Sink or swim

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 2

Our editor conquers his fear of the deep as he bravely plunges into the shallow, secure and clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Are you alright, mate?”

“Well, now that you mention it…”

This exchange preceded my first serious scuba dive and was a good indication of how my debut attempt at breathing artificially underwater was going – initially at least.

It had taken the best part of half a century to convince me that descending into the depths without the benefit of gills might be a good way to spend a day. I mean, if we were meant to swim with the fishes, we’d either have gills with which to extract oxygen from water – or we’d be wearing concrete gumboots courtesy of someone called Fat Tony…

The day had begun with the best of intentions. We’d boarded Fantasea Cruises’ giant reef cat at Hamilton Island for the two-hour cruise north to the company’s Reefworld platform built on top of Hardy Reef – a piece of pristine coral reef located inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It was a typical monotonous north Queensland day, the weather only ever varying from spectacular to gorgeous. As we settled in with the other tourists, cruising effortlessly past Hayman and Hook Islands, the crew set about telling us what to expect from the coming day’s activities. At the time I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of following in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau and other similarly intrepid underwater adventurers. I would be content simply to do a spot of snorkelling, meekly hovering over the underworld, rather than actually becoming a part of it. But then I began to pay attention to the briefing. There was footage of spectacular tropical fish swimming lazily within reach of entranced divers, who appeared suitably impressed by the experience. The commentary assured those of us who had never donned scuba gear before that there was nothing to be afraid of. All we needed was a few minutes instruction and a sense of adventure.

“OK, sign me up,” I said, far too confidently. The rest of the cruise out to the reef was pleasant and I barely gave my scuba debut another thought.

SIGN OF TROUBLE

“If you’re having trouble, do this,” explained the instructor, holding his hand out in front of him and rocking it from side to side.

I paid particular attention to this one, having already listened keenly as the process of breathing underwater was explained in detail to our small group.

By now we were all at least looking the part, encased in our wet suits and saddled with the weight of large air bottles and associated plumbing. We were invited to descend to the ‘Moonpool’, a small, partly-submerged platform underneath Reefworld, where we sat listening to last-minute instructions.

It was now simply a matter of taking ‘one small step for a man, one giant leap for…’. OK, maybe a bit melodramatic, but I doubt that even Neil Armstrong would have felt any more trepidation than I as the instructor coaxed us all to depart the safety of the platform. Despite being a confident swimmer and snorkeller, and knowing that if anything went wrong I couldn’t be in safer hands, it seemed that my brain was having difficulty sending the ‘release’ message to my hands. But when the young girl – and fellow first-timer – next to me stepped fearlessly into the abyss, I was left with no option. So I relinquished my grip on the railing and pushed forward – and promptly became pinned against the underside of Reefworld’s hull. Since this seemed to qualify as ‘having trouble’, I immediately forgot all about hand signals and flailed pathetically in an attempt to gain the instructor’s attention.

Seeing my difficulty, he calmly, but firmly helped me retrace the half-metre I had just swam back to the platform, whereupon, he sought to reassure me that all was well as I spat my breathing hose out and gasped for air. While I regained my composure – and what was left of my self-respect – it was decided that I needed another diving weight to compensate for my ‘natural buoyancy’. Once adjusted, I again ventured forth. This time I did not rise like a released balloon, but rather, hovered gently; the extra weight ironically making me weightless.

The ever-patient instructor lured me further away from the platform and towards the rest of the group, waiting to resume their undersea safari. Gradually, I let myself relax, gently inhaling and exhaling as I quickly became distracted by all the shapes moving around and beneath me.

ENTRANCING SCENE

With the occasional pause to equalise pressure in the ears, we were soon metres down and entranced by the scene that played out in front of us. Spectacularly coloured fish darted this way and that as tropical flora swayed gently in the current. Dozens of giant clams, their huge jaws agape, coated the reef floor, while coral structures of all shapes and sizes filled in the gaps. Schools of Spanish mackerel and the occasional giant trevally cruised lazily overhead as I became lost in the wonder and beauty of my surroundings. A gentle nudge broke the spell briefly as the instructor handed me a large sea slug, its soft body undulating slowly as it rested on my hand. I was soon swimming free of the guide ropes, turning this way and that to marvel at the amazing diversity of life around me. Dramatic anemones and starfish spread their tentacles in search of food, while tiny reef fish grazed on the coral, seemingly unconcerned at my attention.

My first half-hour scuba dive was over far too soon. By the time the instructor signalled our return, I had become content to just go with the flow – happily adrift in a sea of spectacular, brilliant life. It seemed a pity to leave just when I was starting to become comfortable with my new gills. Still, I felt like I’d accomplished something, conquering my internal landlubbering gremlins and becoming closely acquainted with the incredibly rich and diverse life that makes up one of the planet’s most precious ecosystems.

The rest of my four-hour stay at Reefworld was spent enjoying a great fresh buffet lunch and meeting George the Groper and Wally the Wrasse – two large and imposing locals who put in regular appearances to meet and entertain the visitors. I rounded off the visit with a guided tour of the underworld in the company’s submersible and another plunge – this time somewhat less adventurously hovering on the surface with a snorkel and flippers.

Judging by the discussions on the run home to Hamilton Island, I’d say I wasn’t the only guest to have had their appreciation of the incredible Great Barrier Reef and its inhabitants enhanced by their time with Fantasea Cruises.

Anyone visiting the Whitsundays and surrounds should set aside a day to join the Fantasea crew. Tours depart daily from Airlie Beach, Shute Harbour and Hamilton Island. For more information, go to: www.fantasea.com.au.


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