Oceans, lakes, glaciers, and rivers cover approximately 71 percent of the world, but few of those waters offer the same pristine fecundity and diversity as the mythical Great Barrier Reef. This past August, I received my PADI Open Water Diver certification with Pro Dive Cairns in Australia and ventured to new depths, exploring Earth’s granddaddy barrier reef – an aquatic treasure trove home to 1,500 species of fish, 360 varieties of hard coral (plus, one-third of the world’s soft coral), as well as 30 types of whales and dolphins. And that’s just skimming the surface. This underwater city encompasses 2,900 reefs, 600 continental isles, and 300 coral cays, making it the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site and a diving mecca for adventure seekers.
With so much to “sea” (and being a novice diver), I was eager to get my feet wet, both literally and figuratively. My five-day Learn to Dive program consisted of two days of rigorous classroom coursework and personalized pool training (which were headed by proficient dive instructors), before I cruised nearly 25 miles off the coast to put my freshly acquired skills to the test in the Great Barrier Reef. For the next three days, I called a 16-cabin vessel home, making nine dives (four training, five pleasure) in some of the natural aquarium’s outermost and secluded reefs, which were teeming with marine wildlife.
The water clarity yielded superb visibility and once I slowly descended deep into the recesses of the Earth, I instantly realized why the Great Barrier Reef is so deified. Polychromatic fish like the coral beauty, raccoon butterflyfish, flame angelfish, fairy basslet, and clownfish were among countless other species that skittishly swam right across my mask – so close I could have run my fingers along their silky bodies. I was also able to swim alongside graceful loggerhead sea turtles and followed them down to a bed of coral that resembled entwined antlers on the ocean floor, discreetly hovering inches above as they nibbled away, intently watching their every move.
There was something incredibly surreal about swimming effortlessly past gigantic clams, fluorescent fish with beady eyes (some as thin as a sheet of paper), and fearsome predators like barracuda and whitetip reef sharks in near silence – the only audible noise being my alien-like breathing through the regulator. Communication underwater with my diving buddies – who were two friendly, young Germans and a woman from Alabama – was solely by hand signaling or physically tapping each other. As a team, we navigated around, under, and through a montage of fish-laden coral formations (some of which were so tall that they were nearly flush with the ocean’s surface), constantly checking in with one another to not only make sure our dives were going according to plan, but that we had enough oxygen left, as well.
For me, the two most memorable dives of the excursion were at dawn and dusk – and they stick out in my mind for completely different reasons. It was just after sunset on the fourth day of the program when I extended my right leg over the side of the boat and stepped into the shark-infested black abyss with only a flashlight to lead the way. My only thoughts? “I must be crazy.” On this guided, adrenaline-pumping dive I saw virtually no marine life (which seemed rather strange), but the uneventful outing got injected with a whole lot more excitement (and pain) when I was stung by a microscopic jellyfish on my wrist – the only part of my body that the wet suit left exposed. After nursing the rash with vinegar, the burning sensation subsided a couple hours later and I called it an early night, hoping to get some much-needed rest.
I was somewhat lethargic when I awoke early the following morning for my first dive of the day, and if the 6:30 a.m. splash time into the 75-degree water didn’t wake me up, what I was about to see surely would. I dipped my head below the waves as the rising sun began to cast light on the bottom of the reef and witnessed a flurry of activity – a stark contrast to the dormant ocean 11 hours earlier. It was rush hour in this underwater kingdom as schools of fish like yellow damsels and surgeonfish swam about in a harmonious and synchronized manner, occasionally vanishing into thick colonies of coral. Nearby, vibrant parrotfish with bulging eyes and big-lipped wrasse moved leisurely through the water and dwarfed nearby fish feasting on vegetation. It was these up close, early-morning encounters with wildlife and the incredibly energetic atmosphere that made this dive my most cherished.
I spent just three days exploring the Great Barrier Reef and its fascinating (and sometimes peculiar) residents, but my once-in-a-lifetime experiences are forever etched in my memory. This fertile reef system is a truly magical and mysterious place. I hope to return someday so I can unravel new secrets and show my utmost respect and gratitude for Earth’s inimitable gift once more.