What to expect: Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef for the first time
If you’re happy staying on the surface and watching the world of the reef play out beneath you, then snorkelling is king.
But if you find yourself frustrated that you can’t hold your breath long enough to get a better look, or wishing you were down there swimming with those groupers and turtles rather than blocking out their sunlight, then read on, my diver friend.
There’s a whole bunch of diving lingo that will get thrown at you and some heavy gear needs to be strapped to your body, but once you’re comfortable and ready, Discover Scuba Diving (often called DSD) on the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most mind-blowing adventures you can imagine.
What you’ll learn
PADI-trained dive instructors are everywhere on the Great Barrier Reef and you’d be hard-pressed to find a diving or snorkelling trip that doesn’t offer the option of Discover Scuba.
While this won’t mean you’re certified to dive by yourself, it’s a safe and exhilarating way to have an introduction to diving.
You might be working one-on-one, or being schooled in a group as we were recently with Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive, who operate full-day dive adventures to the pristine Lodestone Reef – a two-hour boat trip from Townsville and Magnetic Island.
Your instructor will start out by explaining the gear you need to use when scuba diving, so you’ll be a pro with the acronyms before you know it. They’ll also give you an overview of the Great Barrier Reef and talk about the coral and marine life you can expect to see on your dive.
There are a few basic skills you need to master before you’ll be ready to kick your legs and dive to depths. The main one is how to equalise – as you descend, the pressure builds so pinching your nostrils and blowing gently will help to clear your ears and prevent any discomfort. Don’t be afraid to equalise every few seconds, or every half a metre, and continue to do so throughout your dive – don’t push through the pain, this ain’t boot camp!
Next, you’re going to need to fill your mask halfway with water and clear it without rising to the surface.
Then, you’ll be asked to remove your diving regulator (reg) – aka the mouthpiece you breathe through – while you gently blow out, then place it back into your mouth and continue breathing calmly.
As well as some universal hand signals – are you okay?, problem, go up and go down – your dive instructor might have a few more to give you a heads up when they see something awesome on the dive. Our guide Achim from Adrenalin kept us on our marine biology toes in an underwater game of Charades, with signals for clownfish, turtle, giant clam and shark (though we needn’t worried about the last one!).
Once you’re into your wetsuit or stinger suit, you’ll need to add a weight belt – your instructor will tell you how many weights you need – and prepare your mask with some spit or anti-fog liquid. Give it a good rinse before you use it!
After you’ve got your fins on your feet, slip the BCD and tank on, and adjust the clips and straps so it’s comfortable and secure. Again, your instructor will be on hand to help you out so you don’t feel like a turtle on its shell.
Note: Stinger season in North Queensland is between November to May each year.
Once you’re in the water and have let some air out of your BCD so you start to descend, it might take a few moments for you to feel comfortable in the knowledge that you’re now staying underwater for up to 40 minutes. Keep calm, you’re in good hands.
Whether you’re walking in for a shore dive, or working your way down the anchor line, your instructor will take time here to put you through your paces – remember those skills?
The key is to keep your breathing nice and steady, and use calm, controlled movements. A good instructor will notice any panicky hand gestures or facial expressions and help you safely out of the water if you’re not feeling like a natural Scuba Steve.
Once you get the hang of your buoyancy and are breathing like a boss, remember to look around and take in the scenery – it’s mind blowing! You’ll notice intricate detail in things you could have never seen from the surface and appreciate the reef from a whole new angle.
You’ll be able to look up at the undercarriage of those incredible coral polyps and ledges, spot the clownfish and larger fish that duck and hide underneath their private ledges and anemone closets, oggle starfish and sea cucumbers up close, watch stingrays shake and flutter their way from the seabed, and even snap a selfie with a giant clam if you want to.
Keep an eye on your air (your instructor will definitely be doing this too) and try to keep your arms calm and use your legs. Of course, be conscious not to touch, knock or stand on any coral – it took thousands of years to look as beautiful as it does!
What happens next?
Got the option of a second intro dive? Loved what you saw? Then go for it! Most operators offer a discount on the second DSD of the day.
Once you return to land or boat, you might be asked to sign in (we did this on Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive) and you’ll be asked to report on your depth and how long you were underwater – this information is captured on your dive computer, which sits above your submersible pressure gauge and is attached to your BCD.
One of the best things about diving is the swapping of stories afterwards and reliving the incredible diversity of marine life you’ve just been a part of. Hooked on adrenaline and adventure, most people find once they scuba pop, they can’t stop.
There are plenty of ways to go for your Open Water certification. You need to complete some classroom or e-learning theory, then do a few pool lessons with a PADI instructor, and finally, complete your core competencies on a dive.
Really keen? Why not go all the way to advanced and do it on a three-day liveaboard trip that culminates with diving the SS Yongala (with Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive). Or combine your certification with a camping trip on Pelorus Island (with Remote Area Dive)?