Visiting Cairns, Queensland at the latter part of 2016 was an incredible experience. It was the northernmost place I have travelled to in Australia and my first time visiting the natural wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef. I was excited to finally get to see this stunning marine environment especially given the threat that global warming holds over the future of the reef. In fact, there has been an increasing amount of last chance tourism to the area with more visitors realising the reality of the situation and travelling to get their fix before it’s too late.
Aside from getting to view first hand the natural beauty of the reef, the real reason for Cairns being an incredible experience for me was that it was a place I could overcome a fear of mine. Now this may sound silly to some because my fear is not what I would call common or mainstream. I’m not deathly afraid of large spiders or sharks although close proximity to either would make me uneasy. What I’m actually afraid of, and have been for a very long time, is snorkeling. It is a legitimate fear that I have had since my first snorkeling experience.
When I was about 11 years old I went on a school camp to go snorkeling down at Jervis Bay, on the south coast of NSW. Jervis Bay was a beautiful place with the whitest sands I had ever seen. The sand was so clean that it would squeak with every footstep you made. I was a moderate-confident swimmer, I had been swimming for as long as I could remember and excited to try snorkeling for the first time. Before we left for camp we practiced using snorkels in a local swimming pool to get the hang of things and everything was going great. It wasn’t until we started snorkeling in the ocean that things started to unravel for me.
When we had arrived to the beach at Jervis Bay to begin snorkeling, we were divided into small groups so that it was easy for our leader to keep a count of us. I remember fastening the snorkel mask over my face like practiced, putting my flippers on in the water and began swimming out with the group to a section of reef. So far, so good. As we approached the reef I remember being disappointed by all the beige, I learned later that in most cases this was the colour of healthy coral. What stood out of all the beige however was the brownish-red colour of sea urchins. They varied in size but appeared to me to be a cluster of spikes formed into a ball. We were told not to touch them because they could sting or prick you and I remember seeing so many of them that day that I was fixated on trying to not touch the prickly bastards. Suddenly the water gradually got more shallow and the distance between myself and the sea urchins was reducing. At this point I was really disliking snorkeling.
The group stopped for a moment after we had passed the shallow area. We had reached the point where it was time to turn around and head back to shore. Which meant swimming over that shallow point of the reef again and trying to suck in my tummy out of fear of getting pricked. Everyone fixed their masks back on and off we went back to shore. Only, I was at the back of the group and everyone was kicking sea water up in the air, some of which went down my snorkel. I got really scared at this point, with one intake of breath I had inhaled water and was coughing and spluttering trying to get it out of my snorkel. I swam back over that horrid shallow bit of the reef, trying not to choke on sea water and waiting for a deeper spot to fully empty out the water stuck inside my snorkel. When we got back to shore I made a beeline straight to my towel and had never been more grateful to be back on land. I loved the beach usually, but I decided that I wasn’t a fan of snorkeling.
The following year in primary school I went on the same camp. This time I thought it might be different. My experience the year before was terrible and I was sure this time would redeem snorkeling for me. We went back down to Jervis Bay again. When it was our groups turn to head out I put on my mask and fins, and started swimming out. But I felt my chest tighten and my heart was racing, I was actually panicking. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance and have another terrible experience so I turned right around and swam straight back. I was so cold and scared I just couldn’t go out to snorkel and that was the last time I tried to snorkel. I had other opportunities to overcome my fears a few years later when I was in Fiji and Vanuatu with family, and once in New Zealand but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Fast forward 10 years or so and I am at the Great Barrier Reef. I was excited to be there and determined to snorkel again. Not only to overcome a fear of mine, but to actually experience the reef. I had really pumped myself up for snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. It had been such a long time since I had done it I was sure it was not as scary as I remembered. We set out for Green Island just off the coast of Cairns for our swim. With our hire gear in tow we went straight down to the beach and got into the water. I put my mask and fins on and put my head in the water. Within an instant all the emotions from my childhood experience came flooding back to me, my heart started racing and my breathing was rapid. I forgot how the restriction in breathing would freak me out when I was younger but I instantly remembered it again. My boyfriend whom I was snorkeling was keen to swim out so off he went. He knew about my fear but I don’t think he realised to what extent. When he swam off expecting me to follow I freaked out and went back to shore. He noticed that I wasn’t with him and came back to collect me, this time holding my hand and easing me into it. I’m so glad I had him with me, once he understood the extent of my fear we took our time. We stayed in a shallow area with just sea grass beneath us until I could slow my breathing. Then we’d venture a little bit further out to the edge of the reef, and eventually actually over the reef.
I’m so glad this experience was much more pleasant than my last, and not a single one of the prickly sea urchins in sight! The highlight for me was seeing all the beautifully coloured tropical fish, a sight I would have missed out on if I had chosen not to snorkel at all. I left Green Island that day feeling so proud of myself for doing something that made me afraid and uncomfortable. I’m also proud that I didn’t let my fear stand in the way of experiencing the wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef. Now I won’t be racing off to go snorkeling at every available opportunity because overcoming a fear is a process and takes time. I took a big step in the right direction in Cairns and next time and underwater snorkel adventure presents itself I could actually consider it. But don’t ask me to go scuba diving just yet…baby steps.
Have you had any unusual fears you had to overcome on your travels? Share your thoughts in the comments below!