Another excerpt from Wandering (published June 2014):
I had one more week until I was supposed to meet Shanti and her family in Cambodia, so I decided to check out Tasmania.
When I was planning, I asked Kawika and Scotty about it, and neither of them had ever been there, nor knew anyone who had been there (which immediately prompted me to resupply my tampon stash while still in the city, I was traveling into unknown territory again). I hadn’t even known it was an Australian state until I started researching. I emailed a scuba company that promised sea dragons and set up a dive, so that was where I reserved a hotel room. All the hostels were sold out, again, and the hotel in Hobart was officially the most expensive place I have ever stayed. Stupid holidays.
As I flew into Hobart, I realized that I hadn’t done any proper research. I was looking for sea dragons and nature; in my mind I saw mountains and lakes and rivers, adventures and surf and scuba. It never occurred to me that I was going to the capital city of one of the Australian states. A big, horrible city.
I was the last drop-off for the hotel shuttle, so I got a small tour of the city. I felt like I was in downtown Seattle, not the small beach towns and backwoods laziness that I envisioned. And I had to walk several blocks from my hotel to find a Wi-Fi connection at a pub. I really need to learn how to properly research destinations.
According to my emails with Sue at Underwater Adventures, sea dragons lived in the harbors around Hobart. On my first morning in town I was supposed to meet her at the docks at 7:45, along with one other woman who was equally excited to find them. I arrived at the dock at 7:40, early as usual, and Georgina got there at 7:43. We waited, made small talk, waited more, and no boat. Finally, Sue motored up at 8:20; apparently a cruise ship motored past while she was loading tanks and the wake knocked two of them overboard and she had to dive for them. A shaky start to the day.
The boat wasn’t very well-kept; it was kind of messy with stuff everywhere, with six tanks sort of bungeed to the sides, but Sue was nice. She didn’t have any crew so she wasn’t going to dive with us, which immediately annoyed both Georgina and me. It’s way easier to find things underwater with someone who’s been there before. Getting directions in Cairns for a colony of clownfish was bad enough; now we had to locate an animal that looks like kelp in darker water.
We travelled 50 minutes to our first site at Betsey Island. The sky was grey and rainy and the wind was picking up. There were dozens of crayfish pots in the area where Sue wanted to drop anchor, so it took us a while to settle in. She gave me a selection of 7 millimeter wetsuits, all of them covered in dog hair. They probably would be comfy to sleep on. After trying a few, I finally found one that fit, which meant I could fasten it properly and still manage to breathe a little. I was worried that in darker water a tight wetsuit might make me feel claustrophobic and I’d freak out, but I continued getting ready – boots, hood, gloves, and 32 pounds of weights. I could barely move. Georgina was using a dry suit; Sue didn’t have one in my size. It took us an hour to gear up for the first dive.
Then came the moment I was dreading – touching the water. It was 16 degrees Celsius. In a 7-millimeter wetsuit, it still felt like 16 degrees. It was fucking cold. Like getting wrapped in ice, then buried in snow. Then stabbed in the head with icicles. I couldn’t remember ever being that cold in my life. Every time I turned my head to look around, some water would channel straight down my back. I just kept telling myself that I was doing this for a good purpose: sea dragons.
The visibility was around five meters in the greenish water. The underwater landscape consisted of kelp forests and a lot of strange plants, but I didn’t find many fish. I saw a wrasse, a box cowfish, anemones, starfish, a rockfish, and a couple crabs, but mostly just plants floating back and forth with the current. I was praying for a sea dragon.
“Please, God, let me see one so I don’t ever have to get back in this water. Pretty please? I’ll be good, I promise.”
The first dive lasted 48 minutes and by the end I was shaking uncontrollably, my teeth were chattering, and no sea dragon. Sue kept asking if we saw the felled tree where some live, or the backside of the reef where others are. That was why we had wanted a guide.
We left for the second dive site, the blowhole in Blackman’s Bay. There was no way I could take off my wetsuit between dives, so I put a jacket over it and jumped up and down to try to get warm, but it didn’t work. I ate half a box of Tim-Tams, possibly the greatest chocolate cookie in mass production, thinking that might help. Maybe it was just a good excuse to eat so many.
On the second dive I was cold going in, and thought I would die the moment I hit the water. I vaguely remember wondering if my nipples could cut through a 7 millimeter suit. This dive was a little shallower and I was too floaty; I had to swim back to the boat after 20 minutes for more weights. I was now carrying 38 pounds; the most I’d ever used before was 14. It was good incentive to start working out again; my legs had a hard time standing under the extra weight.
We saw more kelp and more cute cowfish, but it was 48 more minutes of no sea dragons. As we swam back to the boat, Sue yelled that we should try one more time a little further down, maybe swim until we have about 40 bar of air left. Obviously, sea dragons were way more important than following strict PADI dive rules. We dove back down on the other side of the reef for a total dive time of 63 minutes with no sea dragons. I was pretty sure my fingertips were going to break off.
I was told that we were only doing two dives, and although I was upset that we didn’t find a sea dragon, I was OK with getting dried off. The weather had gotten worse and the sun hadn’t come out all day; it was just windy and rainy. All I could think about was a hot shower and obscene amounts of food.
But Sue felt bad and suggested a third dive. Georgina gave the decision to me since I was the coldest, but not by much since her drysuit had a small leak. I came all this way to Tasmania, was half-frozen, and I’d probably never make it back. Another 20 minutes wouldn’t kill me. Sue’s rationale was that the first site gets battered by storms, the second site had a bunch of spear divers a few days ago, but the third site never gets much traffic. And that was when Georgina got pissed. Imagine an older, shorter, English housewife getting really angry. But I agreed with her. Why did we go to the crappy sites first, especially when the pristine site was only 15 minutes from the dock?
The third site was Boronia Beach. Sue was begging us to dive just a little while, even though one tank only had 100 bar and Georgina had to use her tank from the last dive. We decided to go for 20 minutes or until one of us had no air left. By then we had left PADI standards far behind. I think Sue felt bad because she usually gets in the water with the divers and can find the sea dragon hangouts; maybe her crew called in sick, but this wasn’t a great day for diving. I had been carrying my camera and decided to leave it on the boat for the last dive since it wasn’t doing anything but wearing down the battery.
Sue dropped us at the edge of a reef with instructions, “Go in here where you can see the reef, swim with it on your left; if you go around that corner into the other bay that’s OK, I’ll follow your bubbles from the boat.” Georgina and I swam, freezing. I started thinking that I really was going to die, then OH MY GOD A SEA DRAGON!
It was the weirdest animal I’ve ever seen in my life. It had a snout like a seahorse, a fat little body with teensy, fluttery, useless-looking fins, and a long tail that started off fat and tapered to very skinny. It was a male, carrying eggs. In total, it was about 14 inches long, and every color in the crayon box. The sun had just come out, and every time he moved, different body parts turned different colors in the light. He had two lumps on his head that looked like horns, and two long side fins that just dangled and looked like kelp. There was another set of tiny, fluttery fins where I thought his ears should go. The overall impression was like a flying elephant with a couple tinker-bell wings. Totally ridiculous.
And of course, I didn’t have my camera. I signaled to Georgina that I was going to the boat and I’d be right back. I sprinted in my 7 millimeter wetsuit. By the time I got back I was so out of breath that I had to float on the surface trying to breathe; my suit was too tight for a proper breath. But there was a sea dragon, so I went down anyway.
Georgina and I spent 25 minutes watching him. He just swam back and forth between a couple big rocks and showed off for us, like he was on a sea dragon catwalk. I completely forgot that I was cold.
Watch the seadragon on YouTube.