Monday, August 4, 2008

Diving (okay, snorkeling) The Great Barrier Reef!

This is a hard post for me to write because I have very mixed feelings about it. I wanted it to be all exciting and fabulous and wonderful and amazing, but my experience wasn't. My experience was...okay, but I know that that is largely due to me and my fear of death in the water and really not the fault of the company or crew at, I'll give you my impressions, and we'll go from there.

The ship that we were on was the Spirit of Freedom. We were going to spend 3 days/3 nights aboard the vessel, on the 3 Day Cod Hole and Ribbon Reef Itinerary. I should probably mention here that I am not very comfortable in the water, I get sea sick, and I've never over-nighted on a ship before. Also, bear in mind that July is the dead of winter in Australia. My husband is the avid diver, and this was the part of the trip that he couldn't wait for. I was sort of dreading it. As much as I've seen footage of the Great Barrier Reef, and as beautiful as it always is, and as much as I wanted to be able to say, "Why, yes, I HAVE snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef!" I was worried about how I was going to do on this trip. I really WANTED to have fun, but, well, see above.

The basic itinerary was this:

Day One: Embark PM in Cairns, orientation etc., 1 dive
Day Two: 5 dives
Day Three: 5 dives
Day Four: Disembark AM at Lizard Island

Day One: For the first dive, I decided to go ahead and get in the water despite the fact that it was cold and nasty out. After all, this was my first opportunity to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, and I didn't want to be the only weenie not getting into the water. I can't tell you a single thing about this dive other than who my snorkel buddy was and that it was cold. I know that's terrible, but I can't really distinguish one dive from the next as far as what I saw, what kind of visibility there was, etc. I'm sure it was beautiful and that I saw a lot of cool fish and some amazing coral. Other than that, I can't tell you a thing. Since this was sort of a let's-all-get-acclimated-to-the-water-and-our-gear dive, I don't feel too bad about this. What I can tell you is that by the time I got back on the boat, I could hardly stand up. I would like to say that this was all due to the shockingly cold water (74 degrees! I'm from Hawaii, people! That's cold!) and the amazingly strong current and the choppy water, and I definitely think that was part of it; but I think a lot of it was probably also due to my amazing lack of physical fitness. Seriously. I almost couldn't climb the stairs to get from the dive platform up onto the deck area. Anyway, one dive down, and I'm still alive, so I'm happy. Did I mention I'm not terribly comfortable in the water?

Day Two: I knew going into this that there was no way I was going to participate in all 11 dives. For one thing, the first dive of the day was scheduled for around 7:00AM. If it had been sunny and beautiful out, I might have considered crawling out of bed for this, but it was rainy and cold. Screw that. Besides, they were going to be diving the same location later in the day. Later in the day it was still cold and windy and the sun was nowhere to be seen...which is how it would be for the remainder of the trip. I had envisioned snorkeling around, coming back on board, lying on the sun deck for a while and warming up, then getting back into the water for another snorkel. Yeah, right. We were all freezing our asses off for the entire trip despite the 5 mm wet suits provided by the ship. Anyway, I snorkeled for 2 out of the 5 dives that day saw some cool stuff and the coral is really cool (we don't have soft corals like that here in Hawaii) and it was cold. LOL. No, okay, I actually have some details from this day. The first dive that I went on was supposed to be the one where they do the cod feeding, which I was really looking forward to. Even though I wouldn't be able to participate (because I am a lame snorkeler and not a cool diver) I was hoping I could hang out and watch all the action from above. As it turned out, since nobody knew that I was snorkeling, there was a last-minute scramble to find me a snorkel buddy, so I didn't get in the water until probably 10-15 minutes after everybody else, so I missed the cod feeding. Also, the current was really strong. We were kicking for everything we were worth to just stay in the same place. We finally went in exhausted after probably 20 minutes or so. Later in the day I went on another snorkel, and this time I had 2 snorkel buddies. They had the ship's cameras so that they could take pictures of me and also of the fish. Also, I have been taking Kwell to avoid sea sickness, and it seems to be working. Yay me! I haven't thrown up AND I'm still alive!

Day 3: Let me tell you about Day 3. Since this is our last day, I make one last hurrah and decide to go out even though the water is choppy as hell. Again, there's a fairly strong current, not like it was the day before, but enough that you can't just hang out in one place and check things out, which is what I like to do. Also, have I mentioned that I'm not terribly comfortable in the water? Because the water was so choppy, I was taking on a lot of water through my snorkel. "A lot of water" is fairly subjective. What I consider "a lot of water" probably wouldn't faze most people, but I was having to clear my snorkel every 2 or 3 breaths, and this takes up a lot of energy. When you can only breathe in short choppy breaths (you can't exhale completely because if your next breath is all water, you have no way to blow it back out) and every other breath is a powerful exhale (to remove the water from your snorkel and ensure that you can take in another breath that isn't all water) and you're fighting the current to try to stay in place and you're convinced you're going to die, it's exhausting. Also, when I start getting overwhelmed in the water, I like to be able to pop my head up out of the water, get all the water out of my snorkel, and then stick my head back in the water when I've relaxed a little bit. When you are directly above the reef you can't do this. Well, you can, but then you're the jackass who's stading on top of the reef doing damage that if not irreparable will take years and years to repair. Now, add to this the fact that my snorkel buddy has no idea that all this is going on in my head and he is literally dragging me through the water via our shared flotation device to try to get me over the reef so that we can check it out. This is nice of him, and I'm sure he's wishing that I would do my fair share of the work and kick a little bit, but what he doesn't realize is that as he's dragging me through the water I'm taking on more and more water and now I can't "stand up" in the water because I'm right over the reef. So, in short, I spent about equal amounts of time looking at and admiring cool stuff as I did worrying about how not to die. After we floated back out to the edge of the reef and I could tell my snorkel buddy was preparing to drag me back out over the reef, I finally stood up and told him that I was ready to go back in. I'm sure this was frustrating for him-all that donning of the wetsuit and whatnot for probably 20 minutes worth of snorkeling-but I was nearing my breaking point.

I went back to our cabin, ultimately frustrated with myself, and showered and tried not to cry, but I couldn't help it. Then I figured if I was going to cry, I should go ahead and do it and try to pull myself together by the time my husband came back in from his dive. I didn't want to be a downer if he was having a good time (which he was because he was in the water, and it's physically impossible for him not to be having fun if he's in the water.) So, I cried and pulled myself somewhat back together and then my husband came in to shower and took one look at me and said, "Are you ok?" Ladies, you know that about the worst thing anyone can say to you when you are on the edge and trying to keep your shit together is, "Are you ok?," or, worse yet, "How are you doing?"

"Are you ok?" Eyes filling up with tears. "What's wrong? What happened? Did Snorkel Buddy do something?" What happened, in a nutshell, is that I have been trying, really trying, to have fun on the Great Barrier Reef, but I feel like I'm being a burden to everyone and it's been cold and nasty and I've been out in conditions that I would never go out in in Hawaii and I spent this entire last dive trying not to drown and this just wasn't at all what I had wanted it to be. Also, I feel like a really wretched human being because I've been reading Night, which is a tale of Holocaust survival, and, seriously, what kind of a loser am I that I'm crying about the fun I'm not having on my vacation on the Great Barrier Reef?

I did finally pull it together, and we went back upstairs. As we steamed toward Lizard Island, we went through about an hour of serious rocking and rolling on board. I still didn't throw up, but I had to focus pretty hard on where I was and how I was moving. Nausea was just a stone's throw away. Once we got into some calmer waters, we ate dinner then went to bed.

Day 4: We took the tender over to Lizard Island and hiked around there a little bit. Then we met up with our pilots who took us on some teeny tiny little planes along the coast back to Cairns. We spent the night in Cairns, and the next day we flew to Sydney then back to Honolulu.

So, would I recommend this adventure? I would say if you are a diver, this would be a great excursion. The boat was clean, the crew were all very organized and professional. The food was fabulous-we ate 5 times a day, and it was always great. The marine life is amazing, and probably beats a lot of what you will see anywhere else. Also, take your own gear. They have good rental gear available, but if you have some specialized regulator or other gear that you really prefer, the rental stuff just isn't going to cut it. You don't want to have to spend all your time under water thinking about your gear, fighting to get everything adjusted right or just being uncomfortable in something that doesn't quite fit right.

If you are a snorkeler...first of all, if you are as uncomfortable in the water as I am, (and odds are good that you are, otherwise you would already be dive certified)...maybe. I would definitely go in summer, not winter. Eliminate as many comfort-limiting variables as possible. Also, know that choppy water is the norm. Apparently all the glassy water that you see in publicity shots is only around for a couple of weeks a year. If you have gear that you are comfortable with, take it. I think the snorkels they have on board are pretty good, but my dry snorkel is way drier than theirs, and I think I would have had a much better experience if I'd had it with me. Also, take another equally lame snorkeler with you so that you have a default snorkel buddy. I was the only snorkeler, and each morning the trip director would post a schedule of all the dives and which crew was scheduled for what task during each dive. Each dive had divers scheduled, but nobody was scheduled to snorkel, so if I wanted to snorkel, I had to basically pull somebody out of rotation to snorkel with me. The end result of this is that somebody who was initially planning on only having to be in the water twice one day would unexpectedly end up doing 3 shifts in the water. Want to become the popular girl on board? Make everyone work an extra shift each day. That'll do it. While the crew were always very friendly and professional with me, I'm sure this was not anything they were excited about, and it probably threw off their schedule for other duties as well. This was part of the problem with me missing out on the cod feeding. Nobody was prepared ahead of time to go out with me, and so everyone was scrambling at the last minute to figure out who would or could go. I think this is a scheduling problem that the ship could address by simply scheduling a snorkeler for each dive. That way somebody is on tap to go, and if nobody goes out snorkeling, then the crew gets an unexpected shift off rather than an unexpected shift in the water, which I think would be a more welcome surprise. If you do find yourself the lone snorkeler on a dive cruise, mention this to the trip director and let them know before each dive that you plan on participating. Also, if you are uncomfortable in the water like I am, do your best to make this clear. I told my trip director at the beginning that I was not terribly comfortable in the water before our first outing, and he cheerily assured me that after I got back into the water and got accustomed to my gear I would get more comfortable. He did not understand that if 7 years of snorkeling off-shore in Hawaii had not gotten me comfortable in the water, 3 days on a boat in the middle of the ocean was probably not going to do it. I think this is a hard thing for people who are comfortable in the water to understand, and I haven't found a good way to convey it. In the end, I'm glad I went-how many people get the opportunity to dive (or snorkel) the Great Barrier Reef, right? I don't know if it's something that I will ever do again though.

2 days ago, we drove up to Three Tables, a popular area on the North Shore. It was sunny, the water was flat, and it was beautiful. I could walk in, the water was warm, I saw tons of fish and I only thought I might die once. I was so happy-it was everything that I had wanted the Great Barrier Reef to be! The more I leave Hawaii and come back the more I feel like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz-there's no place like home!


Heather J. said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog. I came by to say hi and this post had me laughing so hard! I am totally like you!!! My husband is a diver - inexperienced but certified - and I can't even swim underwater without holding my nose. I could completely see he and I in the same situation you were in - too funny!

Dreamybee said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks for stopping by!

I guess what they say is true-opposites attract! I can't swim underwater without holding my nose either-all the water gets in, even when I make a concerted effort to keep it out. Oh well!

Nick said...

You didn't happen to share this trip with a couple of Brits called Nick and Kathryn, who were also needing those Kwells did you?

We tried to dive as many times as possible on those 3 days just to get off the boat! (we felt less seasick underwater)

Dreamybee said...


Hi NIck! How did you guys do once you got off the boat? It took me about 4 days to quit being land sick! We still haven't gotten around to emailing anybody from that trip. We keep meaning too...

I'll hit your other comment too, just in case.

Thanks for visiting!