Posted by: Rebecca | April 5, 2012

Finding Nemo

Another early start, although not as early as Monday. The bus picks us up from the apartment at 8.20 and we’re greeted by Lucy – probably in her mid-20s and another ex-pat. “Hey, how’s it going?” she says as we jump on board. Whilst she tells us she’s now a resident here, her Wimbledon roots give her way immediately! “I came out five years ago and decided to stay” is becoming an all-to familiar tale, but it’s enviable to meet another person whose job is their hobby – she gets paid to pick people up, shuttle them to the marina, and take them out scuba diving. Lucy works for Aristocat – one of a plethora of boats which take people out to the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel and dive in the Agincourt area of the Outer Reef. Another great office location!

Aristocat

Lucy tells us that the conditions today look perfect – no wind, high sun and clear still waters. We should be in for some great visibility and amazing reef activity. OK, this means nothing to me – I know sweet Fanny Adams about diving or sailing (except what I’ve picked up from Gryf, Dara and the other bloke on ‘3 Men in a Boat’, not that that’s an advisable education, I’m sure?!) Anyway, when we arrive at the marina and get our boarding cards, we wander down the jetty and have our pictures taken by Bruce who, despite his name, is actually French and strangely reminds me of the fish in the tank at the dentists in Finding Nemo? Maybe this is just the accent? Of maybe it’s the whole scenario of the reef/fish/Australia etc. But I’m just waiting for him to start chanting the ‘Heehahaha Hoohahaha…’ Ring of Fire routine! Needless to say, he doesn’t, so I just trundle up the jetty with everyone else to be greeted by the next members of the Aristocat team. These guys, Scotty and Chad, kit me out with a stinger suit (damn, I thought I’d avoided having to wear one of these delightfully unflattering things) and a set of fins. I’m also handed a wodge of paperwork to complete and ushered into the cabin of the boat.

Is everyone aboard?

There must be around 100 people on board and I find a seat with a Melbourne couple, John and Marg, who explain why there’s so much paperwork. Apparently, a few years back, an American couple were diving out here, she got into difficulties and drowned. Because her hubby wasn’t able to help her, he was accused of murdering her, and spent 18 months in an Aussie jail before being extradited back to the US. Another time, someone got left behind on the reef and the boat sailed off! Neither incident was on this boat (phew!) but it’s meant the whole industry is now super-tight on legalities, headcounts, and safety etc. Good job I guess; I wouldn’t want to be left out there when the sharks get hungry!

So off we go. Blimey, we’re shifting on this thing! Quite different from the tranquillity of Sydney’s sailing experience, this catamaran is doing around 30 knots apparently (not sure if that’s fast but it feels like it.) It’s about 90 minutes to the first dive site, so I slap on the sunscreen and head out on deck to enjoy the sun. After a good 20 minutes, I’m back inside – you know me, I can’t sit still for long, so at 20 I’ve done well! One of the dive team is about to give a briefing for those who are diving today (unfortunately, because I’m asthmatic, I can’t dive 😦 but I’m planning to hold my breath and swim down with a snorkel, so hopefully I’ll still see quite a bit, fingers crossed). Oh and he casually mentions that if we don’t’ like sharks, don’t worry; he’s seen a couple around the boat already today but they’re not that big, besides, they don’t get hungry until dusk *gulp*. Again, they wouldn’t let us dive if it was dangerous, right? So just go with it…

Dive 1 – where’s Nemo?

We arrive at the first stop. We can just about still see land in one direction but just the open sea in the other. Can’t see a reef anywhere though?  The only weird thing is random tiny waves in a line across the ocean – that’ll be the reef then! I don my tellytubby costume and grab a pair of goggles. At the back of the boat, there’s a semi-submerged deck, where we can sit and put on our fins (we can’t wear these on the boat as it’s just asking for accidents – have you ever tried to walk up stairs in a set of flippers?…!)

I swim out towards the waves and put my head down. Wow. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said that on this trip, I’d have enough to buy some Chanel on the way back! Ah, who cares, I’ll probably do that anyway won’t I?)

It sounds like a cliché, but it really does look like the reef in Finding Nemo, albeit not quite so colourful and the fish are much smaller. Naturally I’m looking out for a clownfish (as it’s the only one I know about!) but as they live in the enemenemenemenies I can’t see any. We’ve been told not to touch anything, unless it’s handed to us by a member of the Aristocat team (who obviously know what’s safe to touch and what’ll give you a nip, bite, burn, sting etc).  But just being so close to the reef and it being so big, and so detailed… the different textures, colours, shapes etc. It’s stunning. I’ve dived on a reef in Jamaica before, but it was nowhere near as detailed or as big as this. It feels like I could swim off indefinitely just following the drop. But we’ve been told to stay behind the boat, so I just swim slowly along a section of the coral and am in awe at what I’m seeing. Especially when I spot Fin! Well, I think that was his name anyway; the black and yellow striped fish in the tank in Nemo. He’s smaller than I expected, about 4-5 inches, although I’ve no idea how close to me he was, so he could’ve been huge? The water here is so clear, you can see for miles – the bottom looks only a few feet away, but the divers down there are tiny, so it must be quite a way.

Then along swims Bruce, our French photographer (…Heehahaha Hoohahaha…) he’s holding out a mushroom-shaped piece of coral towards me. I take it and he lifts his camera, smile… NO DON’T! The briefing told us not to smile (as your regulator will leak round your mouth and you’ll take in water!) Here’s where you smile with your eyes, ah, ok…!

I could stay out here for hours, but I don’t want to tire out, we have another two dive sites to swim yet. So I swim back to the boat, climb out and just watch the others bubbling about. Timed to perfection, the hooter sounds and we’re all asked to return to the dry area on board for the headcount and departure to our second stop of the day.

Dive 2 – should you really swim on a full stomach? Sharks do…

At the second site, we have lunch. Now as a child, I was taught not to swim on a full stomach (more chance of cramps etc) but here we’re fed before we go back in the water. Ah well, they must know what they’re doing, right? But once I’ve eaten, and let my food go down, there’s only a few minutes before the headcount, so I paddle my feet over the back and just enjoy the view.

Dive 3 – having a moment, again!

The third and final stop of the day is only five minutes away, so we’re there in no time. Now this is very different – on first impressions, the ocean appears to be riddled with litter. This is probably because I’ve becomes used to (or complacent with) the mill pond look of a pure, clean, still ocean (which, in itself, is a sight which is just beautiful, tranquil and calming). But I quickly realise that the items I see on the surface are in fact parts of the reef protruding above the surface. Wow, this is just huge. And given I didn’t dive at site two, there’s no way I’m missing this. Teletubby suit on, goggles sanitised and fins on, I hop off the back of the boat. Here the fish are bigger, more plentiful and far more brightly coloured than those at the first site. They’re electric blue, purple, green, and that’s just on one fish! There are parrot fish that look like they’re head-butting the reef, but in fact they’re nibbling on it. The noise of my breathing is quite loud, so I hold my breath for a few seconds and I can actually hear the fish nibbling the reef! That’s just mind-blowing… here I go; I’m having another of those OMG moments… I’m swimming with exotic fish, sharks and god knows what other species and I’m on the Great Barrier Reef. Wow.

There are so many fish to see and so much reef to explore. I swim for what seems like ages and, when I hear the horn sound, return to the boat for the headcount. All aboard, and we head for home. A relaxing 90-minute ride back to Port Douglas and my last chance of Queensland sunshine before… oh man, I’m leaving tomorrow… 😦

ttfn /Boxy xx

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