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Join us in exploring the magical underwater world of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

I used to associate Australia with big cities, such as dynamic Sydney with its magnificent “vaulted shell” Opera House, or Melbourne, which offers a mix of modern and classical architecture. However, after visiting various islands, I have realized that many of Australia’s natural wonders lie under the great blue sea.

UNESCO declared the Great Barrier Reef among the world’s seven natural wonders

After seeing the underwater scenes in the BBC’s Blue Planet II, which was shot at the Great Barrier Reef – the largest coral reef on Earth, I wanted to explore under the ocean. UNESCO has recognized the Great Barrier Reef as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Stretching along Queensland’s shore in northeastern Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is a coral system consisting of nearly 2,900 independent reefs and 900 islands, extending more than 2,250km. The only living entity on Earth that can be seen from space, the Great Barrier Reef boasts the most complex and diverse ecosystem on Earth. The reef is home to about 400 coral species, 4,000 types of mollusks, and 1,500 fish species, accounting for 10% of fish species on Earth. It also houses many endangered species such as sea anemones, dugongs, and large green sea turtles.

My PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors – United States of America) certificate was collecting dust in a desk drawer, as I hadn’t taken any diving trips. The Great Barrier Reef was my first step toward fulfilling my underwater dreams.

An estuary by the Coral Sea

Cairns, a hospitable and charming city in Queensland, is the gateway for tourists wishing to explore the ocean. I went here to prepare for my magical dive at the Great Barrier Reef. If you hold a diving certificate, you will have many options from three-day trips up to ones that last an entire month. Popular choices include one, three, four, and seven days, depending on the dive site and area, and the dive log, experience, and qualification level of the diver. It also depends on your budget. Beside Cairns, there are two other departure ports for dive trips: Palm Cove and Port Douglas. The best time for diving is from June to October with good visibility and less rain. Yet the water temperature is colder compared to November through May.

Due to our inexperience, my friend and I could only book a day tour from Tusa Dive upon arriving in Cairns. My friend picked a snorkeling-only tour, while I booked a one-dive package combined with snorkeling at 275AUD/pax (about 4 million VND). That morning, the weather was beautiful with bright sun and fresh breezes, an ideal combination for a boat trip. The boat departed at 8 a.m. and returned at around 4 p.m. Tourists would have five to six hours for swimming and diving, apart from traveling time.

A sea turtle swims over the reef

At the port, we were immediately picked up by a van, just as we expected from one of the most long-established and professional dive operators in the region. We were briefed by Tusa Dive’s dive instructors about the day’s itinerary and safety rules. They refreshed our knowledge on scuba diving gear: mask, regulators, wetsuit, dive watch, BCD, fins, etc.

The long-awaited moment finally came. I leaned backward, counted 1-2-3 and hit the water, giving myself to the ocean’s embrace. I equalized the pressure to prevent possible headaches and earaches, and used my breathing and the BCD to slowly descend to the sea floor. Divers always have a dive-buddy to avoid accidents and risks in the deep water. However, I sometimes forgot, since I was captivated by a “million-sardine storm” at a depth of 10m, or engrossed in chasing a hundred-year-old turtle. Colorful reefs resembling valleys of flowers truly enchanted my soul, as I drifted into the surreal ocean wonderland. 

A couple snorkels together

Returning to shore with a strong thirst for more, I told myself that next time I’d  spend a few days on a live-aboard, diving several times a day. Or, should I receive a large chunk of cash, after feasting my eyes on the wonders of the great big blue, I’d book a helicopter or seaplane trip to view the Great Barrier Reef from above. While typing these last sentences, my heart sunk a bit. This wish is such a luxury with the pandemic still wrecking the world. Let’s pray for our world’s recovery, so we can soon travel again.