Finding Nemo: Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef

This was a breathtaking experience (hence the O2 tank).

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. It consists of more than 2,900 coral reefs, some 1500 species of marine fish, 360 species of hard corals and multitudes of other species, making it one of the world’s most complex and diverse ecosystems, a premier dive site for Scuba Divers and a choice item on my bucket list.

The numbers and facts about The Great Barrier Reef are great but it just doesn’t compare to experiencing this ecosystem firsthand.

I’ll mention a few highlights before letting the pictures do most of the talking.

The coral was worth the trip alone, the colors, the variety, the shear amount of it; I was engrossed and lost in amazement.

If the coral alone was worth it, then the sea life was a bonus.

In the photos below you will see schools of parrot fish rocking in the current in the early morning waiting to be cleaned of algae from the night before, giant clams the size of bean-bags, startled rays making their escape from their sandy hiding spots, turtles chowing down at their all-you-can-eat lunch buffets and me, finding Nemo.

The trip also allowed me to experience my first night dive.

Night is when the predators of the ocean do their hunting, so it’s not uncommon to see sharks on the dives.

Watching from the top deck of the boat on the second night dive, you could at least 5 sharks hunting. It really makes your heart race knowing you’re about to jump in the same water.

They are smaller reef sharks that keep their distance when 30 people (aliens to them), making a ridiculous amount of noise and bubbles, jump into their water.

But, when I was diving I’d sometimes turn my light off, and at the very edge of where I could see, I’d notice the faint outline of the oceans number one predator, confidently swimming by.

When my you’re-in-shark-infested-water-turn-on-your-light-idiot response finally kicked in I’d shine the light, half out of fear and half out of curiosity, and the green eye glow of the shark reflected right back at me.

Be still my beating heart and return to my chest, you don’t belong in my throat.

My senses were so heightened from all of the adrenaline that, at one point, I caught movement out of my peripheral and felt the slightest touch on the side of my head—you know that feeling when you’re almost asleep and you feel something crawl on your lower leg and you catch your breath for an instant before turning into the most frantic, flailing, kung-fu master?

That was me, underwater, ready to take on this shark with every defense skill I’ve seen on Shark Week whimper in the fetal position.

Spoiler Alert: it was just my snorkel.

The whole night dive experience was eerie and yet so surreal.

To be in this animals domain while they are hunting in their element, focused, doing what they are made to do, was a treat.

Although I was apprehensive to get in the water after watching 3 sharks work together to kill a fish from the deck of the boat, I’m so glad I decided to leave my comfort zone (other apprehensive divers felt similar once the dive had concluded).

If you do go on this live-aboard trip I strongly urge you to not sit out for the night dives.

The logistics of the trip (what company I dived with, how I got to Cairns from Sydney, costs, etc.) can be found at the end of the post for those who are interested.

However, this opening section offers a taste of the life on the Great Barrier Reef from the 11 dive, 3 day excursion:

Note: All underwater photos were taken by my dive partner, Karim.

Note: All of above photos were taken by my dive partner, Karim.

Logistics

Scuba Diving the Reef

I dived through the company ProDive, in Cairns, and I could not have had a better experience.

They offer an 11 dive, 3 day live-aboard trip; 55 Km (34 miles) from Cairns in the outermost reefs.

We went to the Milln and Flynn reefs for this particular excursion, and did 4 dives for the first and second day and 3 dives on the last day before heading back into Cairns.

Our dive sites included:

  • Pataj for dives 1 and 2
  • The Whale for dives 3, 4 (night dive) and 5
  • Tennis Courts for dive 6
  • Gordon’s for dives 7 and 8 (night dive)
  • Little Tracy for dive 9
  • Tracy for dives 10 and 11

Every one of the dives was different, but the ProDive staff made sure we were adequately briefed with helpful diagrams that included distance, depth and navigational headings (see below).

If you book well in advance, the package that I purchased costs $710 AUD (this includes the $60 boat levy).

However, since I went in September (which isn’t in the popular summer) I was able to walk in last minute and book a trip leaving in 2 days.

This qualified me for their stand-by pricing, lowering my price to $610 AUD ($631.90 USD).

This price includes:

  • All of your scuba gear for 11 dives (including air)
  • Transportation to and from the reef
  • 8 full meals (see pictures)
  • Tea and coffee at any time
  • 2 light snacks and 2 desserts
  • Accommodation for 2 nights (hot showers)
  • Optional guided first dive for divers who might need a refresher
  • Free WI-FI on the boat.

How to get to Cairns

If I could do it all over again I would fly from Sydney to Cairns and then take a bus from Cairns back to Sydney.

The trick to getting a good deal on a flight from Sydney to Cairns is to book well in advance.

I would book a flight from Sydney to Cairns and then purchase Greyhound’s Mini-traveler pass from Cairns to Sydney for $389 AUD (402.46 USD).

Since I didn’t book a flight well in advance I had to go with the next best option: a 10 day flexi pass through Greyhound.

This gave me 10 days of travel (with no distance restrictions) to use whenever I wanted, within 60 days.

The total cost was $517 AUD (523.68 USD) and allowed for round trip travel between Sydney and Cairns, while also allowing me to hop-off at coastal cities like Airlie beach, Byron Bay, Surfers Paradise and Newcastle along the way.

Note: to Greyhound, a travel day means any day in which you are on a bus. For example, if I were to hop on a bus at 10 am and get off at my destination at 9 pm that would be 1 travel day.

However, if I were to get on a bus at 10pm and get off at my destination at 1am that would be 2 travel days.

Other Options

Fly round trip – A quick kayak search shows round-trip flights between $300-$500 AUD ($310.38-$517.30 USD), however, you will miss the option to see the east coast of Australia, and if you have the time and the budget I definitely recommend the experience.

Rent a camper van/car – Hunt for good relocation deals (especially in the off seasons), but keep fuel costs in mind. Cairns is about 2600 km (1615 miles) north of Sydney, when traveling along the coast.

To help with your estimations, the camper van I rented in New Zealand had a 60 L (15.85 gal) tank and roughly averaged 500 km (310.69 miles) per tank.

Using a gas price of $1.48 AUD per liter ($5.80 USD per gal), you’re looking at $461.76 AUD ($477.74 USD) for a one-way trip (not including the daily rental fee of the vehicle).

Find a good rental fee and get 2 or 3 people to travel with to help with the fuel prices, work out the numbers, and if it fits your budget, only then would I go with this option.

Train – I only briefly researched this but the prices seem to be on the same level as Greyhound.

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I’ve had a few questions about my gear and if I’ve added or gotten rid of anything yet.

Everything has been working out great so far.

The only item I’ve added is a reusable grocery bag similar to this for carrying/storing extra food while I’m moving between accommodations.

Ideally, I’d just donate or toss extra food, but Australia isn’t cheap. I managed to run through my Australian and New Zealand budget pretty quick and am now trying to live as frugally as possible (I’ll try to put together a recipe/grocery list for how I’m managing under $10 AUD per day for food), for my last month here.

Currently, I’m in Perth after a brisk, 15-day, 3630 km (2256 miles) road trip through New Zealand and a week in Melbourne. So stay tuned for the itinerary and logistics of the New Zealand trip, maybe even a video.

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