For my final week in Australia, I ventured up to Queensland, famous for the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest (among other natural beauties), its proliferation of dangerous aquatic life (such as the box jellyfish), and its slightly offbeat people (because you have to be slightly crazy to live in a place like Queensland). I spent four days on the Great Barrier Reef learning to SCUBA dive.
My base of operations was Cairns, a small resort town toward the northern end of the GBR. Primarily composed of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and shops, Cairns doesn’t have a nightlife or much liveliness to speak of, but if you have money to burn it can be quite a pleasant experience to participate in the tourist activities. I booked myself a trip on Reef Experience for a four-day, three-night stay out on the GBR. Called a “liveaboard,” you take a transfer vessel out to a boat permanently stationed out in the reef. Most people will tell you that you can get a complete experience of the GBR by snorkeling, but I decided to be a little adventurous and sign up for a certification course in SCUBA diving. I’d never done it before, but if there was ever a place to learn how to dive, it’d be out in one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World.
The day we set off was woefully rainy and windy, so the trip out to the reef was tumultuous. Even with a motion sickness tablet I get moderately seasick and lost my breakfast partway into the trip. The vague sense of seasickness stuck with me for several hours, lasting through the transfer to the liveaboard vessel and past lunch. Not the most portentous way to begin a four-day commitment to being on the ocean. When they announced the first water session was about to begin, and new guests could go for a snorkel, I exulted that I could at least leave the boat and maybe escape this unpleasant sickness.
It failed to occur to me that as a snorkeler, you’re still floating on the surface of the ocean, still subject to the whims of the ocean’s movement. My body immediately was tossed up and down. Sticking my face into the water, I saw nothing beneath me but endless and intimidating depth, and water kept leaping into my snorkel pipe to be choked upon by me as I inhaled. When I’d lift my head out of the water, I was treated to large choppy waters that would crash into my face and be similarly difficult to establish a calm breathing pattern. I swam feebly and anxious (despite being a pretty strong swimmer), a sense of dread coming over me: was this going to be my experience? What had I gotten myself into? Also, where the hell was the reef? I saw just a few fish swimming around in the depths, but nothing to write home about.
Fortunately I persevered and kept swimming forward, following the procession of other snorkelers, not knowing where I was going. At last, I reached the reef, and suddenly a deep calm overtook me as I beheld the most colorful array of aquatic life in my entire life. It simply defied imagination. I was cast under a spell. Every way I looked, prismatic fish rushed about. Coral of all shapes and types and colors decorated the calcified floor.
This moment marked the turnaround in my entire trip. When I came out of the water, I was hooked. I was in a truly magical, unique place.
The rest was, on the whole, a blissful and wonderful experience. I would do four training dives per day, always with an instructor, and most of the time in a 1:1 setting. I did two night dives as well. To write about my journey, I’ll begin with my delightful dive instructor, Fabian, a thick-jawed, sturdy Aussie originally from Germany.
His combination of a German accent with Australian slang kept throwing me for a loop. He would regularly say common phrases as, “No worries, mate, too easy!” but with the same intonation as the weight lifting brothers from SNL (“we will PUMP *clap* you up!”). Bar none, though, my favorite expression of his would come whenever he began to explain the skills I would practice on the present dive: “We’re going to smash some skills.” It tickled me every time. And smash some skills we did.
Over my first three days on the boat, I completed the SSI Open Water Diver certification, the entry level certification, which allows me to dive autonomously up to 18m. We covered all the basics: equipment maintenance, handling emergencies underwater (how to remove and replace your mask underwater, remove your air regulator, remove your tank, maintain buoyancy, ascend and descend safely, etc.). It was actually quite fun, the process of learning these new skills, many of which I practiced repeatedly.
Diving is an experience unlike any other. Some people say it’s like flying, except underwater. There’s truth to this comparison, but it misses just exactly how surreal it feels to be underwater for 40 minutes without dying, able to glide about with minimal effort and swim among the fishes. The first couple times, my brain would panic and think I was running out of air, that I couldn’t breathe, because it is so engrained to think of being underwater as being without oxygen. It felt like I was watching my life through a camera lens, as if I weren’t actually there. But I kept reminding myself to breathe slowly and fully, and gradually my respiration slowed down as my experience grew and I became increasingly calm in the water.
Diving is vastly more fun that snorkeling, in my opinion. For one, you never have that jarring experience of water suddenly splashing into your snorkel pipe and on into your mouth or lungs. For another, you can see an entirely different world of marine life. Also, as a snorkeler you don’t get the special privilege of gliding along underwater with a sea turtle.
I went for a couple night dives, which is a different world altogether from the day dives. I was quite thrilled.
It’s thrilling until you look off the back of the boat and see sharks swimming around — they feed in the evenings — and you think to yourself, “Wait, I’m diving into that?” Yes, yes, you are.
Underwater, you can’t see anything save for the path illuminated by your light. Between the moonlight, your flashlight, and your inner ear, it’s reasonably easy to keep track of up from down, but turn off your flashlight and you’re treated to floating in almost pitch blackness. Amazing.
It turns out that the eyes of a shark glow green when you shine your light upon them. It only adds to the their chilling appearance, seeing this lithe killing machine skulk about in the water with complete ease. Reef sharks are entirely harmless to humans (in fact, all shark attacks are accidents — sharks don’t hunt humans) and are particularly non-aggressive, but I still felt my stomach turn into a knot when when swim at us and slithered right beneath us, probably no more than 10 feet away.
I completed my Open Water Course in three days, which left me an entire extra day of diving. On a whim, I decided to go through the Advanced training as well, which would entail another five training dives. It worked out that I could squeeze it all into the four-day trip originally planned. Being certified as an Advanced Adventurer allows you to dive down to 30m, giving you access to a lot of popular shipwrecks, as well as expanding your skillset and confidence under the water.
As an added bonus, it meant I continued to have mostly 1:1 dives with extraordinarily qualified dive instructors. This time I was working with Jon, a smooth American who looked completely at ease under the water. He was astonishingly adept at pointing out aquatic life, so my trips were punctuated by some truly wonderful discoveries. He could spot them long before I ever figured out what he was pointing out. One of my favorites was an octopus, hidden among the coral.
He discovered morays crouching under coral, noted peacock soles (those weird flat fish with eyes only on one side) camouflaged on rocks, and pointed out found rays hidden among the sands.
I encountered a few jellyfish, but the larger kind that are evidently not harmful. Also, apparently turtles love to eat them.
There’s a fish named Frankie at one of the reefs that loves to play with divers. During one of my dives, he followed us around the entire time like a puppy, for the better part of half an hour.
I even found Nemo. Anemonefish (there are many varieties) are absolutely adorable, the way they peek out from their home, venture out for some food, and then scurry back inside when they’re spooked. Pixar actually really captured their essence in their scenes.
You get to know the passengers and crew rather quickly. There were never more than 30 people on the boat, so even if you don’t get their names you recognize their faces. The roster would change from day to day, as some people would come and go; I felt a bit unusual to be a constant figure for four whole days, as most people stayed over for only one or two nights. Meals were communal, so I was able to forge some friendships over food. I met a lovely couple from Copenhagen traveling the world for the past eight months on vacation, and a friendly technical analyst at Google, and a young pair of college friends taking a holiday in Australia while on break from school, and a few other people. The food was always exceptional: healthful, delicious, upscale, and high-quality. I still don’t know how they could accomplish so much with a small kitchen on the ocean. The crew were surpassingly courteous and friendly, creating a convivial atmosphere on the boat. Aside from the dive instructors, most of them were 20-somethings thrilled to be working on the GBR.
Social interactions and befriending others mystifies me, and this situation was no exception. My conversations with others never went beyond being friendly, making small talk to pass the time. I felt a kindred spark with the couple from Copenhagen, they seemed quite engaged with the world, but we only had a day to interact. I didn’t connect on a deeper level with anyone else for the entire trip. My experience reminded me of how terribly shy I can be outside the context of dance, which baffles me to this day. The process of getting to know people can feel so forced sometimes, yet when I’m at a dance event I’m all bubbly and it all comes as second-nature. It’s like there are two different people living inside me. Anyway, it was good practice to exercise my socializing skills while in an introverted state. I just never know what to say, each prompt is unnatural and like lobbing some heavy inquisition across a chasm. Once I run out of the sterile conversational starters — “How long are you staying in Australia? Where else have you visited? Where are you from?” — I find myself at an utter loss for what to say. Sometimes I just don’t care to connect, but other times I want to know more about them and don’t know how to start the flow. I feel unsure whether they actually want to connect. I just can’t manufacture the connection. But then, maybe they don’t want it either, and that’s what I’m picking up on. I suppose charisma is partly about being able to form that connection with anybody, but I completely lack it when I don’t have my dancer hat on. Why don’t they do classes on this stuff?
I found myself not fitting into the usual demographics of the boat: either early 20s and footloose, or middle-aged and settled down. Sure, I don’t have many tethers, but I want them. I have a decent idea of where my life is heading professionally, at least for the next 5 years. So while I no longer identify with the young and wandering crowd, I also don’t yet connect with the settled-in crowd, the married couples without or with children, for I am single and don’t even have a permanent place of residence. I didn't fit in with any group, and I think was perplexing to other passengers, for I defied common patterns, they didn’t know what to make of me. (“You’re a software engineer, okay… Oh, wait, you also teach dance around the world? And you live in a suitcase? Well, that’s… that’s something.”) At least being on the boat reinforced where I want my life to go next. I found myself looking to the settled-in crowd with a touch of envy. I was particularly fond of the Copenhagen couple, for they were very clearly in love with each other and shared a deep and strong bond, but also remained curious about the world and wanted to be outwardly focused as well. That’s precisely the kind of dynamic I hope to have with my future mate.
Unsurprisingly, I did a fair amount of introspection while on board, wrestling with difficult and depressive emotions as articulated in this post. The quiet moments are when these thoughts would intrude into my mental space, the small 30-minute breaks between water sessions and meals or whatever other activity was happening on the boat. The schedule was generally busy, but you would always have these moments, long enough to leave you wondering what to do with your time, but never long enough to let you get into something substantive. Some would take to non-committally reading a book, others sunbathing on the top deck, I often took naps. But when I couldn’t nap, I was left alone with my thoughts, as the other passengers tended to stay to their cabins when not engaged in an activity.
Lying on my bed alone in the middle of one of the most magnificent natural wonders, feeling sorry for myself and at a loss for what to do next, it struck me then yet another powerful lesson of traveling alone: learning how to be alone with your thoughts. It Because it’ll invariably happen, no matter how hard you try to cram your schedule or visit places of staggering beauty or keep distractions close at hand — there will always be moments when you must be alone with yourself. It made me think of how, as a society, we look to our partner to distract us from those moments, and how that can be an unproductive pattern. We think that finding a long-term partner will save us from loneliness. Sure, living with a partner will mean less time spent alone, but it’s always a losing battle: there will still be times when it happens. If we lean on our partner to shield us from being alone, we become co-dependent, we become less unconditionally loving. A partner can never save us from feeling lonely; we must learn on our own how to be alone and not lonely. It’s something I still struggle with, but I’ve actively worked on it throughout my time here in Oz, and there are at least stretches where I’m successful.
I wondered to myself how I would be acting if I were around another person, what I would be commenting on, and how that diverged from what I was presently doing. What was its significance, the way I can spend so much time in utter silence, breathing and staring at the water and allowing my mind to wander? What does it say about me, the way I am not relentlessly driven to make conversation, even if it’s with myself? These questions still lazily roll in my mind, I turn them over endlessly as I ask myself how I can be a better, more interesting, and more loving partner in the future.
By the end of my stay, I was ready to disembark. I had my fill of routine, of being underwater, in one place, and alone. I was tired of trying to make friends and finding mediocre connections. I was proud of myself for making so much of this adventure to the Great Barrier Reef, of organizing it and having the courage to sign up for SCUBA diving and have this otherworldly experience, but it was time to move on, time for a change of scenery, and time to recuperate. I have no idea where my new diving certification will lead me, whether it’ll remain an occasional hobby activity or turn into something more avid. But, without question I’m grateful for the experience I had out here on the reef, it showed me a whole new world, and allowed me to discover more about myself in the process.