I find it a little intimating when it doesn’t come in well defined containers – baths, pools, bottles, etc. Even wayward spurts from a loose washer on a tap can have me squeal. But I want to, I really want to love it. Given that over 70% of the earth’s surface is water, it seems that I may be missing out on a vital and exciting part of life.
So I’m in Cairns, and on the agenda is another attempt at scuba diving. I’ve tried twice before. It’s unnerving, the whole breathing underwater thing. I don’t have gills for a start. The idea of having weights around my waist dragging me towards the ocean floor is intimidating. Do you know how many years and how much of my parents’ money went on swimming lessons enabling me to float, stay on the surface, and avoid the dreaded sink? And now you put weights on me?! There’s no denying that the first few experiences are strange – ears experiencing pressure, the claustrophobic feel of not being able to breathe through your nose, and the mind racing through how odd the situation is.
My last attempt was only a few weeks ago in Byron Bay. Having decided this really wasn’t my thing I lost the weights, tore off the wetsuit, and ran as far as my little legs would take me to the library. Sighhh. Amongst books. Words. Authors. Familiarity. Safer ground. Not to mention dryer.
The thing about Cairns is that it’s near this spot called the Great Barrier Reef. You may have heard of it. Home to 2,900 individual reefs, 1,500 species of fish, 411 hard corals and 134 species of sharks and rays, as well as whales, plants, cucumbers, and the like.
So one more try. What’s the worst that can happen? (My mind has plenty of answers, none positive).
Passions of Paradise are my guides today, promising me great snorkelling, an eco friendly trip, compassionate and friendly guides (Lord knows I will need them), and a great lunch. Running trips out to the reef, their smooth catarmarans carry passengers out to see the dizzying array of wildlife that occupies these waters. My fears of being dangled by my flippers and dropped, left to flounder in the unknown, are quickly abated, and we are given talks about the marine life, ways to support it, as well as the crucial safety briefing. My jaw is still a-chattering with nerves, but it helps. For now all I can do is lay on the deck and enjoy the two-hour cruise out to the first spot.
Whether you choose to snorkel or dive, the sights are amazing. We first moor at Paradise Reef, an exclusive spot for Passions. Limbering trunks, pink lumps, stretched fingers, layered leaves; the way the coral grows and lives creates a magnificent trippy spectacle unlike anything even the lost avant garde artist could dream up. It’s almost too pretty, and knowing that there are three and a half hours of snorkelling available for everyone on board today, I’m almost tempted to sack off the diving. I’ve already decided that the purple blues of the Swarthy Parrotfish are my favourite, so is it necessary to go deeper? Lots of people are sitting on the deck and soaking up rays, sipping a beer. Maybe I should go and join them?
The next location, Michaelmas Cay National Park, is a world-famous bird sanctuary – a sand bank with turquoise waters, and here I make my third attempt at scuba diving. I don the gear, checking at least 17 times that my breathing apparatus does indeed allow me to breathe. I make the goofy flipper walk to the platform. ‘Jump in’ says Russell, my instructor today. I sit down and edge myself in, grabbing the rope for safety.
Small groups are key to the experience of scuba diving at this beginner stage, and so there only a few of us going out this time. We practice breathing. I know what to do if I get water in my mask. And if my breathing apparatus falls out (put it back in). And now we are off.
Before I know it I’m practically sitting on a turtle’s head – accidentally, of course. It’s only a few metres below the surface, but I am down here. Scuba diving. Not drowning. And it is magical. The breathing means that the whole experience has an almost meditative quality to it; time means nothing down here, there are no directions. Just an abundance of life to explore.
There’s pink Brain Coral, all lumps and bumps, the long and meandering Magnificent Sea Anemone, the funny Mushroom Leather, the gigantic purple Elephant Ear Sponge and the Purple Flatworm that opens and closes like a wonky Cheshire Cat grin. We spot Lion Fish, easily identified by the long wispy ‘mane’ and my favourite, Swarthy Parrot Fish. And of course, the orange, black and white Clown Anemone, aka Nemo.
Have you ever watched a David Attenborough programme and been amazed and absorbed, but wished you could jump right through that screen and explore yourself? That’s the difference between snorkelling and scuba diving. Both offer stunning views and a window to the other world, but the latter lets you go down the rabbit hole (or into the sea) and actually experience it. Tickle the coral. Become lost in a school fish swimming around and through you. Turn your head left and right and up and down, and be in this different world. The colours are intensified, turned up to ten. The water is warm, and takes only minor movements to move through. It’s something I have never known before; and travel is all about new experiences right?
Third time lucky. And what a place to do it.
Need to know – Passions of Paradise depart daily from Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns. Prices start at $149. Russell is awesome.
Image credit: Thinkstock