Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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I prescribe Great Barrier Reef

A freak snow storm last October had warned of shortening days, the end of golf season and the onset of winter doldrums. What better time to visit the warmth and excitement of Australia? My daughter was teaching for a year in Melbourne, and I found that the FIGO world conference in Obstetrics and Gynecology was scheduled for the first week of November in Kuala Lumpur. That was all the motivation I needed to plan a trip Down Under.

This was not to be a regular reunion. Rather, my eldest daughter Lauren and I would rekindle our relationship aboard a luxury live-aboard dive boat off Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Our flights connected us in Sydney, where we visited the world famous opera house and climbed to dizzying heights over the supra-structure of the Sydney Bridge. The experience left us excited about our dive trip in the days to follow.

Cairns, a three-hour flight from Sydney on the northeastern shore of Australia, is the launch point for most Great Barrier Reef excursions because of the proximity of the reef to the shore in this area.

Just before noon the day after we landed, we were collected from our hotel by a minivan serving the Spirit of Freedom ( dive boat and delivered to the sleek, 36.5-metre live-aboard moored in the harbour.

After a warm welcome from the crew, we were given a tour of the boat, a briefing on important boat and diving safety, followed by personal interviews to determine our diving experience, medical needs, rental requirements and personal objectives for the trip.

When the question "Are you a doctor or nurse?" came up, I was reassured about their commitment to diving safety. Though I must admit I felt more at ease when I learned that there were also two emergency room physicians on board.

What sets Australia's Great Barrier Reef apart from the many dive sites that I have enjoyed in the Caribbean is the profusion of healthy multi-coloured coral and abundant fish species in relatively shallow water. All our dives were done from formal moorings within 30 metres of the dive site.

We enjoyed pristine and peaceful surroundings; unlike the heavily touristed sections of the reef reached on one-day boat tours from Cairns.

Although most moorings were strategically placed to take advantage of the calm seas inside the reef, we did enjoy one early morning dive adjacent to a spectacular open-water pinnacle.

By diving with computers and adhering to safety stops on all dives, we were able to participate in as many as five dives on a single day. All the divers were logged in and out of the water on every dive and strict safety precautions were in place, with staff in place underwater and on the look-out on the top deck as soon as anyone entered the water.


Each dive was preceded by a detailed briefing that not only laid out directions and depths, but also gave us an insider's guide to unique coral formations, swim-throughs and locations of unusual fish seen on previous dives. A "no-touch" policy was emphasized and, judging by the superb preservation of the reef system, divers are paying heed.

Courses were available from staff for all levels of diving skill, including Nitrox certification and underwater photography.

It's hard for me to pick a single highlight on a trip like this. My daughter and I reminisced in the evenings about the coral pinnacle we saw backlit by the early morning sun. As we circled the formation finding groups of beautiful lion fish and searching for the ever elusive frog fish, we parted schools of barracuda and red bass, with giant trevallis buzzing by and curious sharks in the distance.

At another site, 'Cuddles' a friendly Maori wrasse watched over giant potato cod, mouths gaping at cleaning stations, that allowed divers to approach and photograph from centimetres away. Giant clams, anemones with clown fish (picture Finding Nemo), leaf fish, butterfly and angel fish, as well as damsel fish schooling above elkhorn coral, and enormous schools of sweet lip emperors were stunning -- but too much for my skills as a novice underwater photographer to handle.

All this diving is known to create a healthy appetite. As a wakeup call before the first dive of the day, we were treated to a variety of fruit, cereal, juice and coffee. But nothing prepared us for our hunger when we ascended the ladder after that early dive. Memories of the sites below and the aroma of bacon, eggs and fresh coffee set the stage for a wonderful day.

Ben, the ship's chef, treated us to sushi and steak and everything in between. Delicious Australian wines were served with dinner and a luxurious common room featuring an honour bar was always open with one caveat: the first alcoholic drink meant that diving was over for that day!

What a wonderful venue for a family reunion. My daughter and I spent our free hours relaxing in the sun on the ship's deck and catching up on the events of the past year. Not willing to say goodbye at the conclusion of our dive trip we spent an extra two days at the Sheraton Mirage Resort (tel: 011-61-7-4099-5888; fax: 011-61-7-4099-4424; in Port Douglas. When we tired of lying beside their white-sand lined swimming pool and walking their 16-kilometre beach, we made short jaunts to the local game park and to the Daintree Rainforest (

Then it was on to two separate planes departing from Cairns airport. Lauren headed back to a teaching job in Melbourne and I was off to the FIGO meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Next time you have travel that takes you to Australia, whether you are scuba certified or not, plan to extend your trip by a week and see what Queensland, Australia has to offer. And don't miss the opportunity to go down below while you're Down Under for an experience you will never forget on the Great Barrier Reef.


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