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Travel Guide: Diving the Great Barrier Reef

July 21, 2010
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Titan Triggerfish encountered during scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef…

As you may have noticed or suspected from my picture on our “About Us” page, I have been fortunate to have traveled and spent some time in Australia. A total of five months to be exact.  During my junior year at Colgate University, I decided to study abroad for the fall semester in Brisbane--the third largest city in the Australia, located in south Queensland.  It was, by far, one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, not to mention, the highlight of my college experience.  I strongly encourage any undergraduate college students out there to consider it!  Living in a new country encouraged me to not only take new risks and challenge myself in so many ways, but also to become more self-sufficient and independent.  There is absolutely nothing better than being dumped in a completely new continent to do just that.  Just to give you an idea of what I did while I was there, here is a short and sweet (but not exhaustive, by any means!) list:

  • Despite being someone who is completely terrified of heights and extreme spontaneity, I went sky diving from 12,000 feet in New Zealand.
  • Sand Surfing on the sand dunes of the second largest sand island in the world!
  • Lived with men and women from SIX countries, including Saudi Arabia, Germany, Singapore,  Australia, Dubai, and Papua New Guinea.
  • Held a koala, chilled with kangaroos, fed rainbow parakeets, an elephant, and went horse-back riding in a rainforest.
  • Became a Certified Scuba Diver, went night diving with flashlights, and spent the night on a boat out on the Great Barrier Reef!

As you can probably tell, most of the learning and experiences took place outside the academic classroom…however, one of my absolute favorites was my diving experience in the infamous Great Barrier Reef! While the reef has unfortunately experienced significant bleaching and degradation over recent years and Australia is not considered the top diving area in the world by any means, it was a great experience and I highly recommend either a scuba diving or snorkeling excursion.

Recommended Diving Excursions:

Almost all diving and snorkeling boats that go to the Great Barrier Reef are based out of the city of Cairns, which is located in North Queensland.  While the actual city itself is kind of an eyesore, it is extremely convenient (an airport within a couple of miles) and there are many affordable hostels, hotels, and activities to do in the area.  If you are willing to spend a bit more and have basic swimming abilities, I highly recommend doing a scuba diving excursion over any other water activity.  Why?

  • Scuba diving trips usually take you to more remote areas of the reef and you have the opportunity to really experience the reef, whereas snorkeling limits you to shallow water reefs and you might miss out on a lot of the underwater life!  Don’t get me wrong, snorkeling can be incredible, but if you do have the option and are interested, this is the preferable choice.  You only live once…

After doing much research prior to the trip on many of the different diving outfitters (there are a ton, so do your research well!), I decided on a Pro Dive live-aboard trip.  Pro-Dive offers some of the best scuba trips in the area!  Basically a live-aboard offers you the opportunity to spend overnights on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  While the small cabins (generally a small bunk bed in a closet of a room) aren’t exceedingly comfortable, spending a silent and star-filled night over the largest reef in the world isn’t exactly shabby.  In addition, you will not miss escaping the crowded, touristy, and generally unattractive Cairns.  After the first night, I got used to the slight rocking feeling in the cabin and instantly fell asleep!

ProDive offers many liveaboard trips for scuba divers of all levels!  In fact, my boat was filled with newbies (me) and those who were previously certified or even master divers.  If you do NOT have scuba diving experience or are not certified, I highly recommend doing a learn-to-dive course, such as the following:

Pro-Dive 5 Day Learn to Dive Course

While you could certainly do a introductory diving excursion (available for those who are not certified), if you have the time and energy, getting a diving certification is a worthy investment.  First of all, it is a lifetime certification, which allows you to dive anywhere in the world on future trips.  In addition, it is cost-saving in the long-run, since introductory courses are generally more pricey.

It takes two full-days of both classroom and pool instruction (and roughly 4 dives of various depths–which you complete on the boat itself!), in order for you to receive your certification.  The instructors were hilarious and entertaining, and the mix between classroom and pool instruction made the days fly by!  The overall course includes the following:

  • 2 nights, 3 days on the diving yacht, including food (very good and homemade by the chef onboard!) and cabin
  • 9 dives–4 dives for certification and 5 pleasure dives (2-3 a day!)
  • All classroom materials, PADI certification and membership card, diving equipment, and a visit to a their diving outfitting store, where you can purchase your own mask, snorkel, and anything else your heart may desire!

**One additional charge (required for all diving certifications) is a $55 dollar doctor-check up, to ensure that no medical conditions prevent you from diving.  The program offers the check up on site during class.  Another option is to bring a doctors note from home!  Check out the website for more details**

Yep, that’s me (Laura) diving in the reef!

One of the absolute highlights (and initially, nerve wracking) features of the trip, includes the opportunity to go on a optional and included night dive with your instructors!  In essence, swimming in pitch black reef water and getting the chance to possibly encounter reef sharks (harmless) and other creatures, many of which specifically come out at night.  Don’t be scared, because this is an incredible experience.  While I didn’t see any sharks (during the night dive, at least), I did see multiple sleeping sea turtles in coves of the reef.  Totally priceless.  In all honesty, I was slightly freaking out prior to jumping in the water, but once I actually got in, diving at night was actually a surreal and peaceful experience.  In fact, many of the instructors said that night diving was one of their favorite times to dive and that it allowed them to feel most connected with the reef.

All in all, the total price of the course (including everything I mentioned above and doctor’s appointment!) was $825.  Cheap?  No.  But considering certifications alone generally cost around $200 dollars, the price was definitely reasonable and I have not regretted the trip, itself, nor the price once.  10 dives, 2 nights on the reef, countless photos and memories, a lifetime ability to dive anywhere I go in the future, great food and company, hilarious and enjoyable instructors and crew members made this worth every penny.

If you are looking for cheaper alternatives, you could choose another scuba diving outfitter or a cheaper certification course (however, PADI is recognized and accepted worldwide, unlike others).  However, if you are taking the time and money to travel half-way across the world, I recommend saving pennies in other ways, which will not compromise the experience of the trip itself!

Cost-Cutting Tips:

  1. Instead of choosing to stay in a nicer hotel in Cairns (or anywhere else, for that matter), where you won’t spend much of your time anyway, opt for a cheap, but clean youth hostel.  There are a ton of options out there and the vast majority offer single or double rooms at a fraction of the cost (especially if the idea of dorm rooms makes you itch!).
  2. Save money on transportation costs by picking cheaper airlines, traveling on weekdays, or choosing hotels/hostels that offer free van rides from the airport.
  3. Save money on meals like breakfast and/or lunch, buy a box of cereal, carton of milk, and some fresh fruit at the local grocery store.  Keep in the hotel fridge or hostel refrigerator (available at almost all of them).  If the area is expensive or touristy, but not known for its cuisine, be aware of this and avoid pricey restaurants.  Asking locals for suggestions is key!
  4. Don’t be tempted by mass produced souvenirs or shopping. While I’m all for buying unique souvenirs and momentos, don’t get suckered into tourist-geared markets, vendors, or stores.  Are you really going to remember and value that $20 bikini top or $5 shot glass in the long run?

Little choices like the ones above will end up saving you a lot of money and enable you to be able for afford and feel good about splurging on activities, trips, and other spontaneous travel choices.

We hope you enjoyed our first (but not last!) travel guide for Australia!  Any readers out there who have gone scuba diving or snorkeling before, or even visited Australia?  We would love to hear all about it.  Look out for a future post on underwater photography (all photos in this post are from my Great Barrier Reef trip!) tips and tricks!

Stay tuned the rest of this week for a post on beating jet-lag (trust me, you’ll need it after going to a place like Australia!), as well as a fun, healthy, and easy summer dessert recipe. If you didn’t get the chance, be sure to fill out yesterday’s poll!

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