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Great Barrier Reef diving

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

Colorado has the highest per capita number of divers of any state in the country, really! Funny, since it’s a landlocked state, but with adventurous people. I learned to scuba dive in my 20s with my husband at the time. By 2006, we had been to The Bahamas, Bonaire, Cayman Islands, Nicaragua, Dominica, and Cozumel on dive vacations that consisted mostly of two-tank boat dives everyday. We were iching to try a live-aboard dive experience, where you stay on the boat for a week and wanted to go to the coveted Great Barrier Reef. The expense quickly discouraged me as I researched possibilities, but then I found the Undersea Explorer, which was affordable because it was a retrofitted research vessel that combined diving with Minke whale research. Are you kidding me - we get to play Jacques Cousteau!

After flying into Port Douglas, Australia and chillin’ for a day, we boarded the boat and discovered a mix of Irish, German, English guests, three researchers, two young marine biologist students, and a 70 year old man learning to dive - his wife had given him the trip as a present. The reefs were incredible, but diving so many times a day, I started to get chilly. I watched and learned as one gal filled an old fashioned water bladder she brought with hot water and shoved it down the front of her wetsuit! She had learned that trick from her dad, the boat captain.

Later that day as we met John, the boat captain, we discovered that he was actually from the states. Not just the states, but from Basalt, Colorado. Where was I teaching high school at the time? Basalt, Colorado! These “small world” encounters never cease to amaze me. (Look for my best “small world” story from Japan, coming soon.)

The diving on this trip was nothing short of spectacular, filled with nudibranchs - a group of soft-bodied, marine gastropod molluscs which shed their shells after their larval stage, human size grouper, and brightly colored corral.

The real stars of the show were the Dwarf Minke whales - one of the smaller of the species, but still imposing when they are just meters from you in the water.

Of the three researchers on board, one would use his tallon-like feet to stand on the top of the boat and watch for whales. He would record the numbers of whales, the times they breached the surface and would yell “Whales! Whales!” at these sightings. The engines would stop and everyone would run to the railings. Lines would get thrown out from the boats, we’d scramble to put on a wetsuit, snorkel, and fins and lower ourselves as quietly as possible into the water. We’d float for as long as the whales were around. The second researcher donned a drysuit, grabbed her large camera and shoved herself into an inflated inner tube to film the majestic creatures. The third one, an older man with his PhD, resembled Santa Claus with his white beard and belly, and would draw pictures of the whales on his underwater slate. When we got back on board, they would ask us to complete a questionnaire about what we saw, so our experiences became part of their database. We had been asked to watch for color patterning, scars, size, etc...for the researchers. They were trying to figure out the whale migration patterns. It was an amazing experience to be part of all this research!

From the deep, dark, black an outline of a shape would appear as you floated on the surface, growing in size and detail as it slowly came closer and closer to the surface...and to us. It wasn’t Jaws approaching, but what felt like an oversized dolphin who was just as curious about us as we was about him/her. As they got close, an eye appeared to be looking at me just meters away and my heart skipped a beat. We stared into each other's eyes and I felt completely connected to this animal, and to the universe. Taking in this peaceful moment, my soul expressed gratitude for this gift as tears filled my mask. She seemed to sense my emotion and without motion looked back at me as if to say, “I see you too. Welcome to my part of the world.” This is part of why I travel, to remind myself of the beauty of our world and that I’m just a momentary speck of dust currently inhabiting Earth.

As if this trip couldn’t get any better, we combined our Australian experience with three weeks in New Zealand. After diving on the Great Barrier Reef, we swapped out our bags in our airport locker (pre 9/11 days) and headed to the ski slopes of the South Island of New Zealand. Along the way we got our adrenaline rushing with some cold, blackwater cave rafting where I felt like a whale myself trying to fit into an extremely small wetsuit. A large Maori man assisted me with the fitting, but that’s another story...

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