The number of dives on my scuba log extends to the not so impressive 2. The first time was in the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes and the second, the tropical Micronesian island of Guam. These were well over five years ago but even now, I recalled on both accounts the initial claustrophobia of being in the deep blue sea.
Third time round and we’re racing towards the open waters of Nusa Penida, Bali. 24 hours ago it felt like a good idea. Enticing glossy posters in the hotel lobby promised colourful marine life in amongst deep drop-offs, coral ridges and volcanic outcrops. I didn’t want to miss out on the experience. But now, kitted out in diving gear, I felt sick with nerves. There was no turning back… The shoreline was a tiny spot in the distance now… I was committed to going ahead with this moment of madness.
I remembered the basic hand gestures…
A -ok for ‘All good’…
Thumb up for ‘Get me the hell back up!’…
Flat palm with a side to side motion ‘Uh, not too sure about this!’…
Hand across the throat ‘Help! I’m out of air!’…
But with only two previous dives under my belt I was assigned with one of the PADI instructors as my dive buddy.
I put the mask over my eyes and nose while the dive crew helped me with my tank. Hold on a minute – flat palm with a side to side motion – this didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right in fact. Not only was I breathing like an asthmatic Darth Vader under my mask, but the tank on my back felt enormous. Now in addition to the weight, my dive buddy Alex was strapping a weighted belt around my waist and ankles, threatening me to lose all sense of balance and teeter overboard prematurely.
‘1… 2… 3…’ someone was counting down. One by one, Alex and the other divers flipped perfectly backwards in to open water…It was my turn…
I put the regulator in to my mouth, blew through it to make sure it worked, held my mask firmly with one flat hand, and flipped backwards in to clear, bubbling water.
Ok, that was straightforward enough but before I could focus, we were now releasing air on our buoyancy control devices and sinking in to the deep blue sea. Thank goodness Alex came to my side. Once we had submerged and equalised successfully, the other divers were off exploring like natural pros.
My world was suddenly in technicolor; a vivid vision of coral and sea life magnified to full intensity in all colours of the rainbow. It should have been exhilarating but something still didn’t feel right.
My mask was beginning to fill with water. I didn’t like this. I tried to clear the water out by blowing forcefully out through my nose while Alex tried to adjust the positioning of my mask. I was losing control of my breathing and one snort of water up my nose, panic
set in. I imagined my lungs filling with water and suddenly I was tugging at Alex’s flipper to get his attention.
Thumb up… Thumb up…
I jerked my thumb towards the surface repeatedly where fresh air beckoned to me. Mind was going in to overdrive. Lungs. Water. Oxygen. Unconsciousness. Death.
Thumb up.. Thumb up… Thumb up… Both thumbs up now with a faster jerking motion.
I could see another diver from a different group making their way up a chain towards the surface with his/her dive master. An explosion of envy washed over me. Perhaps I could swim across to them and clamber up the chain, breaking all the rules in the diving safety code… deserting your dive buddy, coming up too quickly etc.
Alex was looking at me steadily and signalling me to let out a long slow breath. One slow breath after the next. Perhaps he wanted me to calm down before we came back up first. I was happy to shorten my 25 minute dive prematurely, which I thought through some unspoken eye contact, we had agreed. But no. Alex could see I had relaxed in to my breathing and was releasing more air from my BCD. We submerged deeper and manoeuvred ourselves around the bottom of the sea bed around an impressive coral that resembled a gigantic brain. Now we were chasing a flat fish that camouflaged itself to the sea bed. Soon enough our 25 minutes were up and I was able to ascend up to the surface slowly.
I deliberated whether to pass on the second dive. I was feeling nauseous. We were in choppy waters and the malaria tablets which I was taking for my onward trip to Sumatra were not helping the sea sickness. What would happen I wondered if you had to vomit while diving? Could you throw up in to your regulator and use the spare one? Convinced the sea sickness would worsen on the boat, I decided to brave a second dive.
The current was strong this time. Now and again we clung on to a rock to stop ourselves from drifting away. Alex and I held hands and drifted along together, this marine world ours alone. There were so many colours… Turquoise and ultramarines of the Angel fish, yellows and cyans of the Parrot fish, orange and reds of the Rock fish… But the real show stopper… A balloon fish had nestled itself in a small crevice, a funny looking thing that looked more like a spotted black ball.
Alex held on to it with his free hand and we stopped at a rock face to study it in more detail. Whoa! A balloon fish up close and personal. It didn’t seem to mind the intrusion and peered at me with a little round smile, baring little white teeth.
I was almost reluctant to leave this marine world I was growing accustomed to. Almost.
The current was growing stronger now; my grasp slipped from Alex’s hand and I drifted at speed away from him, scrambling and grabbing on to rocks to desperately anchor myself down. If I had a free hand I would have jerked my thumb up again but I held on for dear life until Alex, my knight in ‘diving gear’, came to my rescue.
I‘m not sure if there will ever be a PADI in me… Perhaps it’s the ‘Marmite’ of adventures… You either love it or hate it. I acknowledge my weaknesses happily and cross off a couple of goals on my bucket list – Cave diving in Yucatan and exploring China’s Atlantis of the East are better left for the more adventurous! It’s a beautiful new world to explore but with 3 dives under my belt, I was ready to retire! I think I’ll stick to land from now on!