August 3rd 2006:
My first experience with the Great Barrier Reef (with snorkling) was ok but underwhelming due in part to the murky conditions on the day. So, for today's trip to the reef I asked the tour organisers at the hostel to recommend what they thought was the best operator to go with. Based on their recommendation, I went out today with Tusa Dive for a bit of scuba diving.
Tusa Dive, which is based on Cairns, picked me up from my hotel at at crack of dawn (well, 7:20AM) and dropped me off at the docks where I joined my fellow divers and snorklers. The Tusa boat was your average small-medium sized dive-ferry with a capacity of 28 customers.
After a quick intro to the boat from one of the crew, we were on our way and about an hour later arrived at our first dive location. One of the factors which attracted me to the company was that even they didn't know where they were going until we got closer to the reef: they have 21 possible dive sites in the area and based on sea conditions once they get near the reef, they choose the most suitable location.
The location-delaying approach really paid off: there were two dives today, in two different locations, and both locations had crystal clear visibility with no sign of murky water.
The crystal clear water helped show why the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reefs were much more developed that Koh Tao and the range of fish on show was nearly sensory-overloading(!) There was plenty of Nemo (Clown) fish to see, but also many larger fish which were not at Koh Tao: these larger fish were at least the length of my arm and half the length again in height. Sadly no sharks again, but there were sea turtles and also some sort of 8-foot long eel. The fish swam amongst many coral formations and it made for interesting diving, swimming close to the coral but not touching it. We, for example, swam through a narrow 40 meter coral chasm with 20 meter vertical walls: we could just fit through the narrow space without touching the walls, and had to swim up at an angle to climb over coral which blocked our route, and a short while later swim back down to avoid other formations blocking the way from above all while schools of tropical fish darted about. It was all great scuba skills experience as you don't use your arms when scuba-swimming: its all about adjusting your breathing to change your buoyancy.
I brought another archaic (film-based) camera down with me and this one is re-usable (as opposed to disposable) so I'm hoping the clear sea conditions combined with this camera's flash capability will produce good results.
I also noticed that whereas we all left the snorkling, a couple of days ago, early due to becoming cold, there was no problem with the temperature during the scuba-diving despite being at a greater depth in the water. Perhaps there were just warmer currents on the further out part of the reef, or maybe the view provided enough of a distraction to forget about the temperature. Whatever the cause, the cold was not a problem.
The icing on the cake came on the way back. I had been chatting the skipper and he allowed me to pilot the boat part of the way back to port :) I was sitting in the captains chair driving the boat from far out at sea, cresting the slightly rolling sea back to the shore. While the ship had GPS, we were navigating based on landmarks on the horizon and in reality all that was required was small course adjustments, but still it was a great experience.
It was a great day out and the scuba diving is well worth doing if you are in the area. The reef was definitely even more impressive than the Koh Tao reef and best of all, unlike Koh Tao, my air hose didn't explose which is always a plus!