Cairns Part 2: Dive Trip!

I had written about half this post the other night, and unfortunately something happened when I went to sleep because it didn't save. I've been playing Star Wars Angry Birds for the past two days in a full-on pout. However, that's finally gotten extremely old, and as I said in the deleted post, I'm now much closer to the end of my trip than I am to the events of this post, so I better get to writing before I forget everything. Beware- this is a bit of a long one!

So, bright and early the morning after my long trip to Cape Tribulation, I walked my little overnight bag over to the port to find my home for the next two days: The Coral Sea Dreaming. She wasn't in the slip they'd said, so after scouring the short pier & checking out all the huge day tripper boats, I finally asked some other skipper and voila! She was the very first boat on the pier, but was just so much smaller than I expected that I completely overlooked her. Oops. Anyway, being the eager beaver that I am (which becomes a theme on this trip), I arrived first, well before my fellow passengers and even I think possibly before some of the crew. Yes, I think I was a wee bit excited to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef! Anyway, our fearless leader for the trip did finally appear & greet me & get me started with paperwork and all that. His name was Patrick, and other than looking a bit like a skinny rooster, he was all cool. Slowly but surely, my fellow passengers arrived. They were: 1) Kurt, who was I swear to god the grown up Kurt from Sound of Music, except from Bavaria; 2) Carles, a cool dude from Barcelona; 3-5) a Spanish couple living in Melbourne with their friend visiting from Mallorca - my bunk mates and I can't even remember their names! Perfectly nice, but mostly kept to themselves; 6 & 7) Francois & Jean Francois from Quebec, super nice guys; and finally 8 & 9) Jeremy & Estelle from southern France- a really cool couple who really were my buddies both in & out of the water. As you can see- super multi-cultural group, and yes I did speak a fair amount of French, but between the southern & québécois accents, it was definitely a bit of a challenge!

Anyway, once we were all signed in and such, we headed out of the harbor for the approx 3-hour trip out to the reefs. (I included a shot of the reefs from the airplane trip up to Cairns b/c it's just too cool!). There was a leeeetle bit of wind, so we hoisted sails to help speed us along, but really it was all motoring on this trip. Pat introduced us to our captain (the adorable & swoon-worth Lindsey), and our assistant divemaster/cook who of course I can't remember her name. She was a really cute & sweet Swedish gal who took us certified divers out on most dives. I'll call her Sam b/c that's really the only thing that even comes to my head when I see her face. On the way out, Pat sorted out who was certified & who wasn't, and also ran through a bit of an overview/refresher quiz for us all since almost everyone wanted to at least do an intro dive. Since I'd JUST finished the course, I knew quite a few answers, and then Kurt & Spanish dude (Marc!) had tons of dives under their belts, so when it came time to suit up, Pat decided we were the trustworthy three. Gulp. So, we apparently arrived at our first site (not that it was visible from above the water) and the 6 of us who were certified donned our stinger suits & gear & jumped in! About 2 seconds later I felt a little stinging on my ankle where my stinger suit wasn't properly tucked, but it stopped immediately, and didn't hurt, so no worries. (I of course had someone double check it once I got up, but no signs of the dreaded irukanji effects, thank goodness!)

Once we were gathered together in the water, I could tell this was going to be a bit of a clusterfuck, as 6 divers with varying degrees of comfort/experience and one guide is just a lot. Plus, we didn't really get a thorough dive briefing (I.e. where we were going to go, how deep, how long, that sort of thing.). In fact, Pat and the crew were generally so relaxed & "go-with-the-flow" types that it really bothered poor German Kurt, who I think wanted to know every dive time to the minute, but as I followed Pat's advice to take advantage of every opportunity to get in the water, I was all good. See, they couldn't tell us how many dives we'd do & when, because they needed to see how good we were, how into it we were, and of course what the conditions were like.

But anyway, I digress. First dive- a bit of a mess as Pat was spending a lot of the descent & beginning of the dive with the Spanish chica who was really uncomfortable. I was told to stay at the back with Kurt since we were trustworthy (!), but in the end, I was fine & the dive was really pretty cool! We weren't down long since this was really more of a get-oriented refresher dive, but still: I had now seen a small part of the Great Barrier Reef up close & personal! After a quick snack, we decided to dive again in the same spot to give the non-certifieds a chance to check it out, but us "certs" could go in too since Sam could guide us around, so in I went along with the French couple. They had an underwater goPro camera with them, which of course somehow came loose right during our descent (Bad! Very bad!), but somehow Jeremy was able to retrieve it without having to go all the way to the bottom, which I think was around 20 meters. So the three of us followed "Sam" around the same reefs, but much more in depth, exploring in detail. Soo flipping cool- I finally saw my first turtle! I did an underwater dance for that one! Oh! And a giant Maori Wassie (sp? Basically a giant blue & green striped fish) followed us around for about half the dive. :) So, like I said, Sam was super fun & sweet, but she got a bit lost, so we really had a bit of a long swim back to the boat, and by the time it was said & done, we'd been under for 70 minutes!!!! Normally dives are 40-45 minutes! With complete jelly legs, we gratefully tucked into some lunch as we moved to a different location on the reef. About 5 minutes after we were done eating, Pat's all- "ok! Suit up- who's going in?" The three of us pleaded for a bit more rest b/c nobody wanted to miss the famous "Three Sisters", which is where we now were. He relented and let us chill for a few more minutes (all I could hear in my head was the rule about waiting a half hour after eating before going back in the water!), but soon enough: back in the stinger suit & into the water. Again, Sam would be guiding the certs (I think it was me, Kurt, and the Frenchies for this one), but as she was a bit uncertain about how to navigate to the third sister, we basically followed Pat & the beginners, just a bit deeper. This was just about the coolest dive I'd done so far. The water wasn't maybe as clear, but we basically swam around three giant coral towers just teeming with life. The bottom was quite a bit deeper here, so we were anywhere from a third to maybe halfway down - about 18 meters deep. More turtles, I think a shark off in the distance. And tons of schools of fish- one "sister" was basically covered in a giant school of these teeny glass fish. Amazing.

Once back up, we started talking about the night dive, and various logistics around it. We decided to move over to "The Pinnacles", another famous site at the end of the current reef we'd been, and Pat & Sam hopped in quickly to check out how strong the current was. They eventually came back absolutely buzzing about how great it was, though there was a bit of a current (one of the reasons why the Pinnacles is an advanced dive I guess). So, knowing there was a current, we sent out a second line across to a buoy to help us get back to the boat in the dark. The more we talked, the less sure about it I was, but at the same time, you have to do it, right? At one point Pat had mentioned doing it transitionally, eg: descending during sunset so there was still some light, but somehow we just kept watching the sunset and waiting for the word to go. It never came, and it just kept getting darker & darker. Luckily, there was a nearly-full bright moon, and no clouds, so that was a help. In the end, a group of 7 of us decided to do it, and Pat added to our gear a flashlight, and some neon bracelets for the tops of our tanks- his being a different color so we could find him. One by one we headed into the water (once again me being one of the first), and gathered onto one of the buoy lines to wait for Pat to get us all organized. We wouldn't be going deep, or very far, especially b/c of the current, which I could really feel as I clung to the line in the dark water. As we descended, it really was creepy, plus everyone kept bumping into each other since we were keeping so close to each other. I almost called it quits right then, but pushed myself to calm down & keep going. I mean, it was cool- we saw turtles sleeping, some fish darting out of our torch-lights, but wherever our torches weren't collectively pointing, it was basically pitch black. OH, and the classic line from our prep-talk kept ringing in my ears. Apparently, if you saw red little dots in/around your light, those were shrimp/lobsters, so all good. If you saw green dots, that would be a shark, and therefore don't shine your light directly at that. GULP! So, I basically just refused to look anywhere but the nicely-lit areas in front of us. That was fine till Pat had us one by one turn OFF the lights so we could kneel on the bottom & check out any bioluminescence. Again, eep. We were only about 8 meters down, but that's still somewhere around 24 feet of water above us, in the total dark.

So, needless to say, when we got the go ahead to turn on the lights I did so immediately, and then once we saw the rope to lead us to the boat, I headed straight for it! Not wanting to waste any time getting the heck out, I was the first to start pulling myself back to the boat. With about maybe 10-15 feet to go I felt a sharp sting on my lip (about the only part of your face NOT covered by goggles & the regulator). I immediately stopped and jerked back, but sure enough after another second or two- bam! I felt rows if incredibly sharp stings across my neck. Somehow I didn't panic & spit out my regulator or anything, though I was only a few feet below the surface, and instead I just dropped the rope & swam as hard as possible for the boat. I never thought to blow up my BCD to help me, my only though was to get OUT. So, I logically knew I wasn't dying, because box jellies (whose stings kill you in minutes) are really only on the coast, but the burning pain was erasing much of the logic. Of course, being the first up, all the non-divers come towards the back asking how it was and all I could do was gasp out, "stung!" as I continued directly to the front to get rid of my gear. My beloved Lindsey was back there and quickly grasped my panicked gasps (now accompanied my some tears, of course) and immediately said he could see the blue bottle jelly stuck all through my air hoses behind my head. Ironically, he had pointed one out to me earlier in the afternoon (probably this f'er). This didn't help & I started getting fully panicked as he helped me out of my gear- I remember sobbing "is it off me??" At one point. Heh. So, he then runs below to grab vinegar (which neutralizes the stinging cells), and other divers start getting to me. Jeremy, who had been right behind me felt a slight sting on his hand, but immediately surfaced & got nothing further (I think I drug it all with me). I was trying to keep it together in front of these basic strangers, but it hurt, badly. Lindsey returned with the vinegar & started dousing me, but it wasn't the easiest angle, and to be honest the damage was done. At one point, trying to get my lip better I basically got it completely up my nose- ugh. Anyway, Pat was super sweet & comforting once he got to me, and I started calming down, reminding myself that I wasn't going to die. They were cute & insisted I go take a hot shower while everyone started with dinner, which also helped. By the time I sat down with my dinner and a nice cold can of cider, I was perfectly calm, and just had lingering pain in a few spots. Needless to say, everyone was really sweet, and nobody thought anything of it when I called it a night pretty much immediately (I was the only one who'd done every dive, also). Ugh though- will not forget that one anytime soon!

Pat let us sleep in because nobody seemed keen on a 6am dive (even though he swore we'd see the most fish activity first thing), but somehow I was still the first one out on deck around 7:30am. After a wonderful breakfast casserole, it was time for us to tackle The Pinnacles. This is another series of tall coral towers, but as two currents meet there, it can be much more challenging, but you see a TON more. They kept warning us to maintain our depth, I guess because you can get tempted pretty low, and therefore run out of air more quickly. We were lucky- the current had calmed significantly, so the swim out wasn't bad at all. Then, I mean, just amazing stuff. It was super deep, probably 35 meters or so, and we hovered right around 15 meters, but you could see everything on the bottom, including a bunch of spotted rays, and a couple of really big-looking reef sharks. The other cool thing is that you could be swimming over a shelf of coral, checking out little Nemos & such, and then it just drops off, straight down. We swam around with another turtle (who I had to talk to, like he was a dog or something), and at one point a huge Gray Whaler (reef shark) appeared in front of us. I swear he was 1.5 meters, so at least 5-ish feet long. It was super, super cool, but while Jeremy took off after it with the GoPro, I fully hung back, perfectly happy with the distance separating us. (Reef sharks are perfectly harmless they tell me, but it looked just like a small great white, I swear.).

As soon as we were out of the water we started to move to a new location. This was called "Mystery" and was different from all the others we'd done. Firstly, it was much shallower, with the reefs even breaking the surface in places, and secondly it had caves & tunnels to swim through. This time it was just me & Estelle with Sam, and though I swear we went a bit in circles, it was super fun. Some of the tunnels were teensy though, and being paranoid about touching anything made it awfully nerve wracking, but even when I got a bit stuck, I didn't freak out, just backed up a bit & changed angles to get out. Estelle found a moray eel, which we both found super creepy, and there were just tons of fish in what seemed like gardens of coral. We even saw a lion fish (the pretty striped ones with long billowy ribbon-like fins). All-in-all, a fun little dive to cap offa great trip. 6 dives & no problems with equalizing my ears, no major sinus issues, and no panicking (other than post-sting, which doesn't count). The only problem was that it dawned on me that I likely wouldn't get to dive again on this trip, and therefore for quite some time... Sniff! I definitely hope to go back- and two days really wasn't quite long enough.

On the way back, we were treated to an escort of dolphins, which was really neat! I didn't have my camera out, but they were so close & the water was so clear, you could completely see them. Upon returning to Cairns, Pat rolled out a big map & showed us where we'd gone, then it was time for a group photo and then goodbye! When I got back to the hostel I ran into some gals I'd hung out with on Magnetic Island, and then reunited with Marian, my Spanish friend. I was exhausted though, so I just grabbed some pizza & called it a night. The next day was a do-nothing recovery day, scheduled perfectly to coincide with the Oscars, which they did show live, so that was fun! Odd to watch it w/out TiVo, and without the endless red carpet stuff before-hand, but I still got to see it- yay. That night had a fun night out at the pub & finally it was time to say goodbye to Cairns and Queensland. Really cool part of the country for sure- I didn't even do everything cool around Cairns, so I'll have to go back for sure!

I don't have a ton of pics (b/c I was mostly underwater!), but if you look closely, you may be able to see red marks on my neck on the close-up shot of me.

Up next: Melbourne & the Great Ocean Road!