Following our extended stay in Airlie Beach, we returned to Cairns for a day of SCUBA diving out on the Great Barrier Reef, something we were both really excited for. We booked the trip with Seastar Cruises, a company that specializes in smaller group sizes, taking no more than 35 people at a time. We hoped this would mean more time and isolation while taking in the splendor of the reef, which boasts an astonishing biodiversity. The reef is home to 400 species of coral, 1,500 different fish, 4,000 types of mollusk and 240 bird species.
Our first stop on the day’s trip was a snorkel near Michaelmas Cay. The cay is a small sand island entirely surrounded by reef, which serves as an important nesting site for a number of bird species. These species include the common noddy and brown booby, and up to 20,000 breeding pairs reside here during peak breeding season. As we pulled up to the cay, we were amazed to find the sand island was simply blanketed in birds, leaving almost no inch uncovered, while a raucous symphony of calls and squawks filling the air. Nesting parents sitting on eggs, hatchlings barely old enough to stand, and juveniles who were begging for food covered the small patch of sand.
After a few minutes of watching the chaos on land, we eagerly waded into the crystalline blue ocean. The clarity of the water was almost unbelievable, showing the vivid colors of the reef even at the surface. A stingray sinuously glided across the sands at the bottom, while a beautiful purple moon jellyfish pulsated gently near the surface. Everywhere in between seemed to be some iridescent hue that I never knew existed in nature – bright purple coral branches, teal fish swimming in schools, or glimmering blue and green patches where giant clams had embedded themselves in the reef. After just a few minutes of swimming, our guide pointed out some truly enormous giant clams that were nearly 3 ft. across and are estimated to be around 100 years old. These huge mollusks can grow up to 4 ft. and weigh 500 lbs. or more. They also have to be selective about their homes: once they attach to the reef, they stay there forever. After a few more minutes, I stuck my head up and found Jenn waving frantically and pointing. A look in the direction she pointed revealed a huge green sea turtle gently moving along the bottom in a motion that looked less like swimming and more like flying. I dove down to enjoy a closer view of the majestic animal. Eventually, they called us back to the ship for lunch, and we reluctantly trailed behind the rest of the group, not wanting to leave the rainbow of the reef.
Before departing on this trip, we obtained our open water SCUBA certifications. We had a singular goal with this certification: to dive the Great Barrier Reef. We downed our lunches with equal parts excitement and trepidation, as this was going to be our first ocean dive (and first real dive without an instructor) and neither one of us was sure how it would go. We were the only certified divers there, and one of our shipmates commented, “oh, so you’re experienced divers.” Certified, yes. Experienced, hardly. We had a pep talk with our dive guide, shrugged into our tanks and BCDs, and checked our gear. It seemed like we barely had time to finish the equipment checks before our guide was pointing us to the back of the boat. With a giant stride – and a giant splash – our first dive had begun.
The boat’s mooring served as our guide to descend through the azure waters, arriving at a huge wall of coral. This wall is part of Hastings Reef, which is located on the outer reef, about 30 miles from Cairns. We had barely gotten to the sandy bottom when our guide pointed into a small cave. I peered inside and found the eyes and huge mouth of the appropriately-named spotted sweet lips peering back. We continued along the reef, swimming amongst dozens of species of fish, including Moorish idol, wrasse, and a flowery cod that dwarfed us. Our guide motioned us over to a coral covered with tiny, purple hairs. She extended her fingers and instantaneously, the hairs vanished back into their protective homes, a trick that amused me to no end and never grew old. Nestled among the anemone, a clownfish curiously investigated the stream of bubbles exiting our guide’s regulator before retreating back to his home of waving tendrils. The fish and corals were too numerous to count, coming in every shape and size imaginable – from the intricate folds of the brain coral, to elaborate fans many feet wide, to thin, pink wisps extending out like the finest underwater grass. After 30 minutes at the bottom, we started towards the surface and, after the requisite safety stop, climbed back on the boat to swap tanks for our second dive.
On our second dive, our guide was confident we were up for a challenge and we went out to a section of Hastings Reef that they referred to as “The Bommies,” an Australian slang term for a bombora – a shallow area (reef or rocks) that causes larger waves to break. This involved a bit of a swim but brought us to two large, circular walls of coral, ripe for exploration. After acclimating a little on the first dive, we felt much more comfortable the second time around. We peered up from the bottom of the reef to see the eerie silhouettes of several bumphead parrotfish looming over us. The largest of the parrotfish, they look like dinosaurs cast out of time. A nearby tunnel in the reef beckoned, and we hesitated only a moment before following our guide through and out the other side. This area seemed, impossibly, to be teeming with even more life than the first dive. Tiny fish of every color darted among the rocks, seemingly unafraid of the large animals strapped to metal tanks who were observing them. After another half hour at the bottom, we regretfully made our way back to the boat. Below the ship’s ladder, an enormous, five-foot barracuda lurked – the ship staff informed us his nickname is Barry and that he always hangs around when they anchor there.
The staff asked if we wanted to do any more snorkeling after we unloaded our scuba gear, and barely got the words out before we were back in the water for a quick last snorkel before heading home. On the way back, we looked at each other and knew this had been a special day, one of the most memorable yet. We immediately started discussing whether we could squeeze another outing into the budget, and saw right then that this would be a passion for a long time to come.
Location – Hastings Reef
Bottom time – 30 minutes
Maximum depth – 13 meters (43 feet)
Water temperature – 29°C (84°F)
Location – Hastings Reef (The Bommies)
Bottom time – 29 minutes
Maximum depth – 15.3 meters (50 feet)
Water temperature – 29°C (84°F)
Technical note: The GoPro camera I took, which was supposed to operate down to 10 meters, became inoperable at around 4-5 meters (the pressure underwater caused the power button to remain depressed until resurfacing). While we were deeper than the camera’s stated limits for most of the dive anyway, it did limit the amount of footage we were able to capture to just the few moments below. But surely, it will live on in our memories forever!