Our boat moored alongside a giant pontoon, almost as tall as the boat but much wider. This little city on the water was where we would begin our underwater exploration of the reef . Safety of course is premium so we spent 30 minutes on board discussing the skills necessary for the dive. It was my first ever, I have never snorkelled or been very good at diving at all so this was completely out of my comfort zone. On board the safety drill was provided with a real tank, jacket and mouthpiece. We had to observe not try it out here. It’s amazing what fear does to the brain as I watched every detail and forced it into my memory lest I forget when it got down to it. There were three of us doing the introductory dive, a young man in his 20’s, the Hyena in his 70’s and me. Me and the Hyena were already pals, this was going to cement that friendship and acting as a team was helping to conceal my fear, he was a good pal.
Once we berthed it was getting so real. First port of call was to get fitted out for a wet suit. There were rows upon rows of these in a variety of sizes all lined up like deflated penguins waiting to be handed out and filled up. The suit is necessary since it was stinging season for the jelly fish, I suspect this was a bit of a fib, since none of the other instructors or staff wore them, that is other than the Marine Biologist. Now he was a handsome young man, slim, bearded with just the right amount of fluff but he appeared with what I might describe as s designer wet suit. Camouflage, grey in colour it had a little flap across the front of his hips should he need to visit the toilet and slipping out of the skin tight outfit was likely to take time. This little flap drew your eye automatically to it because it was so peculiar. Trying not to seem impertinent I tried to look away , feeling less than ravishing in my penguin suit,without a toilet flap. It did have gloves though so none of my skin was left too visible. All wrapped up I then ventured to the rear of the pontoon where the scuba diving equipment was stored. Stacked neatly against the seating area with life jackets open and ready to wear. A range of tubes, I’d been instructed on using on the way here were flapping around waiting for the action to get underway. I eyed this arrangement cautiously because I’d already forgotten what they were all for. Soon I would be wearing it. I frantically tried to recall the three skills needed on this dive but no matter how I tried my brain froze with fear.
The tutor from the boat seemed uninterested in my anxiety and advised me to try snorkelling first just to get the hang of having my face in the water. I think secretly he thought I’d never do it. He did suggest I could do a helmet dive, but this just made me more determined. With my flippers in hand, mask and snorkel I made my way down to a stainless steel shelf with seating around the edge slightly submerged in the water. A small guy with ‘Snorkel Supervisor’ on his tee shirt eyed me with interest. I told him I was planning to dive but had never snorkelled before, to which he responded that diving was easier than snorkelling. Great news but I needed to feel that first. I sat on the bench and attached the flippers, feeling like Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate, I fixed the mask in place and ventured tentatively into the water. Failing to grasp the basics I inhaled a considerable amount of water through my nose as the mask filled with the sea water when I first put my face down. Gasping and spluttering I made my way back to the safety of the steel landing area. I tried again, but couldn’t manage to fix my mouth securely around the mouthpiece and water once again flooded in. Back to the den before the kindly supervisor suggested I sit on the edge and just face plank while trying to master the breathing. This seemed to work. Slowly but surely I managed to breath through my mouth and put my nose out of commission. With this renewed confidence I pushed off the edge and floated face down looking for the first time at the GBR. I smiled with delight at what I was seeing only to realise this lets water in and once again I was back up fighting for breath. The sight of the fish and coral were too exciting, inviting me to stay and have another go and before long I had the hang of it.
Parrotfish, butterfly fish, tiny plankton swam around me. The colours differ in reality, they were more bland than the enhanced photographs because your mask is probably not the best quality visor. The coral was high at some points, but delved deeper in others, small and round or long and bony the fish darted in and out feasting apparently unconcerned by my presence. Or the other 40 odd people in the water. After half an hour I felt quite pleased with myself and got out ready to face the dive. I found the Hyena and we approached the dive bay. I was feeling more confident now I had mastered the snorkelling. A heavy belt with lead weights was attached to our waist. The life jacket as next with its tendrils of tubes and the all important tank was then attached and secured to our torso. We were asked to stand up but I could not move for the weight was so heavy. With assistance I got to my feet. And we descended into the abyss.
The Lion was frantically photographing me for posterity purposes. I waddled down the stairs and we ran through the skills again. The removal of the mouthpiece to blow bubbles frightened the hell out of me. I was relieved to learn however that this was not expected during the dive but a necessary precaution just in case. I had to master blowing my nose to clear the mask, snot and water splashing around my mask as I tried to follow the instructions given. Suddenly the Hyena’s weight belt fell off and as the instructor tried to fix it I was asked to submerge and practice the breathing with the air tank on. Kneeling down on the ledge, holding on to the barrier for dear life I breathed slowly in and out unaware that the Hyena was having more trouble with the mask now.
I stayed put focusing on slowly breathing in and out when the Instructor appeared and scribbled on a white board that the Hyena was not coming. Giving me the OK signal that we would go alone we left the safety of the ledge and took hold of a rope. Lowering myself down I glued my eyes to the man who held my life in his hands. My ears felt the pressure immediately and I had to pinch my nose and blow to clear them. Mastering this underwater is a bit different than on the aeroplane and water started to feed into the mask. I felt slight panic but managed to master the technique quicker when the pressure was on. Then without warning the instructor tugged my hands off the rope and we were diving, or swimming or whatever you call it. I was doing it. I was actually doing this thing I never thought I would ever do in my entire life. Weightless I felt nothing of the heavy belt of tank. I just swan and looked in awe at very single thing down there. he jerked my attention upward and there was a sea turtle swimming 2 feet in front of me. We followed it for a bit as it looked for food, faster in the water than out, it set a bit of a pace for this beginner but I was determined not to let it out of my sight. A large blue Maori Wrasse swam past, much larger fish were on the sea floor and I fleeting wondered if they were sharks. I was smiling again forgetting the seal and the rush of water into my mouth set me into a panic. The instructor took me to the surface where I apologised and steadied myself. But I couldn’t wait to get back down. We swim freely around the coral taking the sights in only in my memory since I didn’t have a camera to take underwater.
After 45 minutes we headed back to the sea pontoon, I was exhilarated jumping for joy once the weights were off and hugged the instructor for giving me that opportunity and one on one instruction. What an experience. My first thing though was to fetch a cup of tea, the taste of salt water in my mouth was too much and I needed a refreshment. I saw the Lion from the sun deck looking out to sea, no doubt frantically trying to see where I was. I left him wondering as I savoured my experience for a few minutes more all to myself before sharing it with anyone else. I dived at the GBR. Go me!!