Having been chided for a faltering schedule of blog posts, I’m going to just jump in with current events and try to catch up on the lost week at some point in the future.
We arrived in Cairns in Northern Queensland on Saturday afternoon, 2nd February. We flew up from Brisbane on one of Australia’s budget carriers, Jetstar. Ishbel’s sister kindly let us leave our instruments and one suitcase behind with her while we made this side trip which helped keep the cost down. In common with budget airlines everywhere, Jetstar are vigorous in their upsell, which includes paying extra for luggage.
We had a quiet Saturday evening in Cairns. Ishbel needed a new swimsuit so we managed to acquire that at a shop called Splish Splash Swimwear at Cairns Pier. As we came out of that shop, another caught my eye. Man Overboard had a collection of really quite striking shirts in their window. One of my shirts has frayed at the collar and cuffs so, in accordance with our “one in, one out” policy for packing, I bought a splendidly garish linen shirt to replace it. We found a bar/restaurant called Salt House at the Pier where there was live music and decent food so we spent a couple of hours there before heading back to the hotel.
We had booked our dive medicals for Sunday morning and it turned out that the Cairns 24 Hour Medical Centre was right across the road from our hotel, so that was easy to get done. We then just had a leisurely walk around the town to see what it had to offer. Northern Queensland has been experiencing some severe weather. Most of it has hit Townsville, south of here, where over a metre of rain fell just in the last week. By comparison, my home town of Glasgow which is notoriously wet, has an average annual rainfall of 1.079m. (I checked). the edges of the weather system are affecting Cairns so it was overcast and a bit drizzly for our walk. We ended up back at Salt House for food and the live music again. We were very good and only drank mocktails. Having passed our dive medicals earlier in the day, we were faced with the brutal reality that we were now going to try to learn to dive so didn’t want to impair ourselves in advance. We waited out a thunderstorm which rolled through then headed back to the hotel for an early night and a pickup the next morning at 8:15am.
We were waiting in reception Monday morning as the minibus from Pro Dive rolled up outside. We were picked up and met the first cadre of our fellow students as the bus took us to the private Pro Dive facility for our first day of classroom and pool education. We were in the classroom for three hours until lunch, learning many of the basic safety precautions necessary to qualify as a diver and some of the dangers associated with the activity. Then, after lunch, we changed into our costumes and hit the pool. There were 11 of us on the course so we were split into two groups. Ishbel, me and three others were with our instructor, Line from Norway, in Pool 1 and the other 6 were with Steffen from the Netherlands in Pool 2. They proceeded to bombard us with information on the technical and practical aspects of diving, made us swim 24 lengths, had us tread water for 10 minutes, and swim underwater fully loaded with scuba gear and weights. I learned that I’m not fat, just overly buoyant. That explains the 10.5kg I had added to me which, when combined with the tank, regulators, Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), and my own mass, gives me my own gravitational pull. It’s also quite a lot to move around in when you’re not in the water. After four hours in the pool, class was dismissed for the day and delivered back to our respective hotels.
That wasn’t enough education for one day for us. We decided to attend a session at a place called Reef Teach, which does exactly that. It was recommended by our instructors and was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30, so when we got out of there at 9:30, we were considerably better informed about what we could expect to see on the Great Barrier Reef when we eventually got out there. After that, we had time to grab a quick bite at Evo Burger which was delicious.
We were exhausted by this time so headed back to the hotel then up in time for a 7:35 pickup on Tuesday morning. We were driven back out to the facility then were straight into the pool for the morning. We again practised skills and emergency procedures, like taking off our BCD and putting it back on, while in the water. Taking off our weights and putting them on again, in the water. Taking off our mask and putting it back on again. In the water. Throwing away our regulator (air hose) and finding it again. In the water. This all finished about noon and, once again, we were feeling a tad fatigued by the whole exercise. Bear in mind that we have a good 10 years on the next oldest student and he in turn has a few years on most of the rest of the class. We’re entitled to be tired!
We then all went for lunch together at a place called Grill’d before stopping by the Pro Dive shop in central Cairns to look at and possibly acquire equipment. We, of course don’t have any room in our luggage for such things. So imagine my surprise when I found myself the proud owner of dive boots and flippers and Ishbel had a snorkel and mask! These things happen.
Anyway, after the shopping spree, it was back out to the facility to sit our exams. Luckily, we all passed so the whole class was set for the next part of the course: the Great Barrier Reef. Pickup on Wednesday was at 6:15. It just keeps getting earlier! We were driven to the shop to check in for the trip and to store the luggage we wouldn’t need on board. Once that was done, we were back on the minibus and out to the marina to see our boat for the first time, the Scubapro. I should mention that I had chosen today as the first day to wear the previously mentioned garish linen shirt. So when the skipper, Warren, completed the roll call once everyone was on board, he stopped at my name for a special mention of the shirt. Yes, it really is that loud.
In total, there are 31 divers on board. Apart from the 11 of us PADI Open Water students and one snorkeller, the rest are already qualified and are either having fun dives or are trying to qualify for more advanced qualifications. For our group to qualify, we have to complete four open water dives and perform certain skills both at depth and on the surface. I don’t usually get seasick but the skipper pointed out that even people who don’t get seasick get seasick on this boat so Ishbel and I decided to take a preventative tablet each. The ride out to the reef was very turbulent and once the outbreak of seasickness inevitably happened, I was delighted that we had done so.
It was a three hour trip out to the reef, and the skipper informed us that North Westerly winds were making it very choppy at the usual Day 1 site so we would head to what was called the “Wild Side” of Milln Reef. Once moored, everyone changed into their gear. The water is warm out here, about 28°C so we all have highly attractive full body lycra suits to wear. My apologies for putting that image into your heads. If you don’t want to be further traumatised, look away now.
Thus it was that, looking somewhat like an aquatic Santa Claus, I made my way to the back of the boat, held my regulator and mask with my right hand and the mask strap with my left, and took my giant step into the ocean. As we descended to about 12m, we again were obliged to go through a variety of skills similar to those we had learned in the pool, with the added thrill that we were in the sea with waves buffeting us and currents pulling us around. We all survived that and just about managed to scramble onto the boat at the end. That is a whole new skill.
There’s a well defined schedule for dives for the three days we’re on board. As learners, we need to do Dives 1 and 2 on Day 1 and Dives 1 and 2 on Day 2 in order to qualify as PADI open water divers. Once we’ve done that, they actually allow us to dive without an instructor.
The good news is that Ishbel and I managed to complete the 4 dives necessary – 2 at the Wild Side, Milln Reef and 2 at The Whale, Milln Reef – and are now, as I type, qualified divers. I’m sure you find this as difficult to believe as I do. However, having qualified, we declined the opportunity to go diving unsupervised on Day 2. Mainly because we are absolutely shattered. We slept 9 hours straight on Wednesday night and will probably do the same tonight (Thursday). We plan on doing at least one dive on Friday before the boat returns to port in Cairns.