I knew when I planned my trip to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef that learning to Scuba dive would be a pretty cool experience, if only in the sense that it’d be something new and something quintessentially Australian. It’d be the sort of standalone bucket list experience that would make a nice bookend to my time down under, and I’d always remember that time I learned to dive – and perhaps occasionally utilize that skillset when the rare opportunity arose.
Let me tell you – I really undersold it to myself. I underestimated just how incredible the feeling is to defy the laws of nature and unlock within myself the potential to breathe underwater and glide weightlessly amongst the alien inhabitants that call our oceans home – to unlock more than half of earth’s surface, previously entirely inaccessible to me, for my exploration and discovery. If this entire trip has been an exercise in bearing witness to the world’s furthest corners, I’ve just had the incredible realization that my wildest dreams incorporated less than half of its available treasures. Mind. Blown.
Before I get to far ahead of myself, let’s talk about how I came to this epiphany and the path that brought me here. As you’d probably expect, being certified to Scuba dive entails a bit of work – some practical classroom coursework, as well as some hands-on training. There are 2 major players in the accreditation game: PADI and SSI. In a nutshell, PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is the most widely recognized and the most stringent in their standards, so I chose to go with their accreditation standard.
In major diving towns like this one, there are a TON of dive shops and instructors vying for your hard-earned dollars. In fact, Cairns certifies more divers every year than any other city in the world – though Koh Tao in Thailand (where I’ll be in a few weeks) is a close second. After doing a bit of homework on dive shops on the GBR, I elected to do my PADI Open Water Scuba certification with ProDive Cairns – an extremely well-respected presence that’s been around for quite some time. Boy, was I happy with that decision.
Enter Nicole. Nicole – Nikki for short – was my dive instructor this week, both in the classroom and on-site swimming pool, and out on the reef itself. She discovered diving while backpacking Thailand back in 2014, immediately fell madly in love with it, and decided it was time to leave her banking job back home in Germany to pursue this new dream. Since then, she’s taught in Thailand, The Maldives, and Australia – diving havens, all of them – both in German and in English. The path from beginning Scuba diver to Dive Master and instructor is as strenuous and intensive as you’d think it’d be, so I was pretty blown away that she’d been in my shoes just a few years ago and has since uprooted her life and certified hundreds of students from around the world. Pretty cool.
With Nikki’s guidance, and alongside 3 other awesome beginner divers – Fran (UK), Aditi (Washington DC), and Andreas (Denmark), we spent 2 long days in the classroom, learning the principles of diving and practicing our fledgling skillsets in the swimming pool just outside the classroom. Once Nikki was satisfied we probably wouldn’t kill ourselves, we were up at the crack of dawn the next day to board the ScubaPro II – the boat that would become our home for the next 3 days. We were all pretty excited, but none of us really quite grasped how amazing those three days would be.
Life aboard the boat was pretty damn sweet. We rose each day before the sunrise, ate massive delicious meals prepared by the talented and lovely onboard Russian chef, and spent the day exploring the underwater world and meeting its inhabitants – then rinsed and repeated a few times for good measure. Many on board were already certified, while my classmates and I finished our certifications on the boat.
Open Water Certification requires 5 real-world dives with your instructor, wherein you practice and perfect the techniques you’ve learned in the practical portion of the process: removing and replacing your mask underwater, practicing for emergency out-of-air scenarios, mastering buoyancy and navigation, hand signals and communication — things like that. Once you’ve completed those 5 instructor-led dives, you’re certified to Scuba dive – or at least up to 18 meter depths, anyway. On the second day on the boat, my classmates and I were officially declared certified divers!
What I didn’t expect was to love the sport so much as to immediately jump to the next certification at the first opportunity I got – which turned out to be while aboard the very same boat. The next accreditation level – Advanced Scuba Diver or Adventure Diver, depending on how you skin that particular cat – allows for dives of up to 30 meters, and is as far as most divers ever go in their training. The range of incredible dive sites around the world within 30 meters (roughly 100 feet) is staggering, and covers the majority of dives you’d want to tackle. Better still, obtaining this further certification just requires a few extra specialized dives, highlighting techniques germane to deep diving, night diving, and navigation – and is much more affordable while already diving with a liveaboard. With Nikki’s encouragement, I went for it, and earned my certified Adventure Diver card.
I suppose that makes for a nice enough segue to talk about the actual diving itself! I suspect I’m pretty spoiled, having done my first 9 dives at a site as incredible as the world-famous Great Barrier Reef. During these 9 trips beneath the surface, I swam face to face with sea turtles, inconceivably massive schools of fish glistening like shards of glass, reef sharks, stingrays, fish the approximate size of well-fed 11-year old children, and some truly alien creatures the likes of which I’ve never seen. Massive technicolor reef strewn throughout the sea floor had a real dwarfing effect and provided a beautiful coral maze through which to navigate. It was really something special. The night dive was especially atmospheric – there’s something magical about floating underwater in the inky black of night, watching diver torches cut through the water like spotlights seeking marine fugitives, and then cutting the lights a few meters beneath the surface as sharks circle provocatively, their silhouettes slinking stealthily around your perimeter. Now that’s an experience I won’t soon forget.
Sadly, you can’t use a camera during certification dives, so I only had a chance to capture 2 of my 9 dives on digital film – but that was enough to get the great images you see in this post! And I’m not fretting much, because I’ll have more opportunities for awesome underwater photo seshes real soon – I loved the experience so much that I’ve subsequently booked another liveaboard in Thailand in March, headed to the Surin Islands and the world-famous Richelieu Rock – said to be equally world class. It’ll take more than a little luck and serendipitous timing, but that corner of the earth is also home to whale sharks at this time of year, so… we’ll see.
Needless to say, scuba diving is a new hobby and passion I’m so excited to explore in the future, and a skill I’ll be able to continue to refine and experience for decades to come. Big, BIG shoutout to Nikki and the ProDive team for making my first experience such an awesome one, and for helping me to experience something that feels truly ‘new’ and awe-inspiring in a way that’s only been matched in recent years by learning to ride a motorcycle. You know – another dangerous and expensive hobby. Typical.
Keep an eye open for more scuba pics and posts in the coming weeks as I explore Asia’s underwater world!
Eastbound: Singapore, the 24 hour city
The GBR was my last hoorah in Oceania – Australia and New Zealand made for the most incredible backdrop to my first two months abroad, but they went FAST! Before I realized it, it was already time to leave – a bittersweet departure indeed. In New Zealand I found perhaps my favorite natural landscapes on planet Earth – invigorating and recharging for the soul. I found great new friends, I hiked my ass off, I did things that scared me. In Australia, I found friends new and old. I explored incredible cities, traveled down postcard roads, walked on some of the planet’s oldest and most sacred soil – and it also gave me the gift of the underwater world.
But all good things must come to an end, and this chapter of my journey is no exception. Luckily, I knew I was headed to the continent I was most eager and excited to explore in all the world: Asia. Alluringly exotic, fiery, flavorful, and far, far away: Asia represents the most radical departure possible from America and the West – a far-off land that’s beckoned me for some time. Like many travelers, I’d be knocking at Asia’s door by way of its gateway city: Bangkok (where I’m writing this very post). But I had one quick pit stop along the way – let’s talk Singapore.
Singapore Airlines is clever. They’re a major player in the regional airline space, and they occupy a pretty strategically significant geographic space. Like Iceland Air, they’ve made incredible advances in their tourism efforts by introducing free destination layovers within their Nation-state, en route to or from other Asian destinations. It was this program that allowed me the opportunity to spend 24 hours in this amazing city of the future, breaking up my long flight to Bangkok and giving me a new world to dive into – albeit briefly – before the madness of BKK.
What I found was a strange, beautiful city – bizarrely clean, ultramodern, and uniquely diverse in its cultural identity – owing its vibe and flair to the Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, and European peoples that shaped it. It’s a sort of ‘Asia Lite’, in the sense that it’s predominately English speaking, easy to navigate, and devoid of the tremendous culture shock that accompanies other Asian nations – yet it has tremendous street food culture, urban spaces torn right from the pages of comic books, and rigid policing that – while a bit too overbearing for my taste – does make for an orderly populace.
I knew I’d need to move fast to make the most of my 24-hour layover, so I put a whirlwind plan together to see the highlights. Chief amongst these was frequenting their ubiquitous ‘hawker centers’: indoor food markets stuffed to the brim with street food vendors hawking their fares to massive crowds of hungry people queueing for a taste of Singapore specialities like laksa, chili crab, chicken rice, nasi lemak, and satay. I was particularly excited to have the world famous Hawker Chan’s Soya Chicken Noodles: the cheapest Michelin-starred dish in the world that catapulted a humble vendor into global fame and notoriety. I was more than a little disappointed to find that the dish was downright mediocre, in my humble opinion. An off day, perhaps. Luckily, the rest of the dishes I force-fed myself throughout my time in Singapore made up for that particular bummer!
Aside from eating (there’s more to life?!), I also managed to visit the world famous Gardens by the Bay, better known as the location that made my Facebook and Instagram friends go absolutely nuts. “WHERE IS THAT?!” they all demanded to know – and it’s easy to see why. The place is straight out of a science fiction movie. Principally composed of 2 giant enclosed gardens: Cloud Forest, with it’s mysterious waterfalls and mists, and the Flower Dome, with its… uh… flowers, plus the Avatar-esque Supertree Grove, which… well, just take a look.
The trees put on an incredible show twice every night, by the way – have a look at this video captured by someone with a much nicer camera than me. I lied in the grass for the duration of the 15 minute show, a bit awestruck by what I was witnessing.
To wrap up my night in town, I went to the Marina Bay Sands, that bizarre looking three-tiered building you saw above with what looks like a boat perched on top of it. Fun fact: it looks like a boat because it’s meant to be a boat. On that boat are an incredibly gorgeous infinity pool (guests only, womp womp), and a sky bar – so naturally, I knew where I’d be having my expensive nightcap. The 360-degree views from the top were pretty astounding.
After a brief night’s rest, the next morning took me to a museum that was showcasing exhibits on street art and interactive digital art (be still my heart) – and that was all I had time for before a quick last meal and a trip to the airport.
I didn’t mind being a little early for my flight, either – Changi Airport is hands-down the consensus best airport in the world. It has – and I’m not kidding – a butterfly garden, two free movie theaters, a rooftop swimming pool, a massive art collection, free wifi, giant plasma televisions, several botanic gardens, free massage chairs, a hotel, video game consoles, a rooftop pool, an insanely luxurious shopping mall, massive hawker style food courts (actual GOOD food), and even a 24/7 Krispy Kreme. It’s no wonder people don’t mind layovers here.
24 hours flew by fast, and it was time to head to Thailand – I’m writing this post from Bangkok right now, and I cannot WAIT to tell you all about it, because it’s an unbelievable place. But I’m still getting to know it – and it’s beckoning me to come out and play right now – so that’ll have to wait. Stay tuned!