Australia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 308 (118)

Airlie Beach

Monday 10th January (2005)

Precisely as predicted, I had no strength left in me to write up my daily journal entries whilst on board the Oceania. The intense diving schedule had so much taken its toll, in fact, that I didn’t even have any strength to write up the notes. On the first day alone, I clocked up no less than six dives – a record I doubt I will ever match again.

Our trip was split evenly into three destinations, the first of which was the S. S. Yongala wreck that lies just off the coast of Queensland near Ayr. Each night, the skipper would navigate us through the reef systems to the next destination, all the time trying to run away from bad weather. In full anticipation of a long day’s diving ahead, everyone on board got into his or her bunks fairly early on the first evening. The format of diving for this trip would be open-deck, which is to say that there would be no formal structure to the dive times or dive groups. The idea is that everyone on board is already an experienced diver and responsible for his or her own dive plans. The paying guests could pair up or form groups with each other and get into and out of the water as often as they pleased, provided nobody exceed the no decompression limits as indicated by their dive computers and also providing everyone clocked up a minimum surface interval between dives of no less than forty-five minutes.

By means of ensuring that everyone was comfortable in the water, the very first dive of the trip was a guided dive with the twenty odd divers on the vessel being split into three groups and being led into the water by one of the three dive instructors. This first dive was somewhat of a disaster for me personally. The currents were extremely strong, there was a lot of confusion in the water when everyone seemed to arrive at the same spot on the buoy line, my wetsuit was constricting me, my mask kept flooding and I felt that I was unable to draw air through the regulator. I was also breathing very heavily which may have made me a bit hyperventilated. I made it as far as the wreck at the bottom of the buoy line before waves of panic suddenly overcame me and I nearly rushed to the surface. All I kept thinking about was how deep we were and how I would quite probably drown if I were to suddenly run out of air with not enough time to make an emergency ascent to the surface. This fear of imminent drowning served only to reinforce the feeling of panic and created a very vicious circle. Even though I was breathing deeply, my breaths were by now extremely rapid and I felt like I was not getting enough air. In fact, I was getting too much air. All told, this episode lasted no more than a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity at the time.  Fortunately, the dive instructor was right there and was able to calm me down. I was franticly signalling that I had a problem and that I wanted to surface but she was very calm and took control of the situation. She floated in front of me, held my arm and signalled for me to try to relax and take deep, slow breaths. She continued to do this whilst maintaining eye contact until I started to feel the dizziness and panic slowly subside. Eventually, I finally started to feel like I was back under my own control again. It was an extremely intense experience and quite humbling. In over sixty dives, I’ve never experienced anything like this panic attack and so I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it. After regaining my composure, I was able to continue with the remainder of the dive but I felt quite unsettled all throughout. Even though I felt quite embarrassed by the whole episode, I made sure to let the dive coordinator and dive instructors all know what had happened. I felt this was necessary from a safety point of view.

After relaxing a bit back on the boat, I decided the best thing for me was to get straight back into the water again for the second dive of the morning. Indeed, it was a much more relaxed dive and I felt like I was in full control throughout. This time, I was able to concentrate more on the dive itself and marvelled at the sheer volume of marine life that was all over the wreck. The S. S. Yongala lies somewhat on its side and we navigated the entire length of the wreck between the two buoy lines. As the day progressed, Sandy skipped a couple of dive opportunities but I submerged no less than six times altogether, each time slowly getting to know more and more of the wreck. We saw no less than six different turtles, one of which is known to the regulars as Barney due to a barnacle that has stationed itself on the turtle’s back.

The S. S. Yongala is not technically part of the Great Barrier Reef system and so during the night, our skipper navigated his way over to the outer reef. Including the Oceania, there are just two boats that go out as far as the outer reef so we were very much hoping to see some pristine coral reef environments. A cyclone that was a bit too close for comfort was responsible for the three-meter swells and thirty-five knot winds we had to navigate through. The ride through the night was an extremely choppy one with several guests succumbing to seasickness and even being thrown out of their bunks as the catamaran crashed up and down repeatedly over the huge swells. The reef system itself provides a great deal of protection from the elements but the conditions that greeted us upon our arrival were still quite challenging. Still very keen to dive the reef itself, everyone was eager to get wet, even though the dive coordinator and skipper were a bit undecided about whether the conditions would be tolerable. We would all need to be taken to and from the nearby reef by tender, and the simple act of getting into and out of the small craft with our dive gear on and whilst being buffeted by the waves and high winds was going to be a logistic headache to say the least.

In the end, the conditions were so bad that we managed just a couple of dives on the reef before the dive coordinator suspended the diving and closed down the dive deck. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel like we were missing out on much. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been spoiled by some truly great dive sites in the past but I found the quality of reef and marine life to be very disappointing overall.

With the ever present threat of being caught up in the wake of the nearby cyclone, the boat and dive crew set to work battening down the hatches and securing the vessel for another long and tumultuous night of navigation through the rough seas. We eventually arrived in one piece at Rattray Island where we would complete two more dives before setting compass back to Airlie Beach. If the diving at the Great Barrier Reef was mediocre, then the diving at Rattray Island was a near complete waste of time altogether. The visibility was extremely poor but worse than that, the battered and mostly hard coral reef system around the island was nearly devoid of fish and other marine life. There was very little of interest and I decided not to get in for the second and final dive.

The trip back to Airlie Beach was rough for the first couple of hours but we eventually sailed home in calm seas. I’d have to conclude that the highlight of the day for me was the little get together at a local restaurant where we and several other diving guests had a nice meal and wound down from the trip. It pains me to say so but I’ve been thoroughly disappointed with the Great Barrier Reef as a diving destination. Admittedly the conditions have been pretty much as far from favourable as could possibly be, but I still feel that the diving in Thailand was far and away superior in almost every aspect.