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Under the sea

2 Feb

Hmm… which blog shall I publish this in? Well, it’s got some nice pictures… oh, what the heck. Explore The Adventure it is (which just goes to show, that there’s only one of me, and there’s only one adventure I’m on – that of being alive. And it’s been one incredible ride so far!)

Doing anything new causes us to take a new view on things, helps us to look at the world in new ways – to hear God speaking to us, if you will. Even taking a different route to work can create a change in our perspective that causes us to see things in new ways – I’m certainly the sort of person who likes to vary things (a friend of mine called me a nomad the other day, and, like her, I do wonder about what things will be like when I get back from this trip).

I know that for me God speaks in all sorts of ways – sometimes I can feel a tingle down my spine, and I know to pay attention to what’s been said, or to what’s going on. Other times I feel a fizzing in my brain, almost as if I am connecting to another world, another dimension. Sometimes the voice seems so loud as to be a shout – but mostly it’s a quiet whisper.

Sometimes, for me, that voice comes in the words of a song, or the lines of a movie. Sometimes it’s in the pages of a book, or the voice of someone precious to me. But each time I am left in no doubt that God has spoken.

And it was like that when I was diving off the Great Barrier Reef. Now, I’ve been diving before, just a little – but this was the first real dive adventure for me, and also on one of the best dive sites in the world. I was excited, anticipating something spectacular – and also very conscious that God would use this time to speak some more to me.

Surface School of Fish

Diving is a magical, unique experience. The underwater silence creates a sense of being alone even when surrounded by other divers – the light makes it an other worldly experience, as the warmth of red light is absorbed by the water, leaving tones of spooky blue. Out there in the distance, just beyond visibility, might be anything – and so might there be down in the depths… as a certified diver at present I am only supposed to venture 18 m down, although I have ventured further with my instructor, down as far as 28m, and other divers can only manage 30m or so before the risks become too great.

Reef Wall

It’s a different world, too, with hills made out of coral in a thousand colours and even more shapes.. and wonderful creatures with unearthly shapes free floating above the landscape, or hiding under a rock – or even lying, concealed, in the sand.

Reef Scene

So diving, somehow, takes you out of yourself and into another world. And maybe all of us need that – some experience that takes us out of what’s normal, and forces us to think in new ways – to take a different perspective. The peace under water is astonishing – cut off from sound apart from the sound of your own breathing, the occasional sound of an engine, or the nibbling of parrotfish on the coral. Even surrounded by other divers, the solitude is incredible, lost in your own magical universe.

Turtle Silhouette

And maybe, like it did for me, as you stay open to things changing, your perspective will shift – so that the new world grips you.. that moment when the alien and threatening environment of strange creatures, the inability to breathe without assistance, the sense of being out of your safety zone suddenly shifts and you feel at home in the new world… and for me, the sensation of soaring, of flying over the surface produced a new exhilaration, an excitement of realising a childhood dream. Truly, I was flying – only the medium had changed, and I could even control how high I flew simply through my breathing..

And it was so important, too, to relax. Nothing is gained underwater by fighting the ocean… so breathing becomes slow and relaxed – the more peaceful the breathing, the longer it is possible to stay under water…and so resistance ceases, and we learn to stay in the flow, to go with what’s happening rather than force circumstances. We see what turns up – maybe there’ll be a turtle, maybe not – maybe we’ll find Nemo, maybe not, maybe a ray will flap lazily across the ocean, or maybe not… maybe there will be a special surprise of something unexpected.. who knows. But there’s nothing to be done to change it – what happens will happen, and for us, the thing to do is simply to enjoy the experience – to allow ‘what is’ to be absolutely perfect, to stop resisting and just glide along on the current of the experience. Sure, we have to keep an eye on what’s going on… but most of the time, if we just let what’s happening happening.. then the magic will be there…

Anthias

So, learn to go with the flow of what’s happening around you. Like the aikido masters who can use the energy of their attacker to create the energy to defeat them, we can use the power of the flow of what’s happening to enjoy the experience, to see the hand of creation in it – and to hear the voice of God, the core of the Universe, the heartbeat of Love speaking. And as we become more open to possibilities – then more possibilities are going to present themselves…

So the ocean seemed to be whispering to me… “learn to stay open…. learn to listen to your heart… and to your feelings….let things flow…and you, too, can hear the voice of God”.

A Shark’s Tale (Car Wash, anyone?)

21 Jan

And so a new boat… I’ve been sorry to leave my friends behind.. and of course it’s difficult to integrate into a new group who are still forming.  Over half of the divers are German on this boat, but I’ve fallen in with some very cool divers who are pushing my breathing limits even more (I am on 65 minute dives now.. twice as much as I was before). Rachael, Christoph and Rene are pretty experienced divers, although Rachael has only been diving since October. But they are very good at looking cool and in control.

Rachael has been hospitalised through diving. A scratch on the coral led to an infection in her lynphatic system, and coral was actually trying to grow in her skin. Yeek!

During the dive, though, something magical happens. I’ve always felt at home in the water – although I know that only the air tank and regulator lie between me and drowning, it has always felt very natural. But somewhere, suddenly, the perspective shifts. Suddenly I am not underwater, but soaring over an alien landscape, flying above the hills and valleys of a different world. It’s the closest i am going to get to really flying and with effortless ease I can soar over the coral hills, and then dive over the other side, leaping off the cliff and floating down to the valley below. A few kicks of my fins propels me forwards, and I rise and fall as I shift my breathing. It’s so tempting just to stick my arms out like I’m flying….

But even more treats are in store, and I am so glad I have stayed an extra day. We find a cleaning station – just like in ‘A Shark’s Tale’, fish turn up to be cleaned by the cleaner wrasses, who dart in and out of the fish’s gills and mouth, cleaning off particles that have become lodged there. The client fish will sit there and stick its fins in ‘Park’ while it’s being cleaned. A yellow striped sweetlips is having the full treatment (although it didn’t stay around for a wax and polish).

Diagonally Banded Sweetlips

A shoal of bumphead wrasse (yep, fish with a bump on their head, of course) sail above us in the silver of the surface. A pair of barracuda sit, impassive, observing us, while a slender yellow trumpetfish (more like a clarinetfish, I think) glides past me.

TrumpetfishMoorish Idol

We have to fight the return current (not, perhaps, the best planned dive) which leaves me low on air through the exertion. I share air with one of the other divers to make sure I have enough when I get back on board, while hanging off the mooring ropes. The sea has got incredibly rough while we’re out, although we know nothing of this in the calm and silence under the water.

Later in the day, on the night dive…we find a Moray eel hiding in the shadows, like a dog barking as we pass. We share some moments gliding on the current with turtles, and watch a Napoleon Wrasse, huge and docile, float past. The current on the coral wall is strong, and when we stop swimming, we sail past without effort. Now, suddenly, I am starting to look cool.

Maori Wrasse (2)Moray

It’s a beautiful sunset on board boat – the sky lights up like fire again, and I am awed by the sight…

Sunset on the Reef (11)Sunset on the Reef (10)

Up again early for the morning dive (why did I volunteer for an extra day???) but I’m up before everyone else and in time for the sunrise to reprise last nights display

Sunrise on the last day (15)Sunrise on the last day (17)

 

More diving, then – this time it’s more frantic as they have three dives to get in before 11:30 – short surface intervals mean limits on the depth we can go (to make sure all the nitrogen gets out of our bodies and doesn’t build up

But there’s turtles to be seen…

)Turtle 2

and giant clams a metre across, and different sorts of anemonefish, and boxfish (bet you can’t guess why) and puffer fish (who can only repeat that trick a few times before they die)

Giant Clam (2)Spine Cheeked Anemonefish 2Black Box fishScribbled Pufferfish

And then the final dive… another blue spotted ray slides past me, its wings flapping slowly – and another Moray hides behind a rock, trying not to be seen.

It’s a short dive, but still a very beautiful one, over a low, flat plain. We find Nemo – or, in fact, a pair of clownfish called Tiger and Chicken, for all the reasons you might expect them to be called that.

True Clownfish

And then, we’re back on boat. It’s like being at a cleaning station itself, as we are stripped of our tanks, BCDs and fins (although I wasn’t sure how I should respond to ‘give me your sausage’). The experience is over… but the memories are stored away. An incredible four days, and I cannot wait to dive again – although I have a feeling it’s going to be hard to beat this. Four days. 16 dives. 16 tanks. 5 fin blisters (my toes really, really hurt!). A total of over 6 hours underwater. Millions of fish. Lots of characters from Finding Nemo (and, come to think of it, ‘A Shark’s Tale’). One very happy Timmy.

And it’s a strange place to be, you know, many miles from land, yet the water is only a few inches deep – and nearby foam breaks over the reef, and we know that just beyond there, the sea bed drops away many miles – and it feels like being at the very edge of the world….

Gt barrierimage

Deep Blue Sea

20 Jan

I’m up before everyone else on the boat – such a deep sleep, and yet..the excitement is just too much. Sunrise is gorgeous, of course….

Sunrise on the Reef (10)

Sunrise on the Reef (6)

The sea is calm and we’re ready for another dive. In the early morning, the big boys are still about, and the little guys have woken up and are looking for breakfast. It’s rush hour on the reef.

Anthias

The trevally and Wallyare still around.. There are shoals of painted sweetlips, (the Mick Jagger of the fish world). And throughout the day I see more and more – and can only remember a handful. They’ve got fish identification books on the boat, and I have my handy identification charts so I can tell the difference between a rabbitfish (big eyes, venomous spines, and they breed like, well, rabbits) and surgeonfish (Dory is a surgeonfish – check the spine just in front of her tail), angelfish and butterflyfish (only the butterflyfish has a stripe across the eye)… and then a million variations of each one.

image

And to add to the confusion, the youngsters often look nothing like their parents (the batfish does look like a bat sign when it’s little, and like an angelfish on steroids when it’s bigger) , and some species (the anemonefish for one) can change from male to female and in doing so change colour too. It’s all far too much, and although I do try and take some notes, I am too busy enjoying the experience.

SweetlipsBlack Backed Butterflyfish

Batfish adult & juvenile – see what I mean?!

Batfishimage

Out today are a different type of stingray, pink anemonefish and different parrotfish too.

Blue Spotted Lagoon Ray 2Bi-Color Parrot Fish

Meanwhile the other divers and I are reciting huge extracts from ‘Finding Nemo’…and then they decide I look like the bald cigar chewing commander (aka ‘Stinger’, which seems kind of appropriate) from Top Gun. Personally, I can’t see it, but the movie quotes turn to Top Gun instead..(‘Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash’)

image

And perhaps we should have a word about the triggerfish. Some of these are pretty small, but the Titan Triggerfish is around half a meter long and looks even more threatening. It’s nesting, right now, and the mom is firecly protective of the eggs in the sand below. That’s all the background to the plot you’re going to need . .

Thierry has decided to take a camera out again. He’s so absorbed in photographing Nemo, that he completely fails to spot the triggerfish, which, having failed to attract his attention, decides to bite his fin. Thierry continues to click away, oblivious to half a metre of irate fish hanging off his fin. I can’t decide whether to laugh or worry – banging my tank to attract Thierry’s attention fails miserably, and the whole incident ends only when he swims off in search of another photographic subject. Only when we get to the surface does he find out about how close he came to having a bit nibbled out of him.

Titan Triggerfish

A grey reef shark sails past overhead, framed in the sun glinting through the water, while a whitetipped reefie sits off in the distance. A green sea turtle soars past, looking cool and effortless.

Whitetip Reef Shark (2)green turtle99

Of course, I am not immune to disaster. I badly judged step on the way back from rinsing my dinner plate causes me to lurch forward, stepping onto the wet floor.. neatly propelling my feet forward, and the rest of me backwards, and sending the plate into a graceful arc onto the diving deck. Apart from one or two cuts and bruises, the only thing hurt is my pride – even the plate survived intact. Although getting my BCD on gets a bit trickier until I discover the catches that no-one ever uses that make it a bit easier.

Another night dive – and this time, a lot of the entertainment is to be had by watching the newly qualified divers float past like a fairground ride, torches flailing while we hold ours close to our chests to enjoy the spectacle. Another shark sits just out of range, watching the evening’s entertainment impassively. It’s a bit quiet on the reef tonight, and it’s the dark, spooky water that really thrills as our torches illuminate just a few metres before fading out.. leaving us unsure what lies beyond those feeble beams… A tiny jellyfish floats past, pulsating in my torch light. I’m not going to check if this is the poisonous kind.. look where that got Dory (and I am not wearing this stinger suit just to poke my finger at the first jellyfish I see).

The next morning we’re up even earlier – and there’s even more frenzied activity. Another turtle floats past, moving as if he has all the time on the world – although I get the most curious feeling he stopped to say hello. There are huge shoals of parrotfish moving across the reef like herds of cattle.

Coral SceneTurtle 4

And I’ve got an opportunity that I can’t pass up. ScubaPro 2, the sister ship to ScubaPro 1, is right behind us and sailing light. Would anyone like to transfer for $150 for 5 more dives? Everything goes into plastic sacks, and I’m into the ships tender and on to another boat for another day of diving.

(I should point out again that these photos aren’t mine… but they were taking on the same dives i was on)

We found Nemo . . .

19 Jan

And lots of other stuff – Scar, Little Squishy, Puffer, Crush… even Bruce. But this dude’s still got serious thrill issues.

image

When I started writing this blog, I thought I was going to have to do it without pictures – I didn’t take an underwater camera, and chose to invest my cash in something other than hiring one. And part of me wanted to experience the moment viscerally, directly, rather than through a lens. And yet I did manage to get some photos of the trip from one of the divers on the boat..

This boat

Scubapro Sunset

So… the Great Barrier Reef. One of the ‘big five’ that I wanted to do on this trip. I expected to go out on a boat for a day, do a couple of dives, come home… but instead I chose to go live aboard with Pro Dive out of Cairns – and so I found myself at 6:15 on a Saturday morning, an unearthly hour that no-one should have to see, with 35 other divers in various stages of nervousness, excitement and anticipation. Some of them have just completed their pool sessions and now it’s time to hit open water to complete their training. Others are newish divers like me, keen to see some more dive sites and add to their experience… and then there are the hardened, experienced divers, who swish up with their kit, and act cool in shades and Reefs.

It’s a 3 hour ride to the reef – which is one reason that a live aboard is a good thing. The sea isn’t calm, but neither is it raging.. the seasick baggies aren’t required (I don’t know. Do I get sea sick? I never have – and if I take the tablets, I’ll never find out. Turns out I don’t – at least so far).

Scubapro SunriseDive Deck (1)

We have a cool crew – apparently Saturday is ‘Japanese Day’ where more of the divers are japanese, so we have Masi aboard to translate. We’ve got a girl on the longest job interview ever – 5 days in total including 3 days as crew. And I thought my two day interview with Mars was a long one. And a mixture of Irish, Kiwi, Australian.. I get my priorities right and make sure I’m on the right side of the cook. And a mixed bunch of divers too – my Swiss roomie and dive buddie, Thierry, turns out to have more thrill issues than I do. But more of that later.

Gear up time – and I CAN remember how to assemble Scuba gear. No wetsuits this time (sorry girls) – just a stinger suit which does even less to hide my figure (although said figure is a lot better since I started this gig). Meanwhile, the boat has arrived at the first mooring – and it’s time to get in the sea.

DSCF0086

First problem is that I’ve managed to forget to remove the bungee cord that holds the tank in place while the boats moving – resulting in me standing up and then sitting down again quickly. Time to get out of the BCD, take my kit apart to remove the offending cord, and then gear up again. Perhaps time for a bit of diving equipment terminology for those that don’t

  1. BCD – Buoyancy control device, designed to help you float
  2. Weight belt – designed to help you sink
  3. Pair of lungs – designed to balance the BCD and the weight belt
  4. Brain – supposed to control the lungs but not all that good at it some times
  5. Regulator – designed to provide air to lungs
  6. Secondary regulator – designed to provide air to someone else’s lungs in case they run out of air (clue – this might be of interest later in the plot)
  7. Tank – critically important source of air to the regulator. Filled to 200bar, lasts about 30 minutes to an hour depending on how well item 4 is doing.
  8. Dive computer – also critically important to tell you how much you have in #7 to make sure that air still gets delivered to #3. Requires use of #4 to make good use of it. This too may become important later in the story.
  9. Fins to help move through the water/Mask to keep water out of eyes/Snorkel to keep water out of item #3 above. None of these are entirely successful at doing their job

OK, for the non diver – how deep you go is a balance between your weight and the weight belt dragging you down, and the BCD and the air in your lungs lifting you up. The BCD is used to get balance roughly right, and then by varying the depth of your breathing, you control whether you sink or rise. Get it right, and you look cool and in control. get it wrong and you look like you’re on  a theme park ride at Alton Towers.

image

Time for the first dive, and I am feeling slightly nervous. I’m not expecting to die, you understand – I’m afraid of looking stupid.

Buddy check. Is the other guy’s system working,…. paying particular attention to the secondary regulator because you might need it yourself. Last minute check to make sure that my air is turned on…

Right hand on mask & regulator to stop it falling off and one giant step off the deck into the 29 degree sea over the Great Barrier Reef. Signal to the crew that I’m OK. No-one’s looking. Signal to buddy that I’m OK – fortunately Thierry IS watching, and with a quick OK gesture and a thumbs down it’s time to empty the BCD and descend into the depths..

We’re on Milln Reef and the sea life is incredible. We have four types of things in the sea here.

We have coral, which is the pretty stuff that comes in two sorts – hard like rock, and soft like plants. Well, I say two sorts, but there are a million variations on shape from ferns and fronds, whips and needles, fingers, golfballs, brain shapes… and a billion colours – pinks, blues, greens, reds, luminous electric blue and haunting pink…

gorgonian fanReef Scene

We have sand, which comes in pretty much one colour – sand colour – and a lot of which has been pooped by parrotfish, who eat the coral.

And we have fish, which fill in the gaps between the sand and the coral. And there are a lot of fish. In lots of colours. And lots of sizes. And shapes. And temperaments. (and for simplicity, I’m going to include eels, crabs, worms, nudibranchs, anemones and everything else in with ‘fish’). And turtles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then we have divers. Some of them look better in a stinger suit than others. Some of them look slightly different to the others based on colour of fins and weight belt. One of them has a bald head. I call it streamlining. Some of them flail around a lot, some of them look cool and serene. My goal is to move from flailing to cool over the next few days. My goal is also to make more effective use of my brain to control ‘up’ and ‘down’

So into the ocean… and it’s incredible. Fiji and Hawai’i were beautiful, but nothing has really prepared me for the incredible beauty of the reef.

Just to look at the coral is stunning.. the different shapes and colours make it look like a subterranean garden. This is a fairly flat site, here, and not very deep – although I manage to get down to 17metres. If I look up, I can see the sun through the surface of the waves, adding its own iridescent beauty to the scene below.. and in between the coral, darting in and out of the coral and through the anemones are the fish… little fish in beautiful colours.. every single colour of the rainbow is represented, sometimes on one fish (take the parrotfish, for example – a rainbow of colour). Fish naming is pretty straightforward, actually. It’s like an episode of ‘Catchphrase’ – you say what you see. So the Black Tailed Humbug looks exactly like that – a black and white striped humbug. The parrotfish has a beak and looks (particularly with the colours) like a parrot with fins. The anemone fish is so called, because it swims in and out of anemones. The cleaner wrasse does exactly that – cleans other fish. The sea cucumber looks like a cucumber, while the pineapple sea cucumber looks like a cucumber trying to disguise itself as a pineapple.

Sweetlips 2

My dive book hasn’t got that much space for notes… which is just as well, because my poor little brain hasn’t got enough space to remember what I’ve seen. For goodness sake, it’s only 30 minutes and I can manage to forget it all.

We had huge trevally a metre long sitting under the boat. We had enormous bumphead parrotfish, not much shorter, floating in shoals. And in and around them, the ‘pretty fish’ in whites and blacks, and reds and pinks, and yellows, and any possible combination of those colours – we have electric blue tiny schools of damselfish darting in and out of the coral, or lazier, slower fish who’ve seen it all, looking up as we glide past (well, Thierry glides.. I sort of wriggle)

Giant TrevallyYellowfin Parrotfish

I could document all the fish I’ve seen… but I think this might be a little bit long.

And soon, I’m down to 40 bar and overdue on the boat. It’s only been 30 minutes, and Thierry has hardly used half his tank. But the first dive is exhilarating, amazing, wonderful. I’m hooked… and the deep slide into addiction has begun.

On dive 2, Thierry decides to take a camera out. This preoccupies him so much photographing the sea life, that I can’t attract his attention to let him know I am running low on air – and I can’t dive deep to tell him, because I need to take a rest stop at 5m down to allow excess nitrogen in my bloodstream to filter out (for the non-diver, this is the nightmare called ‘the bends’… the nitrogen in the compressed air dissolves in the blood.. come up slow enough and it filters out.. come up too fast, and the nitrogen causes bubbles which can kill you). My dive plan goes badly wrong, and I end up out of air. Fortunately, I have at least planned to be on the surface when that happens – but rather than being able to inflate my BCD so I can STAY on the surface, I have to blow it up like a balloon. Oh well… a learning point.

On the third dive, I’m getting the hang of it…. my dive times are longer, and I’m in control of my air. It’s all down to relaxing, of course… breathing slowly and making as much use of every bit of air in my lungs. I’ve worked out that the sudden alarming rise to the surface half way through a dive is due to the fact that with half my air gone, the tank is much lighter.

And we find Nemo. Full name – the Clown Anemonefish. Darting in and out of the anemone that protects him from being eaten, while it doesn’t sting him. A real live Disney character. Along with his tank pals Scar, the Moorish Idol, and the pufferfish. We don’t find Dory, but she’s around somewhere. And while we’re at it, a blue spotted stingray rises from the ocean floor and slowly flies off into the distance with a leisurely flap of its fins? wings? I’m not sure anymore.

Nemo

Christmas Tree worms, looking for all the world like Christmas Trees (or, possibly, twisted bottle brushes) retract back into the coral as I brush past them. And in the distance, the steel cylinders of barracuda sit looking vaguely menacing as they hover in the water.

Christmas Tree WormBarracuda

Back on board for dinner – washing the plates creates incredible excitement amongst the Red Bass hanging out for scraps at the end of the boat. Tigger and Snuff are on board, of course… and Tigger has his own mask, fins and snorkel. I’m not trusting him with deep dives yet. No, Snuff does not have a snorkel. Snuff is a seal. Snuff does not need a snorkel.

Ready to dive

We move the boat to a new reef (Flynn’s Reef) but the fish stick with us. Hiding underneath, looking for food. Wally is a huge Napoleon Wrasse…

Wally

And then the final dive of the day – my first night dive. Each of us has a glowstick, making us look like customers at a fetish disco, and a torch. The water is inky black as we jump in and descend – this time of night, the big boys come out, and some of the more cautious denizens of the deep decide to show their faces, illuminated in the weak beams of our torches.

Night Dive (1)

A cuttlefish rises from the sand, its frills driving it forward like a spaceship from ‘Close Encounters’. And it changes colour too… There are some even bigger trevally under the boat now, and they are joined by a Titan Triggerfish.. this one, at least, decides to ignore us. A lionfish peeps out from under the rocks, and a skate soars over the sand bed. Just 30 minutes for this dive – but the combination of darkness and the faint illumination of the torches makes this an unforgettable experience… and hovering on the edge of the torchbeams we see our first shark – there’s a white tipped reef shark checking us out.

 

CuttlefishRagged Finned Lionfish

So much to the day, I’m not sure i will sleep – but the gentle rocking of the boat lures me to slumber.. although I wake in the night to look out at the sea and marvel at just how incredibly lucky I am – and I give thanks for the opportunity I’ve had to enjoy an incredible, amazing, wonderful experience that will stay with me forever. And as far as I know, I have two more days like this to go….

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