When I arrived in Australia, the plan was that I’d only be here for 6 months. Build the business I’d been brought over to launch for Davis Langdon, employ a leader for the Australian business and then pack my bags and go home to blighty. With such a short window of opportunity I was going to make sure I made the most of being Down Under.
I’d always wanted to learn to dive and get my PADI licence and what better place to do it than the Great Barrier Reef. So I booked a 5 day trip, packed my bags and made my way up to Cairns. Even though I’m quite a friendly chap, especially through work functions, I’m actually very quiet when I meet a new group of people so to fly up to Cairns on my tod and join a group of total strangers was quite a big thing for me. I did have a mate up there from Davis Langdon, Andy Peter’s who had moved from the Melbourne office to run the Cairns office so I had a place to bunk down.
On Day 1 I went down to the dive school to meet the group. There were 13 in our class, I was the only Pomme in the group, there were no Aussies and the rest were European or South American. Oh, and there were only two blokes in the class, me obviously and a Brazilian bloke with his wife. The rest were all very young (hot) back packer ladies. After introductions, we had a morning of theory classes and then got “buddied up”. Every time you dive you have to have a buddy, someone who checks your gear and looks after your back when you’re diving. Now simple maths tells you that 13 people can’t be equally divided by 2, so there would be a 5 groups of 2 and one group of 3. I ended up in the group of 3. My buddies were a very nice French girl called Amandine and a Portuguese lady called Benedita. Both were fluent in English but their accents were very strong, in a very nice way of course.
Our instructor was 24 year old bronzed, blonde hair Aussie who was a champion free diver named John, and the girls loved him. He was a very likable chap and I warmed to his relaxed teaching manner. The morning of day 1 was theory and learning the basics about the dive gear. The afternoon was spent in the pool where we learnt how to gear up, check our buddies and then started diving.
It is a very odd experience to sit on the bottom of a pool, totally reliant on an oxygen tank and regulator to enable you survive. I absolutely loved it but there is a primal fear that you must master to really relax so you do not suck on air and empty your oxygen tank too quickly.
Feeling very chuffed with my first dive, and my luck at having two very nice buddies, we said our goodbyes and I headed off for beers with Andy. Cairns is an odd town. It’s in Northern Queensland and the ocean is a bit of a dangerous place. Salt water crocodiles are very frequently seen sitting on the beaches, although Cairns doesn’t actually have a beach. It’s more a mud flat. Therefore to enjoy the sun, they’ve built an Ocean pool which is great fun but felt very odd for a Brit who expected long sandy beaches up there. Don’t get me wrong, Australia has some of the greatest sandy beaches in world, but Cairns has its mud flats!! There are back packers everywhere and that seems to be its main source of income. It’s very relaxed and a lot of the guys in the offices wear shorts. It’s a world away from the offices of London.
Day 2 arrived and more theory, followed by more practical in the pool. I must say I became fascinated learning about Nitrogen Narcosis. It’s a strange phenomenon that can occur whilst diving. The internet describes it is a reversible alteration in consciousness that occurs while diving at depth. It is caused by the anesthetic effect of certain gases at high pressure. Basically in laymans terms when you get down to depths of 10m plus, if you’re affected you act drunk. It affects different people very differently. Our dive master John said it affected him at around 20 metres down and he said his buddies told him he would always try and give his air regulator to the fish!!! When he came back up to 19m he was fine. It’s a very odd physical reaction. I wondered if I’d be seeing pink whales and giving my regulator out when I was down there.
In the afternoon of day 2 we had to sit our practical and theory exams to be able to get our open water licence so we could get out on the reef and complete our PADI Licence. I found the practical side easy but the theory was another matter. I’ve never been good at written exams, ever. I never went to Uni and basically failed everything at school so I get a bit panicky in exams. Even small ones like my PADI licence. Good news is I did pass, not glowingly but I got through. I was a very chuffed diver to be.
Day 3 came, it was a 5am start as we were meeting at the dive school to pick up the gear and then off to the boat that we would live on for the next three days. I’m not great on boats. I get sea sick quite easily, in fact I got sea sick once sitting on a surf board! Not really known for my sea legs but it was all part of the adventure so I just stocked up on sea sickness tablets.
We loaded the gear on the boat and took our shoes off for the next 3 days. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to live without shoes! Not sure how to make it happen but we should live without wearing shoes in life more often!!
It was a 3 hour trip out to the reef. When you’re not a sea fairer that’s a long while to look at the horizon and try and keep your guts down. To pass the time we were introduced to the crew who would be looking after us and shown our bunks. Unfortunately I had to share a room with my two buddies, Amandine and Benedita in sets of bunk beds but we struggled through. We chatted with excitement about what the 3 days ahead had in store for us and I do remember enjoying the different cultures and accents on the boat. I was listening to my i-pod, still quite a new invention and novelty back in the day and Amandine shouted in her best English with a very thick French accent, “Mark, yu av an ee-pod”. I said, “Sorry, what?” Amandine – “ee-pod, ee-pod, plays MP Tois toons!!” I must say I was never a fan of French accents until that moment!!!
Having survived the boat trip out to the reef, we stopped for a little bite to eat, had some briefings and geared up with buddy checks ready to jump in to the open ocean for the first time. We had to do two open water dives to get our full PADI licence. It was all rather exciting and I fell in love with reef diving. For those who have never done it, it’s unbelievable. The colours of the ocean and the coral are incredible. Oh and the fish, I loved the fish. So many species and just so many fish. We saw Sharks, Lion Fish, Parrot Fish, Clown Fish and massive Sea Bass but I must say my favourites were the Turtles. As you swim around them you can almost hear them talking just like Crush and Squirt from Finding Nemo!! During the lesson we had to sit on the bottom of the ocean, some 12m down and do a mask fill task. Probably the most unpleasant part of the test but you have to take your regulator out and take your mask off your head. You then have to put your mask back on which is now full of water and then blow the water out of your mask by exhaling very abruptly through your nose so the air pushes the water out. Then you put your regulator back in your mouth. It’s a very odd experience and little scary. We’d practiced this in the pool on the second day but the ocean just seemed a bit more daunting with a few reef sharks around you whilst you do it. Time flies by when you’re swimming in another world so we surfaced and unpacked.
The atmosphere on the boat was a buzz of fun, excitement and just so relaxed with everyone coming together and getting on as if we’d known each other for years. Great food was supplied and sitting on that boats deck in the middle of the ocean with not city lights around forever, you could the stars of the Milky Way. It was actually quite magical.
To be concluded…….