Going down under down under

I can’t breathe. Well, I can, but no oxygen seems to make it to my lungs. I am panicking, and my scuba instructor is swimming quickly over to me, motioning for me to slow my breathing, using a hand gesture he taught us an hour earlier. But it is too late. Now I am hyperventilating, and I need to get out of the water – fast. As soon as I’m back on the boat, another instructor is at my side. “Panicked, didn’t ‘cha?” She smiles broadly. I nod the affirmative. “Aw, well, no worries, mate,” she says, invoking that all-purpose Australian term for sublime well-being. “Just grab a seat for a minute and take a breather.” No problem, I think. The weight of my oxygen tank is pulling me down anyway.

I rest my facemask beside me and take off my flippers. Catching my breath takes a little more effort, but I’m grateful to be out of the ocean and in the sun. I’m on Agincourt Reef, a beautiful ribbon reef along one of the outer rim sections of the Great Barrier Reef – a polychrome dazzle of creation encompassing 2,800 individual reefs. Bigger than the entire area of Italy, the reef covers 35 million hectares – home to an estimated 1,500 species of fish, more than 300 species hard reef-building coral and some of the oldest and most primitive life forms dating back at least 500 million years. It is deemed one of the natural wonders of the world and the only living organism that can be seen from space. And if that isn’t amazing enough, it also has some of the world’s finest and most exotic scuba diving and snorkelling, which attracts tourists from around the globe. They call it Nature’s Theme Park and, after my first attempt at a dive, I feel like I’ve just been through the double barrel loop of Mother Nature’s roller coaster. But like any good ride, it will lure me back for another go once my stomach has settled.

Off in the distance, the sun glimmers off the water’s surface, enhancing an already brilliant turquoise blue. It’s a glorious day, and, by chance, also my birthday. We have been travelling “down under” in Australia for some time and made the decision to come “up top” to tropical North Queensland to celebrate with some scuba diving. We named our scuba adventure “going down under Down Under,” which we inflect with as much Australian twang as we can so it sounds more like “go-weeng dyown unda Dyown Unda.”

We arrived “up top” the night before in Port Douglas, a quaint little town just 70 kilometres north of Cairns. Port Douglas is an upscale resort by the sea and a sophisticated village with a close-knit community and charming character. Recently, it has welcomed some big celebrities, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton. So Port Douglas is sufficiently swish to handle my birthday celebration. We check into the beautiful Hibiscus Gardens Spa Resort, a Balinese-influenced tropical oasis, which features resort apartments, each with its own kitchen and private balcony overlooking exotic gardens and two pools, one that captures the morning sun and the other the afternoon. But its finest feature – the Li’tya Spa Dreaming – is a truly unique sanctuary for the weary traveller, which combines ancient indigenous medicines and massage techniques with aromatherapy and herbal remedies. Equally as exciting as the prospect of my first scuba dive is the promise of a one-hour pampering in the spa afterwards. Thank goodness for birthdays. I sign up for “The Dreaming,” an obvious choice, I think, since the spa had been named after it. It promises to “evoke the potent forces of the earth upon the giver and receiver, while reconnecting the mind, body and soul.” And it includes something called Vichy rain therapy and Kodo massage.

Next page: The next morning

The next morning, we are picked up early and transported by bus to Marina Mirage where we board the Quicksilver, a million-dollar wave-piercing catamaran. This high-speed boat, which can carry 450 people and reach speeds of 50 knots, is the latest technological advance since the first high-speed catamarans were introduced to the reef in the early 1990s, carrying 150 people to previously inaccessible outer reefs. Since then, the number of visitors – and company profits – has increased steadily. Today, reef tourism generates more than one billion dollars a year, and Quicksilver Connections is the revenue leader among hundreds of reef adventure companies. That distinction is quite evident from the flashy look of its vessel. The boat is silver and sleek, resembling nothing so much as a spaceship, ready to transport us to a whole new world.

On board, it is busy. All 450 potential travellers seem to be milling about as the boat slips out of the harbour and into the open ocean for the 90-minute ride to Agincourt Reef. Fortunately, there is no shortage of comfortable seating, and the crew has already prepared food and tea. Once that is offered, a frenzy of activity begins as staff members dressed in bright multi-coloured jumpsuits fan out among the passengers, looking to enlist anyone interested in extra-curricular activities at the reef. Since we have already signed up for introductory scuba diving, I figure we are immune from further solicitation, but I am wrong. So after one too many queries, we decide to escape to top deck to check on our progress.

Our spaceship is really flying. Waves are coming at us relentlessly with significant force, but the boat is designed to pierce the waves and neutralize them before they hit the hull, making for an incredibly smooth ride. Being up top is a thrill, but before long, we’re summoned back inside for a dry briefing before our dive.

Known as a discovery dive or a resort dive, the introductory dive with Quicksilver won’t get you any dive qualifications. It is simply for those who want to find out whether they will enjoy diving or, as in our case, don’t have time for anything else. Divers go no deeper than 12 metres with an instructor by your side the whole time – they’ll even hold your hand if you feel the need. But before anything can happen, newbies like us need to be schooled on a few things. So, after a short video, an extensive lesson in underwater hand signals and a tricky quiz to make sure we were listening, we are ready for our first dive. 

“Fancy another try?” the instructor asks, with an equally broad smile. “You can’t sit up here all day. You’ve got to finish your dive.” I know she’s right. I smile back at her before slipping back into my gear and into the water – this time, breathing normally. I can see my group below me, maybe five metres down. The other instructor is giving them more hand signals. I rejoin them at a gentle pace, making sure I depressurize slowly as I go down. In an introductory dive, you’re taken through something of an underwater obstacle course. At every point in the dive, you have something to hold on to, whether it’s a long cable or an instructor’s hand. At first, being underwater can overwhelm you (as I had already discovered). Despite your wetsuit, your body gets cold quickly, and your legs feel heavy. You want to breathe deeply, but instead you’re forced to take slow shallow breaths. Hundreds of fish swim around you, looking almost sympathetic as though they’d like to help you if only they could. Seconds pass like minutes and, as you go deeper, it’s as if night has fallen. The whole experience is tranquil and heart-stopping at the same time. But soon you’re rewarded with an up-close look at some of the most beautiful marine life in the world.

As we make our way through the obstacle course of ropes, I find myself rapidly gaining in confidence. I’ve mastered my underwater breathing now and can move myself up and down, simply by inflating or deflating my lungs. My wet suit keeps me warm. The rubbery fins sprouting from my feet provide precision control, acting as keels, stabilizers, props, brakes, oars and paddles. They give me lift and speed, which I use to pursue fish. I feel, in fact, as if I have become a fish.

Once we’ve made it through the obstacle course, our instructor takes us by the hand and, for the first time, we get a chance to move through open water. No ropes, no cables, just ocean. Seventy per cent of the world’s surface is covered in water, and yet only one or two per cent has been fully investigated. The Great Barrier Reef is the last frontier, the rainforest of the sea, and I have come to explore a tiny sliver of it. All around me, I see jacks, trumpet fish, grupa, powder blue tangs fighting convict tangs, harlequin shrimp taking a starfish hostage and, below me, a flamboyant cuttlefish seducing another in a colourful display. Completely immersed in such a crowded, frenetic community, I can’t remember ever feeling so small. And before I can even finish that thought, I lay eyes on Nemo. The little orange and white striped clownfish, made famous in the Disney movie Finding Nemo, swims unperturbed among the anemone as our group stops to gawk. It may have been part of the tour, and hundreds of other divers may have “found” him before us, but it is a great memento of our dive and the perfect ending to the experience.

Still, the innocent beauty of Nemo made me realize the invasive impact I had made that day. The Great Barrier Reef is under serious threat of dying in the next 20 to 30 years – in most part, due to the abuse of our environment. Coral reefs are under attack from a host of sources. Tourists and scuba divers damage reefs by touching fragile coral, killing them. Pollution from sewage, industrial chemicals and pesticides dumped into the ocean suffocate living coral. Overfishing disrupts a reef’s complex environmental balance, and global warming is slowly heating the oceans to unlivable conditions for marine life.

If we’re to continue enjoying the awesome attractions of the Reef, we must be responsible environmentalists. The best environmentalists to emulate are the Aboriginal people who tread lightly upon the earth with the greatest respect as each step resounds its vibrations across eternity.

Qantas flies daily from Vancouver and Toronto, connecting through Los Angeles. Call 1-800-227-4500.

For information about escorted dive cruises, contact CARP Travel at 1-877-246-2277.

For more information about tours to the Great Barrier Reef , go to www.barrierreef.net
Visit the Hibiscus Gardens Spa Resort at www.hibiscusportdouglas.com.au
For more information about Queensland, go to Tourism Queensland at www.australia.com/queensland