Sea life attracts divers to Great Barrier Reef

Two gray reef sharks glided effortlessly across our path, their razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the beams of our flashlights. In that moment, nothing else was visible in our pitch-black underwater world.

Active at night when they feed on squids and crabs, the sharks posed no threat to divers, our guide told us, “unless you do something absolutely crazy, like take a piece of bloody meat into the water with you!”

Yet knowing that most sharks are harmless to divers differs greatly from swimming face to face with the hungry predators. My heart raced and my breathing quickened until the sharks swam away.

This type of adventure awaits visitors to the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most unique and spectacular marine spectacles. Some 400 different kinds of corals, 1,500 types of fish, and many thousands of species of mollusks and sponges inhabit the 1,400-mile long Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia’s northeastern state.

This amazing environment attracts scuba enthusiasts from all over the world, including experienced divers like my brother Dan Johanson and beginners like myself. In fact, the prospect of exploring the Reef with my brother motivated me to learn to dive. Our outing brought us together with 30 other divers, among them Kiwis, Swedes, Germans, Koreans, and Japanese.

We met in the city of Cairns, an adventurer’s paradise where, in addition to scuba diving, visitors can enjoy ballooning, skydiving, bungee jumping, spelunking, horseback riding and white-water rafting.

The city’s appeal to explorers of old is still apparent in the restaurants and bars of the Esplanade district. Order a plate of ribs and a beer in the Rattle and Hum eatery, and you’ll get portions of each great enough to satisfy a pack of hungry gold prospectors. When Cairns was a port town in the days of World War II, toad racing was cutting-edge entertainment that drew sailors into the taverns. Today bars still promote toad racing to lure tourists within their walls.

During our three-day jaunt aboard a scuba touring boat, we had the opportunity to make 11 dives, including two night excursions, each time in a different hot spot of the Reef. The crew took care of every other shipboard chore, from piloting the boat to refilling our oxygen tanks to cooking three meals and snacks for the divers every day.

“The neat thing about the trip was the live-aboard experience,” Dan said. “Your life is pretty much ‘dive, eat, rest, and dive again.’ They take care of everything else that needs to be done so you can spend your whole day diving.”

And what a place it is to dive. The ancient corals of the Reef have grown over many centuries into colorful and beautiful formations, providing an unmatched habitat for other sea life and an equally attractive environment for human visitors.

“Each dive was unique and different,” Dan said. “Several of the dives allowed you to explore through open-ended caves and in some you glide through majestic coral canyons. It was as if you were in an airplane flying through Yosemite Valley.”

Even as a rookie, I was able to identify more than 40 species which I listed in my journal. Lizardfish, sting rays, striped catfish, snappers, butterfly fish, flounders and fire coral are just a few of them.

We also spotted a green sea turtle that was at least six feet from head to toe during our night dive. Our guide actually told us about him during our pre-dive briefing. “He’s friendly and nothing to worry about, unless you try to put him in a head-lock,” he joked.

A school of barracuda was another memorable sight.

“I was more afraid of the barracuda than I was of the sharks,” Dan said. “A barracuda can bite off an arm. It was exhilarating to see them, but I kept my hands close to my chest when they were around.”

Each of the divers on our boat enjoyed the adventure with no greater problems than fatigue. Diving so frequently for up to 40 minutes at a time was, in fact, a unique physical challenge, and we had to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated while breathing so much dry, bottled oxygen. I’m sure this concern was foremost on the minds of our fellow divers as they sat around the boat at night, drinking beer while they swapped stories, sang and laughed.

As Dan and I suited up for our final dive, I was definitely sorry the voyage was coming to an end, but one more highlight awaited us. During our tour of a diving attraction called Coral Gardens, we saw clams five feet long, a big green snake called a moray eel, and for one fleeting moment, a hammerhead shark.

Photo by Dan Johanson

While I watched in amazement, Dan kicked his legs in pursuit to get a better look.

“The sharks were the highlights, of course, and the chances are that they are friendly,” Dan said. “So when we sighted them, I found myself swimming more quickly toward them, especially that hammerhead. The idea most people have that all sharks are dangerous and man-eating is a misconception.”

While I agreed with him, we left the hammerhead story out when we told the family about our trip. Dan never got within 50 feet of the predator, but raised a good point when he asked, “What would Mom say if she knew we were chasing sharks?”

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Don’t expect to find direct flights to Cairns. Most travelers will fly through Sydney before catching a connection to the scuba diving mecca. Qantas, Australia’s main airline, flies many connections daily; expect to pay about $600.

HEALTH TIPS: Remember to bring motion sickness medication. The choppy three-hour ride between Cairns and the Reef nauseated many.

CERTIFICATION: To participate in a guided trip, divers must become certified. Some beginners earn certification during such an outing, but taking a course ahead of time permits divers to tour more freely.

GUIDES: Many businesses run tours of the Reef. We booked with Pro Dive, which charges just $480 for an 11-dive visit of three days and two nights. This price includes a room in town the night before embarking, and a small but private double room with a bunk bed aboard ship, all meals, diving gear and oxygen. Learn more at www.prodivecairns.com

BEFORE DIVING: A booking with most diving companies will include admission to a “Reef Teach” class in Cairns, offered Monday through Saturday evenings. This lecture and slide presentation is most entertaining and worthwhile. Read more at www.reefteach.com.ua.

Bay Area Newspaper Group, 2007