Friday, April 04, 2008

Australia - Part 10 - Diving the GBR

I woke up at 5:30am, took a quick shower, packed my stuff, and then set off to wait outside my hostel's front door. Already there were two other people who were also part of the dive package that I signed up with.

A quick peek at the dive crew that I signed up with. They are Pro-Dive, and I found them using Google. Search terms I used were "Dive Great Barrier Reef" and "Dive Package GBR". I found numerous crews and finally picked them because they seemed to offer the most for my money. 480 dollars covered 3 days 2 nights of diving (11 dives total, including 2 night dives) and lodging and board. Also included is all equipment. As such, it seemed the best deal all around.

Anyhow, Ben and Roos (pronounced Rose) were already waiting outside the hostel's front door and I joined them. We talked a little bit about our various dive expeirences, and it was obvious I was the newest diver having just been certified before my trip to Australia. Ben's already had 9 dives as did Roos. A few minutes later, we were joined by Sanne and Diana, both also of Dutch nationality and both enrolled in the Dive Certification program ran by Pro-Dive. They were gonna get certified while out diving in the Great Barrier Reef. I was most certainly envious as they were going to get certified in probably the most picteresque dive spot in the world! At the same time, 4 of their 11 dives were going to be wasted on skills, so perhaps I didn't envy them as much as I did. =)

About 10 minutes later, a Pro-Dive van pulled up and we all piled into it. One more pick up at another hostel later and we were in front of the Pro-Dive shop. I dropped off my bag at their luggage drop (we were only allowed one small bag with the necessary clothes and stuff needed for 3 days/2 nights), and registered with the dive crew. I showed Tristan, the dive master, my certified diver card and was soon waiting around for everyone else to finish registration.

Pretty soon we were all repacked into the van and were off to the boat. Greeting us was breakfast (bread, fruits, and beverages), and we all got settled into the boat dining area. A roll call was done and a safety number was given to each of us (I was #9). In all, there were 32 of us, and about 2/3 of the divers were undergoing certification. The crew consisted of 6 people and were Tristan, dive master, Mark, skipper of the boat, Jay, Eri, and K (short for karou) as dive instructors. Rounding them out was Yukari as our chef, also termed the most important person on the boat. =)

Tristan was pretty much the de facto spokesperson for the entire crew and he was both incredibly funny and clear about all topics he broached on. He gave us the once over about the boat and emergency procedures, making a rather dull subject incredibly interesting, and told us to strap in for a 3 hour boat ride to the first outer reef that we would be diving from. Also room assignemnts were given out (I was roomed in with Jay, one of the dive instructors).

So began the journey out of Cairns, the weather didn't look too great, and everyone who were prone to sea sickness took their medication, meanwhile I went above deck to take a look.

A quick note about the boat. It was obviously fitted for 38 people and purpose built for diving/snorkeling, a double decker boat with 3 levels (engine deck, dining deck, upper deck with rooms on all decks), the dining deck had an external area which was where our dive prep area was (tanks, wetsuits, and weights were all hanging out here), and finally there was the upper deck which was the only area that smokers could smoke (given that they dumped ashes and butts into a specialized container) and where people could sunbathe and enjoy the best view possible of the seas. Also on the upper deck was the bridge where the skipper also slept.

Since we were just leaving Cairns, I decided to go top deck to get the best possible view of the city of Cairns. At the same time, I also realized I forgot my dive log book, but fortunately had my blackberry where I was going to log all my dives. As the most important part of the dives were bottom time, max depth, and location, I decided having buddy or divemaster signature wasn't all that important anyhow. Not the most official, but its a honor system anyway.

Anyhow, top deck...from up top, Cairns looked pretty unimpressive. There were only a few high rises and was pretty flat all things considered. As unimpressive as it was, I decided to just chat with my fellow divers and found most interestingly that the passengers consisted almost 90% full of Europeans. =) Most prominent were the Dutch, British, and the Germans/Swiss-Germans. The Japanese were fairly well represented as well if you counted the crew...but as part of the passengers, there was only one.

I managed to chat up with one of the Dutch couples around and found out that he was an economics professor on exchange currently. He travels all around Australia and gives talks and holidays on the side. We briefly discussed economic theories and then had a good discussion about Google (I told him where I worked, something I don't usually do on trips). I noted that Hal Varian worked for us and he was both delighted and surprised. Later on his wife expressed how delighted she was to meet someone who worked at Google...but her delight was geniune and I remembered how friendly and warm the Dutch people were.

Yet another interesting thing of note, this time about the Dutch. =) The Netherlands consist of 12 provinces, and only 2 of the Provinces are actually called Holland. The rest of them aren't, and you can always tell if a Dutch person is from one of the two Holland provinces or not because they'll always refer to themselves when asked about Nationality as "Holland". The rest of the provinces always refer to themselves as "Netherlands" =) Apparently there was a bit of a dispute about the whole country being called Holland in the 80s and since then, the country has changed its name to "The Netherlands" =) You can tell that folks from the province of Holland have a hard time changing that habit though. =) Irregardless of how they refer to themselves, the Dutch are easily the most congenianl of Europeans that I've met, always well spoken in English and incredibly friendly.

Asides aside, the trip to the Reef was a little bit bumpy and I noticed a few people throwing up or not feeling well. The trip out to the Reef took about 3 hours, and I just enjoyed myself chatting with the various passengers and also getting my scuba gear ready.

Soon enough, we were at our Dive site, and they sent the students out first. Tristan gave us a briefing and also told us that he was going to lead the first dive. A few things I noticed...I got certified in the US and was used to things like PSI for air and feet for depth. Well, in the metric system, they use Bar for air and meters for depth. Meters to feet I can get, but bar instead of PSI threw me in for a loop. Add to this that their low air sign is 70 bar (whereupon your dive stops and you make your ascent to the surface), and I was thoroughly disturbed. Not so much that I couldn't figure it out, but enough that I decided I was going to just play it safe the first few times out.

My dive buddy was Ben, a young strapping Brit who was also the person I met outside my Hostel. It probably wouldn't matter for the first dive since we were going to be all with the divemaster, but still, having a buddy is always a good thing!

Soon enough, we were all in the water, and descending. My first time at the GBR! For the first dive, I didn't bring my Camera as i wanted to get used to my other unfamiliar equipment first. I also wore the wetsuit they provided for the first dive, thinking the water might be a bit cold. As a consequent, I had a hard time descending since I wasn't weighted enough. The divemaster had to slip another weight into my BCD before I could descend. With that part out of the way, we began the dive.

And it was a bit of a personal disaster as far as good dives were concerned. I only lasted 22 minutes before I hit the 70 bar mark and had to ascend. We were only halfway through the dive, and me and 3 others were forced to ascend and kick our way to the boat. I also didn't see much the first dive since I was too busy avoiding getting kicked or running into other divers. I also resolved that I probably wouldn't go on another dive master led dive since it meant that the group we were in, all 10 of us, were too squished in together. Reminders from my dive instructor in California came about when he said that we might not have as good a time on a big boat due to crowding came back to my mind.

Back on the boat, we had a surface interval of one hour before our next dive. In between the first dive and the next one, they started the advanced diver's course. The next dive was unguided and I resolved to sip my air more carefully. Additionally I also decided that I'll break the limit of 70 bar and hit 50 bar before I started my ascent. I had figured out that starting at 200 bar mapping it to 3000 psi meant that they wanted us at the boat with about 850 PSI worth! Where I got my diver's certifiate, we started our ascent at about 500 psi or about 30 bars, so it meant they wanted us out with about 20 minutes less dive time.

I'm not such a good diver that I could consume so little air in that time period...so i decided to just report 10 bar more than what I had anytime asked me how much air I had.

My next dive was far better. At around 38 minutes, it meant I nearly doubled my time in the water. I also went deeper than i ever had at abou 19.1 meters.

The diving was quite incredible. It was my first time in the corals, and the seas were alive with colors. Corals, fishes, anemones, and all the other denziens of the seas. Once I was more relaxed about my breathing, it truly was like gliding through a colorful underworld. Quite the difference from the drab colors that Monterey presented.

After the second dive, we arrived back at the boat in time for lunch and more surface interval. Lunch was a simple affair, cold cuts, bread, salad. We ate rather heartily and then the weather took a turn for the worst. It started raining. Fortunately that doesn't have much affect underwater aside from our visibility becoming worse.

The third dive went much the same as the second dive, except this time I took my camera with me. It took quite a bit of concentration to use since everything was different underwater. We took our time and I took as many pictures on as many subjects as possible. One thing about underwater photography is that your subject is fickle (fishes) and buoyancy is very hard to control.

After the 3rd dive came dinner. It wasn't a memorable affair, but it did its job. The food wasn't bad, but at times it was plain.

Right after dinner was our night dive. Tristan gave us the briefing and led the dives for the advanced students. I was led by K as I had never done a night dive before.

Night diving differs quite a bit from day diving in that everything seems different. There are no obvious corals and you have to look for all the fishes. On the other hand, you see completley different fishes and life...I also saw my first job. Seeing as how I didn't think a camera would show up much of anything, I didn't bring it with me.

The night dive also proved to be my longest dive, at 40 minutes, finally I was getting good at controlling my air!

One thing I realise from writing these logs is that my report is quite dry. The actual expeirence isn't! It was quite fun and the dive briefings were always incredibly interesting due to Tristan's very wry sense of humor. These are unfortnately things that I cannot convey in a report...I could have filmed him giving the briefing I suppose. =)

Another thing I realized...the divers undergoing certifications could not dive more than twice a day! So they couldn't go on their night dives, and they had to skip a dive in between. So Their dive trips went from 11 to 7! And they pay a little bit more. One more thing to note...if you wish to dive the GBR and want to do a liveaboard course, don't. You'll enjoy yourself more if you come pre-certified!
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