Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cairns Part II: The Reef

We didn't know it at the time, but the Tuesday that we picked to go out on the reef was the last bit of suitable weather that we'd see for the rest of our stay in Cairns. Lucky indeed, because the trip, with Passions of Paradise, was an unforgettable experience. It was a journey to a different planet, that even if it happened over a week ago, still replays vividly in my mind as I write this.

The weather wasn't perfect though. By the time we got to Michaelmas Cay (a cay is formed over thousands of years by the deposits of sediment on top of coral, as opposed to an island which is basically an underwater mountain), two hours out of Cairns, I was a little green around the gills. Odd really - I normally don't get sea-sick. I never got as bad as another Irishman on board, one of four lads from Wexford, who blew nautical chunks off the back of our 25m catamaran for the whole trip out (apparently he didn't know that day 3 of his tour involved boats). But despite the slight nausea, I was still up for the first dive of the day, the first dive of my life in fact (I did ask one of the crew what happened if you threw up into a regulator).

Our briefing from Simon was entertaining and informative. There were a few things to learn before getting under:

  1. Remember to keep breathing. Sounds obvious, but it's not such a smart idea to maintain two lungfulls of air and then move from a high to low pressure environment.
  2. Equalize. This does not involve helping innocent folks fight battles again powerful baddies or anything else that requires you to pretend to be Edward Woodward. It simply means holding your nose and blowing, just like on the plane, to balance the pressure on the eardrum.
  3. Clear your regulator. Once under water, but before the dive proper, we would have to demonstrate that we could take out the regulator (mouthpiece), put it back in, and clear the water from it by saying 'two', loudly into it.
  4. Clear your mask. Another underwater test. This time we would have to deal with water in our masks by holding on to the top of it, tilting our heads back, and exhaling though our noses. Again, the dive would only begin when we could demonstrate our ability to do this.
  5. Hand-signals: The side-to-side motion of an outstretched, down-facing palm - something you would use on dry land to mean 'so-so' - means 'Huston, we have a problem'. You can augment this with a subsequent indication as to where the problem is. You could point to your ear for example, to say that you are having problems impersonating Edward Woodward. Or to your ring-finger, to indicate that you were having relationship problems. Endless possibilities there, for idle sea-bed chit-chat.

So let's recap. I was about to embark on an activity for which I am biologically ill-adapted - it has been many millions of years since our ancestors emerged from the water (apologies to any creationists out there: I'm sorry you believe that crap). It could kill me faster than a shoe full of funnelwebs. But all I had to demonstrate was an ability to breathe, pinch my nose, say 'two', blow bubbles out my nose, and wiggle my hand. In short, I needed no skill whatsoever other than a complete inability to evaluate risk. THIS WAS FOR ME!!!!

The moment came. The instructors were models of poise and good humour. It was just a matter of walking off the end of the boat. Wearing a load in excess of the combined weight of our two samsonites. So that's what I did.

What I experienced is hard to describe: a combination of the excitement of the new, the weightless and speed of being underwater with fins, fireworks of coral and other aquatic life (fish, rays, giant clams, turtles, sea cucumbers) and yet a perfect ease that I felt down there. The overall impression I was left with was a craving for more. Despite spending 2 hours on the way back to Cairns with my eyes closed and my stomach in my mouth, wondering if I was going to join the Wexford man on the back of the boat.

But before I finish, let me just add that what I saw under the water may be all gone in 50-100 years time thanks to the combined effect of trawling, and you guessed it, global warming. I can't tell you how much more that sucks close up in real life than on paper.

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