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Cyclone Approaching! Why I Chose to Dive Anyway

tuenight trip scuba diving Australia storm vacation

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

When you go on vacation, are you the cautious type, heavily insured and fully prepared for anything that could go wrong? Or are you a more adventurous type, for whom the worst seems easily resolvable with a little Immodium or an immediate call to Amex? You’re optimistic—you are on vacation, after all. You could be mugged in Mexico, and it would still be better than being at work.

I’ve been that person. I’ve spent hours researching hotels and dining but overlooked required immunizations. I’ve put myself in questionable situations that could have been easily avoided with a little forethought—or any thought at all. Like the time I took a bus alone from Montevideo to Punta Del Este, Uruguay. It wasn’t until boarding that I realized that it was highly improbable I would know which stop was mine. I had just assumed there would be a large sign, “Welcome to Punta Del Este.” Or at least an English-speaking bus driver.

Somehow, I managed to find a fellow passenger who knew both the stop and English, and reached my destination unscathed.

There was also the time in my mid-20s when I joined a friend on a trip to Australia. The plan was to visit Sydney, climb Ayers Rock, and dive the Great Barrier Reef. I mapped sites, scheduled transportation, and arranged charters. This time, I was prepared.

We arrived in Alice Springs first, where we visited the Rock at dusk, at dawn, at noon. We saw it from the east, the west, and from on top. I don’t want to seem unappreciative of nature’s wonders, but I had had enough of the Rock by the time we left. The irony dawned on me: I’d been to Phoenix at least half a dozen times and never made the four-hour drive to the Grand Canyon, but I flew 24 hours for one rock?

I may have still been jetlagged — and a little grumpy.

We then went to Sidney, where we toured the city and visited friends. I enjoyed Sydney; it seemed like everywhere had a spectacular view of the Harbor. But still, my singular reason for going to Australia was the Reef.

From Sydney, we went to Cairns for the last couple days of our trip. Our first night, we walked around, checking out the Key West-like atmosphere. The next morning, we arose at dawn for our pick-up to the docks. We joined a mid-size charter of about 80 people, a mix of scuba divers (like myself) and snorkelers (like my friend). Sans diving buddy, I was assured a dive master could accompany me.

It was a couple of hours to our first stop, a sand bar perfect for snorkeling. However, the skies began to darken with a rapidly approaching storm and the water became increasingly rough. It started to rain. Those who had been enjoying fresh air on the deck came in while others went out to lean over the rail, seasick.

When we finally reached the first stop, many snorkelers changed their minds and stayed on the boat. Some, including my friend, decided to brave the rain and choppy waters. The boat left them at the sandbar and turned toward the Reef.

During that next hour out, the waves increased and seasickness struck like a plague. Most of the divers changed their minds, but I was still determined. I had flown halfway around the world for this. So what if there wouldn’t be as much sunlight to reflect the colors of the corral? I came to dive the Reef—I was going to dive the Reef.

[pullquote] As I reached the surface, though, I was struck by wave after wave, pushing me back down….I realized I might be in trouble and felt the panic rising. [/pullquote]

I had been talking to a guy sitting near me on the boat who seemed similarly determined to dive, regardless of the weather. John was in his early 30s, from the U.K., and also diving alone. We agreed to be buddies.

Ray, the dive master, told us that if there weren’t at least two divers going out, they’d have to cancel. We’d be rescheduled for the next day, weather permitting. A cyclone was coming in faster than predicted, though, so it would likely be another day or so until the storm blew over. By then, I’d be flying back to the States.

As the boat anchored, there were only two people who still wanted to dive: John and me. And John was increasingly in danger of having his mind changed by his girlfriend, who was becoming seriously pissed off by my efforts to convince him. I reminded him of how far he’d come, told him it was just a little rain. I may have even used a word that sounds a lot like “wussy.”

John agreed to go, and, with Ray, we disembarked via a Kodiak. We bounced over the climbing waves, rain pounding down. Still, I was too excited by the idea of the Reef to accept the reality of the weather. We anchored, strapped on our gear, and fell back into the water, sinking slowly toward the corral.

Below the surface, the storm disappeared. The water was expectedly murky, but calmer, quieter. Fewer divers meant fewer disturbances to the environment, so we saw an enormous variety of aquatic life, including a giant sea turtle. —a creature the size of a Volkswagon. This was more frightening than inclement weather! The turtle slowly swam up alongside us, and then, just as slowly, disappeared back into the depths below.

Eventually, Ray signaled that it was time to return, and I started to ascend. As I reached the surface, though, I was struck by wave after wave, pushing me back down. I couldn’t see the Kodiak and couldn’t remove my mask. I also couldn’t find John or Ray. All I saw were more waves. Perfect-Storm waves. I realized I might be in trouble and felt the panic rising.

I don’t know how long it took for Ray to find me. It may have been minutes, though it felt much longer. He suddenly appeared next to me and signaled to follow back below the surface to the Kodiak. He had to push me up into it and then went to bring back John. The waves were making it nearly impossible, but we all made back to the boat.

When we returned, the others were waiting. Some people looked at John and I like we were adventurers—others like we were idiots. I kept thinking about those waves and what if Ray hadn’t have found me.

It wasn’t until I returned to the States, though, that I understood how dangerous the situation had been. Back home, I was overwhelmed with calls from friends and family who were relieved to hear I was okay. During our time in Australia, two other Americans had gone missing off the Great Barrier Reef, left in the water by their charter boat.

Looking back, I’m glad I made the dive, not just because I saw the Reef. Before that experience, I equated planning with tickets and timetables; I was a planner but not necessarily prepared.  Sometimes being open to a change in plans can be more important than making them.

I can’t say I’d do anything differently.

Next time, I might be more cautious, but I’m still going to dive in.

Filed under: Trips


Courtney Colwell

Courtney Colwell has been crossing the editorial-marketing line for more than a decade, currently leading content strategy and development for clients like American Express and Proctor & Gamble. Previously, she led brand marketing for Inc. and Departures magazines. Outside of work, she’s either writing or enjoying her Jersey City home, nearby New York, or some other corner of the world — the further, the better. You can follow Courtney on Twitter at @courtneycolwell.

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