Reef. The double vowel slows your pronunciation and ensures you can only say it with a due sense of awe and reverence. And what better way to see one of the earth’s natural wonders than to plunge head first into it off Queensland’s Tropical North coast? A five-day open water scuba diving course is expensive, but I had an idea I was investing in an experience which would leave me with memories for a lifetime. Registering for the course, I was required to take a medical, then handed a weighty instruction book the size of War and Peace to read beforehand. Thankfully, the medical was only a routine check-up. “Do you drink alcohol?” “Er, I sometimes have a small sherry with my dinner, doctor.” At 7.45am on Saturday morning, sitting in a classroom with what felt like a head full of cotton wool and molten eyelids, I was glad I had read the book and knew something of what was to come. After videos, talks and a test, we donned wetsuits and got to grips with all the elements of the scuba unit and accessories. The sky grew grey and began to squeeze out fat drops of tropical rain as we finally entered the pool to practice the skills we had read about. Our instructor was an ex-army man with six years of diving experience under his weight-belt. That was reassuring: surely someone trained to protect a country from harm could take a few shaky novice divers into open water and back again with minimum casualties?
The pool was 4.5 metres deep, and the first descent was an extremely disorientating experience. I was holding my nose to pop my ears while deflating my buoyancy control device, breathing slowly and avoiding stamping on someone’s head. My hearing and sense of perspective were scattered, amplified to an extent that takes a good deal of adjusting to. Noise seemed to generate from within my eardrums, and it took some time to locate its true origin. If I reached out to touch someone I found myself strangely detached, watching a giant hand and flapping feet fall short of their intended destination. Sound travels faster and light refracts in water, making objects larger and nearer in the aquarian world. Time seems to bend, making it difficult to estimate how long you’ve been under. Early next morning the engines jerked to life, heading for Fairey Reef, the first dive site. Paired off within a larger group of six, and supervised by an instructor, we executed a perfect backward roll off a motorised dinghy and suddenly were in the open water. Below the water was a cross-fire of quick-tailed fish, lined by polyp colonies which formed the coral walls. Descending, I found myself breathing in the nervous, shallow bursts we were told not to take. With an effort I relaxed and regulated it, for fear of running quickly out of the compressed air and, horror of horrors, being branded an air-pig. The skills we’d learnt in the pool were practiced on sand bars at a depth that meant any panicked dashes to the surface were unnecessary. Each of the first two training dives were rounded off with a tour of marine wildlife. We were soon handling sea cucumbers which attached to the skin with little suction pads; huge, slippery and colourful starfish; giant clams that yawned open then snapped shut as I reached for them. And did you ever have a feeling you were being watched? Rainbow-patterned fish in shoals seemed to follow in the wake of our fins, while others peered around coral walls or from overhangs.
We took our remaining training dives the next day, when our underwater tours were longer and, diving deeper, we saw a greater diversity of sea life. In the afternoon we were to dive without supervision, but still in ‘buddy’ pairs as we’d been taught. We parachute-stepped from the moving boat and swam with the current along a coral wall. Without an instructor to lead us for the first time, and aware that the ocean dropped away darkly to our left, there was a good deal of scarcely suppressed fear: divers swimming into each others’ fins and little observation of the aquatic world. The night dive that evening made my heart beat like a knackered clock. Sharks sleep by day and feed by night, although we were assured reef sharks don’t attack humans. But I’ve worked in pubs and even the most placid punter can flip-out violently for no obvious reason. I entered the water thinking “will the shark know I’m cool or will I have to get the bouncers to sort him out?” Fortunately, I returned with all my body parts intact, and in the end only a few of us managed to spot a shark in the endless dark water.
The final day’s diving took place on a stunning reef where the visibility was superb. The seascape here was spectacular. Vast columns of hard brain-like coral formed a labyrinth structure to explore: sea fans and soft coral billowed in the current, while we hung in suspended animation, able to view close up the most intricate details. At a distance we saw potato cod, a giant among the kaleidoscope of smaller fish. Moray eels, thicker than an arm, lurked menacingly at depth. Sometimes a rock would transform into a fish and swim away – it was hard to distinguish animal from plant life or mineral. It was a sad moment boarding the boat after the last dive. Handling the equipment underwater had become second nature. I had begun to understand the plethora of sea life: where once the burst of colours and textures merged into an abstract collage, I could now identify individual creatures. To finally become a certified diver was a thrill, but to do it while discovering one of the world’s greatest wonders is a dream come true.