It’s official. I may have generated enough tricks and bespoke styles to just about make myself buoyant at the average swimming pool, but with enormous flippers on my feet, a mask that prevents any kind of olfactory respiration, and the prospect of inhaling while one’s mouth is underwater, I’m reduced to a floundering wreck. And unfortunately this is the most important time of my life to swim and drink in the surroundings – except I really may end up ingesting half of the Great Barrier Reef.
I began the excursion overflowing with bravado, images of secret agents expertly making their way through reefs underwater flashing through my mind… And I felt a bit like James Bond – until I put on the mask for the first time and realised that nose breathing was off the menu for the duration of our swim.
You see I’m not the greatest swimmer – but over the years I have developed a sort of spitty breaststroke where I can breathe comfortably most of the time, and propel myself forward with my legs quite ably. But now I have flippers on which preclude any motion except scissoring forwards. I have also formed a very strong mental connection between inhaling and having my mouth above the water. Like any fear of heights, spiders, or green vegetables, this has very practical uses until modern technology gets involved.
We take a glass-bottom boat over to a small island on the outer reef and get a taste for the aquatic delights about to greet us – delicate coral scrolls by and exotic fish swim in and out of view. I know I’m carrying lots of unfamiliar gear but I’m also filled with a nervous energy, waiting to explode into a new physical activity.
At this point I would like to share a tip: don your flippers at the last possible moment, and walk backwards on the beach! Otherwise you inevitably spoon up embarrassing clumps of sand with your rubbery foot spatulas. Of course, I think once I’m in the water I’ll float off in comfort, free of my land-unfriendly footwear.
I set off from the beach and immediately see my problems. I just can’t breathe. At least, not for long. It feels very wrong to inhale underwater, and when I get slightly panicky, the lack of any nose breathing makes it much worse. I whip off the tube and suck in mouthfuls of air to recover. But this is not the intended method.
Twice I return to the crew member on the beach – once to return my flippers, and again to get a floatation aid. And I start to have serious doubts about my ability to return to the boat. It seems a long way away on the moderately choppy waters.
Box jellyfish and sharks are the least of my problems. Where are the warning pamphlets about my own neuroses?
Laura is somewhat unperturbed by the experience and seems to be floating quite happily, and dunks her head in repeatedly to get a good view of the coral below. I’m glad she’s doing it right.
Having ditched half of my gear, I’m acutely aware of my position and determined to capture it – so I arm my camera wrapped up in its waterproof bag, and snap as many underwater photos as possible, and a few videos. If I nearly drown now, I sure as hell am going to have something to show for it.
It’s a scary effort to get back to the boat but I make it, and somewhat traumatised, I clamber aboard.
There is a second snorkelling session later. Equipped with my knowledge from before, I dive in with just the mask, and feel a bit more comfortable just holding my breath for a look at the coral, which, secured between fleeting glimpses of a desperate asphyxiating man, is undeniably stunning. Schools of varied fish are swimming around and under me, and I hold on for as long as possible to observe them.
The boat crew are very entertaining and perform some magic tricks on the way back. And, tired from the swim, everyone is on-deck and enjoying the haze of water droplets that caress the boat on its return journey.
My internal strife made this more of a challenge than it needed to be, but I can’t fault the presentation by the tour operators, the camaraderie of my fellow passengers, and the stunning sights of Australia’s outer reef.
Passions of Paradise snorkelling tour