September 10, 2008

Diving the Great Barrier Reef for Free!

Long before I came to Australia, the Great Barrier Reef was a must-see destination. I learned to scuba dive in Egypt's Red Sea, also considered one of the best places in the world, and I've also been fortunate enough to dive all over the world, including Thailand, Belize, Mexico, and Fiji. Every time I went diving in one of these places, there was always someone who told me I had to visit the Great Barrier Reef, so my expecations were very high to say the least.

One down side to the weak US dollar is that Australia is now one of the most expensive places to scuba dive. A day on the reef with two dives costs around $150-175, and the three day/two night live aboard dive trip that I was looking at doing costs around $600! Much too steep for a backpacker's budget.

But, I was lucky enough to hear through the grapevine that some of the dive operators will take on volunteer crew to work in exchange for food, accommodation, and of course some dives. Deep Sea Divers Den, who operate the Ocean Quest and Taka boats, came highly recommended. The Taka boat is a minimum of seven days and it visits the well known Osprey Reef and Cod Hole. Since I couldn't commit to this much time, my other option was a three to six day trip on Ocean Quest, in which I chose the three day/two night cruise to give me a taste. The Ocean Quest vessel visits Norman and Saxon Reefs which are about an hour and a half from the mainland, and are better preserved sections of the reef compared to the areas close to Cairns that get too many day-trippers.

All in all, the trip was great. I wasn't prepared for the amount of work I would need to do on board, and I didn't have a moment to rest, but it was well worth it. There are two volunteer "Hosties" as they called us, and our duties included setting up and washing dishes for four meals, cleaning rooms, making beds, and odd job here and there. We were on a luxury boat, so it was basically a floating hotel that just moved between the two reefs to whichever spot was best to dive at that time. I should start off by saying that the food was fantastic. There was a big dining area, a bar and lounge, plus some sun decks. The rooms were a good size with their own bathrooms that weren't that much smaller than a normal hotel. There was room for 48 guests and 12 crew, and I was lucky enough that there was only 40 people in total during my trip, since that was enough. It was a good mix of people as well, mostly couples in their twenties and thirties. We worked hard, but played even harder.

Here is how a typical day was structured:

- wake at 6 am for a 6:30 dive

- back by 7:20 to set up for breakfast and eat quickly

- clean breakfast dishes and get ready for a 9 am dive

- back by 10 am to clean rooms, bathrooms, and make new beds for arriving guests

- set up lunch at 11:30, eat quickly

- clean lunch dishes

- break for 30 minutes

- at 2 pm, get ready for passenger transfer boat that shuttles people between Cairns and the reef

- break for 30 minutes

- dive at 4 pm

- back by 5 pm to set up for dinner and eat quickly

- clean dinner dishes and get ready for 7:30 pm night dive

- back by 8:30 to set up for dessert

- clean dessert dishes

-10pm, PASS OUT, and repeat the next day.

Even with all this work, I managed to get in eight dives. My favorite place had to be Saxon Reef, and some highlights included seeing blue spotted stingrays, white tipped reef sharks, and some big sea turtles. The areas of the reef that I saw were spectacular, but there was a lot of dead coral too, and I think the Great Barrier Reef is a little over-hyped compared to other dive spots around the world. I'm glad I had the experience so I can cross it off my list, but my favorite is still the Red Sea. Maybe because it was my first dive experience, who knows.

If you come to Cairns, and you want to dive the Great Barrier Reef, I highly recommend this unique experience. I heard that Mike Ball is another great operator where you can work for dives, and our friend Eduardo from Spain signed up with the Cairns Dive Centre (CDC) to work in exchange for a dive master's license, but I also heard that there are numerous operators that still make you pay a little, so avoid them.

Scuba diving is something you can't really explain, but hopefully my photos of the Great Barrier Reef can help a little.


Unknown said...

When are you coming home. We miss you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, 3 dives in a day with only a few hours surface intervals in between. Cool! I am open to the idea of budget diving but doing volunteer work on the cruiser in exchange for some dives is even better. Now you're giving me ideas! I bet all the cleaning and odd jobs was worth the spectacular view of the Great Barrier Reef. Btw, did scuba equipment come free as well? - gary

Nomadic Matt said...

that is a great tip! thanks for the heads up on that....

free is the best word in the english language!

Anonymous said...

The Great Barrier Reef looks..well, great! Just finished scuba in the Caribbean, but it was nothing like this. Great post and great site. I'm putting a link to your site at my travel blog: Good luck with the travels!

Jared said...

Glad you all liked the post. I was really shocked and excited when I found out about working in exchange for diving. After speaking with some other divers, I think Australia is the only place where you can do this. If you find other places, please, please let me know.

Alex, we're coming home next June, miss you guys too.

Gary, all gear was included, and we even got staff discounts on beer and snacks!

As Matt said, Free is definitely the best word in the English language. We are in Singapore now, are you in Asia?

Pyrodes, thanks for the compliments, and for adding us to your list. Your sight looks amazing too. I'll need some time to roam all the posts :)

Anonymous said...

The GBR is always a nice dive even if you're not in the mood.