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The day I became a diver...

Yesterday I became a certified PADI open water diver. Sounds pretty cool to type that! It was facing a fear as much as it was learning a new skill – at some point between the ages of 10 and 29 I developed a mysterious fear of putting my face under water – something I’m sure sprung from an early viewing of a drowning scene in some scary film I wasn’t supposed to be watching. Jaws, probably. But anyway, if you could see the sea here, you’d probably think the same thing I did. There’s something about the flat, calming Caribbean waters that make you want to get right to the bottom of what makes them so blue. I’m in Jamaica, by the way.

It’s a different blue to the Gulf in Dubai, probably because the sky above isn’t thick with sand. It stretches out to infinity and never shows a patch of murky grey or a reflection of a crane. The Caribbean is sparkling turquoise and mysterious navy, and each wave is soft, salty and refreshingly cool. You can see to the bottom from 20 feet above. Lying flat in the net of a catamaran two days ago, I saw giant starfish dotting the ocean floor, one after the after, like sunken Christmas tree decorations. Jet skis, kayaks and water skiers stir up the surface all around the coast where the resorts are, but further out the tides bash the cliffs and threaten colourful, carefully perched houses on stilts that were long ago claimed by creeping jungle vegetation, greener than the greenest greens you’ve ever seen. Nature is everywhere in Jamaica, still mostly unspoilt. I thought, if I’m really going to brave the depths of an ocean, I want it to be this one.

The equipment is so heavy! I could barely lift it out of the water. It was kind of reassuring to be carrying so much air though. We spent a few hours learning basic skills; how to equalise, which is basically like you’d do on a plane by pinching your nose. We learnt how to use each other’s spare air under water in case ours ran out, and how…well, how not to panic and drown. I didn’t feel too great about taking off my mask, however. One of the skills you have to do to qualify is take off your mask under water, put it back on and blow the water out of it from your nose. Of course, at this point, all my fear came back to me. The mask was protection against my face-in-the-water phobia, but once it was off I was helpless, in a panic, drowning, being chased by a Great White, pushing for the surface! It took a while to master that in the pool, but I knew I had to do it, as the next day I’d be expected to perform the same act, 30 feet down in the sea, lying flat on the sand (gulp).

Even once you’ve got the swimming pool skills down, it’s a different story when you’re out on the boat, strapping on your BCD and fins and being told to jump straight into that infinite mass of thrashing blue that has always both fascinated and terrified you. I didn’t really have any words. I felt a bit like a zombie as I stumbled from safety and then gasped for too much air from my tank! But the surface is the worst part. It feels unnatural bobbing on the top of that sea, watching waves so different from the ones that lap the beach, coming right up over your head as the boat moves away! Once you’re under though, you forget what you were so afraid of. It felt like no time at all until we were standing on the seabed amongst weirdly coloured coral, waving plants and inquisitive fish in some truly odd colours! Sound travels faster. Light is bent and twisted, magnifying and morphing. Creatures look you in the eye and smile before flitting away faster than your poor human vision can follow. Looking up, the sun beats down from 30 feet above your head, lost occasionally in your own flow of bubbles.

We swam about for 10 minutes until we saw them – two giant nurse sharks hiding in a cave! Each was about eight foot long and sandy brown in colour – I could see their massive gills opening and closing as we glided above them and looked down. I felt my eyes bulge in my mask. That was probably one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever laid eyes on.

When it came to finally taking my mask off on the seabed, I knew it was the key to entering this amazing world again. In a way, I craved the drug. So I did it. I felt the water rush over my face, sensed the endless darkness all around me, heard the slow robotic whoosh of air in my ears as I inhaled and breathed through my mouth, knowing I was 30 feet down and blind at the mercy of mother earth in her most awe-inspiring form. I sucked it up. Breathed all panic out with my last breath, did what I’d learnt until some five seconds later, my eyes were covered, dry and open again. When I got the ok signal, I knew the ocean was and always will be mine!

Posted: 25 August 2009

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