PADI Open Water Scuba Certification on the Great Barrier Reef

Scuba vs. Snorkel

After scoring a killer deal on flights to Sydney and eagerly beginning my research, I quickly realized that in addition to my Sydney dreams, I had to go to Queensland and see the Great Barrier Reef.

It. Looked. Beautiful.

And paired with the concerns around global warming and coral bleaching, I knew this was a do ASAP experience.

My first thought was to go on a snorkeling trip. You could surely see a lot of cool things that way.

But the snowball effect took over the more I researched and before I knew it, I was signing up for a full PADI Open Water Scuba certification course with a 3 days and 2 night liveaboard out on the outer Great Barrier Reef.

Go big or go home, right?

Why be stuck look at the reef from afar when I could get right up close and personal? 

PADI Open Water Scuba Certification

In-Person vs. Online E-Learning

Wanting to maximize my time in Australia, I chose a certification that had the course portion as an e-Learning which had to be completed before arrival. 

I’m a big note taker so this course took me longer than the estimated 12-15 hours. I completed roughly one hour sessions over 30 days (30 hours) so if you’re like me, I recommend starting early to leave ample time!

Getting There

PADI coursework and exams complete, I hopped on a plane in late October and 20 hours (but two calendar days later–the International Date Line is so strange) I found myself on the other side of the world!

From Sydney, it was a quick 2.5 hour flight up to Cairns, a popular northern Queensland city for accessing the Great Barrier Reef full of unique tropical trees.

Pro-Dive Cairns

After heavy research, I landed on doing my pool and liveaboard with Pro-Dive in Cairns. What really sold me were their chosen dive sites and true liveaboard experience.

They’re one of the few companies that goes to dive sites at the outer reef, where the reef meets the ocean and you’re bound to see more big wildlife (sharks!).

They’re also the only company I saw that does a true liveaboard where everyone sets out on the boat together and you maintain that same group for the whole time, returning to shore together after a few days. Most other companies have a “base” out at sea that they transfer you too and people are getting on and off each day.

Pool Day

The in-person portion of the certification starts out with one day in the pool which was great.

It was a small group of four including me. Three of us would be on the same liveaboard so I got to meet some of the people I’d be spending the next few days with.

We got hands on practice setting up our equipment, got more comfortable using the gear in the water, and practiced many of the skills we would be tested on during the open water dives.

My biggest issue during the pool day was getting my ears to equalize so I was glad to get more time to practice this in a pool setting.

The class lasted all day with a break for lunch and at the end we went over to the dive shop to get our gear together for the liveaboard since it was an early departure the next day.

Liveaboard Day 1

It was a 3 hour boat ride to the outer reef and I was both eager and nervous to be out on the open ocean and experience my first open water scuba dive!

The bus picked me up from the hostel at 5:45 am and we departed on the boat by 6:30 am.

They had assigned cabins and I was with a girl from my pool day.

As the boat took off, they gave us a safety talk and advised anyone who may get seasick to proactively take some medication.

All our meals were provided to us while we were on the boat and they were able to cater to some dietary requirements such as dairy-free or gluten-free. I had brought some supplemental food but did not find it necessary to use any of it.

Dive 1 - Milln Reef

They had us get changed and ready to go before we reached the outer reef so once we were anchored, we jumped right in! Full confession, I was more than a little anxious for this first dive and I nervous peed the second I hit the water.

It was a particularly choppy morning so it was a relief when we finished our in water instruction and began making our way under the waves. With the class in line, we all clutched onto the guide line and began working our way further down to the ocean floor.

My equalizing problems persisted. I had to stop and ascend a few feet several times, but was eventually able to get down to a depth of 32ft (9.8m).

We swam around a little bit and I felt like I was able to remain calm although I was surprised how quickly I was using the air. The instructors said this was normal and I’d get more efficient with it as I had more experience.

We practiced clearing a partially flooded mask as well as regulator retrieval. Both these skills went well. Then back at the surface we practiced towing our buddy back to the boat, swapping between our regulator and snorkel, and inflating our signaling device.

After the dive we had a break for lunch. I laid down in the cabin and fell asleep hard (I think because of the Dramamine I took as a preventative for seasickness). When they came to wake me up I felt so groggy* and out of it but better than feeling sick I suppose.

  • Dive Date: 26-Oct-2022
  • Dive No: 1
  • Location: Milln Reef | Around the Bend – GBR
  • Weather: sunny
  • Visibility U/W: 15-20m
  • Water Temp: 27c
  • Time in: 11:14
  • Time out: 12:07
  • Max depth: 9.8m
  • Bottom Time: 29min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 190, End – 90

Dive 2 - Milln Reef

Equalizing went better on the second dive, but I think it’s because my ears stayed in a not fully cleared state after the first dive. Like they needed to be popped but wouldn’t. I was having a hard time hearing.

We spent more time cruising around on this dive and I was able to enjoy it a bit more and look at all the fish. There were tons!

We practiced a full mask clear and buoyancy using just our lungs. Then we practiced a buddy out of air ascent. At the surface we practiced taking off our equipment and simulated an emergency weight drop.

Overall it was a good first day. I felt totally exhausted and could hardly stay away to watch the certified divers do their 7:45pm night dive. Still pretty sure it was the Dramamine causing my fatigue*, I made the decision to cut down to a half dose instead. I was out cold just after 8pm.

  • Dive Date: 26-Oct-2022
  • Dive No: 2
  • Location: Milln Reef | Around the Bend
  • Weather: sunny
  • Visibility U/W: 15-20m
  • Water Temp: 27C
  • Time in: 14:19
  • Time out: 15:04
  • Max depth: 10.5m
  • Bottom Time: 27m
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200 bar, End – 110 bar
PADI Open Water Scuba Certification_Great Barrier Reef_Outer Reef_Dani's Drive
Our first anchor spot on the outer Great Barrier Reef

Liveaboard Day 2

Dive 3 - Flynn Reef

The weather was better today so at 5:30am, the boat’s engines started up and we made our way over to Flynn Reef for a 7:30am dive. 

I was nervous again for the morning’s dive. Mostly about my ears equalizing but it went much better. I learned I just needed to do all three methods (squeezing my nose and blowing, swallowing, and wiggling my jaw side to side) constantly on repeat as I descended. 

We started this dive with simulated emergency ascents which you use when you’re out of air. The instructor took us down to 5m and then we had to swim to the surface on one breath while slowly breathing out. It was kind of stressful to be breathing out without taking a breath in for that long and it got me into an unrelaxed state. I was glad I tested this skill first and was able to calm down again before the rest of the dive. 

While waiting for the others to finish, I saw three sea turtles and a black tip reef shark!

We then tried free descending without a guide rope for the first time which is kind of trippy. And we made our way over to a sandy bottom area to practice full mask removal and clearing. We practiced hovering with a manual BCD inflation and navigating with a compass. These all went well and we saw a blue-spotted stingray! It was so cool.

We used the remaining time to explore around the dive site. This location was called Ski Slopes because it drops off like a ski run. We saw so many fish here. My favorite were these tiny purple ones with yellow along their backs (purple anthias). We also saw a yellow trumpet fish and a porcupine fish!

It hit me while we were down there moseying around the reef how crazy this sport is. We’re literally breathing underwater and seeing all these things we wouldn’t be able to see any other way. So nuts! I sent up some prayers that God would help me to take it all in and appreciate the beauty on the remaining dives. 

  • Dive Date: 27-Oct-2022
  • Dive No: 3
  • Location: Flynn | Ski Slopes
  • Weather: partly cloudy
  • Visibility U/W: 20_m
  • Water Temp: 27C
  • Time in: 7:25am
  • Time out: 8:28am
  • Max depth: 11.2m
  • Bottom Time: 30m
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200 bar, End – 100 bar

Dive 4 - Flynn Reef

On the fourth dive, we were done with all the skills so we got to explore the whole time. I found Nemo! There were both a clown fish with a single stripe and then a big one with three little ones that had three stripes. I also saw a little sea slug that was royal blue as well as a Moorish Idol (Gill in Finding Nemo) and some other very colorful fish. 

I felt like I was starting to get the hand of using my breath to ascend or descend. If I took a really big breath in but then didn’t let the full breath out, I’d rise a bit. And then the opposit with exhaling. It seems like I naturally exhale more than inhale because I’d slowly drift downward then take a big breath to get back up on my dive buddy’s level. 

And most exciting, I’m now officially Open Water PADI Certified! So cool. Definitely starting to feel more comfortable but a little anxious to do this next dive since we’re just in a buddy system now and not guided. We’re still at Flynn Reef but we moved a little ways over to the Boulders site. I hardly noticed we moved, it was so close!

  • Dive Date: 27-OCT-2022
  • Dive No: 4
  • Location: Flynn | Ski Slopes
  • Weather: partly cloudy
  • Visibility U/W:  20+m
  • Water Temp: 28C
  • Time in: 11:00
  • Time out: 11:32
  • Max depth: 14.5m
  • Bottom Time: 32min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200M, End – 90

Dive 5 - First Unguided Dive

We did our first unguided dive! It went pretty well. The navigation piece is definitely the hardest. I felt like we were lost for a while (probably because we spotted a shark! We followed it for a bit instead of following the edge of the reef) but then we spotted bubbles from some other divers and figured out our way back.

We also saw 3 Dory’s and a couple more clown fish. We have the night dive tonight so we’ll see if there are more sharks. I hope it isn’t scary.

  • Dive Date: 27-Oct-2022
  • Dive No: 5
  • Location: Flynn | Boulders
  • Weather: sunny/cloudy
  • Visibility U/W: 20+m
  • Water Temp: 27
  • Time in: 15:10
  • Time out: 15:51
  • Max depth: 13.4m
  • Bottom Time: 37 min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200, End – 100
Scuba Dive_PADI Certification_Unguided Dive_Dani's Drive_Great Barrier Reef_Australia
First unguided dive!

Dive 6 - Night Dive

As we were getting into the water for the night dive, there were two of what looked to be reef sharks swimming at the surface. Yikes! I thought I was about to jump into a shark feeding frenzy.

But it actually wasn’t very scary. We moved so slowly and everyone had a flashlight in their hand and a colored light on their tank so we could distinguish groups. It was cool to be able to see the other groups drifting along down there. If I looked away from where we were or the other groups were it was complete darkness but surprisingly I didn’t get nervous. It was oddly peaceful.

We saw some cool things on the coral that only come out at night. And my favorite part, we saw some clown fish sleeping in an anemone!

  • Dive Date: 27-Oct-2022
  • Dive No: 6
  • Location: Flynn | Boulders
  • Weather: cloudy
  • Visibility U/W: torch
  • Water Temp: 28
  • Time in: 19:27
  • Time out: 20:00
  • Max depth: 10.1m
  • Bottom Time: 31min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200, End – 110

Liveaboard Day 3

Dive 7 - Second Unguided Dive

The dive this morning was really cool. It was another independent dive at the Boulders site.

I went with two new dive buddies. We followed along the edge of the reef (like my buddy and I were supposed to do yesterday instead of following that shark) and saw tons of beautiful fish.

Our max depth for this dive was 18m and at one point Georgia indicated we were too deep. I checked my dive computer and I was at 18.1m so I quickly kicked up to ascend. My dive computer beeped at me for going too fast.

I also dropped more when I had stopped to check my depth so my max depth was 20.4m (67ft). Oops!

It was a good learning lesson. It’s hard to tell if you’re going up or down and the changes seem to happen so fast. It shockingly didn’t trigger my ears to start hurting either. Guess I need to make sure to frequently check my depth.

We came around the bend in the reef and there was a big 2-3 ft sea turtle! He looked like he was munching away on coral (probably plants growing out of the coral). Just getting his breakfast in, unphased by the group of scuba divers around him watching. 

After the sea turtle, we swam up over the reef and ended up too shallow (about 3m) pretty fast without a safety stop but we weren’t done with the dive yet so we went back down a little and followed along the reef again and explore some of the more shallow stuff by the boat, did a safety stop, then ascended.

  • Dive Date: 28-OCT-2022
  • Dive No: 7
  • Location: Flynn | Boulders
  • Weather: sunny, calm, wind 10-15
  • Visibility U/W: 20m
  • Water Temp: 28
  • Time in: 6:21
  • Time out: 6:57
  • Max depth: 20.4m
  • Bottom Time: 31min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200, End – 80

Dive 8 - Third Unguided Dive

For the second dive we moved to a different site on Flynn Reef called Tracie Bommie.

This one was the same sort of deal as Boulders where we follow along the reef edge and then came back and explored some of the shallow stuff near the boat with the time left.

We saw so many fish including a tiny baby Dory (probably 1-2”).

It got really hard to keep straight what we saw on each dive. Others saw a shark and some barracuda but I totally missed them! I was maybe a little too busy watching my depth gauge and checking my air on this one.

  • Dive Date: 28-Oct-2022
  • Dive No: 8
  • Location: Flynn | Tracey Bommie
  • Weather: sunny, choppy, wind 5-10
  • Visibility U/W: 20m
  • Water Temp: 27C
  • Time in: 8:59
  • Time out: 9:35
  • Max depth: 16.5m
  • Bottom Time: 30min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200, End – 70
Great Barrier Reef_Dani's Drive_Scuba Diving
The beautiful Great Barrier Reef

Dive 9 - Fourth Unguided Dive

For the third and final dive we stayed at Tracey Bommie. We opted to use the full time to explore the shallower part.

We got to see some really cool coral and tons more fish. I could definitely feel myself getting more confident in my buoyancy and enjoying the diving. I liked that we stayed shallower. It took off some of the stress.

  • Dive Date: 28-OCT-2022
  • Dive No: 9
  • Location: Flynn | Tracey Bommie
  • Weather: sunny, choppy
  • Visibility U/W: 20+
  • Water Temp: 27C
  • Time in: 10:50
  • Time out: 11:34
  • Max depth: 10.2m
  • Bottom Time: 37min
  • Tank Pressure: Start – 200, End – 100
Final Unguided Dive_Great Barrier Reef_Australia_Dani's Drive
soaking in our final dive!

After the dive we had lunch, showered, and packed up. I took a nap up on the sun deck and when I woke up, I tried to stand and my left knee totally gave out.* Put my butt right back on the ground. It felt like my knee down had fallen asleep. So strange! I hope it’s just from napping weird and not a sign of decompression sickness.

Back on Shore

We arrived back into Cairns and I checked into my hostel, still feeling strange. Mostly like I’m still on the boat and everything was swaying*. I didn’t realize how much my body and eyes were accounting for that while we were out on the boat. I was hopeful that it would wear off by morning. I also had a bit of a headache* so I’d been trying to drink a ton of water. 

The crew and divers from the liveaboard met up in town for dinner that night. It was a fun evening to finish off the liveaboard experience and say goodbye to new friends!

Love Dani - Dani's Signature - Dani's Drive

*It turns out that these were possible signs of Decompression Sickness. You can read about my experience getting diagnosed with DCS and going through Hyperbaric Treatments here.

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