And so to Cairns and another “bucket list” moment, the Great Barrier Reef. It felt strange to see the road signs showing less than 100 Km to go – the first sign for Cairns we’d picked up on leaving Manly 12 days ago had said something like 2400 Km.
We didn’t know what to expect with regard to the Reef as we’d heard varying views ranging from hype to gloom, “it’s not that great, it’s being destroyed”, etc, etc.
However in our short diving careers it had become something that we saw as a “must do” so the only way, now that we’d come all the way to Australia, was to find out for ourselves. Whilst on Mauritius we’d chosen a 3-day/2-night live-aboard package on the internet, going with a Cairns-based outfit called ProDive. At the time I’d booked for 1 diver and 2 snorkellers but now of course that had to be changed to 2 divers and 1 snorkeller! Faye was one of a small group of snorkelers but was persuaded to go for a discover scuba session whilst at sea, going in on the 2nd day with an instructor – let’s see if she follows it up and joins the ever expanding Wright family of divers!
We’d a tight schedule on arriving at Cairns around midday, having driven up from Townsville that morning. First we had to find a replacement charger for Ian’s underwater camera, (which had joined his iPad by being lost somewhere on the road trip up the east coast), then find the ProDive shop to check-in and get our gear for the following day, after that find our hotel and check-in and finally drop off the hire car, all before 5pm. Having successfully completed all of the above we were able to relax and get to know the town. Our first impressions of Cairns were of a town “on the edge”, full of back-packers and itinerant workers connected to the dive and tourist industries. There are lots of bars, especially along the waterfront and a wide variety of places to stay, backpacker hostels, motels, guest houses, upmarket hotels. The town’s laid out on a grid pattern and appears to be quite modern, although it was actually founded in the gold-rush days as the port for the mining towns up on the Atherton tablelands.
Once we’d accomplished all of our tasks we found ourselves a bar – the Woolshed -where we could meet Lee, one of Ian’s fellow DM trainees from Wraysbury, now travelling around Australia with his girlfriend on 12 month working visas. Lee’s currently employed as an underwater photographer on one of the many dive boats operating out of Cairns (lucky lucky bastard!) and it was good to meet up with him and hear his stories/exchange experiences on our respective Aussie travels. (Ian was left feeling discriminated against because of his age; why can’t over 55s get 12 month working visas he could think of a lot worse things to do than spend a few months working on a dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef!)
We didn’t stay late in the Woolshed, which we later learned is one of the rowdiest bars in town after a certain time at night, (see we’ve got a nose for these sort of things), as we had an early start the next day; 0630 at the dive shop for a mini-bus transfer to the boat for breakfast followed by a briefing as we set sail for the reef and the first of the dive sites. We were initially concerned due to the sheer number of divers, (about 40),
on-board – how busy were these dive sites going to be? However ProDive had the whole operation ticking along like a well-oiled machine which, coupled with the fact that there were a number of different groups, Open Water/Advanced Open Water students, certified divers and snorkelers made the whole thing manageable and we didn’t end up all crowding onto the same dive sites.(Except possibly on the very last dive where the newly qualified Open Water students were let loose.) Over the 3 days at
sea we had the possibility of doing up to 11 dives, including 2 night dives so it was a very busy trip, during which the ambiance on the boat was excellent thanks to the energy and efforts of the crew. It has to be said that it’s no cushy number being a crew member on one of these boats, they all had to work really hard, ensuring that everybody was out of bed in the mornings, the pre-dive briefings were conducted and everybody was in the water on time. All of this whilst ensuring that 40 tanks were refilled between each dive and sharing the general duties involved in running the boat. Not surprising that nobody had any late nights on board, most people being below decks by 9:30.
To answer the question about the quality of diving on the reef? On that trip Ian did 11 and Jan 8 dives and then a week later we went out again, this time on a day trip, from Port Douglas where we each did 3 further dives so between us we had 25 dives in the space of a week. As we haven’t experienced a wide range of the world’s dive sites, e.g. Cozumel, Isle Coco (Jurassic Park), etc we haven’t really got a good reference point. However, just taking it as we found it we were over-awed by the sheer size of the reef, the hard and soft Corals were amazing and the marine life abundant including sharks and turtles. On the whole the dive sites were quite shallow which was good as Jan is still restricted to a maximum depth of 18 metres. This wasn’t a limiting factor as there weren’t many sites where you could go deeper and there was plenty to see at shallower depths. Also on the liveaboard the dives were self-guided so it was a good test for Ian, looking after a new diver and having to navigate at the same time. (Some of Ian’s fellow divers at Wraysbury will tell you how good his underwater navigation skills are!).
One of the highlights of the trip for Jan was seeing Ian being attacked by a Trigger fish as he swam too close to its nest! Ian didn’t see it coming until it was glaring at him from the other side of his mask and darting all around him. These fish have been known to draw blood so Ian did the honourable thing and got the hell out of its way. The little episode taught Jan more about scuba regulators – not only can you breathe through them but you can also laugh your head off at the same time!
The second highlight came on the 2nd dive of the day trip from Port Douglas. We’d just begun descending and were at about 3 – 5 metres when there, right next to us was a 6
foot, very healthy looking Grey Reef shark. By the time Ian had hit the inflate button on his BCD to stop his descent and unclipped his camera it had swum away. That was the closest we’ll probably ever get to a shark and it was a huge disappointment not to catch it on film – but an amazing experience all the same. We did see quite a few more, (mainly reef), sharks over the course of the dives but none as close up nor as stunning as this one. (The crew later told us that this particular shark was a regular visitor under the boat whenever they moored on that particular part of the reef.)
Needless to say the 3 days of the live-aboard passed extremely quickly and before we knew it we were back in Cairns and meeting up for a post dive beer with our fellow shipmates and dive crew – in the Bavarian Beer bar of all places. Ian and Jan ducked out gracefully before the Steins took effect but Faye soldiered on and stayed with the group as they moved onto the Woolshed, (see above) and eventually made it home sometime in the middle of the night – putting her unsteady progress along the street down to the 3 days spent bobbing around on a boat!
So that was it. We weren’t disappointed by our pilgrimage to this wonderful natural environment. Jan’s dive skills improved significantly over the course of the 11 dives that she did, Ian gained more Divemaster experience and we encountered more marine life than you would see in a normal week – even if we didn’t know what most of it was. (What DID we do with our time on Mauritius when we were surrounded by all of these experts!) No room to post pictures of the many species we saw but you can see them on our gallery, here.
Sadly Faye had to leave us the following day and so it was just the two of us again and looking at our final 10 days of the Australian leg of or great adventure. Although we had reached Cairns we weren’t quite at the end of our great Aussie road-trip – Port Douglas, the Daintree and Cape Tribulation still lay ahead.