Welcome to the Great Barrier Reef

Living with the fish for three days on the best barrier reef on earth

Last May, I got the opportunity to visit the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the (obviously) greatest barrier reef in the world. I was finishing a trip in China and since I have relatives living in the area and love scuba diving, I figured I couldn’t pass up the chance to go diving there.

So I went to Cairns, a town in Queensland, Australia. Cairns is a beautiful town filled with really nice people. Since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, May is in the winter, but Cairns is tropical and it was still beautiful sunny, 80-degree weather every day.

I booked my trip and before I knew it, I was waking up at 6 am to board the dive boat. After a brief safety briefing, we set off.

The boat, as seen at the beginning of a dive

The Great Barrier Reef is a good distance from the coast. It takes a good 2 hours to get there and the journey is very rough. We were advised to take seasickness medication if we ever got seasick since the boat would be traveling against the motion of the waves, which, though they were far less powerful thanks to the reef, were still significantly strong. Foolishly, I decided that I’d probably be okay. Not a smart call.

The descent

After at least an hour of constantly throwing up (not a pleasant experience), we finally reached the reef and began our first dive almost immediately. I sat out on the first one, still feeling terrible from the trip. But by the second one, I was feeling a good deal better and so decided to start my adventure on the reef.

As is the case in many dives, it was like entering an alien world and it was beautiful.

We dove a few more times that day. One time we saw a sea turtle.

Hello Mr. Turtle. He’s eating the staghorn coral and the stuff stuck within it by holding it down with his arms and breaking off parts with his mouth.
By the way, it’s been 4 or 5 months since I did this and so I’ve unfortunately forgotten exactly which dives I did on which days. Frustratingly, I forgot to log the dives as they happened. I’ll probably use the timecodes from photos and I’ll call the dive shop to ask for the location names again to see if I can match everything up. The sequencing of dives might be a tad off.
An underwater crevasse we swam through. One of my favorite dives.

Between dives, I worked on coursework for my Enriched Air Nitrox (EANx) certification.

Enriched air, often called Nitrox, is a special blend of breathing gas that has more oxygen and less nitrogen than usual, allowing for less nitrogen exposure and therefore, increased no-decompression time at a given depth and/or a reduced surface interval. To learn more about the certification, head over here.

Meet some underwater friends

This is one of my favorite sea creatures. I don’t actually know what it is so if you do, comment and I’ll make your comment public so we can all learn about it. It does this cool thing where it scrunches itself shut when it senses touch or a disturbance in the water nearby. We’d swim by it and wave at it and it would do this interesting twitching motion. One of my favorite things about diving is that you get to know the creatures you encounter. I remember this being pointed out to me on a previous trip and so I knew to look out for it.
Here are another two. They’re a bit easier to see. Note the hole in the middle of the one farther away. They all have that. and it looks like they breathe out of it or something.
Reef shark. Sorry, kind of hard to see. Not the best picture.
This is Wally, a wrasse that hangs out around where we were. Notice the bump in his head. If you hold up your hand, he’ll come nuzzle that forehead on your hand. So cuddly.
My two dive buddies
Probably my favorite sea creature. It’s tiny, so look carefully. They’re those blue, conical, Christmas-tree-looking things. They’re the Christmas tree worms! They live in coral and extend their spiral fronds outside their little hole. They’re very sensitive, and if you touch them or come close, they retract back into their hole faster than you can blink. Then if you wait 30 or so seconds, they’ll come out again. If disturbed again, they’ll learn and wait longer before coming out next time.
Another beautiful fish that I don’t know anything about.
Sea cucumber. Probably the ugliest creature in the sea, but definitely not the least interesting. Worth looking up.

Finally, a creature that I thankfully didn’t run into:

This is the Irukandji jellyfish, one of the most dangerous creatures on earth. Touching it can cause cardiac arrest and seizures, which, for divers 2 hours from land, means it’s almost certainly fatal. What’s more, it’s transparent and is the size of a finger nail, making it all but invisible. We dove at the end of its season, but we still wore full-body suits that would help protect against it.

After a day full of diving, night fell.

Nighttime on a relatively small boat anchored out of sight of land can be very lonely. It makes you feel really small. Out on the reef, tens of miles away from the rest of humanity, you get the sense that you’re in the fish’s home—out of place.

The darkest place on the boat at night was the top deck, a flat, open area. Ironically, it was also the brightest during the day so it was usually the place to go for sunbathing between dives. But at night, I could go up there, look up, and see more stars at once than I had ever seen before. When I looked around where I imagined the horizon to be, there was not a single bit of light to be seen.

Barrier reefs are literally barriers, protecting the coast from the destructive waves of the open ocean. Waves crash on the coral reef just like they would on rocks, with a loud but soothing noise.

I would sit up on that deck each night, staring at the sky and listening to the waves, feeling both profoundly happy and yet simultaneously very small and alone.

One night, we went on a night dive.

Our divemaster told us that we were going to carry chem lights or glow sticks of different colors so we could identify each other more easily in the water. He said that we were going to use special dive chem lights that only activated when heat was applied to them. So we rubbed them between our hands and put them in our mouths and did everything we could to heat them up, only to find that he was joking. We were just supposed to crack them like any normal glow stick.

This was my first night dive so I was very excited. Diving at night, I found, is a very different experience. It’s dark, obviously, but not nearly as dark as you might think. In many ways, there’s actually more light since you can see all the colors of the coral and fish, given that you’re bringing your own light rather than relying on water-filtered daylight, which removes many colors from the spectrum. The moon was also remarkably bright underwater, or at least it was on the night I went.

We got to see the oldest sea turtle (150+ years) on the reef. We were careful to not wake him up since if we were to he would have to surface, making him vulnerable to nocturnal predators like sharks. Sea turtles have a remarkable ability to slow their heartrate to extremely slow frequencies when they sleep, reducing their need for oxygen. Through this adaptation, sea turtles can stay asleep on the reef floor all night, keeping them much safer than they’d be if they had to continually surface. And they get better sleep too.

At the end, as we ascended, we saw a stunning five reef sharks at once, all curiously circling around us and the pool of light cast by the boat’s floodlights.

There was a last day of diving before we headed back.

Here’s some video. Apologies for the quality—I was focusing on other things and it’s hard to keep the camera steady while swimming.

Finally, when it was all over and I had completed my last dive, I was Nitrox certified and had an amazing experience. And I was sure to take seasickness medication for the return trip.

Your turn

I’d highly recommend that anyone who is able and who has an interest in scuba diving visit the great barrier reef at least once, especially since it’s deteriorating by the day due to the harmful effects of some non-environmentally conscious human activity.

And if you can’t go, or scuba diving doesn’t interest you (somehow ☺), then I’d urge you to donate to/get involved with reef and ocean life preservation efforts through organizations such as this one: Fight for the Reef

Special thanks to my family, especially my relatives Fergus and Mario, ProDive Cairns, and my two dive buddies on this trip for helping to create such a memorable experience.

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