In which I find Nemo.

As I mentioned before, I got my open water diving license following a weekend of trials and tribulations. After so much effort, I had to put my license to good use.

And what better place to use it than the Great Barrier Reef?

Right after finals, my friends and I took a one-way flight out of Sydney. Destination: Cairns, a city built around tourism of the reef. From there, we were going to live on a boat for three days. The plan? Eat, sleep, dive.

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At least, I hoped so. I was actually rather nervous about our trip. I wasn’t exactly the best diver, as I proved when I got my certification. We would also be completing 11 dives in 3 days– which, to someone who’s only done 4 dives ever– is quite a lot.

But I wasn’t going to back out now. I could go diving at the Great Barrier Reef! People dream of doing that. Even before I arrived in Australia, I had sworn to make it to the reef before I had to return to the States. I had worked in a marine bio lab all semester, for cryin’ out loud.

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The day after we arrived in Cairns, my friends and I woke up bright and early to start our journey. Our dive company conveniently picked us up from our hostel and drove us to the boat we’d be living on for the next three days.

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They fed us breakfast…

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Showed us to our cabins…

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…and took off for the reef.

There was no time to waste. We were scheduled to complete four dives that first day, and the reef was still three hours away. As soon as we got to the dive site, then, one of the divemasters gave us a briefing.

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Well, it wasn’t as though I’d be going alone. As a general rule, you always dive with a buddy. My certification allows me to dive without a guide, so technically I didn’t need one.

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My diving buddy was one of my friends, though, and I sure wasn’t going to bail on her. No, it was time to gear up.

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My friend and I entered the water.

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Down we went.

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Whoa.

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It was like swimming in an aquarium. Except, the aquarium was a scene out of Finding Nemo.

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Or maybe it was a scene from a dream. How could this place be real?

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I had been so nervous at the beginning of our trip. But by our third dive that day, I felt totally comfortable in the water.

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Until our fourth dive, that is.

Our fourth dive was a night dive. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you go diving at night. Remember, though, that there are no streetlamps in the middle of the ocean. You dive in pitch darkness with only you, your buddy, and your flashlight.

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Our divemaster tried to reassure us. Apparently, the “freaks and geeks” of the ocean come out at night, creatures like crustaceans and mollusks. I wasn’t convinced, but I wasn’t backing down either. My dive buddy and I descended into the sea.

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Illuminated in the beam of my flashlight was stuff I’d never see during the day. Tiny, transparent shrimp got in my face, fixated on the light. My buddy and I watched a flatworm hover gracefully in the water. I accidentally got a fish killed.

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The circle of life, huh?

After that, there was no stopping any of us. We were even unfazed when my dive buddy got attacked by a fish.

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It was really, really cool. Whatever fear I had of scuba diving before was now gone. If I could scuba dive in total darkness, I could totally survive the rest of this trip!

Well, I more than survived it. Our boat changed locations between dives, so I was constantly amazed by the variety of seascapes.

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Between dives, we would chill on the boat.

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And discuss the creatures we had spotted on our dives.

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It’s true! Real clownfish live in the Great Barrier Reef. My Nikon isn’t built for water, but luckily, my friend has a camera that is. (And has kindly provided me with most of the photos in this post.)

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Though underwater photography can be difficult– the lighting isn’t great when you’re 18 meters underwater– my friend still managed to take some amazing photos. Even those don’t do the reef justice, though.

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A cuttlefish! It got annoyed by all the divers gathering around it.

A cuttlefish! It got annoyed by all the divers gathering around it.

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A giant clam! I ain’t sticking my hand in there.

My friend got mad close to this turtle!

My friend got mad close to this turtle!

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Definitely not.

Even without the photos, I don’t think I’ll forget how the Great Barrier looks for a long, long time.

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I like breathing. I’m not big on swimming. Obviously, I should learn to scuba dive.

Hey mates! Sorry I’ve been MIA. I caught tonsillitis RIGHT before final exams, and now I’m on the road traveling eastern Australia! Hostel internet is always a bit shaky, but I’ll do my best to keep on the ‘net.  

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I was really gung-ho when I got to Australia. I wanted to try everything. New city? Sure. New people? Come at me. New food? I’ll eat it all up.

New sport?

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This was back in August; however, we weren’t able to actually book the course until the end of October. The course takes an entire weekend, after all, and it was hard to find a date that fit everyone. So, three months later…

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While diving had sounded like a great idea when I bought the Groupon, I began to have some reservations as the date came near. I mean, before I could even enter the water, I had to go through a 7-hour online class and pass an exam at the end.

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This course educated me on all sorts of fun and exciting aspects of scuba diving.

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So while I felt confident back in August, I was more than a little nervous once the day finally came.

But I wasn’t going to back out now. My friends and I headed over to Manly Beach at the fine, fine hour of 6AM in order to make it to the class on time.

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The course itself started at 8AM. Our instructors started us off by making sure everyone could actually swim.

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Then, they showed us how to set up and put on our gear.

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And then, all 12 or so students crowded into a tiny pool, where we proceeded to practice various diving skills.

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Now, I was probably supposed to feel more confident after learning and performing all these skills. Instead, I was pretty stressed. The instructors would demonstrate each skill once or twice, and then expect you to do it. Perfectly. Hey, don’t I get a few practice runs at least?

As expected, then, a lot of people ended up messing up once or twice the first time around. I sure did, particularly during the “take out your regulator and put it back in your mouth” exercise.

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Luckily, the instructor grabbed my regulator and shoved it back into my mouth so I could breathe again. Even when I could breathe underwater, though, I was a bit freaked out. I’m used to being able to breathe unconsciously. I don’t think about it. While scuba diving, however, breathing took effort. It was always on my mind. Especially since I often felt like I wasn’t getting enough air.

I later learned that this feeling is normal. WHY DIDN’T THEY TELL ME?!

Best of all? We were in that pool doing diving skills for hours. I tend to get hungry within 2 hours of a meal, and we went for 8 without food. I didn’t even realize how hungry I was…

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…until I ate lunch.

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Thus, I felt a little better before our next session.

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…until our instructors informed us:

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Ready or not, I was going to have to do it. In order to get my scuba certification, I would have to perform all those diving skills again– but in the big blue sea, not the tiny swimming pool. We’d begin doing these skills on the second day of our course.

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I had underestimated how challenging diving would be, I guess. My nerves were really getting to me. Therefore, on our first dive of the second day, I had a rough start.

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WHY WAS I NOT DESCENDING?! After deflating my big ol’ inflation device, I was supposed to naturally sink. Yet, somehow, my friend and I were not sinking. We soon found ourselves alone on the surface. WHAT WAS HAPPENING?!

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My mask somehow slipped off my head. I began to splash about, getting water into my eyes. And then, the grand finale:

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So there I was, flailing and hyperventilating and basically having a panic attack. Thankfully, the instructor noticed that my friend and I were missing. He came to the surface to help us out.

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I stopped kicking and immediately sank to the bottom.

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Our group proceeded to repeat everything we had done in the pool, but in the ocean. While I was still frazzled, this time, I was able to perform the skills successfully.

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By the last dive of the weekend, we had finished learning all our skills. Our final dive was just for fun: instead of sitting on the bottom of the ocean messing with our weight belts and BCDs and regulators, we actually got to swim around and look at fish.

While Sydney isn’t that well-known for its diving, there’s some cool stuff in the water.

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My friend brought her underwater camera along.

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By the end, I was able to actually calm down a bit, and… enjoy myself?

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And that’s how I became a certified open-water diver.

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The diving signal for, “OK!”

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Double OK!

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V for victory!

It was a stressful, physically demanding, panicky weekend. At moments, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to dive. To be honest, I’m still not sure how I managed to overcome my fear. But I somehow managed to stick it out, survive the weekend, and get my scuba license.

Which is good. Because, a month after my scuba course, I had a trip booked at the Great Barrier Reef. Coming soon!