In Deep Down Under


June 2011

by Robert Earle Howells


Diving the Great Barrier ReefYes, yes, I know that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is among the world’s most glorious natural wonders and that I should be enchanted with the bulbous coral, the weird spiny wavy things, the preposterous creatures gliding in and out and all around. The radiant colors. The choreographed schools of gooferbellies, snufflefish, and lorikeetbeaks, or whatever they’re called. But 30 feet under the azure surface of the Coral Sea, 20 minutes into my first “solo” dive (you always dive with a buddy), what was on my mind was, “What’s the undersea signal for ‘Where the heck is the dive boat?’” My dive buddy appeared to be as enchanted by the unfolding aquarium-in-paradise show as I longed to be, but he needed to be reminded that we were two newly certified divers with little or no clue where we were in relation to our ride home. I caught his attention and gesticulated a giant shrug. The cock of his pale-green masked face suggested a quizzical look. He resumed being enchanted while I resumed trying to retrace the course that got us to this spot—let’s see, did we go by that weird round dealie? Was that thingamajig on our left or our right? After a couple more minutes, my dive buddy waved at me and gestured with interlocked fingers something that looked like “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up…”

A fine bit of finger origami, but the question still stood: Where was the boat?


High on the List

I’m not crazy about the term “bucket list,” with its connotations of hurried desperation in light of a giant ticking clock. Let’s just say that seeing Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was a lifelong dream. And, for all the many adventures I’ve enjoyed as a travel writer, I’d never taken the time to learn to dive. I decided to nab two dreams with one trip Down Under.

Cairns was the logical destination. It’s the largest city in tropical northern Queensland, gateway to the reef, and home to a number of dive operators, each with its own diving school. After an Internet search, I selected Deep Sea Divers Den because it claimed to be the only school in town with its own swimming pool, and it made sense to me to have a pool handy while learning the fundamentals of diving.

Divers are a proselytizing bunch. They’ve witnessed wonders deep beneath the surface of mysterious seas, and insist that you too should learn how to breathe underwater and have similar life-changing experiences. They always contend that the learning process is a piece of cake. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not quite so simple. And that’s good. Because, as my early sessions in class and in the convenient Divers Den swimming pool emphasized, there are some gruesome ways to die underwater, and you don’t want to try any of them. Learning to dive is really learning how not to die, and it becomes quickly clear in a dive course that there’s more at risk here than in a koala cuddle.

But the good news is, every potential hazard of the deep has a counter measure,  and a PADI-sanctioned dive course leads you carefully through everything you need to know to stay alive. (PADI is the global organization that standardizes training of divers and instructors in more than 200 countries.) So, joined by a small group of international dive buddies—a young lady from England and young guys from Hong Kong, Germany, and Michigan—I turned myself over to the expertise of Lewis Lawrence, my friendly Aussie instructor and lifeline for the ensuing several days. We motored through the theory and the skills, taking classroom quizzes and practicing our how-not-to-die skills in the pool. After two days of this and a written final exam, we were ready to head out to sea.


Beneath the Blue

It’s a bit of a commute to the Great Barrier Reef, which begins more than 40 miles off the east coast of Queensland. That helps account for its relatively pristine state, since it’s removed from threats like agricultural runoff. The reef is huge, too—about half the size of Texas, more than 1,400 miles long and comprising some 2,900 individual reefs. That means not only lots of places to dive, but also a staggering variety of life for divers to behold—more than 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral (by comparison, the Caribbean holds about 15 coral species), 16 species of sea snakes, thousands of species of mollusks, 500 echinoderms (e.g., sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea urchins), six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, and more than 30 cetaceans. “Come winter,” PADI official and Australian reef advocate Tony Fonte told me, “if you don’t see a whale, you’re not looking.”

I was aware of all of this before jumping in for my first open-water dive, but I was still in school (four training dives to go before we were officially certified), and hence more focused on executing mandatory skills I hope never to have to perform again, like removing my scuba gear in the water (yikes) and getting it all back on again. But as I was slowly descending into the azure blue amid bulbous forests of radiant corals and my friends’ columns of bubbles, a huge blue and orange fish sidled into view—flounder-flat, with big fleshy lips and bulging orange eyes, a good five feet long and about as high, later identified as a Maori wrasse. My jaw would have dropped had it not been occupied clenching my regulator. But that was my first keen inkling that this was indeed a magical world down here, and worth every bit of survival training.

After three more sessions from the deck of the OceanQuest, Divers Den’s live-aboard dive vessel, Lewis signed us all off as certified divers. No more training dives. Five “pleasure dives” ahead. Which brought me to my “where the heck is the boat” situation. Apparently it’s the Aussie custom to assume eagerness and independence on the part of freshly minted divers, and to encourage them to ply their skills without benefit of a guide. Swept up in the flush of the moment, my dive buddy, Alex, and I attended the divemaster’s chalk talk for the site—Coral Garden on Saxon Reef—wherein he sketched the reef, predicted some highlights, and issued some cautions. Alex and I checked each other’s gear, and then plunged in. The boat was anchored about 150 feet from the reef, so even with 40-foot visibility, we were soon out of visual contact with the boat. This dawned on me sooner than it did my dive buddy, who for a while remained blithely ignorant of our peril and therefore enjoyed the dive more than I did. It turned out that his mysterious hand gesture was to indicate a ray, which I didn’t see. I was aware of the astounding beauty of our surroundings, but more aware that we were somewhat lost.


The Life Aquatic

It turned out to be no big deal. When we ultimately surfaced, we had a five-minute swim back to the boat. But for my remaining four pleasure dives, I opted to purchase the services of a guide. I left navigation up to him or her, plus enjoyed their ability to see and point out highlights. One guide even brought a writing tablet and scrawled out names of some of the creatures and corals.

Which brings me to some sage observations as a veteran of five pleasure dives.

You rarely know exactly what you’re seeing, but it doesn’t matter. Sure, your guide knows some common names, and the boat provides charts and books, but I contend that anyone who jots down the names of dozens of fish and coral in his logbook after a dive is deluded. The reef holds such dazzling variety that it would be impossible to accurately document a fraction of what you might see in a single dive. The name game is a fool’s mission.

Going with a guide, a divemaster, is great. He or she knows the reefs, where the coolest critters are, and keeps track of where everyone (and the boat) is. It’s standard practice in most places.

It may be fun to swim around, but you can hang out in a section of reef the size of your bedroom and have an amazing experience. Each closer look reveals something new—some tiny creature living atop some other tiny creature, some colorful goby emerging from a coral chamber, some tentacled something waving its limbs in the current.

“Charismatic megafauna”—e.g., sharks, rays, eels, turtles—are the obsession of many divers. They’re all abundant on the Great Barrier Reef, but they all eluded me. It didn’t matter. If I’d seen nothing but color, it would have been enough. The hues, the shimmers, the self-contained radiance of the corals and the fish are dazzling.

My secret dream (okay, “bucket”) list used to include space travel if I ever got the chance. Now I don’t care. The sea is enough for me. I could dive every day for the rest of my life at the Great Barrier Reef and never come close to exhausting its extravagant beauty. Plus the sensation of weightlessness is truly otherworldly. I floated in space and witnessed wonders I’ll never forget, even if I can’t name them. There’s a cosmos down there. My list is complete.


Dive In

Deep Sea Divers Den’s five-day open-water course covers two days of PADI course work and training dives, five pleasure dives, and three days/two nights plus all meals aboard the Ocean Quest. $810 AUS;


Although I enjoyed the full-immersion approach of learning dive theory and skills and getting certified in consecutive days, PADI offers other options. You can, for example, do class work online or at a local dive shop, confined water dives with a dive shop, and then join up with an outfitter like Divers Den for open-water training dives and certification. PADI’s website explains the options.