Taking the plunge on the Great Barrier Reef
THANKS to a love-hate relationship with deep water, scuba diving has always been on par with bungee-jumping on the list of crazy things I was never going to attempt.
But when faced with the chance to try it at the Great Barrier Reef on a beautifully bright day, I found myself strapping on an oxygen tank and heading down with the fish.
I was on board the cruise ship Coral Expeditions II as it made its way to isolated islands and beautiful reefs south of Cairns.
The three-night, four-day adventure is one of two Great Barrier Reef cruises on offer from Coral Expeditions and takes in spots that larger ships are forced to avoid.
Our chance to dive came on day two at an idyllic spot off the coast of Innisfail known as Nathan Reef.
Nathan Reef is close to the continental shelf and offers the kind of viewing that has made the Great Barrier Reef world-famous.
Enormous boulder coral have been growing there for hundreds, potentially thousands, of years and form a home for too many species to count.
Two reef sharks lazily swam underneath me during a morning snorkelling session that whetted the appetite for the afternoon's scheduled dive.
It does take some effort to get to the point where they're lowering you into the water.
Non-divers like me have to first overcome the life-loving instinct that says we probably shouldn't stick our heads under the water for too long.
The enthusiastic crew also don't just let you loose with a regulator and a mask. First, there was a theory session and a beachside underwater skills test on day one. We were expected to recover our regulator, empty water from our masks while underwater and learn a few hand signals before they let us do the real thing. After being helped into the heavy gear, and given a quick buoyancy test, we novices followed the instructor hand over hand down the anchor line and finally into the reef. The water was clear, shining and still - perfect conditions for novice divers.
At a depth of seven metres, the reef takes on another identity. You are no longer above the marine life but among it and it makes a difference.
We swam past a large purple-tinged clam and over bright star fish while navigating hard coral clumps as large as a car.
A large maori wrasse ducked away from our group and the guide pointed out handfuls of scurrying lion fish who live close to the ocean floor.
Once out of the water, I was immediately ready to sign up for a second dive. Poor weather on days three and four forced us to give up that idea, but there were other ways to appreciate the reef.
Coral Expeditions II has a marine biologist among its crew who leads glass-bottom boat tours at each stop. It's a great chance to learn the science behind the colourful species of the reef, their habits and their habitats.
There were plenty of ways to stay entertained in the few hours when we weren't in the water or on a sandy, remote island.
Most of those on board were older tourists from places such as Sweden or Britain, and the combination of local and international travellers makes for interesting dinner conversation.
The writer was a guest of Coral Expeditions, Qantas and DoubleTree Cairns.
Coral Expedition ships carry 44-72 passengers and cruises in the reef run for three, four or seven nights.
Qantas offer four daily return services between Brisbane and Cairns .They have added three extra return services per week over the Christmas and New Year period. Until March 2016, lead in fares start from $149 one-way.
For pre-cruise accommodation, DoubleTree Cairns is within walking distance of Trinity Wharf. Visit their rainforest atrium to see the hotel's pet barramundi.