In this column, Montage Editor Joe Polito travels to Australia and reports his experiences there.
As the Australian sun sets behind me, a fiery glow from a controlled bushfire lights up my right side. On my left is the seemingly infinite Indo-Pacific Ocean. But none of these views compare to what lies ahead: a line of waves breaking over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
My brother, father, stepmother and I prepare for our first-ever night dive. Our dive guide, Drew, briefs us on the bow of a 65-foot sailboat called “Vagabond.” We are anchored 27 miles off the coast of Cairns.
The iPod that has been on shuffle for the last few hours begins to play the theme from “Jaws,” setting a fun, but creepy pre-dive mood.
In his brief, Drew reassures us that danger is minimal out here. The reef sharks are harmless and the deadly box jellyfish only reside near the shore between October and April.
Of course, I wasn’t sure how much I believed him, as he had earlier explained how he lost the tip of his finger to a moray eel. He advised staying a few feet away from glowing green eyes in the coral.
We splash down into the unknown. Our descent is marked by five beams of light slowly fading into the blackness. At 30 feet, we hover and place our torches over our air gauges to illuminate the dial. Drew begins waving his hand back and forth, stirring up bioluminescent creatures that decorate the darkness like swimming glow sticks.
There are few words I can use to describe this experience. This is the closest I will ever feel to free floating in outer space. We swim along a giant coral wall, searching with our torches for glowing eyes peering from the depths.
For about eight minutes, I see nothing in every direction aside from the lights of my fellow divers. I feel like James Bond sneaking into a villain’s underwater lair.
While there is less to see, the night dive shows us aquatic life not visible during the day. Fish hover while sleeping in the nooks and crannies of their coral homes. Small shrimp dart away just below me, leaving behind an electric blue ink. Red eyes from shrimp peer from the depths, but we go the 30-minute dive without seeing any green eyes — allowing my fingers the privilege of writing this story.
A few minutes later we are climbing aboard the Vagabond and shivering in the winter breeze. The two other crew members welcome us with towels and hot tea. Having completed three dives that day, we stumble to our cabins to rest up for our last few dives in the morning. I stay on deck for a few minutes, taking in the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.
At 7, the next morning, we move to a new location yards away from where the waves break over the edge of the coral. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t one reef, but actually a chain of more than 2,900 reefs spanning 1,600 miles. We anchor at the southern tip of this chain, at a shallow spot called Blue Lagoon.
After a quick breakfast, Drew explains that this spot is known as the “turtle cleaning station” and encourages us to try to touch the shells of these gentle creatures if we feel inclined.
We submerge into the clear water that has a natural aqua color I have only seen on TV. As soon as we reach the bottom, I know that this is the best spot we will visit.
I feel that I am in a dream that takes place on the set of “Finding Nemo,” as more fish than I can begin to catalogue flood my vision. All around me are shapes and colors that I never knew existed.
The complexity of life down here is unfathomable. Hovering feet above the coral offers a broad view of fish and plants, while dropping down to stare at 10 square inches of reef space reveals a litany of creatures you wouldn’t see otherwise. From clams larger than my body to the bright blue damselfish the size of a thumbtack — everything is beautiful.
I am trying to decide my favorite when nature chooses for me. A 2-foot sea turtle levitates just above a massive section of brain coral. The sun shines through the surface onto his algae-covered shell. I approach cautiously and run my hand along its smooth outer layer.
My expectations are blown away, and this is only day three of my adventure down under.