Thursday, May 31, 2007

Australia - Great Barrier Reef

Before leaving Airlie Beach I visit the medical centre to undergo a check up to assertain if I am medically (not mentally!) fit for diving. The tests turn out positive and I am given a certificate to prove it. I can dive! Additionally I learn that my blood pressure is the lowest it's ever been! Just need to find out how to travel for a living to keep it that way ;) Anyway we leave Airlie and drive about 5 hours north, still on the Bruce Highway, and arrive in Townsville. It's pretty uneventful there and we just catch up on some sleep and some washing.

The next morning it's time to push on again and we drive another 5 hours to Cairns in tropical north Queensland. There is a torrential downpour most of the way up so progress is slightly slower than expected. We roll into cairns mid afternoon and check into Gilligans backpackers, quite a plush establishment. I go down to the Pro Dive shop to register for my 5 day PADI dive course starting the following day. We leave the rental car back at the depot, with an extra 2200km on the clock. Rhian and Peter go to organise their activities for the coming days. They spend 1 day out on the Great Barrier Reef where Peter does 3 dives. Then it's up to Cape Tribrulation for them for a couple of days in the rainforest, and back to Cairns for a bungee jump. Talk about packing things in! I just have to get up at 5am every day to go diving....

The course starts at the dive centre in Cairns with 1 day in the classroom learning about the theory and doing an exam, and 1 day pool training learing to do all the things we will later have to do in the open water. Our dive instructor is Oscar, a huge Kiwi ex rugby player who had played against Ulster in the early '90's, and a very cool guy. The course goes really well and I pass the exam. The only problem is that from time to time I experience difficulty equalising the pressure in my ears, making deeper descent impossible due to the pain. A problem that will reoccur until I get the hang of it through practice over the coming days. The course teaches us about the scuba equipment and all the safety aspects of diving. You always dive with a buddy. There were 5 people on our course: Kristian and Rune from Denmark, Emma from the UK and Kelly from the US. We were paired up on an ad hoc basis to practice in the pool. I won't go ionto the details, but it bascically has to do with learning the proceedure if 1 person gets into difficulty or runs out of air. There is a whole technique behind diving and all of the things you learn could save your life one day.

After the 2 days training in Cairns we are ready to head out to the Great Barrier Reef. The next
3 days and 2 nights will be spent on a dive boat 3
hours off the coast of Queensland on the Barrier Reef. This is known as a "liveaboard" and the boat provides accomodation and food and a steady supply of airtanks for the 25 divers on board. I share a room with Jerry, an accomplished diver from Northern Ireland but who has been living in New Zealand. He gives me plenty of tips. Anyway, the first 4 dives are with the instructor in order to go through the routines we learned in the pool and become competent at doing them in the open ocean. I have trouble equalising on the first dive and have to return to the boat, absolutely raging with myself. However the instructor takes me down again and I am able to catch up with the group for the remaining dives. On my second dive I see my first shark up close while I am actually in the water. Only a 2m Silvertip reef shark which poses no great threat, but still enough to make your heart skip a beat. We complete the other dives successfully and become qualified scuba divers on the second day. This gives us free reign to complete another 4 dives with a buddy, and without instructor. Thyese go remarkably well and an entire new underwater world has been opened up to me. It's fascinating and I can't believe what I've been missing out on... The only thing left to do with the instructor is a night dive. We get suited up and I am nervous as hell. From the flood lights on the bottom of the boat we can already see several large sharks swimming just a few metres below the surface. I think to myself "this is completely crazy - isn't nighttime feeding time?". Apparently we are not on the foodlist, so it should be ok... Well, that's not completely reassuring, so I make sure I go in near the end of the queue jumping into the water. Armed with my scuba gear and a powerful flashlight, we jump in and go under to explore the reef at night. Once I settle down it is one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. We swim around at about 16m below the surface and explore for about half an our. As we wait under the water at a depth of 5m for a compulsory 3 minute safety stop before surfacing, the sharks are circling us. However, at this stage I am totally relaxed and just enjoying this amazing encounter with nature. In total we complete 9 dives over the 3 days and return to Cairns tired but incredibly happy.
I meet up with Rhian and Peter again. We have a big party night out in Cairns and meet up with loads of people from the dive school, one of whom Rhian coincidently knew from University. Small world again! Also we meet up with the Derry girls again and bumped into Thomas from Germany. Mad! The next day we got up and went white water rafting for the afternoon. I have no pictures of that, so will write about it another time. Rhian and Peter left on the 31st May to fly down to Sydney for a few days before travelling back to Belfast. We had a fantastic time together. I was very happy that they came out to travel with me and very sad to see them go...
I stayed another day chilling out in Cairns and catching up on some sleep, before it was time for me to leave as well.