Taking the plunge for platypus

Luana Royle is something of a local identity at Finch Hatton.

Juggling looking after her father-in-law, who has dementia, with sitting on local tourism boards and conducting ‘stress-free’ guided day trips of Finch Hatton and Mackay, Luana is also the founder of what she claims is a world-first scuba diving tour – Rainforest Scuba.

I meet Luana at her home – which also doubles as a scuba diving shop and platypus education centre of sorts. My first thought is why a scuba diving shop in the middle of inland Mackay? She greets us with a smile and we head off to lunch at the Church Café Pinnacle, which is a gastronomical delight.

After a fantastic feed, we head back to her ‘pad’ for an hour-long lesson on that fabulous, often overlooked little monotreme, the platypus, as well as the many creatures I’ll encounter on my dive.

I recall a joke: You can tell God has a sense of humour because he created the platypus. You can’t deny that it’s one of the kookier creations conjured up by Mother Nature. Almost like it was made up of spare parts of other animals, yet still absolutely adorable.

No one knows more about this funny little creature than Luana. Well one person may – platypus expert Tom Grant, who set Luana on her path of ‘platypussery’ – but even he defers to her when talking about the local species.

Rainforest Scuba is an ingenious way to try scuba in the safety of still rainforest waters fed by waterfalls at Finch Hatton. Divers can take a dip – fully equipped with all scuba gear – in the crystal-clear waters of Oliver’s Waterhole to see turtles, freshwater prawns and yabbies, fish of all types and sizes, eels and catfish and, hopefully, the elusive and iconic Aussie swimmer, the platypus.

Arriving at our dive site, we gear up and wade into the cool waters. Admittedly, I’m not a water baby. In fact, ever since seeing a sea life exhibition in Adelaide when I was a kid – one that showed you all the things that could kill you – the water kind of scares me, especially when I can’t see the bottom. Also, I have this thing about drowning. Call me strange. Humans just weren’t designed to stay underwater for more than a few seconds at a time, let alone an hour or so.

Of course, I’m trying hard to be ‘stoic’ and not give away the fact that I’m dreading this dive.

The first time I snorkelled in the ocean waters, I panicked. But, I did get over it and ended up enjoying one of the coolest experiences of my life. To this day I love to snorkel whenever I get the chance. But you can breathe actual air whenever you want when you snorkel, it’s simply a matter of lifting your head and taking out your snorkel.

I have friends who scuba dive, but I’ve never really sought to do it myself. Although it has been on my bucket list and, as it’s one of the rites of passage for travel writers, I’ve always said if, given the chance, I would try it. Today, I take that plunge.

Luana sets me up and gently talks me through the breathing process. Breathing with scuba apparatus is not a natural thing, in fact, it’s downright weird. I put my head underwater and my body does everything it can to reject the experience. My shoulder cramps, I panic, I lose my breath, I want so badly to get out and give up but, all the while, Luana calmly coaxes me through the process and before I know it I’m staring at an otherworldy underwater realm.

The water is clear, some mossy, algae-like substance softly sways, draped off fallen trees and branches in some splendid Halloween scene. Almost immediately, I encounter Cateelona the resident eel-tail catfish who’s made an amazing rock castle by swishing mud and moving rocks (many of which, amazingly, are quite large).

I give in to the underwater wonder and relax into proceedings.

Using just one finger, we carefully drag ourselves along the river bed, hovering above smooth rocks and marine miscellanea, until we reach a huge fallen tree, under which are an array of prawns and fish of all sizes and colours. Where there are prawns, there may be a platypus, so we linger here for a few minutes to see if we’re lucky enough to encounter one.

Unfortunately, the platypus may have been scared away by a large group of kids who were swimming here as we arrived. However, I am rewarded by multiple sightings of my favourite amphibians (and indeed animals) – terrapins and turtles.

There are some as large as family-sized pizzas, and many no bigger than a toy car. They swim about like little flying saucers, some laze around, seemingly unfazed by our presence, others bury themselves between rocks and some hang from the branches of the ‘Turtle Tree’.

I am flummoxed by the number swimming about us. It really compensates me for having not yet encountered what I actually came here for – a platypus. Still, I am amazed by the dreamlike scenes surrounding me and already well satisfied with my day’s dive.

Luana leads me through more of this watery wonderland and we’re lucky to chance upon another eel-tail catfish, which briefly swims around us and is off almost as quickly as we can catch a glimpse of it.

Loitering about to see if we can see a platypus, we begin to run out of light, so it’s out of the water and out of the scuba gear. Towelled off and ready to roll, we pull away and take one last look at our dive site when, low and behold, a platypus quickly pops up out of the water about 10m from us, as if to tease me yet still give me what I came for.

Elusive little buggers those platypuses!

You don’t need a license to try scuba diving with Luana, because the still waters are considered a ‘pool-like environment’ similar to those used by scuba instructors to train would-be divers. So long as you’re at least eight years old, you can dive. A week prior, Luana took an 80-year-old traveller diving, who said it was one of the most amazing experiences of her life. There’s no time limit either, although in the cooler months the water can be a little chilly (still much warmer than the water in the southern states).

The Rainforest Scuba experience is amazing. Who’d have thought you could scuba dive in a rainforest river? Luckily for all of us, Luana did.

Find out more about Rainforest Scuba or Finch Hatton and Mackay day tours.

Leon toured the Whitsundays as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays and Mackay Tourism.

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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