The Great Barrier Reef
Finding Nemos, Dories, and a lot of Bruces
living and diving on the GBR
Arriving in Cairns in Queensland marked our first time on the Australian continent and our first time in a western country since we left home in 2016. People asked if we had a reverse culture shock, but the drastic change in scenery barely registered for us. For one, most people don't realize that southeast Asia is pretty built up and modernized, and just as we got used to seeing people carry pigs on their motorbikes and frequenting night markets, we jumped right back into a western routine that reminded us of home. We went to the grocery store, cooked dinner, drank espresso, and shopped at the mall. It wasn't until about a week into our time in Australia when I realized no one was heckling me on the street for taxis or massages. When you're traveling around to as many varied places as we are, you may not be used to what a new place is like but you're familiar with the feeling of drastic change.
Cairns is a small and relatively quiet town and you can walk the downtown is around twenty minutes. There's not much to it and people mainly travel there to access the many nature sights close by, the Great Barrier Reef being the top draw. After some research, I balanced the desire to get to some more remote and preserved parts of the massive reef with a backpacker's budget and settled on a three-day, two-night liveaboard ship. After getting our advanced Scuba certification just a week before in Komodo, we were excited to explore as much of the reef as possible.
To get to the liveaboard, we had to take a day boat packed with snorkelers over the very choppy waves out a few hours to the reef. Since my prescription motion sickness patch gave me vertigo last time, I wanted to see if I could manage the trip without any medication. I'd been doing just fine on the many car trips and boat rides over the last few months but ten minutes of that rough chop and the boat jumping up and down had me scrambling for dramamine!
We dove a few sites on the day trip boat while most people snorkeled and found the water to be much murkier and the surf much stronger than we were used to in the very warm and calm waters of the tropics. The murkiness was in large part due to a large hurricane that ripped through the region just a month earlier and the water was still settling. We also realized that you don't get a guide- the dive master shows you a map of the dive site on the boat and you basically jump into the water and try to navigate it yourself based off of those rudimentary directions. I'd never dove alone before but Dain and I had been diving very frequently over the past few months and had an advanced certification which made us both feel more confident. In addition to the murky water, the GBR didn't have the vibrant colors we've come to experience on most healthy reefs. In some places, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble. We hoped that the dive sites we'd visit on the liveaboard, which is a better option because it goes to more remote places that you can't visit in a single day, would yield better dives.
The liveaboard boat was very nice- it had a formal dining room, two sun decks and a dive deck, and the rooms were comfortable and clean. Each day, I awoke to sunlight glinting off the Coral Sea and through the blinds into my bedroom. The one thing I had to adjust to was the sheer amount of rules- I felt like they were crushing me. Coming from Asia where you can do whatever you want whenever you want, and where any problem is met with a "no worries" and lackadaisical attitude towards fixing it, the crew felt uptight and annoying. The protocols for diver safety I totally understand, but they even had rules on what water jugs you could drink out of and once yelled at me for being wet on a boat. Hello... this is a dive boat. It's pretty much impossible for people to be dry.
In any case, Dain and I enjoyed leading our own dives and felt empowered by setting our own pace and watching after each other. The hardest part of the trip was swimming, either out to the reef or back to the boat. The current was pretty strong and the waves were high, so swimming with all my gear on was especially exhausting. The corals we continued to see were for the most part dead and bleached. Even the reef life seemed to be affected because some anemones were bleached and a lot of the animals they told us to watch for just weren't there. I felt helpless looking at a decaying reef that I pessimistically believe will die completely in the course of my lifetime. Knowing what I now know about all the life the GBR fosters both on the reef and its connections to animals and habitats all over the world, its decay is even more disheartening. With something like rising ocean temperatures, you feel like there's nothing you can do. There's even a saying, "let's not boil the ocean here," that people say when you're setting off on an impossible and lengthy task. Although I may have been disappointed with the diving, I'm so glad Dain and I got to see even now. It's one of the wonders of the natural world, and from the bit I saw of it, I can attest to its greatness.
The coolest part of the trip were the two night dives. When the sun went down, big fish were attracted to the lights shining off the boat and into the water, which in turn attracted about a dozen white tip and grey sharks and one large grouper to the back of the boat. While putting together my dive gear, I looked over the edge to see how the sharks stalk their prey. All it takes is one shark to lunge at a fish and the rest of the pack follow suit. It may seem insane to go in the water when sharks are feeding, but that's exactly what I did. I held onto my mask, took a big step in right on top of the sharks, and hovered in the chaotic water with sharks just a few feet away from me. It was a thrilling experience.
As you descend the mooring line into the reef, each person has a flashlight to illuminate a little bit of your surroundings but you have to be careful where you point. All around us were giant trevally fish scouring the reef for a meal. Think of the reef as a bad neighborhood: everyone locks their doors tightly at night to stay safe and the gangs patrol the street. Anyone caught outside will suffer the consequences. So if you see a cool fish, don't shine your light on it for too long. The trevally are smart and hang around us to use our light, so if you're looking at a fish you just might show them to their dinner. Our boat crew semi-joking told us we got one kill each. We also saw a sleeping turtle, which you have to be careful not to wake because turtles take one big breath of air before going to sleep at night and have to make it last until morning. If they wake up, they have to swim to the surface to breath which puts them in danger of getting eaten.
I also loved the morning dive. Although the 5am wake-up call was hard to stomach, I roused myself in time to see the beginnings of a gorgeous sunrise. It was a good way to start our last day on the GBR and our last day of diving for a while. Although relatively new to me, I've taken to the diving lifestyle like a fish to, well, you know. That weightless feeling, the slow and steady breathing, the calm and quiet that comes when you leave the world to plunge under it. The best part of traveling is to see things as they are, wild and natural. The ocean is one of those rare places where you can get close to wildlife that you know can't be curated for you by a tour company. I'll miss the sea, but I won't be missing it for long.