I’m incredibly afraid of deep water. I’m terribly claustrophobic. I hate seeing fish swim anywhere near me. To give you an idea of how much it bothers me, I refuse to go in aquariums – especially if I have to walk through a water tank tunnel. Now that you know that, perhaps you’ll understand why this post is very near and dear to me. A day before leaving on a completely spontaneous trip to Cairns, Australia, I made the conscious decision that I would knock two items off my bucket list – visiting the Great Barrier Reef and scuba diving. I contacted travstar.com to help plan my excursions in Cairns and the agent recommended that I book my introductory dive with Reef Experience. After my plans were booked, I socialized my travel plans with friends and they cautioned that I should have booked with ProDive because of their reputation and safety ratings. Seeing that this was my first dive and experience in the deep waters, I was worried that I picked the wrong company.
The Anxious Start
While I was walking from the bus drop off, I was concerned about the light rain and worried that it would affect my diving experience. Arriving to the dock, a friendly crew member gave me a consent form, rattled off some basic guidelines and inquired if I had any dietary restrictions. I found it pretty impressive that they started the trip with personalized questions. Embarking the boat, I was greeted by another friendly crew member who calmed my concerns of rainy weather and informed that the reef would probably be sunny with a chance of an overcast. It was an assembly line embarking the boat – I picked up a snorkeling mask, fins and wet suit (which was optional). Entering the main cabin of the boat, I was immediately overwhelmed. There were tons of people and crew members were scattered all around. As the boat started, one of the crew members, Stacy, announced an orientation of things to expect, a run down of the day’s agenda and lots of safety information. It was a long hour ride to the reef (it might have even been closer to two hours) – the water was rough and uncomfortably choppy. Although I’ve been on boats before, I didn’t expect to be affected by the rough water. Although the boat offered seasick and ginger pills, more than half of the passengers looked like they were going to hurl. Each and every one of the crew members were incredibly understandable and offered assistance to help alleviate the uncomfortable situation. Upon arriving to the first site, one of the dive instructors, Garreth, gave an orientation to diving passengers. (Not all passengers signed up to dive. It was primarily a snorkeling excursion.) Since there were only a few diving instructors, they grouped the ‘introductory divers’ into small groups of three to four people. I was assigned to one of the last groups. They suggested for us to snorkel until our groups were called. I put on my wetsuit, fins and got on the side of the boat to get into the water. I took a look at the deep water while the choppy waves were crashing against me and I got up and walked back into the boat. I was scared shitless.
Shit got real.
After a lot of self-convincing and an internal pep talk, I made myself walk to the side of the boat to prepare for my first deep water snorkel. I figured that I would have to get used to the deep water before I did my first introductory dive. I jumped into the water and was halfway between the boat and the snorkeling area when I came to a stop. I completely freaked out. I’m not sure if it was my inner demons tugging at my conscious or if it was the realization that I was in the middle of the ocean or if it was the difficulty of me trying to breathe with the snorkel mask but I started to turn in circles. During my panic, I made eye contact with one of the crew members on the boat and he gave me the signal, “Are you ok?” I shook my head, took out my snorkel and yelled that I wanted to go back in. He yelled to me, “Go a little further, you’re really close to the reef. You can come in but you came out here for a reason. Go see the reef.” I definitely needed that. I nodded, took a deep breath and focused on conquering my fears. I swam a bit further and saw some of the most magnificent things that I’ve only seen in pictures and on T.V. The waving plants distracted me for about ten minutes before a wave hit me and reminded me that I was in the ocean. Yup, I freaked out again. I immediately went back to the boat and sat down around the bar to catch my breath.
A helping hand.
The chef onboard named Damo (Damien) asked me how it went and I told him that I was too scared to stay in the water. He introduced me to a young lady sitting across the bar from me and shared that she was scared of sharks and wouldn’t go in the water. Ironically I told her that she should go in and check out the reef. I explained to her my fears and shared my experience. Damo volunteered to take us out after he finished preparing lunch. After ten minutes, Damo took the young lady and I out to the side of the boat and we all hung onto a life saver float while he guided us to the reef. Damo’s patience and kindness was unreal. He guided us around the reef and after some time, he told us that he had to go back in. The young lady was so comfortable, she told us that she wanted to stay in the water.
Feeling a little more confident in the water and excited to conquer my fears, I went back into the boat to get ready for my dive. I sat on another plank waiting to get dressed in scuba gear. I was in a group with two gentlemen and our scuba instructor, Stacy. She took each one of us down the water. She checked our comfort levels, made sure we knew the different drills and signals and when she felt that we were all ready to go further, we were supposed to follow her. Again, I don’t know if it was the fact that I thought my mask wasn’t working or if I couldn’t breath correctly or if it was the big fish that were swimming close to the boat, I freaked out. I grabbed Stacy’s arm and gave her the signal “I’m not ok”. She immediately knew I was freaking out so in a non-verbal way, she told me to calm down and breathe slowly. I did this for a bit and when she saw that I was ok, she asked with hand signals, “you ok?” and I replied, “yeah, I’m ok”. She linked her arm with mine and we took off. The diving experience was something I can’t even express in words. I was scared, excited, exhilarated, anxious and curious – all at the same time. It was surreal being surrounded by water and gorgeous sea life. I found Nemo and his family along with a crocodile longtom fish (I thought it was a barracuda). After about half an hour Stacy guided me up and I was above water again.
The boat provided lunch and to my surprise, it was actually good! The menu consisted of four different types of salads, chicken curry, sausage links and a bread roll. Again, I was pleasantly surprised they had gluten-free options for me. After lunch the boat took us to another site to snorkel. It was my understanding that the site was further away and offered more sea life to see. I asked Damo to guide me along again and this time we had another scared gentleman join the float. We went around for 20 minutes before I went back on the boat.
Worth every bit
This experience will always leave a lasting impression on me. Not just the dive, but everyone who contributed to helping ease my fears. I’d say they helped me conquer it – but I can’t honestly say that I’ve been cured of deep water or claustrophobia. I’m a bit more comfortable in the water so in ways, I know it’s helped. I know to instructors like Stacy this is just part of their job and it’s something they do naturally and instinctively but to me, Stacy and Damo played an imperative role in overcoming my fears and for that, I will be forever grateful. I encourage anyone who is interested in experiencing the Great Barrier Reef to take it with Reef Experience. The boat is always kept clean and their provided lunch is really good. More importantly, their crew members are knowledgable, professional, accommodating and insanely fun. After a full day on the boat with Reef Experience, I can honestly say I’m 100% satisfied that I chose them to share my life changing experience.