After signing up for a first-timer's scuba diving course on the outer Great Barrier Reef, this writer fell for the life aquatic.
I drift past clownfish lurking in shimmying sea anemones and delicate blue sea stars; over prickly pineapple sea cucumbers, stag corals with electric-blue tips and giant clams with lopsided grinning mouths. I merge on to a sapphire-hued highway jammed with pufferfish, triggerfish and trumpetfish, paddletail snapper, two six-banded angelfish – and one klutzy rookie diver.
In a coral garden I try to get a closer view of a nudibranch (a shell-less mollusc with a colourful jelly body) and nearly crash into an outcrop of finger coral. When I try to adjust my buoyancy to avoid it, I rocket upwards. My dive instructor, Jess, hauls me back by a flipper. It’s a reminder that I have yet to be tested on the cross-legged, under-sea “Buddha hover”.
Since I was a child entranced by David Attenborough documentaries I’ve wanted to dive on the Great Barrier Reef; to explore its depths rather than snorkelling in the shallows. But as an adult, I’ve learnt that the course to scuba-diving heaven on the Agincourt Reef first passes through hell: the misery of a dive school’s chlorinated pool and cramming for a dive-theory test in a hotel room.
An eLearning test is a prerequisite of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) three-day Open Water Diver Course and it’s a bad idea to leave study until the day before the course starts. When I arrive at Quicksilver Dive’s Port Douglas training centre I have tired eyes and butterflies in my stomach after a night trying to absorb an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge.
“I checked your progress yesterday and wondered how you’d finish,” says Jess, the instructor who’ll help me become a certified diver. She’s worked with Quicksilver for five years, teaching novices to dive during three- or four-day courses, which run every week all year round. (The first day of the four-day course is devoted to theory.)
Jess leads me to the four-metre-deep training pool and seems to clock the fact that I’m hardly a model of youthful athleticism. As she demonstrates how to attach the scuba air cylinder to the BCD and the regulator to both, she seems not at all like someone intent on inflicting pain. Eight hours later, I have a different view. My fingernails are the first to go, then my back, as I climb out of the water, remove the kit, take it apart, reassemble it, hoist it back on and return to the pool, over and over. I decide there’s some mathematical trickery afoot: even as the amount of air in the tank decreases with each descent, it seems to grow heavier.
Over sandwiches (all equipment and meals are provided during the course), I ask Jess if students fail. Yes, she replies, sometimes they can’t master the skills or they bail. I’m bone-tired but push away the idea of Piña Coladas and return to the training pool. To become a certified diver, I’ll need to reprise all the skills I’ve learnt here during four dives on the outer reef, including the dreaded Buddha Hover that allows a diver to achieve neutral buoyancy. I roll around like a drunken dugong for ages before I manage it but keep reminding myself that tomorrow I will finally be out on the reef. Everything Jess is teaching me in the pool is designed to help me dive effortlessly and prepare me for any safety issues that might arise.
The next day I’m 10 metres under on Agincourt, attempting to manoeuvre my flippered feet into a sitting Buddha position and hover just above the seabed. I topple forward and roll to the side and backwards, again and again. Finally, I hold the pose for just long enough and Jess gives me the thumbs up.
During our lunch break, I meet Brisbane sisters Gina and Adele, who’ve been certified divers for years and I share my buoyancy concerns. “Don’t worry about that,” says Gina. “My first dive, I put my wetsuit on backwards.” They didn’t start diving until they were over 50: Adele, now 71, was the first to learn and Gina, 61, didn’t want to sit on the beach.
Later, after I’ve mercifully passed all the skills tests, Jess takes me to nearly 18 metres – the maximum a certified Open Water diver can go – at Agincourt’s Barracuda Bommie site. It’s famous for the massive, multi-coloured coral pinnacle rising 26 metres from the seafloor and incredible marine life: I see a blue brittle star entangled in finger coral, a moray eel’s nose protruding from under a patch of hard coral and two sweetlip fish chasing a third.
Above us is a heavenly vision, hundreds of blue fusilier fish tinged with gold moving in a glorious arc and shimmering in a shaft of light. My body is weightless and I feel euphoric. Jess points out the prettiest blue, black and yellow palette surgeonfish and forms a heart shape with her hands. Then she indicates it’s time to ascend. I put my hands together in a prayer gesture and plead for more time.