complete 5 sections in order to receive my certification – normally not a problem, but reading on a boat can and will result in me becoming sick, no matter how much motion-sickness tablets I consume. Especially when the water is as violent as it currently is – every now and then the boat will rock to the side and those of us out on deck will ram our feet against the handful of supports to stay in place. The instructor, Masa says not to worry and to look it over when we get to the Reef, which will be a lot less choppy.
He’s not wrong – it takes about 3 hours to reach the section of the Great Barrier Reef we’ll be starting at, and the water is far calmer than it previously was. This spot was merely labeled ‘mystery’ on the whiteboard.
On the trip, we’d have the chance to dive 6 times. Three times today, a night dive in the evening, and twice tomorrow. In order to achieve my certification, I have to do 5 dives from my book, and Masa has chosen the easiest (or most useful) to complete given the schedule. I have to do Boat Diving (easy since every dive would be on the boat, Fish ID, Underwater Navigation, Underwater Naturalist and a Deep Dive.
I hit the water for the Boat Dive, and immediately run in to a few problems – mostly from having not been diving in months, and also because I didn’t have enough weights. The Dive Master Trainee taking us out had to yank me back down during my trip. While getting my bearings (along with the other divers), we apparently missed a shark that was in the distance through bubbles and lack of movement.
Second dive went a lot smoother. We stopped at a place called Blue Lagoon, and this time I just had to try and identify fish. With an additional weight and a little readjustment of my kit, I was definitely getting a better hang of it. Buoyancy was right back to where it should be and moving a lot better – guess its a little like riding a bike.
The third and last dive of the day was in an area listed as 360 however was the most problematic. I qualified with SSI, who don’t have a navigation aspect to their course, so this was my first time using one underwater. I had to swim 20 metres in a straight line in the direction the Dive Master trainee chose, then swim in a square using the compass to navigate. On land, I can handle (sort of) a compass, but its a lot harder in water. If you don’t keep it level, the damn thing will stop working and you can end up all over the place. I was supposed to keep it horizontal, but would curl it up without thinking, and was a little confused as to where the arrow should be. I technically scraped through, but the crew agreed that I should probably repeat the exercise tomorrow to make sure.
This reef site wasn’t done though, for once we’d eaten and the sun had set, it was time to try night diving. Very much an optional dive, several opted out, resulting in just 3 of us going in the water. Which turned to 2 a few minutes in when one of the girls couldn’t equalise.
Night Diving is very different from a regular dive, mostly due to the lack of what you see. Armed with a torch, its all about appreciating an area in a completely different setting. After exploring the area in the day when it was teeming with fish, it was rather eerie to see it at night with most of the fish completely out of site. The only constant was the large red bass who stalked our lights, looking for any hapless fish that would get caught in the light – we couldn’t focus too long on an area just in case we ended up being the cause of a hunt.
Despite not seeing many fish, we did run into a lobster and a lionfish huddled in the rocks which was something of a highlight – Lionfish are beautiful to watch.
It would have been the perfect way to end the day…except with the water relatively calm and most of us calling it a night, I decided to crack open that book and try to get through it. I manage 2 chapters, because my head and stomach erupt and I have to slam it shut and flee to the outer deck. Try to ignore the feelings by stargazing with everyone (you have never seen such a clear sky out on the ocean in the middle of nowhere), but within an hour, I’m throwing up over the side of the bridge.
I can’t even fathom going downstairs, where the rocking is ten times worse, and I end up grabbing my blankets and sleeping on a bench on the upper deck at a dive master trainees advice. Its where they generally sleep, and its great for calming stomachs. Very true, though they still put a ridiculously large ‘sick bucket’ barrel next to me while I sleep.
Next morning, my stomach’s back to normal but my back feels like iron. The very thin seat has done damage to my back – can’t imagine how the Dive Trainees manage to sleep on them day in and day out. I’m not feeling all that fantastic, but have to do the next dive, and figure once I get into the water I’ll be awake. Have to be if I need to repeat Navigation and then start identifying species underwater
Thankfully I get through Navigation thanks to some additional (if somewhat conflicting to what I’d been told before) information, and reducing the distance I need to travel, and get through the Naturalist part without too much trouble. On this dive, I even see the biggest fish of the trip, a giant grouper that’s easily 2 metres long.
Our last stop is an area called Nolans, which has one of the most impressive coral gardens in the reef system. Every colour and type is littered amongst this patch of water. It also has a 25 metre area in spitting distance for me to do a deep dive and tick off the last test. All we have to do is swim down, check the colours on a board brought with us (at this level, red essentially becomes brown, and all colours fade into duller, different shades) and check the depth gauges of everyone on the level. Once over, the deep dive was done, and we could swim to a slightly higher level to properly enjoy the reef’s coral.
With the physical part out of the way, all I had to do was the coursework. This of course still slightly problematic due to my inability to you know – complete it without becoming completely ill. However, the sea was less choppy on the way back, and armed with plenty of anti-motion sickness tablets and some cheat sheets to cut down on the reading, I plonked myself in the centre of the boat and forced my way through it.
So, in the next month a pretty piece of plastic with a very ugly photo should appear at my mother’s abode allowing me to dive to new depths. Woot!
Since it was whale season, the boat left the reef a little early in the hopes that we might run into a few on the way home. Sadly, we weren’t that lucky, and rolled into the harbour early enough for everyone to head back to their respective hotels and hostels for a decent shower before coming back for happy hour at the local bar. This kind of threw me for a loop as I arrived on time…but was the first one there and wasn’t certain if I’d gotten the right place. I ended up walking along the Esplanade in confusion, and running into another girl who’d had the same problem, and walking in together. Thankfully, the others all started trickling in and we could all give ourselves one final cheer for a job well done on the boat.
Sadly, I couldn’t stay too long, as my hostel was having a Barbeque and Fire Show tonight, and I’d already paid for my ticket (proceeds going to a charity in Nepal). Managed to stay for an hour before saying my goodbyes and heading back for the first meal in 2 days I wouldn’t have to hold back with in fear of throwing up.
One thing to say about Australia is definitely their over-abundance of food. The BBQ allowed for one steak, 2 sausages, 2 chunks of kangaroo, and 2 chunks of crocodile with onions and a heavy salad bar. And still plenty left over for seconds. Steaks were tiny, but still really tasty, and definitely find kangaroo tastier than croc any day of the week.
Afterwards it was the fire show performed by Fire Tech. This company is run by Jim Schwalbach, who is also a local artist. He and his two colleagues demonstrated some pretty spectacular poi skills – setting them on fire and effectively spinning them round in crazy complicated patterns that made collective jaws ‘ooh’
Afterwards, Jim ran a poi workshop for anyone interested. The skills in the show are actually pretty simple, and the hardest part (according to him) is making it look hard. Regardless, despite being the first one up, I was struggling right from the get go. While everyone else managed to spin the poi and cross them over the body, I was constantly hitting my leg and head from failed attempts. How the guy didn’t lose patience with me I’ll never know – but after 45 minutes I finally crack the first stage of spinning. I was trying to keep the ball from changing direction, and in doing so was actually changing direction and causing the very problem I was trying to prevent.
The second stage however, was a lot harder. My brain just wasn’t wrapping round it, I’d monopolised about an hour of the poi time, and the skin on my middle fingers was starting to rub raw, so I bowed out to let others try, happy I’d at least managed to achieve something.
Tomorrow I go on a tour of Cape Tribulation before buckling down and doing nothing in order to save money. Should be good.