Wednesday, November 23, 2005

As Long As You Are for SCUBA, I Am 'Appee

I set sail for the Great Barrier Reef today on the Passions of Paradise, a sweet 25m catamaran launching from Cairns' Marlin Wharf. As soon as I sat down for some morning juice, I got a wave from Laura from Holland, whom I'd met during the pub crawl in Sydney a couple of weeks ago. With so many people hitting up the same places, it's bound to happen.

A little while after takeoff, a Swiss dive leader came around and asked if anybody wanted to do an introductory SCUBA dive. He reminded me so much of Hank Azaria's SCUBA instructor character in Along Came Polly that I couldn't stop snickering and choking on my juice. It was either SCUBA or snorkelling, and I've done the whole snorkel bit before, so I signed on to put on a tank and go underwater.

We were divided up into groups of four and I was assigned to Group 1 - whom I dubbed Team Sharkbait. One of the dive leaders proclaimed, "This is the group that goes in first, and if there are any sharks, they get eaten so everyone else can have a safe dive." This wasn't reassuring, but we figure if they're joking about it, it's not going to happen.

My nerves took hold as was I strapped on the heavy-ass tank and given my flippers and mask. Moments later, I took my first plunge into the water and immediately started to freak out - just a little bit, of course. I was bobbing up and down on top, hanging on to a rope, and my mask was filling with water. Hyperventilating through my breathing regulator, I motioned to Brooksie, the instructor, that I wasn't up to the task. I couldn't believe I was already falling apart.

Brooksie had it all under control. He got me a better mask, had me put my head under, do all the things we'd learned in our short class, and in a minute, I was happily breathing underwater. Then we had to descend a few feet, which started the panic all over again... but in moments, after realizing how easy it was to breathe down there, it all subsided and the nerves melted away. Already, I was at peace.

We began our descent toward the depths of Paradise Point, the piece of reef that we'd moored at for the morning. Immediately, I was astounded. It was simply beautiful. And everything every SCUBA diver had told me about the serenity and beauty of it all was true. I was in underwater heaven, and I didn't want to come back up.

Unfortunately, a beginner's "resort dive" doesn't last more than half an hour, so after what seemed like a few minutes of looking at clownfish (Nemo!) playing with sea anemones, and checking out the other fishes checking us out, we had to go up. I was exhilirated, but it was a bummer nonetheless.

"Hey Champion, how was it?" Asked the girl getting our tanks off on the catamaran... "Fucking brilliant." That's about all there is to say.

We lunched over whole prawns, veggie lasagne, sweet potatoes - you name it - and each calorie felt well-deserved. Brooksie then came over and said, "You took to the water well - want another dive?" For A$40, how could I resist?

At our next destination - some sandbar of a reef god knows where - some of us dove in for another round, this time going for a good, long 45 minutes, and it was a completely different experience. This time we didn't go as deep, but we checked out stingrays, sea turtles, reef shark, hermit crabs, giant flat fish I don't know the name of - whatever, it was, again, fucking brilliant.

Once again, it was over before we knew it, but sooooooo well worth it.

I spent the return trip sunning myself on the beautiful sundeck - just over the rushing water below - and then chatting with my Team Sharkbait teammate Amanda and her mom, making for a lovely, relaxing afternoon.

After a dip in the pool back home, I'm all set to call it a night.

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