Conquering the Great Barrier Reef When You’re Terrified of the Ocean

Even first timers can scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef with the help of a guide.

If you travel to Australia and don’t visit the Great Barrier Reef, did you really visit Australia?

Even someone like me, who is absolutely terrified of open water, had to visit one of the famous 7 Wonders of the World. And let me tell you, even if you’re so afraid of the ocean you can’t swim by yourself at the beach, you still HAVE to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is 1,800 miles long and around 40 miles wide at some parts. Within the reef, you can see more than 400 different kinds of coral, rays, dolphins, over 1,500 species of tropical fish as well as sea turtles and more! Did you also know that it’s larger than the Great Wall of China and visible from space?

Let me give you some background about my experience with water. I grew up on a lake in upstate New York so I’m used to being around water but I still hate it. Before I jump off the dock, I make my 100 pound golden retriever jump first to scare away the fish. Then I know it’s safe for me to jump. Mind you, this is a freshwater lake with nothing that can eat me in there. I just really hate water and fish that much!

When I go to the beach ANYWHERE in the world, I cannot swim without a friend. I need someone there who can either help me if I’m getting eaten by the ocean or who can be eaten by the ocean to allow me to get away!

On top of that, I’m a New Yorker, so nature in general isn’t super common for me.

Flash forward to visiting Australia and realizing I can’t really let my crazy out in front of complete strangers. Especially strangers who already think of Americans as dramatic and annoying! So when I visited Cairns, the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, I booked a one day reef trip knowing full well I was going to have to either conquer my fear of water or freak out in silence.

I chose a reef trip that traveled to the outer part of the reef which is more vibrant than the ones closer to shore. It took us a little over an hour going at high speed to get out to the reef. I always assumed that the Great Barrier Reef was just off the shore of a beautiful, remote island but it’s actually in the middle of nowhere. You are literally dropped in the middle of open water. The boats pull up, we drop anchor, you’re handed a snorkel and the deck hands tell you to get out.

I’m sorry, what? You want ME to jump off this boat in the MIDDLE of nowhere with NO land in sight and SWIM? Nope. Sorry. No, thank you. This was fun but see ya! Right off the bat, I was not thrilled with this experience.

In Australia you are able to do an intro dive without certification. You KNOW I’m not certified. But when in the Great Barrier Reef, right? So not only was I having to conquer my fear of the ocean but I also had to try diving which I had never even considered doing before. Why did I pay to torture myself again?

I was in the first group of intro divers to go. We were suited up with a massive tank, flippers and a wet suit and given some general directions on what to do under water. The dive instructors showed us how to equalize our ears (once every meter), how to clear our masks of water, how to breathe correctly and how to clear our air supply if water got into it. Once we were in the ocean, we would learn how to descend while holding onto the anchor rope as our guide.

While on the boat getting the instructions I was feeling pretty good. I had the hand signals down, I understand how to clear my mask and I could equalize my ears perfectly.

Then we were told to jump in the water with our gear. Cue FREAK OUT MODE. The second I touched the water, I started hyperventilating. I could not calm myself down or breathe slowly. Somehow, I ended up first in the line of divers so I was forced to start my decent before I was ready. I couldn’t breathe. My mask filled with water. I was wildly kicking my legs, desperately trying to stay afloat. The dive instructor gave me hand signals that I had JUST learned on the boat but I couldn’t remember for the life of me what they meant. It was actually terrifying. I had just paid $65 for this intro dive that I was not going to get to do because my fear of the ocean is that strong.

The guide motioned for me to pop my head above the water. He told me to stick my face into the water and focus on breathing slowly and getting used to the feeling. Basically, calm the F down!

After about 5 minutes of watching everyone descend without a problem, I gave myself a pep talk. “You are here to conquer your fears. People do this every single day. You are not going to die. And if you get eaten by a shark, at least it’s a great story that will be told about you!”

I forced myself to descend and accepted that it would just be an uncomfortable 45 minutes.

The amazing thing was that the SECOND I saw the Great Barrier Reef, I was in complete awe and totally forgot about my fears. Despite the reef being “dead,” it is like nothing I have ever seen in my life. There are still so many beautiful colors, giant snapping clams and schools of fish swim around you as if you’re one of them. Down on the reef, you become one with the ocean. If you saw me down there, you would have no idea that I make my golden retriever jump in lakes before me!

Even if you're scared of the ocean, you should try an intro dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Even first timers can scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef with the help of a guide.

We spent 45 minutes swimming around the reef with our guide. After about 15 minutes, I was off free swimming by myself. There was another girl in our group who actually was certified and she had to have the guide lead her by hand because she was freaking out so much. Suck it certified girl! I’m a better scuba diver than you!

Our specific reef trip had three different dives. I only paid for one dive and chose to snorkel instead at the other two stops. Even though I conquered my fear of the ocean during my intro dive, I was still worried while snorkeling. I tried to stay close to the friends I met so that I wasn’t out in the middle of open water completely alone. Mind you the boat was about 40 feet from me…I wasn’t exactly alone. But I still wanted someone close to my side who I could grab and scream with!

Clown Fish are one of the ocean life you will see in the Great Barrier Reef.
We found Nemo!
No matter if you're snorkeling or diving, the Great Barrier Reef is impressive to any eye!
The Great Barrier Reef coral!
Sea Cucumbers are one of the many ocean life you will see at the Great Barrier Reef.
Sea Cucumber
A guide in the Great Barrier Reef shows off a sea cucumber.
Snorkel guide explaining the sea cucumber

It’s trips like this that are the exact reason I love to travel. There are so many things I’m afraid of from heights to the ocean and somehow they are easier to conquer while traveling the world. When in Australia, right!?

Even nervous swimmers will enjoy the diving experience at the Great Barrier Reef.
Extreme euphoria after completing my dive and seeing the Great Barrier Reef with my own eyes

Things to Know If You’re Traveling to the Great Barrier Reef

  • Intro dives are expensive. They average about $60 but I saw them as high as $100 on top of the trip to the reef.
  • You are not allowed to take underwater photos during your intro dive but you may during a second dive. Some tour companies will take photos of you under the water (as mine did).
  • The Great Barrier Reef is dead. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. But the colors have clearly faded.
  • Beware of your tour group. Some companies have as many as 125 people on the boat. If you’re nervous, find a boat with fewer people.
  • The divers get the most time in the water. They are prioritized since they paid the most money.
  • Don’t dive in the Whitsunday Islands. These beautiful islands were damaged by Cyclone Debbie in early 2017 and the coral is completely ruined. I did a snorkel there and the reef had crumbled into tiny pieces on the ocean floor.