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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Australia: Great Barrier Reef

Humpback whales off Cairns
Humpback whales off Cairns

The Great Barrier Reef is like another world. I don't think anything can replace the feeling of your first scuba dive or reef exploration, but they say that the Barrier Reef has some of the best diving in the world, and I wanted to find out what the buzz was all about.

So I booked myself passage on Taka II, which would be home to about 25 people for a three-and-a-half day trip to the reef. We left Cairns late one afternoon and spent the night steaming north, ending up at the world-famous Cod Hole the following morning, just off Lizard Island; we then then spent the next three days making our way south down the reef, stopping at various spots to dive (we did ten dives in all). Perhaps the best way to describe the diving is to quote from my dive log, which every diver is supposed to keep, though please note that I filled in my log on a pitching boat, using a pen, so forgive me if the prose is a little stilted. Suffice to say the trip was quite extraordinary, and this one event alone ensured that my brief trip to Queensland was well worth the effort and expenditure.

[Some quick terminology for non-divers: the regulator is the thing that goes in your mouth and provides air; the deeper you go, the faster you get through your air, because air is always provided through the regulator at the same pressure as the surrounding water; your first dive of the day should always be your deepest, with the rest getting progressively shallower; you always dive with a buddy, and my buddy was a delightful American called Molly; and coral stacks are called 'bommies'.]

Dive One, , Ribbon Reef 10 (Cod Hole)

The first dive of a three-day trip to the Great Barrier Reef, and those of us who hadn't done umpteen zillion dives already had to do a quick 'check out' dive. Memories of New Zealand came flooding back, quite literally, as I had to clear a partially filled mask, recover my regulator and so on. This was followed by a hop down to 30.5m, the deepest I've been yet (allowed under Queensland law as I had a dive computer; for those on tables the deepest allowed is 18m), and by the time I got back to a reasonable depth, my air was running low. A short dive.

So the chats afterwards about 'Did you see the grey whaler shark?' made me realise just how much you miss if your scuba is more mask-clearing than shark-stroking. One day I might manage the scuba equivalent of changing gear and steering at the same time. One day...

Dive Two, , Ribbon Reef 10 (Cod Hole)

Mark kissing a cod on the Great Barrier Reef
Kissing a cod in the Great Barrier Reef's Ribbon Reef 10 (Cod Hole)

More time to explore the reef, the 'first dive' jitters being consigned to the bin. Buddy Molly – har-dee-har – and I queued up (after all, this is a tour) to kiss a bloody great cod. These fish are a wonder to behold: before scuba, the only cod I knew came with chips. Behind the doleful eyes and low slung, thick-lipped mouth lives a curious, graceful creature. For some reason fish feel more alien to me than land animals, and the cod makes you feel like a temporary guest rather than a distant relation. Kissing the bugger didn't change a thing.

The reef was pleasant, but no more special than the Gambiers. I have high hopes for the coral as we head down the reef, though. I just wish there was more sun1...

Dive Three, , Pixie's Pinnacle

Circling a tall bommie, spiralling upwards, is a good thing if everyone is going in the same direction. We – Molly and I, and another couple called Caroline and Amanda – headed off clockwise, seemingly the opposite way to everyone else. Still, it added a challenge to the proceedings.

Pixie's Pinnacle, obviously named by a fantasy-reading hippy with hair down to his hips and red-tinted Lennon specs, was beautiful. Hundreds of types of coral, which I can't name because I haven't done any homework, flutter in the current while fish of all shapes, sizes and colours mind their own business among the formations. They said it was more an aquarium than a reef, and they were right.

Good old They. You can always rely on him.

Dive Four, , Challenger Bay

The progression: swimming in clear, cool rock pools in Karijini; swimming across a muddy and wide river in Millstream-Chichester; walking through a waist-deep, freezing, mountain-boring river in Tunnel Creek; snorkelling off a yacht in the Coromandel; learning to scuba dive in the Poor Knights Islands; exploring coral reefs in the Gambier Islands... and the final piece in this phobia-shattering sequence, a night dive on the Great Barrier Reef.

Defining memories of the dive: seeing groups of divers with lights, self-contained units in a sea of black; a stillness not unlike the peace of loneliness on the central desert; swarms of fish, bright flecks of light in our torch beams...

And no, I don't remember what I saw. I was too amazed to find myself diving in the dark.

Dive Five, , Clam Gardens

The first dive of the day – and therefore the deepest – and, I am glad to report, no longer the air-guzzling experience it was before. Molly and I had to stop for a breather or two while heading back from 30m up to the reef, but the blood, sweat and tears were all well worth it: clams the size of sumo wrestlers were littered around the site like boulders on Mars.

Wildlife was impressive, with plenty of young fish around to bring out the paternal instinct. I also found the toilet-brush-shaped animal2 that sticks out of the coral and shoots back inside its hole when you go to touch it.

One final point: we were woken at 7am and were in the water by 7.30am, so some of the above may be the result of me still dreaming. Certainly felt like it...

Dive Six, , Steve's Bommie

Mask clearing, probably the most annoying part of scuba, became a real burden round Steve's Bommie. For some reason known only to him upstairs, only my right eye had a problem with flooding, and clearing a mask by blowing through just one nostril makes the sort of thing you see in American 'Frat Pack' movies look positively innocuous. I still don't get it: the two sides of a mask are connected, aren't they?

Steve's Bommie – named after a late scuba diver, who has his own plaque at the base of the bommie – is a haven of marine life. As the dives progress on the Great Barrier Reef, I am beginning to recognise fish, coral and so on. No, I don't know their Latin names, let alone their English ones, and that doesn't detract from them at all. After all, the sights are indescribable, so what use nomenclature?

Dive Seven, , Temple of Doom

Seven dives into this marathon three-day trip, and they're all beginning to meld into one. A hectic 'three before lunch' schedule ensured a rush of experiences without much time for reflection, a bit of a shame – but more than made up for by the opportunity after this dive to snorkel with a minkie whale (but that's another story).

Temple of Doom, named because it's full of fish whose main diet is, er, other fish, is a long, oval bommie with plenty of plate coral, and schools and schools of seemingly unfazed fish. Molly and I managed a circuit in the time it took for me to guzzle my air, during which we managed to make sufficiently touristy gestures into the videographer's camera, just for that perfect memento. Thank goodness fish don't pull gormless faces when a camera gets pointed at them, or Cousteau would have died a poor man.

Dive Eight, , Beer Gardens

Another night dive, and this time no qualms about jumping into a pitch-black ocean – it's amazing how quickly your phobias become your friends. In fact the only thoughts were of the water temperature rather than scary things lurking in the murky depths.

The highlight was a loggerhead turtle, who was asleep on our first pass, but who woke up and swam right past us in a graceful motion that made Nureyev look like a klutz. The size of the turtle was hard to gauge with the magnifying effect of underwater viewing, but it looked bloody huge: certainly the biggest turtle I've ever seen!

Molly has a problem now, though: she has achieved two of her life's ambitions, to swim with whales and to swim with turtles. What now?

Dive Nine, , Hog's Breath

Up at 6am, in the water at 6.30am, and I do sometimes wonder if this is for pain or pleasure, this trip. Immersion in cold sea water while the sun makes its feeble attempt to make the already-wet suit less freezing isn't my idea of larf-a-minute.

The bommies were pretty surreal, with arches and sixties-acid-influenced towers, but to be honest we were both so spaced out from the rude hour of our awakening that our wide-eyed stares were more a sympathetic pleading for matchsticks than amazement at the sights.

After an already hectic schedule, this early bird couldn't care about the worm. Not this time.

Dive Ten, , No Name Bommie

Ten dives in two-and-a-half days, two early mornings, and I'm out for the count. The best fun was finding big blobs of Christmas worms with their 'trees' out, and waving a hand to make them disappear like some corny magician.

A perfect illustration of how familiarity breeds apathy: another bommie, another day. It seems that diving is going to be another of those activities that are better if they're rare, like good port, walks in the rainforest, and nights on the town. However, I guarantee that next time, it will still be well worth it: I'm not jaded, just faded.

And there is one good thing. By the end of Hop 173 I am proficient enough that the mask doesn't flood, the buoyancy control is good, and the air lasts longer. I might even become a novice one of these days.

Minkie Whale

So, those were my dive log entries for the trip. One thing they didn't mention (well, only briefly) was the minkie whale who turned up on the penultimate day and who let us snorkel right above him. These whales are simply huge, and they move around with a lack of effort that has to be seen to be believed. We also came across a number of humpback whales on the last day, while we were heading back to Cairns, and they put on quite a display of tail slapping and fin smacking. Not a bad bonus...

1 A wish that came true the next day, as the clouds cleared and the sun came out in all its skin-bubbling glory.

2 I found out later this was called the Christmas worm, because the brush it sticks out is shaped like a Christmas tree.

3 This was my 17th dive overall.

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