Rather than spend three weeks lounging around Sydney, I decided that my recent visit to Australia should include something a bit more adventurous. Canvassing opinions from friends who had been to Australia recently, the overwhelming consensus was that the highlight of any trip down under was a cruise on the Great Barrier Reef. The world famous coral reef is the largest living organism on the planet, and is visible from outer space. It stretches for over 2,300 km off the East coast of Australia, from the Northern tip of Queensland to just North of Bundaberg, a little town famous for its rum. According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the reef is host to 1,900 species of fish, 350 species of coral, over 4,000 species of mollusc, and at least 400 species of sponge. 1,900 species of fish? I wonder how many of them have sharp teeth or stingers?
Although you can see plenty of marine activity simply by snorkelling along the surface, I decided I wanted get up close and personal with Jaws, or at least, the more mild-mannered members of his family, so it was scuba diving for me. Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) was invented by Jacques-Yves Cousteau when he designed the Aqualung in the early 1940s. One of the world's premier environmentalists, Cousteau with his underwater photography introduced us to a habitat we knew little of. Although he made three Oscar-winning films, he is probably best known for his series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which he made for the ABC network in the United States, but which was subsequently syndicated internationally.
These days, if you're learning to dive, then it has to be the PADI course[Editor’s note: both NAUI and SSI also offer certification courses entitling you to dive]. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors is an international corporation that “exists to develop programs that encourage and fulfil the public interest in recreational scuba and snorkel diving worldwide”, as they put it themselves. PADI has 100,000 professional members operating in 175 countries, and they are acknowledged as the world leader in diving instruction and certification.
A quick search on the Internet revealed that there was a course available based in Airlie Beach, which included PADI certification and also pleasure-dives on the reef. Airlie Beach is a town you could very easily get lost in, only to reappear ten years later with long matted hair, a leathery tan, salt encrusted skin, saying “arrr, me hearties” a lot. Either that or you would go the surfer route, simply replacing “arrr, me hearties” with “dude”. Either way, it's a small town that ekes out an existence based solely on its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands. The main street is a line of hostels, pubs, clubs, sprinkled with Internet cafés and souvenir shops. The food is generally good, the people are friendly and welcoming, and the beer is always cold and refreshing. For all that, it is a soulless transient town and were it not for the tourists, it would quite probably disappear entirely. If I'm honest, this didn't bother me at the time (and half a planet away, it's not likely to bother me now either!). As the saying goes, I was there for a good time, not a long time.
The first day and a half of the PADI course is classroom and swimming pool based. The classroom sessions are frustrating (everyone wants to get in the water) but absolutely essential. There is a high emphasis on safety, and diving within your limits. Hazards such as nitrogen narcosis, and 'the bends' are explained. While these terms might get you thinking, it is important to note that they are totally avoidable once proper precautions are taken and normal procedures are followed. The instructors also stress the ‘passive interaction’ concept, which is a central principle of responsible diving. It basically means, “look but don't touch”. Touching the coral can cause permanent damage (and it's razor sharp), and Australian law also prohibits taking samples of any sort. In addition, while most creatures (sharks included) will not attack unless provoked, a human and a fish can have different ideas of what constitutes provocation. Try giving a shark a friendly pat on the head and you'll see what I mean … (please do not be stupid enough to really try this – my money is on the shark every time). The marine life is generally quite accommodating towards divers. Look at it from their point of view. It’s bad enough having a gang of humans swimming around your home, without them trying to take bits of it away with them, or worse still, trying to harvest you for their frying pan!