Posted by: Alex | July 14, 2010

The Great Barrier Reef

May 19th, 2010, 9:54am

The vessel was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  A converted trawler, this tough ship had taken us 300km to the north overnight to our first dive site for the day.  Known to the diving community as a “liveaboard,” these ships carry only scuba divers as passengers and will spend anywhere from several days to two weeks touring reef systems off the beaten track.  With up to four dives a day, including a night dive, there is little time to do anything other than dive, eat, and sleep.

Taka carries a maximum of thirty passengers, most of them crammed into a lower deck fore of the engine room and accessible by a steep metal ladder down from the main deck.  Three of us shared a closet-sized four-person cabin with bunk beds, swaying below the water line.  The monotonous throbbing of the engine roars constantly, day and night.  The main deck holds the dining area, galley, and a large flat-screen TV continually relaying a view from the outside world via a camera mounted at the front of the ship.  For those prone to seasickness, the windowless Taka is a never-ending amusement park ride you wish you’d never been convinced to ride on.

Moving aft, the main deck opens outside to a row of dual-purpose toilet/shower stalls that face three rows of parallel benches loaded with scuba tanks and gear.  Each diver is assigned a particular tank and location for storage of their gear, and this is the same deck that the divers enter and exit the water from.  Other than these areas, the only other space available is the top deck, a windy place to get some fresh air and look out over the open ocean.

On this particular three-day voyage there were only eleven passengers on board, with nearly a one-to-one ratio to the ten staff members that crew the vessel.  It was hard to imagine how crowded it must feel with a full complement of another nineteen people on board.  I’d never spent more than a few hours on a boat before, and it took some time to gain my sea legs.  The lack of windows often made it very disorienting to walk around inside when a sudden sway of the ship could throw you off-balance.  The shallower ocean inland from the reef is more sheltered, but can still be surprisingly rough.  Sleeping in a constantly rocking motion is an interesting feeling, though somehow comforting, perhaps triggering hidden memories from the crib.

Both the crew and the passengers were from all over the world.  Japan, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States were all represented.  Many of the passengers had stories to share of experiences on other dive boats and generally got along well, but the crew seemed somewhat more staid.  Working on a dive boat is tough work.  You might be out on the water for ten days at a time, only returning to port for a few hours each week.  Most of the time you are working to make sure the passengers are taken care of, whether that means cooking, briefing on the next dive site, refilling air tanks, cleaning the deck, mooring and unmooring the boat at each site, or guiding groups of divers underwater.  You’re up later and awake before everyone else on the boat.  For all this thankless work and an undoubtedly paltry paycheck, it’s no wonder that the staff can sometimes seem apathetic.

People end up in Cairns for all kinds of reasons.  I met a woman on the crew of a different dive boat the day before who was a former VP of Sales from San Diego.  In a declining market with uncertain sales prospects, she’d decided to cut loose and do something completely different for a year.  Few people I met were making a career out of working on one of the many dive boats that leave Cairns everyday, and most were overseas visitors working on a temporary visa.  Once you start traveling around, it becomes clear just how many people are taking time off from their careers and the story becomes almost formulaic: my job was killing me, I had no idea what to do with my life and needed a break, so I decided to travel the world.  Willing to work for just enough money to keep traveling, we’re everywhere.  Cairns is a particular hot spot.

The town itself is nothing to write home about, and it primarily owes its sprawling prosperity to the proximity of the Great Barrier Reef and the consequential volume of tourists, all hoping to dive or snorkel on this world-famous reef.  Despite its length of nearly 1,500km, the longest barrier reef in the world, there are few areas where the reef comes relatively close to the continent’s shore.  Despite this relative accessibility, it is still a one-and-a-half hour boat ride away with only a flat sandy bottom between the reef and shore.  I was surprised by how built up the town is, and it abounds with hotels, restaurants, bars, and endless tourist “information” offices, which are nothing more than promotional booking centers for the various operators.  Whether you want to scuba dive, skydive, bungee jump, or simply go on a sunset sail, it can all be done in Cairns.

Looking out over the bow of Taka after breakfast, I watched the crew help moor the boat to a fixed line marked by a buoy.  The ship slowly turned, drifting with the current as the mooring line was pulled taut.  No land was visible in any direction, and nevertheless we weren’t yet in the open ocean, still held within the safety of the reef.  I was amazed to hear from another skipper that many of the charts that cover the reef have never been updated since the first Western sailors navigated these treacherous waters more than a hundred years ago.  Even with all the satellite positioning technology in the world, charting the changing, living reef is a wholly different problem, and most navigation is done by eye unless you are inside well-defined shipping lanes.

All I could see from my vantage point was the undulating royal blue of the ocean in all directions, and yet beneath me, invisible just a few feet beyond the edge of the fog lay an ancient world, a massive, living, breathing ecosystem.  The land and the ocean live segregated, yet vitally interdependent lives, separated by a trick of refraction, one largely invisible to the other.

Stepping forward, I plunged into the ocean.


  1. How interesting, I just thought about you and did an online search. Didn’t expect to read that you crash landed and of course am happy you survived with relatively minor injuries. Your dad must get serious kicks out of your adventures. Never stop dreaming, Mossy.

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