In the octopus’garden

In the octopus’garden

Axle sensed the Pacific Ocean vibrating around him and lethargically floated up from the sandy seabed, where he had been lounging.

They were right on time, and he loved being the cynosure of all eyes.

As the first group of divers descended into the crystal clear waters of the Pacific at the Castle Rock dive site, Axle swung his tail-fin a few times and gently glided into their view. Then came the part he loved best. As soon as they spotted him, their smooth, fluid movements were replaced by jerky contortions while they tried to direct each other’s attention towards Axle and simultaneously form a ring with the thumb and the forefinger—the universal ‘OK’ sign divers use to indicate an awesome sighting underwater.

Behind my mask, I was still in a daze as I watched the 1.2m-long Malabar Cod swim away. During the pre-dive briefing, Richard, the dive master, had said we might see the cod, but I hadn’t expected the fish to swim up to me, peer into my mask and demand attention.

It had been a wonderful day so far. That morning, I had driven up to the Port Douglas Marina Mirage and checked into Quicksilver’s dive centre, where I had pre-booked a diving trip. The girl at the counter handed me my boarding pass and asked me to head out to berth No. 2 at the Marina.

Parked there was the Silversonic, a 29m-long modern catamaran capable of slicing the waves at 31 knots. Because of this high-speed capability, the Silversonic can get to the Agincourt Reef—on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef system, just 3.4km before the continental shelf where the seabed drops down to 1600m—in 90 minutes flat.

Standing on the gangway leading to the vessel was Jamie, holding his camera like a gunfighter. He was shooting everyone who stepped on to the boat that day. All through the day, Jamie and his colleague mingled with the divers both on the boat and underwater with their cameras and camcorders. The result was a CD full of pictures and a DVD that you could buy off them to show the world your underwater exploits.

While the 35 of us who were out diving on the day sat in the luxurious cabin and filled out forms about our dive experiences and medical conditions, the crew gave us the once-over to gauge sizes and retired to the rear of the boat to prepare our diving equipment. In the meantime, the skipper kept up a rapid fire commentary about the journey and our destination.

I was grouped with three divers of similar experience and briefed about the dive. Our first site was called Phil’s Reef, and Richard told us about the circuit we would be doing underwater.

The only part of diving that I am not too fond of is the gearing-up. In this case, a nippy breeze was blowing and the boat swayed alarmingly as I struggled to zip up my wetsuit, buckle on my BCD (buoyancy control device), along with the heavy tank, the weight belt and finally, the long flippers. One by one, we jumped off the side of the boat into the water, deep into the heart of the green Pacific.

I saw Sandra, a girl in our group, pointing with two fingers first to her eyes and then to the seabed, asking us to follow her gaze. I descended to the seabed, my dive computer telling me that I was now 19m deep, and discovered Nemo, the orange-and-white clownfish made popular by the animated movie Finding Nemo.

In the meantime, Richard had spotted some movement a little further away and was beckoning us. A brown-and-cream spotted eagle ray was lazily winging itself across the coral. We flanked it two on each side and one at the rear, giving the fish presidential status; unperturbed, it continued on its way, looking like an underwater stealth bomber.

After an hour or so at the site, the skipper hauled anchor for Castle Rock, another dive site on the Agincourt Reef. I refused to take off my wetsuit—what, and put it on again?—but for those who had, the gear-up was agonizing. Squeals and curses rent the air as zips were pulled up and cold and wet neoprene came in contact with skin.

This time, when we went down, we were greeted by Axle, the Malabar Cod. The visibility here, at over 30m, was better than the previous site. This made the colours of the coral seem even brighter. Dense and multi-hued, the coral gardens appeared almost perfectly manicured by the sea and marine life. Fish swam in and out, making the scene somewhat like an underwater Sunday village market.

When I ran out of air, I climbed back into the boat, got rid of my dive tank and wetsuit and jumped into the water with a snorkel and a mask. The water was so clear that face-down from the surface, I could see divers on the seabed 20m below. Beneath me, trigger fish swam about in shoals and Axle still wafted along, demanding pats from visitors.

Once everyone was on board and we were on our way back towards Port Douglas, Jamie printed out the photographs and hung them up in the lounge, so we could select the ones we wanted on our CDs, while the onboard television played videos shot underwater during the dives.

The 40-minute DVD at Au$105 (approximately Rs3,700) might seem like a bit of a splurge, but it is absolutely worth it. It allows you to take back memories and relive them and, what’s more, is bound to impress disbelieving friends far more than any vocal assertion.

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