There’s something a little disconcerting about watching my Uber driver steer our vehicle with a PlayStation 4 controller, particularly as we’re “driving” 11m under the surface of the Coral Sea. Then again, this is no ordinary Uber ride.
Available through the Uber app, a one-hour underwater tour of the world’s largest living organism for two people (seated either side of the driver) rings in at A$1,500 (£819) per person.
As an avid scuba diver and snorkeller, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the scUber experience. But when David Wachenfeld, chief scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and one of the first people to ride the scUber off Heron Island, described it as “a cross between Finding Nemo and a Bond movie”, I was intrigued.
After being whisked over to Heron, 72km (45 miles) off Gladstone, via helicopter – which is included in the cost of the scUber ride – I’m met by Canadian ocean explorer Erika Bergman, who tells me she won’t be my driver, but my pilot.
“Operating a submarine is more like flying than driving,” says Bergman as she expertly manoeuvres the electric battery-powered sub by Vancouver-based Aquatica Submarines within inches of the reef. “Plus, there are no roads down here,” she laughs.
Indeed, we have the run of the reef this afternoon. Well, along with the 1,500-odd fish species that call it home. Hovering over a coral bombie, we spot a tubular trumpetfish resting under a vibrant blue plate coral. Suddenly, a cloud of neon yellow damselfish envelopes the bombie, only they’re the tiniest damselfish I’ve ever seen. Erika explains that the scUber’s spherical window makes marine life appear smaller and closer than it looks.
It’s all very surreal, and I’m not sure if it’s my brain struggling to make sense of what I’m seeing or my sensitivity to motion sickness, but it’s not long before I begin to feel a little woozy. But it seems like a small price to pay for the chance to view the reef through a different lens while staying warm and dry. Being able to chat about what we’re seeing, and not having to wrestle with a snorkel mask, are added bonuses.
Gladstone locals Terry and Kym Purcell, the first members of the public to ride the scUber, agreed.
“I come back from scuba dives and tell Kym about all this amazing stuff I’ve seen and it’s hard to describe that to someone who doesn’t dive, but today I got to show her,” says a beaming Terry, who has been diving on the reef for more than 40 years.
“It was just spectacular,” adds a grinning Kym, who has a medical condition that prevents her from diving. Fittingly, the couple gave Erika a five-star rating on the Uber app.
Though the scUber is a fantastic opportunity for non-divers like Kym to experience the reef in a new way, and a novel experience to tick off for those with deep pockets, Heron Island had plenty to offer before the scUber came along.
On a tour of Heron Island Research Station with crustacean biologist Abbie Taylor, I learn the coral atoll (which operated as a turtle cannery in the 1920s) is an important nesting ground for loggerhead turtles, which are listed as endangered in Queensland, as well as around 120,000 noddy terns (tip: do not stand under the Pisonia trees). I stopped counting at eight turtles during a snorkel at Heron Bombie, and spotted a menagerie of other marine life amongst the stag corals during scuba dives at other sites around the island.
But with the four-week scUber pilot scheme predicted to generate 1.4 million extra visitors to the reef – and each one charged a A$6.50 conservation levy – the scUber, which also collects reef data during every ride, is an innovative conservation strategy in the midst of a climate crisis.
“The reef is an amazing, vibrant, thriving ecosystem and more than ever before it needs us to work harder to protect it,” Wachenfeld says. “If people come to the reef and connect with nature they’ll get a sense of why it’s such an important thing for our planet and that will inspire them to act.”
Uber has also pledged A$100,000 in addition to the equivalent value of every scUber ride to conservation group Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, and will be carbon-offsetting the heli transfers to Heron Island, and boat transfers from Port Douglas to Agincourt Reef when the scUber moves to Tropical North Queensland on 9 June.
While scUber rides can currently only be booked until 18 June, after which the US$2m (£1.6m) sub will be transported to the British Virgin Islands for a research expedition, it’s anyone’s guess whether the ride-share service will go the way of the UberCopter, which returned year after year following its launch at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. But while it’s a cracking selfie op, you don’t need a submarine to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef.
ScUber rides are available on Heron Island until 3 June, and on Agincourt Reef, off Port Douglas, from 9-18 June. A ride in the scUber costs A$3,000 for two people, including pick-up and drop-off to your accommodation on the mainland in a Tesla Uber, scenic helicopter ride to Heron, or boat transfers from Port Douglas to Agincourt Reef.
Rooms at Heron Island start at A$388 including breakfast, dinner and snorkel equipment.
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