Wednesday 10 March 2010

not much has changed but they live underwater....

Perhaps it’s a boy thing, but did you ever read the “Adventure” series of books by Willard Price? They’re a collection of children’s adventure novels, featuring a couple of teenaged naturalists called Hal and Roger Hunt, who encounter various pirates and poachers as they travel the world collecting specimens for their father’s wildlife collection. Anyway. I ripped through these books before I was a teenager, and they made a big impression on me. As well as giving me a desire to go on a proper safari in Africa, they also made me desperately want to strap an aqualung on my back and go and explore the world underneath the sea. Hal and Roger always seemed to be running into sharks and deadly rays every time they slipped beneath the waves, but even that wasn’t enough to put me off the idea.

Quite why I’ve waited until now to give diving a go, I’ll never know. I was actually given some “try scuba” type sessions as a birthday present a few years ago, but I never quite got around to it. If you’re going to learn how to dive though, where better than the Great Barrier Reef? Two of my friends have qualified as divers in the last few years, one in the Red Sea and one in a flooded quarry in England, both I’m sure were good in their own ways, but surely learning on one of the natural wonders of the world has got to be a great way to spend your time, no?

My first concern, naturally, was my health. Australia has some of the strictest medical regulations around diving in the world: if you want to dive in Australia, you must first pass an Australian dive medical. Although I was keen to spend some of our time down under learning, I didn’t want to get my hopes up until I thought I had a decent chance of actually passing the medical. I emailed a couple of diving schools in Cairns, and although both were exceptionally helpful, essentially all they were able to tell me was that I would have to see a doctor to be sure. There are two key problems with multiple sclerosis that make a dive medical problematic: the first is simply that the spread of symptoms can be so wide that it is impossible to judge how able or otherwise an individual is to dive until you have seen them with your own eyes.... you may be virtually entirely physically unaffected, or you may be unable to walk unassisted. No self-respecting doctor is going to sign anyone with MS off until they’ve had a good look at them. The second, and perhaps more thorny problem, is that some of the most common symptoms of MS are the same as some of the symptoms of decompression sickness – the Bends. DCS is what can happen when you ascend too quickly and the nitrogen in your body tries to revert to gaseous form. It can ultimately kill you, but some of the tell-tale signs that you have been affected are things like numbness, pins and needles, muscle weakness... all common MS symptoms, and all things that affect me.

On the advice of one of the dive schools, before I left the UK, I asked my MS Nurse to give me a letter confirming that I was fit and physically able. Maxine, bless her, went well above the call of duty, and wrote me a letter saying that I had run the Nottingham marathon this year and had a daily routine that consisted on 5 mile runs. None of it entirely true, but it made all the difference, as it confirmed to the doctor in Cairns that I was physically active and he didn’t just have to take my word for it. I was signed off and ready to go. Actually, as it turned out, C had much greater difficulty than me with her medical, and her occasional asthma was very nearly a show-stopper. Luckily (and I think it was down to luck) the doctor asked her to sign a disclaimer saying that she was aware of the risks, and then he signed her off... and we were ready to start our training.

At this juncture, serendipity took hold of our destiny. We were all set to go with one company (one of the ones that had been so helpful over email), when we dropped into an independent travel agency next to their office to enquire about another Wicked Camper to take us down the Queensland Coast. Andy at Experience Cairns was, as it turns out, something of an expert on diving in the area, and he listened to what we wanted to do, warned us against the company we were going to go with, and suggested we try Pro-Dive in Cairns. With nothing much to lose and no particular preference, we took his advice, and were picked up early the next morning to commence our pool training and our theory lessons.

What can I say: Pro-Dive were superb. Our class consisted of a bunch of Swedes, a couple of dutch guys, a Czech and another English girl, and our instructor – Janine – was originally from Leeds but had been in Oz for something like 9 years. It was brilliant. For the first couple of days, we alternated the theory in the classroom with skills sessions in the pool. Before that first day, I had never once in my life been underwater with a tank of air on my back, but before the end of the second day, I actually thought I knew what I was doing. On the end of the second day, we all sat the PADI Open Water exam. You needed 75% to pass, and I got 49/50 and C got 50/50 (although to this day I will dispute that the answer I gave to question#39 was just as valid....and besides, she revised and everything). In fact, the whole class passed, and so we all boarded the boat the next morning to spend the next three days on the Great Barrier Reef.

The transfer from Cairns to the reef is something like 3 hours, and for the first day and a half out there, we completed our Open Water certification by demonstrating our skills in the water – skills like clearing your mask underwater, showing you have control of your buoyancy, showing you have some basic navigation skills.... nothing too complicated, but all the fundamental basics that any diver should understand. Once certified, we were able to dive without an instructor, but were also given the option of completing our PADI Adventure Diver certification whilst on the reef: basically this entailed another couple of supervised dives, including a deep dive to 30m (the Open Water qualification enables you to dive to 18m, and that extra 12m can make a big difference if you want to dive wrecks and things like that.)

 Our instructor, Janine, shows off her muscles by throttling me...

It’s hard to explain how brilliant these few days were. The weather was perfect: the water was calm, visibility was a constant 20m and a steady 29 degrees; the company was good too... but above all, I was learning a new skill and was immediately able to apply it in an incredibly beautiful environment. We were warned, before reaching the reef, that often people are disappointed when it doesn’t live up to some of those amazing photos and film footage that we’ve all seen of all those colourful fish. The truth is that it probably doesn’t, but it is still AWESOME. Nothing can really prepare you for getting up close and personal with such an incredible diversity of marine life: parrotfish, huge bass, a 150 year old turtle the size of a dinner table, squid, clown anemone fish (Nemo!), many and varied types of coral, batfish, eagle rays, maori wrasse the size of dogs..... and sharks. Ah, sharks. We’ve all seen Jaws, and the shark is the one fish that still summons up a kind of primal fear. We are, after all, lower on the foodchain than some of these guys. The truth, of course, is that you are extremely unlikely to be attacked by any shark, and even less likely to be attacked by the ones we were going to see on the reef. Even so, there was something incredibly thrilling when we saw our first White Tipped Reef sharks on our first dive after qualifying. They weren’t especially big, but I saw the pair of them basking on the sand during the heat of the day, and all I wanted to do was to get closer. One swam away, but we got to within about 2m of the other before he got tired of us and moved away a little to try and sleep.
careful, the wind might change....

Later on that same day, we went on a night dive. Sharks during the day are one thing, but they are essentially nocturnal hunters, and seeing them after dark was going to be a completely different kettle of fish. Our pre-dive briefing warned us that there was a chance that we could encounter bigger, more dangerous sharks like Bull sharks or Tiger sharks.  Both are fearless, aggressive and curious, and if we did meet them, there was a chance they could come and have a closer look at us.  In those circumstances, we were taught to form the "ring of steel", in a circle with our backs to the shark and to descend.  The idea is that sharks attack from below, so going deeper makes that harder for them, and if they come to have a closer look (i.e. quick taste) of you, then you are presenting your back to them and they'll get a mouthful of your tank.... we were told partially in jest, of course, but it was enough to give us pause for thought before getting into the water, that's for damn sure.  As it turned out, I actually jumped into the water when I could already see sharks circling, and I was happy to..... my fear was overwhelmed by my excitement at seeing these magnificent animals at close quarters. Night diving is strange and creepy simply because you can only see what your torch is illuminating, and if you’re at the back of the line, you have very little idea of what’s behind you. It’s also the time of day when much of the reef flora and fauna comes out to play and can be seen at its best. Most, I’m afraid, was lost on me, as I was far too wrapped up in the sensation of diving in the dark to pick up the finer detail. On the way back to the boat, we saw a few Grey Reef Whaler sharks on the prowl. One was at least 2m long – bigger than me – and whilst it was exciting to see a shark up close that afternoon, to see one cruising around looking for something to eat was even more thrilling

Sexy stinger suit

It was an awesome, awesome few days. Our instructor was brilliant, the boat was good and the guys I was diving with were fun. All in all, one of the best weeks of my life, I reckon. Turns out that I quite like diving too. Yeah, I’ve got lots to learn and my big lungs guzzle up my air far too quickly, but I think that I’ve picked up a new hobby.

Just brilliant. If I do nothing else whilst I'm away, then this alone makes the whole trip worthwhile. Plus I now have the wherewithal to dive with dolphins and seals in New Zealand, Orca in Canada... the underwater world is suddenly my oyster.


  1. That sounds amazing.

    Oh, and I completely agree about Willard Price books. I have the complete set kicking around at my parents house for when my kids get a few years older.

  2. [edited at c's request for picture control....]

  3. just you wait for the forthcoming "kettle of fish" gag....

    Also this is a marvellous travel blog. Nice one, Swissitude. Carry on with the giant fun-having.

  5. Also 14 bonus points for Busted lyric headline.