The Great Barrier Reef is supposed to be a diver's ultimate dream destination. It's the largest single structure made by living organisms on Earth, and NASA's satellites monitor it from outer space. Six-hundred continental islands and 350 coral cays compose the behemoth.
As avid divers, we always thought it sounded like a dream. We found instead that dreams don't always come true.
At a popular watering hole in Cairns, Australia, my husband, Russ, and I shared a XXXX with a local diver, Downer. We asked him how this favored brew got its name, "Right, simple, mate. We can't spell beer," he replied with a twinkle in his eye.
After quaffing enough Xs to win a game of tick-tack-toe, we engaged in a lively discussion of the best places in the world to dive. It seemed obvious he would argue the Great Barrier Reef.
"Not so," our newly found diving friend advised us. "I wouldn't spend my money divin' here, mate. It's a lot of moolah. The boats are too big, and the reefs have had too many anchors dropped on 'em."
"Go to Fiji," he urged us.
We'd learned that leg-yanking was a favorite sport of the Aussies. We considered his advice and wondered whether we had longer legs. He seemed sincere and passionate, but when leg-yanking takes the status of a national sport, leg-yankers can become good at it.
We'd been to Tavenui, Fiji, several times on dive trips, so we had to agree with him. It's one of our favorite places. The dive sites linger a few minutes off shore; the reefs are healthy and teeming with colorful life. It is spectacular, so that gave him some credibility, which encouraged us to consider his other points.
We'd been to the Reef Fleet Terminal, where the dive boats headed to the Great Barrier Reef looked like cruise ships — far too large to offer the intimate diving experiences we enjoy. The closest dive sites lay an hour away. I was prone to seasickness. We'd heard rumors of tiger sharks in the area and deadly box jellyfish, one of the most lethal creatures known to mankind, which warrant serious avoidance.
Downer launched into a story about a dive mate who had been stung by a box jellyfish and the diver's excruciating brush with death. Toward the end of his story, we decided perhaps we might enjoy sightseeing instead of diving.
Eventually we did two dives — Hasting Reef and Turtle Cove — so we could say we had gone diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The dives were mediocre and unmemorable. Eighty people, mostly snorkelers, crowded the boat with only seven divers aboard. The dive offered 70 feet of visibility, little color and few fish. Several giant clams and oversized anemones added interest, but the most excitement came from trying to avoid having our masks kicked off by the beginning snorkelers who thrashed around on the surface.
We had to agree with Downer: Fiji offers better diving. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a final XXXX.
"Cheers," my husband proposed. "Here's to downers in the land of unders."
"I'll drink to that," I said. "Xs and Os to you Oz; downright spiffy."