Hand stretched out, the piece of swaying seaweed I was holding beckoned the friendly Hawksbill turtle who’d been curiously circling us. He started swimming toward me….
It was my birthday. One of those “milestones,” so I wanted to do something special. Really special. I’d only recently earned my PADI diving certification, so it seemed like the best time to take on one of my long-time bucket list adventures – a road trip through tropical northern Queensland with scuba diving in Cairns at the Great Barrier Reef!
Located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of northeast tropical Queensland, The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef, stretching out for 1800 miles. It comprises over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays. It’s one of the seven wonders of the natural world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only living thing on earth visible from space.
Kary and I chose Deep Sea Divers Den (DDSD) for our three-tank-excursion. I queried my Girls that Scuba community for a recommendation in Cairns, and DSDD won, hands down. They are a locally-owned business with two busy locations and the highest level of PADI certification – they have certified over 130,000 divers over the course of 43 years.
“We’re the only operation in Australia to do fluorescent diving,” said Kath Cutler, Marketing Manager of DSDD. “We get the equipment from Germany. You slip it over the top of your mask and it’s almost like a 3-D shield. An instructor/guide takes you down in the evening and when they turn on the torches everything looks three-dimensional.”
The First Dive – Great Barrier Reef
The check-in at “C” finger pier at the marina was 8 a.m. sharp. The slick “Reef Quest” vessel docked at the end of the pier was impressive, to say the least. We were greeted by our dive guide, Annie Kjestrup as we climbed aboard, and we set off for our 1.5-hour cruise out to Norman Reef, our first dive destination.
Arriving at the reef, we were the only boat on the 360° horizon. DSDD has a series of exclusive sites on the Great Barrier Reef, and they constantly alternate to ensure that the reef is not over-dived and remains pristine.
Squishing myself into my wetsuit like some kind of human sausage, I gleefully grabbed my new corrective dive mask. Because I’m farsighted, my gauges had become increasingly more difficult and a cause of anxiety. My colleague, Lance Longwell of Travel Addicts told me about his diving mask with a prescription reading lens at the bottom, and now I own and cherish my own.
Fins on and over the side I slid into the slightly chilly water. I was immediately surrounded by a school of huge red bass. They seemed even more curious about me than I was about them. They dodged in and out, seeming like they would bump into me, but then abruptly turned at the last moment.
We slowly descended, pinching our nostrils and blowing through the nose to equalize ear pressure, and then proceeded to follow Annie as she pointed out one outstanding marine specimen after another. We passed myriad types of corals seagrasses, parrot fish, barracuda, and reef sharks. All too soon, Annie gave the signal and we ascended.
The Second (and Best!) Dive – Great Barrier Reef
After a very brief rest, some water, and a newly filled tank, we were back in the depths of the sea. We noticed a fairly large sea turtle that seemed quite interested in us, hovering in our area. Annie went down a little deeper and picked some seaweed from the ocean floor. She held it out, and low and behold, the turtle swam over to it and plucked it from her hand! What an amazing thing to see!
But wait… Annie went back down and grabbed another piece of seaweed. She held it out to me and pointed to the turtle. My eyes went wide, and I started floundering in the water. But I took it. And offered it. The beautiful turtle came over and took it. Full transparency, I let go a split second before he grabbed it because that beak looked big and hard.
It was one of the most memorable experiences in all of my dozen or so dives, right up there with the time I took my son on his first dive in Curacao. Opportunities like this just don’t open up very often.
You can see us feeding the sea turtle in this short video.
Video by Kary Kern
The…Third Dive – Great Barrier Reef
After an extensive lunch on board and a short rest while the boat sailed on, it was time for our third dive, this time at Platetop Reef. I’d never done three dives in one day before, and I was hesitant because, quite frankly, I was exhausted.
“Nothing to worry about,” said Annie. “You just give the signal and we’ll come back up whenever you want.”
We went down again. I was having trouble maintaining neutral buoyancy, most likely because I was tired and anxious about doing a third dive. About ten minutes went by, during which time I was aware that my breathing was irregular, which of course increased my anxiety. I knew I had to go up. I signaled Annie and we slowly ascended.
Our heads popped up through the surface, and I said to Annie, “I’m okay, just tired. I see the boat just a few hundred yards away. I’ll swim to it – you go back down with Kary and the other guide (who had joined us for this dive).”
I proceeded to swim to the boat. Or so I thought…..
The current was strong and against me. The progress was very slow. Unbeknownst to me, Kary had also surfaced and was right beside me. He grabbed me with one of his strong arms and proceeded to “tow” me (his description) to the boat. Hey, I’m no dummy! I just relaxed and let him bring me in. After all, he is the lug in Luggage and Lipstick!
The way he tells it, he saved my life. Seriously!
With some effort, we made it to the boat, where another challenge awaited, i.e., I was exhausted and still had the nearly full, heavy tank strapped on my back. So Kary proceeded to heave me up, while a male crew member hauled me aboard. I may or may not have been dead weight at that point. What a sight that must have been! I could not suppress my giggles. I did refrain from asking them to each take an arm and just drag me across the deck. But I won’t lie, it did cross my mind.
“You’re diving in the Great Barrier Reef?” a few people asked before my trip. “But isn’t it dead?”
Climate change, causing ocean warming has resulted in coral bleaching in parts of the reef. As global warming continues, it will be a challenge for the coral to keep up with increasing ocean temperatures.
That being said, the Great Barrier Reef is most certainly not “dead.” One look at the photos on this page will support this claim. While the future of the reef may certainly be at risk, as of now there is an abundance of healthy coral abundant aquatic life.
“No one is really talking about the marine life that we’re seeing which is bigger, more schools and activity. One thing that the crew mentions on a regular basis is that they are seeing so much activity in the water in comparison to last year,” said Kath. “Captions stating that the “Great Barrier Reef Is Dead” is nothing more than misleading click-bait.”
“Claims that the Great Barrier Reef is dead are irresponsible and untrue,” supported Dr. Russell Reichelt, Chair and CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. “Ensuring Reef resilience is our core priority and we are doing all we can to support its recovery.”
The Eco-Tourism Efforts
“We’re advanced eco-certified and we work closely with the Marine Park Authority,” said Kath. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’s fundamental obligation is to protect the ecosystems of the park by limiting the impact of human tourism, such as fishing, diving, boating, etc.
“We have biologists are on board, and because we do have 17 exclusive sites that we’ve owned for such a long time, we’re not always going to the same site on a regular basis bringing hundreds of people to that site,” said Kath. “We monitor all the sites with the help of the scientists at the Marine Park who come out to survey the sites. All the education that comes our way we pass on to the crew, as well as our social media pages for the public.”
It’s a really big responsibility as an operator,” she said. “But because we’re locally-owned, it’s our priority to keep up to date.”
We walked the short distance to our hotel, DoubleTree by Hilton, conveniently located on the Cairns waterside boardwalk, the Esplanade. Kary clasped my hand tight to encourage my tired body to drudge along the waterside boardwalk. Arriving at the hotel, I collapsed onto my bed and eyed the adorable special birthday outfit – red and white polka dot off-the-shoulder dress, white floppy sunhat with two bright red poppies along the brim, white sandals, and red retro sunglasses. Cute, right? But alas, the ensemble would have to wait for another day.
“Would you mind just bringing back a pizza?” I asked?
“As you wish!” he said.
And so it was that I happily ate my sausage pizza in my PJ’s for my birthday dinner. Oh, and he also brought back a gigantic piece of tiramisu. Just doesn’t get any better than that — diving Cairns and tiramisu on my birthday!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.