DIVING IN THE CORAL SEA
(Click here for the illustrated version)
Preparing Rather Than Daring
Shark attacks off Australia’s coastline happen frequently; victims perish or get away with horrific injuries. Are sharks the greatest threat to divers? Or stingrays, like the one that killed experienced naturalist Steve Irwin? What about the marine stingers that prowl the tropical seas, mainly from October to April? Like the box jellyfish, also called sea wasp, whose venom is so painful that victims may lose consciousness and drown or die of heart failure. Perhaps all these are threats – but, I believe, ignoring the principles of safe diving can be even more fatal. Failure to keep the airway open upon ascent may lead to air embolism, emphysema or pneumothorax (lung collapse). Surfacing too fast causes decompression sickness, the so-called bends, when the nitrogen dissolved in the blood begins to boil.
Summarised in a nutshell, this all sounds dreadful, but can be avoided by being well prepared. Having obtained my diver’s license from Scuba Schools International (SSI) five years ago with hardly any diving since, I enlisted in a refresher course at home in New Zealand, before booking a diving holiday on the “Anaconda”, a boat sailing from Airlie Beach to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.
As the Virgin Blue airplane was spinning its way down to the green flats surrounding Proserpine, the “Gateway to the Whitsundays”, I scanned the horizon for the blue shimmer of the sea. There was nothing that would herald the famous North Queensland coast. Proserpine sulks in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to me, and the shuttle I boarded for Airlie Beach took about half an hour to get there – driving fast.
I was ill prepared for what awaited me at the designated contact point for my diving party. This turned out to be a travel agency where nobody from the sailing-diving firm was in attendance, just under-informed girls who doubted my online booking printout showing the amount still owing. I had to pay more. This was particularly galling, since there were now cheap specials on offer for this very trip. The agent I had dealt with by phone and e-mail from New Zealand proved to be unavailable and his agency had moved from the given address.
“You must not take bags with zips on board”, I learnt as an added surprise.
“Because bedbugs hide in them”.
At that stage I was already considering to abandon both deposit and trip. Sensing my mood, the young woman dealing with me relented her officious mien and let me have two carry bags from her stock – free of charge. Then she gave me a voucher for storing the rest of my belongings – also for free. These were small friendly gestures, but sometimes such minor favours make a big difference, as indeed in this situation. However, the only place where I could change and repack, were the public toilets. A representative of the sail-dive firm would not emerge before 6:45 PM at the point of embarkation. That much for the customer service of a costly, allegedly up market trip. “Awesome comfort”, it says in the brochure.
Murky Whitsunday Islands
Clutching the rented “stinger suits”, we made our way to the pitch black torso of the Anaconda, her three masts almost imperceptibly swaying about a starless sky. Stinger suits are thin wetsuits that have become mandatory on some, if not all, commercial snorkeling or diving trips, whether in the warm season, when marine stingers appear, or beyond it like in June, the time of our trip. They turned out to be essential to keep us warm in the 23 degree water. Such a temperature may be warm enough for sport swimming, but drains the body heat of a diver floating under water with minimal movement.
I donned my suit already on board, before the rubber runabouts took us to Whitehaven Beach of Whitsunday Island, where the Anaconda had cast her anchor late at night.
Under a grey sky mirrored lead like by the water Whitehaven Beach presented an aura very different from the image stored in my mind from my last visit. Then the white silica sand of the expansive crescent glittered in the sun under a brilliantly blue sky. Now, it should again have been a special treat to spend the morning on the allegedly second most beautiful beach in the world, with swimming and snorkeling in the pleasant waves lapping it. Harry and Justin, our diving guides and instructors divided us into groups to test and practice basic diving skills near the beach. Those not involved kicked balls around, had short swims or tried to harvest super brief tanning sessions out of the sun stingy sky. I admired some girls not only for their shapely bodies but also for their brave shivering in skimpy bikinis.
On board the Anaconda were certified divers like me and “students”. Everybody had to show or learn how to let water fill the mask and clear it under water by blowing air in from the “BC”, short for the “Buoyancy Control” vest. The other skill entailed taking the (breathing) regulator out of the mouth, letting it go, finding it again, clearing it from water and continue breathing through it, all while submerged, of course. Those who could do it would be allowed to dive. Some gave up the idea of scuba diving at this stage.
After lunch the Anaconda made for Hooke Island. I opted for the first dive with our guide Harry and together with Pere and Marta, a brother and sister. They were good-looking dark skinned Catalonians (not Spaniards, God forbid!). Pere was a strong stocky guy with close cropped dark hair, Marta with dark brown long wavy hair and a voluptuous figure. Despite their young ages, Pere perhaps 20 and Marta apparently two years older, they were experienced divers with more than 100 dives to their credit. I was very excited about exploring the underwater world that I had seen from above snorkeling on my previous visit. Alas, the water was rather murky, the coral colours dulled by the lack of sunshine and I missed the abundance of fish big and small that I had been looking forward to. My Catalonian mates who were used to diving in the Mediterranean Sea, however, were much more enthused.
The Great Barrier Reef
Our skipper started the motor just after 4 AM cutting short my sleep and probably that of others. He aimed at getting us to the Reef in time for the usual breakfast at 7 AM. It was not only a noisy but also a bumpy ride. I, occupying the top bunk, was nearly tipped out at an exceptionally violent moment.
Immediately after breakfast I got ready for diving with Harry and my Catalonian friends. I felt comfortable in their company. I found this particularly important, because our diving procedures seemed to be somewhat light on safety. Our instructors filled all cylinders after every dive from the on-board compressor and tested them, albeit too cursorily. This became obvious to me when I did my own checks and was unable to get pressure into the buoyancy control system, the “BC”. When I demonstrated this to Harry, he discovered that a wrong O-ring had been inserted into the cylinder valve. Despite its tiny size and modest appearance, this small rubber ring provides the essential seal between the cylinder and the first-stage yoke. Replacing the O-ring was not enough. The “spider-like” assembly of regulators, inflators and gauges was leaking as well and had to be replaced.
When I had trained for my SSI license, much emphasis had been placed on a number of inspections that “diving buddies” had to go through prior to every dive, checking each other, including rehearsing hand signals, “lost buddy” and emergency procedures. While all of this might have been a little “over the top” in our undertakings where we dived in small groups staying close together, it would still have been important for the instructors to thoroughly check all equipment and insist on each diver double checking. A problem with the hand signals would lead later on to some unfortunate consequences for myself...
With weight belts and diving equipment put on and adjusted, we clambered down the steps leading from the stern of the ship to the runabout bobbing in the waves. A chilly wind fell from the glum sky that drew cloud curtains quickly over any cheeky bursts of sunlight. We were at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. I was again excited about the underwater world hidden beneath the heaving rippled dusky surface. Having arrived at a place called Bait Reef, Harry counted to three and, holding on to our masks, gauges and weight belts we made a backward roll into the water.
Washed by the Coral Sea, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest single living structure made by billions of tiny organisms, the coral polyps. Comprising close to 3000 individual reefs, 900 islands and stretching over 3,000 kilometres with an area of more than 340,000 square kilometres it is so huge that it is clearly discernable from outer space. It supports a wide diversity of life and has become a World Heritage site. A large part of the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Marine Park which is supposed to limit the impact of human use, such as overfishing and tourism. Environmental pressures to the reef and its ecosystem include also effluents, climate change causing coral bleaching, and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish. The Reef has long been culturally and spiritually important to the Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.
Slowly we descended into the murky depths of blossoming coral mounds and cliffs. Hard corals threatened with gnarled limbs and soft ones fanned in the current. Fish of various sizes, shapes and colours glanced at us, flicking in and out of hide outs, appearing and disappearing around corners. Deeper down the abyss blotted itself out in impenetrable lightlessness.
Although I looked in awe at the alien landscape, again I felt a tinge of disillusionment, missing the much greater variety of colours and marine life that I remembered from my snorkeling holiday twenty years ago.
Skirting the Reef
While the Anaconda was motoring towards our second diving spot of the day, the Hardy Reef, I went to sleep to make up for the short night before. Shouting on deck woke me up. Our ship was passing a gap in the reef with a veritable waterfall gushing through it, obviously caused by tide reversal. The top parts of the reef were now visible as an enormous crescent that extended as far as we could see, fading into the horizon.
The afternoon dive was a so-called “wall dive”. Instead of following the undulating marine landscape, we floated along a steep coral drop, inspecting it and the life it harboured by floating up and down, depending on the unfolding panorama. What I thought were angel fish of different colours were passing by elegantly. A shark that might have measured two metres in length prowled below us minding its business.
It is said that sharks don’t consider humans as food, but they are curious and may have a go at sampling these uncommon apparitions. Unfortunately for us, the sharks’ teeth are not only extremely sharp but also point inwards, so that even a “friendly” bite can leave a limb in the shark’s mouth. Gushing blood may then entice the shark to continue munching and also may attract additional sharks, because they may detect as little as one part per million of blood in sea water. Just at the time of my diving trip I found a picture of a surfer in the newspaper. He had survived a shark attack that left him with an amputated arm. He claimed he was still keen to carry on his surfing hobby. I rather confront a shark under water, where I can see it and fend it off by punching its nose. Allegedly, this works.
Ascending, I misread Harry’s signal to mean going up to the surface straight away, since we had been floating not much deeper than 5 metres for the last few minutes anyway. Alas, I had skipped the safety stop that is mandatory for three minutes at a depth of four to five metres. Harry gesticulated to me frantically to descend again, even attempting to pull me down. Too late! I already had filled my BC with too much air and tried incompetently to get rid of it. Back on board, Pere reprimanded me forcefully:
“There is no excuse for omitting the safety stop. It’s a matter of principle, because without it you risk your health and may even die. It’s your responsibility to make that stop, never mind what somebody else tells you or you think he told you!”
Not only was I embarrassed, I also had lost confidence in myself and in our guide. It was then that I decided against going on the night dive that was supposed not to be missed.
A Risky and a Flawless Dive
A brisk morning wind had not only swept the clouds from the sun, but also allowed the Anaconda to sail happily to Hayman Island, the last but one destination of our voyage. The ship’s deck became littered with sunbathing bodies.
My cabin mate Martin, a young German, had been on the night dive. So I asked him about his impressions. He called it a unique experience, but soon confessed that he had been in trouble. While descending, water had penetrated into his mask and he had found clearing it difficult. Apart from that, he had been unable to equalise properly, so that his ears ached. Usual practice is to ascend to a level of lower pressure and restart equalising. However, he had not been able to do this in order not be left behind. He described diving down like entering a vertical tube defined by the beam of the torch. At the bottom his group had been swimming through a tunnel-like passage when he had noticed that his BC still contained too much air pinning him to the ceiling. He had been able to free himself, but admitted to having been scared. However, having reached the target, a turtle nesting place, he had appreciated the awesome spectacle of large and small turtles floating in and out of his torch’s beam.
His adventure could obviously have had much worse results than aching ears for several hours afterwards. Not allowing a fellow diver, particularly a learner, enough time to get organised, is indefensible and I found my decision to postpone novel ventures to a time when I would be more experienced justified.
When we arrived at the Blue Pearl Cove of Hayman Island, just about everybody had had enough of diving and turned to snorkeling. I wanted to finish with a flawless dive, particularly since the sea bathed in sunlight, and chose to follow Justin. With us came only another person, a young Canadian girl.
It was like visiting a beautiful well-kept garden. Sunbeams kissed the corals and awakened their colours. We followed the contours of the underwater world, perhaps not deeper than ten metres, and I relished my newly acquired skill of rising and dipping by using just my breath and the appropriate flipper action. Gone were the times when I was letting air in and out of my BC to achieve the same, thus wasting much of my air supply. Justin had filled a water bottle with crumbled bread that he released once we had crouched together on the sea floor. Little fish snapped up the morsels right in front of our masks. However, as on the previous dives, we encountered only a limited variety of the finned denizens. Justin discovered a dainty starfish which he passed to us and a moray eel poked its angry head out of its hide-out. Ascending proceeded this time according to good practice.
Back on board a message waited for me: the travel agency that had overcharged me had been able to contact my on-line agent and now asked me to pick up a refund!
A Fun Party With A Scary Ending
I checked in to a pleasant hostel, had a good clean-up, satisfied my hunger with a large pizza and was looking forward to a relaxing night. Destiny wanted it otherwise. When I was sitting on a street bench licking a whopping ice-cream as a desert, Kim, the Korean girl I had been friendly with, strode across the road, happy to see me. After the Anaconda had docked in the marina we had all been busy disembarking and had disappeared in all directions without much of a good-bye.
Kim looked pale and her usually free flowing long black hair was hanging limply about her face. Distressed, she told me that she couldn’t pay for her dives because her credit card would not accept the code she believed she remembered. Worse, not having access to her money brought the remainder of her trip into jeopardy. Her bank had told her she would have to return to Korea for a new code. Now she was ringing friends and family to help her solve this problem.
“I’ve got to keep phoning,” she said, intrepidly, “but let’s go to the boat party together.”
“Don’t you know, we are all supposed to meet up in the Phoenix Club?”
This I had missed and was unprepared for. I was wearing only a skimpy tank top, short jeans and sandals.
The club was crowded, very loud, thronged with people not only from our boat but also from others that finished their voyages on that Monday. A guy at the back of the disco area was playing the guitar and singing, but nobody seemed to take any notice of him. Drinks were served at a discount and waitresses dished out free pizza that I was unable to eat, being still full of ice-cream. Successively, our friends turned up. Most girls had made themselves up so beautifully I had to look twice to recognise them. Conversations were conducted by shouting into each others ears, because of the background noise, but the atmosphere was definitely convivial. It was all one happy crowd, so that I met also guys and girls of the other boats.
The disco floor stayed empty until a racy woman with long blond hair and in a black-and-gold pantsuit, apparently young mid-age, took to the floor, dancing energetically in front of the entertainer. When I passed, she got me to dance with her. Then she asked whether I thought she was a female.
“You look like one,” I replied sheepishly.
“Are you gay?”
“No, why should I?””
I began to feel uneasy and distanced myself with the excuse to rejoin my friends.
Many people had their little digital cameras with them, as had I, and we took photos of each other, hugging each other or making fun. While circulating between friends, a group of Irish girls snatched me, commenting on the lovely green of my tank top (Irish green?) and agreed it went well with my brown skin. I also explained the symbolic meaning of my peka-peka greenstone necklace, the only item embellishing my minimal clothing. This obviously didn’t matter. On the contrary, I “was looking cool” (literally). A group of five girls dragged me away to the dance floor. As we danced, others joined us until the disco space was crowded. It almost looked like we had started the skipping, hopping and swinging.
One of our Canadian mates borrowed the entertainer’s guitar, played it and sang, amazingly well. Pity, he could not show his talents on board! There were more hugs and photos, particularly with giant sunglasses that made the round, more dancing. I can’t remember ever having been asked or made to dance by so many pretty girls. One girl wanted to know whether I was on face book, another ran her finger down my naked arm and pretended to lick it, indicating: “yum”!
It’s interesting how youthful behaviour and a good mood assisted by the semi-darkness of the room may conceal age differences.
Then something happened for which I was totally unprepared. I had just handed over my camera to somebody for a photo of myself and a girl I was with, when a woman that looked deceptively more serious than everybody else, passed by grasping the camera. First I believed she wanted to take a photo of us herself or of a friend of hers, but she disappeared in the crowd claiming she had recovered her property. I tried to pursue her but some guys blocked me demanding that I leave her alone. I pleaded with them, that this was my own digital camera with my holiday photos in it – to no avail. They looked as if they’d rather pick a fight than persuade their friend to check out the recorded photos. Obviously, these people were too inebriated to be open to reasoning.
All of a sudden, a pretty blonde appeared with my camera; she had been able to get the befuddled woman to look at the pictures taken. I profusely thanked the girl and we danced, but my party spirit was broken and I took this incident as the signal to leave.
Decompressing On Daydream Island
Flying after diving can harm a diver whose blood still contains excessive nitrogen, because the pressure in airplane cabins is much lower than at sea level. It is recommended to postpone flying for at least eighteen hours. I decided to “decompress” on Daydream Island which lies closest to Airlie Beach and is quiet in early winter.
There are two resorts on the island, the older one at the southern end, the newer one in the North where most of the ferries now dock. The resorts are connected by a board walk skirting the eastern shore and by a forest track leading over the wooded hills in the West. It was pleasant to roam about almost on my own. The new hotel is tastefully laid out; the entrance hall decorated with large fish replicas hanging from the high ceiling. In front of it, an artificial lagoon boasts a variety of fish whose feeding I was lucky enough to watch. A rounded pool with clear water invites swimmers. Sculptures of three mermaids grace a rocky finger jutting out from the sandy beach.
The story goes that mermaids warned Cook in 1770 when he was about to run aground in the passage between South Molle and the neighbouring island. Did he spot dugongs which may look like human figures with fins?
I climbed up the path through rain forest to reach the southern part of the island. Stopping at a table made of a large slab of wood I looked down towards the sea. A sailing boat was moving slowly past and behind, slightly in the mist, I discerned the more remote islands. This was a quiet, peaceful spot inviting me to daydream, as the name of the island suggests. However, it was actually named after the yacht of its first developers who bought it in 1930, allegedly for a few pounds. Now only multi-millionaires would be able to afford it.
I perched on the table and started to record the impressions of my trip on my tape recorder when two young women appeared and asked me to take a photo of them. I suggested they might want to first take off their sunglasses. This they found unnecessary, but put their arms around each other’s shoulders and, leaning towards the camera, almost bared their dark skinned breasts.
At the Southern fringe of the forest I visited an interdenominational chapel. A simple cross stands on the altar, but behind it an arched window frames the view of sea, earth and sky, a sight diffused by a flood of light like in an impressionist painting.
I ordered coffee and cake at the special bakery of the southern resort. The only other guests were an elderly couple, fully dressed and enjoying their afternoon tea under an umbrella. Two youngsters skipped out of the adjacent pool, allowing it to return to its windless stupor mirroring upside down palm trees. The girl was wearing a bikini consisting of a few strings, the guy one of these fashionable swimming trunks that threaten to slip off the bum to cover most of the thighs.
“Nice to be young,” the elderly woman mentioned, nodding towards the bathers. “But at seventy we can at least enjoy our tea in the shade of a tree.” She chuckled.
“You are a poet,” I said.
I wandered back to the northern part of the island on the board walk and found my way to the “Lovers’ Cove” which is embedded in the western coast, open to the afternoon sun. Only guests of the island have access to it, hence its underwater world is said to be intact. I waded into the water carrying my mask and snorkel, wearing sandals. The idea of taking my flippers I had abandoned already before my flight to Australia; they would have been too bulky. Now I didn’t have a stinger suit either and felt naked without it.
As soon as I plunged into the water, I realised that the tide was just right for floating above the coral garden without touching anything, but close enough to experience shapes and colours more intensely than this had been possible on our dives. The disadvantage, of course, was that my viewing experience was two- rather than three-dimensional. The corals were indeed healthy and unharmed and I enjoyed snorkeling the whole length of the bay.
Exploring the beach afterwards, I spotted one of the adjustable beach-chairs in a nook, next to rocks and fanning flax and a steep gully clutching ferns and berry laden bushes. There I sat down to sunbathe and continue talking into my tape recorder.
Gradually, the sun’s shine took on a reddish golden tinge that would spill all over land and sea to wilt away in the shadows of the dying day. Two wallabies hopped down the beach making sure it was vacant. They stopped to take a look at me, waving their paws as if to warn me it was time for catching the ferry back to the mainland.
Note: All personal names have been changed
© Joe Paul 2009
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