After our last two training dives, we are now certified PADI Open Water Divers! This means we can dive in open water to 18m without an instructor: no caverns or other complicated features yet, but this is definitely enough to explore the reef.
First Dive (Training Dive 3)
Wakeup and first dive briefing is at 6:45, but we wake up before that when they start the engines to move around to our first dive location. If you’ve never slept on a boat, the rocking motion is nice and relaxing (unless you’re prone to seasickness, in which case it’s everything but. We didn’t have that problem, thankfully.) I stashed some apple cake from last night, which makes a nice snack before the morning dive.
First dive takes us down to 16m in an area known as the Tennis Courts off Flynn Reef. We do the usual equipment setup and buddy check, hop in, and then start ticking off our mandatory skills:
- Free descent with reference: yesterday, we followed the line down by hand. This time, we descend following it, but without holding on.
- Complete mask flood and clear: at depth, we fill our mask, put it back on, and clear.
- Fin pivots with oral inflation: we inflate our BCDs by mouth, taking care to swap between the regulator and inflation valve without getting a lungful of water. We keep doing this until we reach a stable hover.
Good times! In between all this, we get a quick tour of the reef from a slightly deeper vantage point. We spot several triggerfish, a massive green turtle, a couple of giant clams, a pink anemonefish, and a nudibranch. Then it’s back up for the safety stop, surface, and in for breakfast.
Second Dive (Training Dive 4)
Last training dive! To avoid reverse profiling (going deeper on subsequent dives) we limit this one to about 15m. Some more skills:
- Surface swim with compass: take a bearing, swim for a bit on the surface. Nothing much here.
- Free descent without reference: time for the real descent! No line to follow; we just descend, making sure to go slowly and equalize along the way. (It’s difficult to descend too quickly, anyways – water is pretty viscous.)
- Mask removal, replacement, and clear: take the mask right off, around the back, through our legs, then back on the face and clear. Not much harder than the full mask clear, just longer.
- Underwater compass navigation: another compass bearing, this time in our buddy pairs. Both partners agree on bearing, then one follows the bearing while the other counts 10 kick cycles, then switch roles and go back.
On this dive, we see a goatfish digging into the sand, presumably to eat. There’s a tiny starfish up against the coral, bunches of parrotfish, and a titan triggerfish; this last is territorially aggressive during nesting season (around January), but relatively docile otherwise. We swim under and up into a coral arch/tunnel system, but not before spotting a baby Queensland grouper underneath.
Repeat the drill: up for the safety stop. As we wait there, our instructor writes “BOOM! Certified Divers!” on his slate, and we all make wild hand-signal cheers: this is indeed the last training dive, and we get the cards to prove it:
(These are temporary; we’ll get our real cards in the mail, which we’ll have to pick up when we get back to Berkeley.)
First dive as certified divers! We get to attend the dive briefing upstairs with everyone else. Since it’s our third dive of the day, we stick to the shallows at around 10-12m. Valkyrie and I venture down to the mooring blocks using a free descent with reference, then take a 150-degree bearing between two bommies about 25m out to the trio of bommies known as Mickey Mouse. On our way there, we spot a massive green turtle (which we later learn are named not for their exterior, which is brownish, but for their iridescent green innards!)
Once at Mickey Mouse, we wrap around to the right towards Clownfish City. After that, we continue along the shallows for a bit, eventually getting a bit lost – which is alright, because we find a short cave-ish tunnel to swim through. (Not sure if our open water certification covers such adventuring, but it’s short enough that we figure there’s no concern.) Finally, we go up for a safety stop. Initially we’re stopped in really open water, which we find makes staying between 3m and 6m really difficult! To save ourselves from having to watch our dive computers the whole time, we swim to the nearest wall and hover with a reference point…much easier.
During our 45 minutes underwater, we spot quite a bit of wildlife:
- Spotted unicornfish, so named for the horn-like protrusion on its head;
- Goatfish, for the two horns and its predilection for headbutting the sand at the bottom;
- Parrotfish, for its hard beak that it uses to pick algae off the coral;
- Sea bass;
- Bicolor angelfish;
- Green turtle, as mentioned above;
- Stingrays! These glide gracefully near the bottom;
- Mushroom leather coral, which looks like a tiny soft version of the giant clam from afar;
- Moorish idol, which has a long bit that sticks out the back of its head;
- Triggerfish, with their trigger-like top fin.
It’s pretty amazing what you can see underwater in such a small area!
To round out the day, the instructors take us on a night dive around the same area. There are a few special considerations for night diving. For starters, you need a torch (see below). To make diver identification easier, we also get a glowstick each; instructors get two. Hand signals are harder: you have to shine the torch against your chest, then use one hand to make the signals. Instead of pointing at objects of interest, you circle them with the torch.
This is a shorter dive, but there’s still lots to see: much of the reef life is nocturnal, and you get a chance to see how the rest sleeps. Parrotfish nestle into protected crevices in the coral, away from hungry sharks. Schools of fish hover motionless in the depths. The coral polyps feed at night, extending their tentacles to paralyze their unwitting prey with neurotoxic nematocysts. (I guess this is why some species of coral sting to touch!) As turtles rest their hulking bodies, sharks circle looking for food; we see several swimming warily around us up by the safety stop bar.
A tiring day, to be sure, but jam-packed with opportunities to get down there and learn more about the fantastic diversity of life in our oceans! We’re excited for tomorrow, but more than a bit sad that it will be our last day out here…
- torch: flashlight;
- bommie: a roundish growth of coral, abbreviated from the indigenous Australian bombora.