By Tiffany Dun
Recently I went on a diving trip with JCU’s Dive Club out to the Great Barrier Reef. It was one of the coolest few days of my existence -spending copious amounts of time underwater while peacefully immersing ourselves in the deep dwellings of the sea. Moments of pure bliss were preempted and followed by torturous cold and wetsuit adornment, but all worth it in the name of underwater exploration. We dove 17 times both day and night for 5 nights, and here, I recount our last, most perfect morning.
I wake up to the lull of the boat, jump out of my top bunk and throw on my bathers. I look at my watch -7.05am. I’m late.
Slightly swaying from side to side as I walk through the kitchen, I grab an apple and turn the kettle on. A couple of the students are sitting down munching on toast.
And a beautiful morning it was.
One of the Divemasters walks past, “There’ll be dive briefing upstairs in five minutes!”
The tanks are already set up so I rush to do the same. All of our gear is kept in big, black buckets. Instant coffee in hand, I head upstairs to hear the briefing.
The site we are diving is Wheeler Reef -a garden of corals and large pelagic fish. Stewey, the captain points to a diagram drawn on the white board.
“I would stick around Shark Alley,” he gestures towards the deeper area.
“You’ll see a lot of big pelagics there, then I would head shallower to check out the coral bommies in front of the boat.”
I meet up with my team -Desiree, Lucy, Annum and myself. I hadn’t known any of them before the trip. Now, after spending over 10 hours underwater together, we were like sisters.
“I heard this is the best reef,” I say.
Desiree jumps with excitement, “I hope we see a shark!”
“We definitely will. It’s called Shark Alley, after all.”
We head to the front of the boat to orient ourselves around the reef. “Let’s try not to get lost this time,” Lucy says. She gives me a sidewards glance.
“Don’t worry, I’ll definitely trust my compass this time,” I say.
The others laugh nervously as we recall getting lost the day before, and the trauma of being towed back by our Captain (Uncle) Stewey.
It’s time to gear up and jump in. I slide into my (still wet from last night) wetsuit and sit calmly on the side, watching the light dance along glassy surface. My stomach jitters like it does before every dive.
I meet Desiree at the other side of the boat for a buddy check.
Desiree taps my regulators and inflates my BCD. Everything seems to be working.
“Mask? Fins? Okay, let’s go.”
One by one we step of the boat and are engulfed by the cool, calm sea. We signal ‘OK’ to the boat and head towards Shark Alley.
“You guys ready?”
We signal ‘OK’ to each other and descend with a thumbs down sign.
Under the surface the water is crystal clear. We can see the sandy bottom around 30m below us. My stomach jumps, it’s a weird feeling, like I’m about to fall but instead I’m floating.
I look around and signal ‘OK’ at my dive buddies. When I get an ‘OK’ back, we exchange smiles and shakkas. I do a full 360 spin around, being under the water is indescribable. It feels like I’m flying.
After a bit of fun I get my bearings and remember the boat is due west. I make a mental note to not forget that this time as we head east along coral stack. We continue descend and head towards the opposite, deeper side of the reef.
Here, we find ourselves surrounded by life. The reef is like an underwater rainforest, seething with both large fish and the smallest of critters. We split up to look at the soft corals, schools of trevalleys and large batfish. I admire the sea fans while the others point at a huge Humphead Maori Wrasse swimming past.
It’s cold this morning so (despite my instructor’s advice), I pee in my wetsuit to warm myself up. We swim around the coral stack, past a bright yellow pipefish hiding between an Acropora coral. I find Desiree lying on the sandy bottom, watching some fanworms sway in the current. I join her, and wave my hand over them. We both giggle as we watch them retreat quickly into their holes in the sand.
I suddenly hear a dinging sound and see Annum excitedly hitting her spoon against her tank. She signals two quotation marks -which I know means she’s seen a nudibranch.
Excited, I swim over. The nudi is miniscule -half the size of my pinky finger, and I wonder how she always spots them hidden among the reef.
This particular species is bright blue with orange and black stripes. I motion a heart to Annum and continue to watch in awe. The nudibranch moves slowly -like a slug, its antennae blowing in the current. It’s magnificent, this tiny creature, and I’m fully absorbed by its presence. I’m grappled by the concept of how such an alien creature exists. It feels like I’m on another planet.
We swim over a branching coral colony and find ourselves at a swim-through leading to the other side of the alley. I hear another dinging and see Lucy motioning towards a white-tip reef shark, around 2m long. Here, we stop abruptly to watch him sit in the sand. As we creep closer, he swims away in all his magnificent predatory finesse.