Our morning began at 5.30 as we both took quick showers to help wake up and headed across the street and down the block a little bit for our dive shop pickup. They seem to not know how to handle Airbnb’s and insisted we be picked up at the Reef Palms hotel three doors down. We climbed into a mostly full van and said hello to a bunch of other sleepy, but excited looking folks. After one more pickup we arrived at the dive shop where we could drop off larger bags for storage and checked in. We also, thankfully, were able to purchase a MicroSD card for our new GoPro which we had neglected to do in our rush the night before. We very nearly had bought a brand new underwater camera that we were incapable of using because we had assumed it would take the same SD card as our old one. Luckily our dive shop sorted us out.
Back in the vans we climbed and we headed to the pier where we boarded what would be our home for the next three days and two nights, the very unoriginally named Scuba Pro III. We gathered in the galley (look at the sea lingo) for a quick breakfast, briefing, and quick introductions of the crew. All told, there were 32 tourists including ourselves on the boat and seven crew members. About half of the divers, it turned out, were getting their PADI Open Water certification and had been in classes together for the past two days already. There were four snorkelers including Lynn, and the rest were already certified divers, some like myself had just gotten certified for this trip and others had done more than a thousand dives.
The crew was a friendly collection of people around our age from around the world. Almost all of them sported tattoos and smelled like chain smokers. Our favorites would turn out to be Mark, the dive supervisor, and Hamish MacDonald (the most Scottish name I have ever heard), who was the skipper and DJ for the trip. Danny, Nicole, and Terry were dive instructors who mostly were with the people getting certified and we didn’t interact with much. Mike from Wyoming was the cook and we would learn, does a much better and healthier than expected job of feeding 40 people three times a day on a boat. We were unsure what the last guy did, so much so that we don’t even remember his name, but we do know he was new, from Holland, and got yelled at by Hamish a lot.
After breakfast we headed up to our rooms to drop off bags and get settled. We were assigned a bunk bed room on the top deck right off of the sun deck. It was quite cozy and we were thankful that we had left our big bags in storage back at the dive shop.
For the next three hours we chugged out sea to the sounds of remixed top 40 hits while the whole boat seemed to take to the sundeck for some relaxing and taking in the views. As soon as we got out of the bay the swells got quite large and we learned a few people had not heeded Mark’s warning to get some sea sickness pills from Mike, the boat’s resident pharmacist. Lynn had dutifully taken her Dramamine but still needed to lay down on the deck to deal with the motion of the ocean.
As we neared the reefs the divers headed down stairs to start setting up our equipment and I met Colin, who’s equipment box happened to be next to mine. We both decided to be dive buddies for the trip since we had similar dive experience and our stuff was already next to each other. Colin is just about the most enthusiastic and excitable person I have ever met. He was like a 36 year old Canadian version of my college roommate Stephen Munna, or Lynn’s Aunt Cathy if either of them were from a small town in Alberta.
The boat pulled into Milln Reef, about 40 miles off the coast and we headed to the sundeck for a dive briefing of the site. This is where we learned that Mark is not only, a very detail oriented artist, but that he also is quite funny and friendly as he gave his first briefing. He recommended a route around the reef, pointed out interesting things to look for in certain locations and gave good turnaround points. At that, he turned us loose and we headed downstairs to suit up and jump in.
Lynn, meanwhile, gathered up with the snorkelers and Terry gave them a quick briefing of the reef they would swim over as well as the safety signals in case anyone needed a pickup. This is where Lynn learned that the other snorkelers were not very strong swimmers and that the snorkelers seemed like second class citizens on the boat. Their briefings weren’t nearly as detailed as the diving ones and tended to consist of “head that way, and then just swim around, and then come back.”
Instead of detailing every dive (there were 11 of them over three days) we thought we would just include the highlights. We spent most of the first day and part of the second at Milln Reef before moving over to Flynn Reef for the second half of the trip. Here’s a video compilation of some of the stuff we saw.
- Doug learned that he and Colin are terrible at sucking down air and our first dive only lasted 27 minutes before we had to surface. During the break before the next one we got some pointers from Phil, who has been diving for 40 years, and drastically improved after that, even breaking 50 minutes at one point.
- We saw an impressive amount of coral and a lot of the fish we had seen in our Reef Teach course. My favorites were the various Sweet Lips (because they looked ridiculous), and anything that was bright orange and blue. We sadly never found a cuttlefish or a lionfish, both of which I was hoping to find.
- We saw a few rays on some dives a fair amount of turtles, and even some white tipped reef sharks.
- Colin’s highlight was seeing the clown fish, which we took tons of pictures for to show his seven year old daughter who is obsessed with Finding Nemo. In fact, I imagine that movie completely changed tourism in Cairns because references to it were made about every hour.
- We did two night divers, the first led by an instructor, and the second on our own in buddy pairs. The first wasn’t very exciting but it was quite eerie, with everything pitch black except for the flashlights and the colored light from glowsticks on the SCUBA tanks so you could tell who was who. The second one was a lot better, we found three gigantic sleeping turtles and swam out into a deep part of the reef where there was just blackness all around you except for the occasional reef shark that would tighten its circling just enough for you to make out in the dim light. It turns out we were always being circled by reef sharks because our lights attracted the fish that they like to eat.
- Lynn’s first dive around The Whale offered quite a treat. Upon approach she saw a sea turtle having his fill along the coral. After about 10 minutes of slowly stalking him, she was able to catch him breach 3 feet from her and learned that turtles stick their heads out of the water 5-10 times for air before heading back down to the reef for more feeding. After a quick loop around the reef, the turtle breached again. It seems she had made a new friend. J
- Lynn was able to convince Hamish that she wanted to do a night snorkel. Thinking that one of the other snorkelers would join her she geared up for the adventure, but after learning that she would be the only one was quite wary at entering the water all by herself – the only shark bait available. Mark started pointing out sharks to her as they went by while she safely sat on the steps. After getting the courage she hopped in and immediately was engulfed in the schooling red bass. She also was able to see Barry the Barracuda who hangs out under the boat and his 4’ by 6’ stature with the help of the flashlight around her wrist. By far the scariest part, however, was using the flashlight to spot sharks. Hamish and Mark had told her that using the flashlight on the sharks would cause them to run away so they recommended putting your hand over it to minimize the light. Lynn was perfectly OK, having them move away from her, but learned not once, but twice that this was false. She used the light to find a 3 sharks circling beneath her and one when illuminated started surfacing towards her instead of moving away. The same thing happened with another circling her on the surface. His green eyes were illuminated and he turned quickly towards her. Needless to say, Lynn only went 10 feet from the stairs and quickly shot back to the safety of the stairs every time the sharks started looking hungry. After 15 minutes of this adrenaline rush, she was happy to be safely on board without a sharkbite to speak of.
Between dives we would spend time hanging out on the sun deck, reading, eating Mike’s surprisingly delicious food, and getting to know the other guests. Our favorites were Phil and Ann, an aggressively Republican retired couple from Astoria who were very easy to get along with as long as politics didn’t come up. We also enjoyed a Canadian couple on their honeymoon who were also engineers, and a water resources lawyer from Denver and his friend who may be moving to Pflugerville soon (we both felt bad for him). There were also a lot of mid twenty somethings that we enjoyed observing and making fun of – though we fully realize that was probably us five years ago.
We were also lucky enough to have a marine biologist and a doctor specializing in emergency medicine with a focus on diving related injuries. If there were any fish questions or medical issues we were definitely covered. The doctor was there, it turns out, on a research grant to see how PADI open water students’ ears react to their first diving experience and did a pretty extensive ear evaluation on each student after each dive, uncovering three ear infections in the process. One girl’s was so bad that she had to skip some of the dives. I guess we were lucky to have her on board.
Both nights we went to bed pretty early. The diving was exhausting and we had to wake up at 6.45 and 5.45 in the mornings. The rocking of the boat also never really stopped so Lynn kept a constant dose of Dramamine in her system, and occasionally we would get a little nauseous but usually some fresh air would help it abate.
After three full days and 11 trips into the water we finally headed back to Cairns, arriving back in port around 4.00 pm. Lynn and I watched from the upper deck with amazement at how quickly the crew was able to unload the boat and we headed off to the dive shop to pay reef departure taxes and collect our stored bags. The dive shop was willing to drop everyone off and we got a ride to our Airbnb up in North Cairns. Danny was awfully wary of dropping us off in a older residential neighborhood but we assured him it was fine. We guessed they don’t have a lot of Airbnb stays.
After making it in and dropping off our bags we decided to go for a walk to help get our land legs back and get a little walking in after not doing any for three days. The dive shop had organized fairwell drinks at a bar in town later in the evening so we walked back downtown for some dinner and to say our goodbyes. We again took the Esplanade and stopped at the lagoon to put our feet in and were amazed and delighted with what we found. Aqua Zumba! On a stage at one end of the lagoon a very large and enthusiastic man was leading a pool full of people in various dance routines, accompanied by two back up dancers and the throbbing beats of Pitbull and Jackson 5 (en espanol). We watched for quite a while until a sudden rain storm forced us to seek shelter.
After our very entertaining show we decided on a dinner of Donner Kebaps, Lynn had lamb of course, while I ordered chicken. Both were delicious and way too large. We are learning portion sizes in Australia are on par with America and seem massive after our months in Southeast Asia. Finishing our kebaps (or rather deciding we were done), we walked around town, exploring a little bit and killing some time before we got caught under a shop front awning in another downpour. It didn’t last long and we made our way to the Bavaria Brewhouse to meet up with our diving companions one last time.
We arrived right on time and found most people had been there for a while already. We had to start a new table and were a little sad that we had shown up only to sit by ourselves but luckily more people soon arrived and we chatted for about an hour before we decided the prices were too expensive for us to have more than one beer and we said our final goodbyes and headed out.
We walked the whole way back home and quickly fell asleep after what had been a very full three days.
Daily Walking Miles (third day only) : 7.5
Total Time Underwater : 6 hours and 2 minutes
Maximum Depth: 19.2 meters
Total Dramamine Consumed: Lynn – 6, Doug – 5
- After many mispronunciations we learned that Cairns is pronounced “cans.”
- November is the beginning of what is known as “stinger season” on the Great Barrier Reef because it is when all of the jellyfish move in. To counteract this, all the dive boats make sure you wear a stinger suit that covers your whole body.