The Ultimate Australian Experience

I’m not exactly known as a daring, adventure-hungry person—I tend to stick to things and places I feel comfortable with. But as I was planning my return trip to Australia, I began writing a list of things I wanted to do that I missed on my first visit Down Under.

The list consisted of things like: climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, visit Bondi Beach, hold a koala in the Gold Coast, and spend a day in Brisbane. It was a great assortment of truly Australian activities I had yet to accomplish (seriously, how did I miss them all the first time around?). Then I realized I was missing one giant landmark: the Great Barrier Reef. How had I been so physically close to something as grand as the Great Barrier Reef without seeing it for myself?

Getting ready for the reef

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Needless to say, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef became the priority in scheduling out my month-long Australian adventure. After corresponding with a couple of diving companies based out of Cairns, I picked one that was Advanced Ecotourism Certified and booked myself in for a three-day liveaboard boat trip designed for snorkelers and still-learning scuba divers. From the research I did in anticipation and excitement, I found that the Great Barrier Reef is a great experience for both. Did I know anyone else going? Nope. Did that make me an anxious mess as I landed in Cairns? Totally.

I didn’t have time to complete a diving certification, so I confidently boarded as a snorkeler and figured that out of the twenty-one people on board, there would be a good balance of the two. Turned out, I was the only snorkeler—but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having an incredible three days on a boat with people from all over the world.

Day one began early at a dive shop in Cairns, getting fitted for the equipment we’d be using. While my equipment—flippers, goggles, snorkel, and sting suit—was slightly less advanced than the divers’, it was cool to see everyone getting fitted for dive vests and weight belts. From the shop, we bussed our way to the docks and boarded what would be our home for the next three days.

After running through the importance of respecting the reefs and the basics of life on-board (such as meeting our assigned bunkmates, staying hydrated, taking nausea meds early on to avoid sea sickness, taking short showers, and renting camera equipment), we were off! It took a few hours to get to the first reef, so we had a chance to soak in the sun, get settled in our bunks, and meet the people we’d be hanging out with. As we neared our first destination, the divers had a group briefing and I had a one-on-one briefing on what to look for on my first snorkel.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling was awesome and I kept mentally patting myself on the back for booking this trip, despite the slight disappointment I felt over being the only snorkeler. Even from the surface of the water, visibility was great and I had an incredible view of the reef and its many inhabitants. Watching the marine life below gliding and swaying underwater was simultaneously serene and exciting. Between the fish, the clams, and the endless textured pink, purple, and orange coral, there was something interesting and colorful to look at in every direction. When the sun hit the reef, everything seemed even more vibrant and alive. The hardest part about snorkeling solo was getting tired quickly and not wanting to stray too far from the boat. But when you think about it, swimming alone in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef is really, really cool.

The rest of our first day was a combination of diving, eating, and relocating to a number of reefs. After spending the evening hanging out with new friends from Switzerland, Sweden, and Sweet Home USA, I was ready to get rocked to sleep. The next morning, I was feeling more confident about going solo and I was determined to stay out longer on my snorkels. I had to make the most of these three days, after all. Little did I know, by the afternoon, I would be facing a huge fear of mine by participating in a dive—a real dive!

An unexpected dive

Now, you’re probably wondering how I was able to pull this off without any dive certifications to my name. One of our dive instructors approached me to give me a little info on a “Discovery Dive.” It’s an introductory dive that uncertified people can participate in after watching an instructional video and completing a few basic dive tests with an instructor. You’re limited in how deep you can dive and you have an instructor by your side the entire time, but it gives you a hands-on opportunity to get a feel for diving without committing to a certification class.

Discovery dive on the Great Barrier Reef

After a day and a half of snorkeling solo and seeing the rest of the divers complete additional levels of testing, I was feeling brave. Everyone around me was extremely supportive, so why not do the dive, right? When would I ever get an intro to scuba diving again? Would I ever get to see the Great Barrier Reef up close and personal again? As much as scuba diving terrified me, I couldn’t imagine leaving the reef without having suited up for a legitimate diving experience. I was all in.

Once we suited up, I had to pass a few basic diver tests in the water—such as how to descend using my vest, operating my breathing regulator (as well as inserting and clearing water from the regulator while underwater), testing my buoyancy, and clearing my mask of water while underwater (yes, that’s a thing!).

As soon as I passed all of the tests, my instructor, Gary, and I slowly descended metres deep into Gordon’s Mooring Reef so I could adjust to the pressure. Gary was a champ at guiding me through the reef, pointing out things for me to see, and reminding me to exhale more so I wouldn’t keep floating up and away. He made the whole experience more fun than I ever could have imagined it to be.

As we swam around, I saw tons of colorful species of fish diving in and out of the coral and sea anemones. I saw starfish swaying in the waves as stingrays and sharks glided along the sand. We greeted a massive Maori Wrasse, touched sea cucumbers, and met a sea turtle (because what diving experience would be complete without a real-life Finding Nemo moment?). Before I knew it, 45 minutes had passed, I had gone 9.6 metres deep in the Great Barrier Reef, and we were making our way back to the boat.

Despite my nerves, I managed to never hold my breath (the golden rule of scuba diving). I couldn’t believe how relaxed I felt! The experience was totally surreal. Everything was so vibrant and seemed to move in slow motion. To say that it was the craziest, most incredible experience of my life would be an understatement.

Sunset over the Great Barrier Reef

Gary gave me a certificate of recognition for completing my “Discover Scuba Diving”—granted it’s not a real certification, it’s a fun memento to remind me of the day I stepped far out of my comfort zone and dove deep into the Great Barrier Reef. Hands down, my diving experience was the best decision I made on my last Australian adventure. When I think about it now, I’m not so sure that my memories do the colorful, lively reefs justice. But if I had to describe the experience in one word, I’d say diving in the Great Barrier Reef was simply unbe-reef-able.

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Kim Conway is a twenty-something writer from Chicago, IL who earned her BA in English Writing from Illinois Wesleyan University in 2012. When she’s not writing and organising, you’ll probably find her fangirling about her current favorite song, baking (arguably) the world’s best soft pretzels, or daydreaming about travel. She plans to someday move to Australia. You can read her blog, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.