Getting scuba certified on The Great Barrier Reef

When planning this trip I looked at various ways to visit The Great Barrier Reef and Fraser Island. I didn’t even know the geography of Australia when I started planning. I had to google everything. I wasn’t planning on get scuba certified, I was just planning to go snorkeling for a day but I started looking at various companies that offered scuba trips and saw they also offered overnight diving trips. I figured of you’re going to see the Great Barrier Reef wouldn’t scuba diving be better. I went scuba diving about two years ago in Hawaii for the first time and had a lot of fun. I thought about trying to get the certification in LA and then just doing a diving trip in Australia but it worked out to be cheaper to just certified and do an overnight diving trip in Australia even after negotiating a couple hundred dollars off the course price in LA.

I had a friend who got certified at a diving school in Cairns and she highly recommended it so I decided to book with the same company. I was able to get open water and advanced certification back to back. I could do advanced in LA as well but it was cheaper to do it in Australia so I went for it.

So what started as a one day snorkeling trip to The Great Barrier Reef snowballed into a one week scuba diving course/trip… typical me.

I travelled back to Australia after spending two weeks in New Zealand. I went through a bit of culture shock when I arrived in Sydney. I wasn’t used to being around so many people. The first night in New Zealand we couldn’t see at night because it was pitch black. My friend had to shine a flashlight to the side of the car to park!

After spending a couple hours in Sydney I headed back to the airport and caught my flight to Cairns. I was happy to finally be leaving winter!

I looked out the window while we were making our approach in Cairns and I could see the esplanade. My first thought was that’s where I’ll go running everyday. I had packed my running sneakers but had only used them once in Sydney. I needed to train for my marathon! Now that I was planning to be traveling longer it was more important that I train while traveling.

I landed at Cairns and I could feel the warmth! By the time I arrived at my hotel I was exhausted. I just wanted to do laundry and go to bed. I had two full days ahead of me and I needed sleep.

I arrived at the school a few minutes early and waited for the instructor. I was a little worried about having to actually learn things, remember them and then take an exam. What if I didn’t pass!

The first day we stayed in the classroom and watched videos and took a few short quizzes/exams. By the end of the day I was starting to get confused between the symptoms for different sicknesses. I was glad when we finished early.

I finally had energy so after class I went downtown and explored Cairns. I didn’t really know what to expect of Cairns, when we were Rotorua my friend said it reminded her of Cairns. There were lots of people out and about. What I didn’t know at the time was it was the weekend of the AFL Championship. It felt like spring break, there were restaurants and bars everywhere. I wandered my way over to the esplanade and found the lagoon but no beach! Cairns has the feel of a beachy town but there’s no beach! The lagoon is nice and it gets cleaned. They offer free exercise classes on the esplanade. They had an early morning yoga class that I wanted to take but it was too early for me. I found a festival on the esplanade that I think was celebrating the nearby island nations in the Pacific? They had a couple food vendors so I looked for the longest line
and bought a meal from that vendor. I watched a couple performances and then headed back.

The second day we spent in the pool. There was a checklist of items we needed to get through. We ended up going over our time and stayed later to get through everything. I was exhausted by the end. The last thing we had to do for the day was the last swim test. I forget how many laps we had to do but I was so tired after. Running I can do, swimming I cannot.

The third day was boat day. They picked me up and we made a stop at the dive shop. I purchased a mask at the shop since that was the one thing my instructor suggested we buy. They dropped us off at the marina and we boarded the day boat. The class I was with on the classroom was only 6-8 people. I was surprised by how many people were on the boat. There were people who were just doing day trips for snorkeling and scuba and then others who be transferring to the overnight boat with us.

They warned us about getting seasick and I figured I would be okay… The last hour I sat outside and tried not to throw up.

We had our briefing inside the boat on the way to the dive site. Our original instructor was injured so were being passed to another instructor. While he was running down the list of things we needed to do for our certification I could feel myself getting sicker. I was remembering the last time I had to throw up on Mt. Whitney it came to a point where I couldn’t hold anything back and had to let it all out. I was worried the same might happen again.
I kept thinking if it gets really bad you need to go outside. Luckily I survived the meeting and then immediately after I went outside and continued to try and not throw up whole everyone was filling up the garbage can with used puke bags. TMI?

I was excited when it was finally time to dive. Getting into the water would be the only way to get over this sea sickness. We had back to back sessions so our borrowed instructor could return to the overnight boat. Since we finished early we had time to go snorkeling at the next dive site after lunch. We still had more certification dives coming up so I decided to take the opportunity to have a free snorkel and I was safer in the water than on the boat. I wasn’t feeling as queasy anymore but better safe than sorry.

Around mid-afternoon we transferred to the overnight boat. I was wondering how the transfer would happen. They had us pass all our bags over first so we could cross between boats without having to hold anything. There was a small gap between boats. They ushered us into the dining area for our orientation. We had a few minutes to drop our bags in the room and then it was time for another dive! The equipment got nicer and nicer as we changed boats. We finally had stations that we would continue to use for the remainder of our time on the overnight boats.

We jumped into the water and continued our course certification. I am a pro at mask removal and replacement now. We usually found a sandy area to kneel down on while everyone completed each task and there were fish and divers swimming all around us. I couldn’t believe I was actually scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef!

After diving it was dinner time! My friend who had recommended the course to me joked all you do is dive and eat. I don’t know the last time I are 3 meals a day plus desert! The food was good and there’s was always more than enough to eat. Our first instructor joked diving is the laziest sport but I was always hungry at meal times!

After dinner there was a night dive. I wasn’t able to dive the first night since I didn’t have my certification yet but they lowered the back grate and baited the fish so we would have plenty to see. Two sharks also came out to join in on the fun.

And finally it was desert time! It was starting to feel like a retreat. After desert we had free time to relax. One of the people in my class thought to bring cards. We played every card game we could think of that night with the exception of poker, no chips. After a full day I was exhausted and ready to turn in. There was a morning dive scheduled before breakfast but since I wasn’t certified I wouldn’t be able to dive. I was okay with that.

The next couple days on the boat were pretty much the same: dive, eat, dive, tan, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, play cards.

On the second dive of the day I started to have problems equalizing. I later earned the nickname ‘the equalizer’ or ‘the equaliser.’ It took me almost 50 bar of air to get down! I borrowed some ‘swimmers ear’ and that helped me get through the next couple days. I was practically deaf in my right ear after 4 days of diving.

I ended up missing the first free dive with my class to give my ears a rest. When I finally jumped into the water for my first free I was ecstatic and also a little worried. I always followed the instructor and everything underwater looked the same to me. Luckily I had two diving buddies and new diving friends so I just followed them around. This time we could actually go wherever we wanted as long as it wasn’t below 18 meters. There were a couple times we got a little too excited and started to chase after a shark or a sea turtle and started to go too deep but there was always someone who thought to do a depth check before following the rest of us.

After getting my open water certification I continued on to get my advanced course certification. My friend in LA has her advanced course certification and she wanted someone to have the same so we could do deeper dives. With advanced certification we can go as deep as 30 meters. The area where we were, Norman Reef doesn’t reach to 30 meters, we got as far as 25 meters. I was worried about my ears not equalizing but I was fine. My instructor on the other hand was not fine. I wasn’t able to finish my certification dives that day so it would have to be pushed until another instructor was available. It worked out because I could then do dives with my new diving friends. They were leaving a day earlier than me.

The dives for the advanced course were actually pretty fun. I thought there might be an advanced mask removal and replacement skill we needed to be tested on.

Everyday there were people leaving the boat and arriving. In my new class there were 3 others. For one of the dives we had to swim through a hula hoop and do turns. For another one of our dives we had to navigate with a compass further than we had to for our open water course certification. The last dive we did they took us out in the raft and we did a back roll into the water.

After four days on the boat I was open water and advanced certified! It was nice to stay in one place for a couple days and also make new friends. I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed up for the course. In one of the videos we watched on the first day it ends with diving is more fun with friends, be sure to exchange information so you can go diving together in the future. I laughed then but it’s so true! My time on the boat was definitely more enjoyable because of the people.

I’m excited to go back to LA and do more diving! My friend said we can dive for lobsters! I want to dive for uni!




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