Diver down: Learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef

We have a sleep over on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef as Gareth gets some more Australian dives in and Shelley struggles through her open water course.

The winner takes it all

So the Grand Tourists are very competitive. At least with each other. The ‘bush poo’ tally on our website is a result of one of our battles, with the loser (the pooer) privately and publicly ridiculed.

One of our early contests was the race to ‘dive or drive’. The winner was the first person to catch up with the other’s accomplishments. Shelley had to learn to dive before Gareth learnt to drive, or vice versa. The stakes were pretty high, and Rumpelstiltskin-esque, with the winner allowed to name the firstborn child of the loser. Even if that child was born to a different mother or father. Intense right?

Diver down

Shelley made the first move by doing an introductory dive down in Queenscliff, Melbourne before we set off on our Australian road trip.

It was awful. The water was cold, vision was limited, and there was a strong current that kept trying to pull a flailing Shelley away to an early, watery grave. Her instructor was negligent, spending the whole dive looking for fish amongst the coral with no regard for a panic-stricken newbie.

Luckily Gareth had joined the dive and was there to pull Shelley back down as a particularly strong swell swept her off. Needless to say, that traumatic experience lodged itself in Shelley’s cavewoman brain, and she has been reluctant to descend back into the depths until now.

In the meantime, Gareth made headway. He gained his Learner’s permit and has driven most of the way around Australia. He drove and dove in Ningaloo, Western Australia and heard the whales singing and saw the nudibranch noodling and soft coral swaying. Shelley couldn’t see shit from her surface snorkelling position, and resolved that she was ready to dive again when we made it to Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.

Deciding on Deep Sea Divers Den

After assessing every open water certificate on offer in Cairns, we chose a four-day course with Deep Sea Divers Den for around $650. They were PADI accredited, friendly, well priced and flexible – after two days of pool school for Shelley, both of us were able to able to get on a liveaboard, share a cabin and spend two days diving on the reef.

Dive post, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
Is this what they call an over water bungalow?

So while Gaz chilled out in a Cairns caravan park, Shelley went back to school. She was lucky enough to be in a class of two (very unusual for a Cairns dive school) and spent the day learning about diving equipment including the Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) and air tank, risks like decompression sickness and narcosis, and procedures like the buddy check and safety stop. Jumping in the pool, she practiced these skills, and her dive anxiety was soothed by the competency and care of her instructor Sarah (shout outs to Sarah).

The most important lesson of the day was that Bruce Willis Releases Awesome Films (not Ruins All Films). Regardless of your thoughts on Bruce, BWRAF is a great mneumonic device for remembering how to buddy check and not die. BCDs, Weights, Releases, Air, Final Check.

PADI training centre, Deep Sea Divers Den, Cairns Queensland
Dive school. Class of 2016
Dive apparatus, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
So many things to remember if you don’t want to die

The second most important lesson is that to dive, you really need to know how to swim. Sounds obvious, but Shelley’s training partner had overlooked that requirement, and gave up on the course at the end of the day when she realised she had to swim 200 metres, float on her back and remove her mask and refit it while under water. She completely lost her mind while attempting the latter and filled the pool with strings of snot that Shelley and Sarah had to flip and twist like seals to avoid. The good news was that Shelley now felt like she wasn’t the biggest diving dud ever, and had the confidence to complete the rest of her theory and pool tests.

Sleeping and struggling on the reef

By the time we hit the liveaboard for the open water part of the open water certificate, Shelley was nervous all over again. She had a new buddy from Columbia, Laura, who had completed the theory part of her certificate a few months ago, and was consequently a bit rusty.

On the first descent the girls found a turtle waiting at the bottom of the mooring line to welcome them. Close by there was also a bed of anemones cushioning a clown fish. After the obligatory posing with Nemo snaps with the boat’s photographer, there were skills to complete. This included swapping to a buddy’s air supply, filling and clearing masks and removing and refitting the BCD and tank.


These tasks were done easily enough but the dives were starting to take their toll on both Shelley and Sarah’s ears. Both struggled to get down on the next couple of dives and Sarah had to find a new instructor to assess the last few tests.

The new instructor was not impressed with the girls’ attempts at neutral buoyancy, as he hovered in his perfectly neutral Doctor Manhattan pose. He threatened to fail both Shelley and Laura, giving them one last chance to complete that skill and the navigation test on their last dive.

After a few frustrated tears back on deck, Shelley jumped back in for her final (no) fun dive. The thought of winning the dive or drive contest with a bonafide diving certification definitely motivated her, but sore ears hampered attempts to reach the right depths. In the end, she got there and led Laura around the dive site as planned.

Divers underwater, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
Shelley and Laura attempting neutral buoyancy
Dive map, Ocean Quest, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
Norman reef dive map – easy enough to navigate right?


The action doesn’t stop at dark

While Shelley was working on her open water, Gareth smashed out seven dives over the two days, including a fluro night dive where coloured lenses and light brought a strange otherworldliness to the reef.  After waking to a calm reef at first light, he also completed a dive at dawn, when the fish are most active (apparently).

Dive deck, Ocean Quest, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
Prepping for a night dive
Night divers, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
Into the abyss
Swimming with sharks, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
Feeding time with the sharks and big fish


Dive buddies International

There were divers from all over the world on the liveaboard and it was great to sit at a dinner table where every person was of a different nationality but had the same passion for travel and discovering underwater creatures. We attended a fantastic information session at Reef Teach in Cairns before diving, and had plenty of interesting trivia to share. Did you know that flatworms fight by fencing with their penises and the loser has to transform into a female? Now that’s a high stakes competition.

An inconvenient truth – is the reef doomed?

Spending this extended time on the Great Barrier Reef made it all the more unbelievable hat this reef, which is world heritage listed and one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is in such a dire position, due to rising sea temperatures, mass coral bleaching and species loss. Adding insult to injury, the Australian government is contemplate building a new mine close by that will unleash 128 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, effectively destroying the reef and Queensland’s tourism industry in one go.

Makes our dive or drive competition seem a bit petty right? But if you’re interested, Shelley is technically winning. Gareth would need to get his probationary licence to be on par accreditation wise.


Highs: Shelley passing the course after a lot of snot, sweat and tears (mostly tears)

Lows: Wondering if these photos will be the only thing left of the reef to show Gareth’s future child, Awesome Sauce Williams

One thought on “Diver down: Learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s