Thursday 24 October 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 5 (Diving)

Big Blu 2
Utende Bay
Mafia Island Marine Park

Dear o,

They’ve pulled the sail up and we’re gliding languidly over the shallow, blue-green bay back to Utende.  My left ear is battering against my brain, my head feels swollen and airy, and my pride is in the foetal position after my first scuba dive a few minutes ago.  We were 11m down and everything else was fine.  I was breathing normally and after half an hour had plenty of air in my tank.  I had no problem flushing the water out of my mask, or flapping the long and heavy fins, or marveling at the alien, underwater world.  I was even getting the hang of buoyancy control on breath and with the veritable joystick (red button up, white button down).  But the first skill Fabio showed me on the flip-chart: the simplest, easiest, most comprehensible duty of the diver: the one method to keep the brain from getting crushed by the weight of the sea, was just not working.

Scuba divers need to ‘equalise’ with every metre or so of depth by pinching the nose and exhaling with the mouth shut, which pushes air out the ears in balance with the increasing water pressure.  Fabio told me to do this when my ears felt “sick”.  But the pain wasn’t going away, and I probably made it worse by blowing out harder and harder.  As we passed by another heap of coral and fearless fish, I tapped Fabio, pointed to my ear, and made the signal for trouble.  He signalled for me to blow, but I gestured that it wasn’t working.  Fabio pulled out and untied an emergency-red bag, and blew it up with his alternate regulator (breathing tube).  I was terribly embarrassed: the whole bay would now see that a first-time diver was having an “emergency”, that he couldn’t handle the deep blue sea, that he was afraid a shark was nibbling at his toes.  As Fabio gripped me by my pressure guage I had a childhood memory of learning how to swim in a big pool with a lifejacket.  The instructor brought us to the tallest diving board and made us all jump.  I was at the edge and realised there that I didn’t want to.  The instructor pushed and I screamed, and he grabbed me mid-air by the lifejacket collar.  I remember hanging off the board, slowly rotating over the earth far below, waiting to be pulled up – and then the instructor just let me go.  Worse than the fear of falling was the fear that everybody would see that I was afraid of falling.

There are really only two choices of who to go diving with on the island: Mafia Island Diving, and Big Blu.  To anyone who has the time and pays attention, the decision is already made.  Mafia Island Diving is affiliated with various Utende resorts and is located on the grounds of the Mafia Island Lodge.  They wear red shirts, hold their heads high, and are renowned by virtually everyone as a pack of assholes.  Big Blu, the newer dive company, have a far more casual, friendly and laid-back approach, seem interested in being part of the community instead of pitching against it, and they have a new Italian dive instructor, Fabio, who is quite possibly the nicest guy in the world. 

I arrived at Big Blu’s beachfront site at 8:30am and after a few honey-drizzled chapati-pancakes and slices of watermelon I began my one-on-one knowledge lesson with Fabio.  We went over the fundamentals of air pressure, water pressure, equipment, diving, the skills I’d be learning, and how the one-day course can fit into longer PADI scuba qualifications.  There was a short test at the end, during which I was sure Fabio would have held my hand if I looked uneasy, and then it was time to try on the equipment.  Wetsuit, booties, mask, BCD (buoyancy control device), regulators, pressure guage, fins, and a very exciting number of buckles and straps made me understand that this was actually happening – and that it was indeed a different beast from snorkeling.

Now, I’ve been excited about diving on Mafia for months, and only two things have made me nervous.  First, that like many others, I might enjoy it so much I’d be hooked and would have to change my career path to professional diver.  And second, that it would be just like snorkeling.  It’s probably been ten years since I last went out to sea with a plastic tube fixed to my mouth.  Maybe I didn’t have a good enough snorkel, or maybe I wasn’t doing it right, but all I can remember is how much I hated it.  There I was, suspended by only the rabid kicking of my flippered feet, looking down on a bunch of fish I couldn’t care less about, while every few seconds I got gulps of water down the breathing tube.  It was claustrophobic, it was maddening, and it was impossible to get past the exertion to the point.  Surely you don’t get water down your tube or in your mask when you go scuba diving?

The Big Blu 2, one of the company’s several scuba diving dhows, took us out a little ways from shore to a neck-deep section of the bay.  We put on the wetsuits just moments before getting in (the sun is too hot otherwise) and after a quick review, inflated our BCDs and flipped backwards off the gunwale into the ocean.  Fabio brought us to a standing position and we went up and down from the surface to practice each of the diving skills: flushing the mask, taking off and retrieving the regulator while underwater, using the up-and-down buttons, and equalising.  On the surface I kept falling backwards because of the weight of my tank, but Fabio just reached out his hand and tugged me back.  Underwater, he slowly and methodically demonstrated each skill, and then with a hand gesture that felt like he was offering me a cookie, asked me to do it.  When I did it right, he took my hand in both of his and pressed, as if telling me that no one in the history of the human species had ever eaten a cookie so inspiringly.  When Fabio had finished reaffirming his position as quite possibly the nicest guy in the world, we got back on the boat, motored over to a deeper section of the bay, and commenced with the real diving.

Under the water there are mountains of life.  The fish are either desensitised to graceless, clumsy fools like me, or they never learned to be afraid in the first place.  Creatures of every colour and shape and stripe and combination and strangeness swim right by, or hover below, or hang out around the corner.  There are spiky corals, fluffy corals, and potato corals.  There are meandering schools of fluorescent blue with darting little eyes; rainbow-backed speed-swimmers who circle around sections of fire coral; clams the size of a coffee table and in the shape of a set of lungs, waiting for me to insert my stupid hand; giant, lethargic, curious bulbs from the side who nearly disappear head on when they come close as if to shake fins.  They are countless, weird, and impossibly beautiful, and they all live in a fantasyland.  At one point when we passed by a tower of coral I stopped and kicked myself upright.  The red and white buttons, by the sake of luck not ability, were evenly-pressed and I could just sit there for a minute.  Fabio stopped, turned and asked with the “okay” signal if I was okay.  “Okay,” I gestured back, and then he looked with me.  There was nothing special to see.  Only a few fish, no brilliant colours, and a little fog in the water between us and the tower.  Maybe he thought I was nuts, as I stared for a over a minute.  But that’s when I got it: I wasn’t just swimming through a glorified zoo, or peeking briefly into some strange, dark place.  I was at the base of a totally different world, unthreatened, unthreatening.  Childish though it may sound, I realised that the coral tower before me, taller than any house on Mafia, was not just an artifact or an ecology: it was a waypoint, a landmark, a home.  The fish swimming around it didn’t come for me or to be fed or to be admired – I was the one in the cage.  I was the eternal guest.

I was too enthralled to say anything (or, gesture anything) about my failure to equalise, and the growing pain in my ear, and I probably went too long for Fabio’s liking.  I was also thinking too hard about how many times to press the red button to not scrape against the coral and at the same time not balloon back up to the surface.  I hoped that eventually I’d just adapt.  But eventually, not long after the coral tower, I had to make the signal.

When we came to the surface I wiped my nose and there was blood.  I thought Fabio would be horrified, but he barely shrugged.  It’s normal, maybe I have sinus congestion, a cold or something.  What about the ear pain?  It’s normal, equalising takes practice.  Sorry, I said.  He shook his head, don’t be sorry.  He told me the red buoy is standard at the end of every dive, so the divers know where to gather and the boat knows where to go.  We waited for the Big Blu 2 to fetch us and we floated there, helplessly, smacking against the little waves and flapping to stay upright.  We are all guests below the surface, all on temporary permits.

On deck as we bask in the sun with biscuits and tea, my ear still hurts, my head still throbs, and my whole body feels strange and weak.  I think about nitrogen bubbles, water pressure and the bends.  I put my finger in my ear, take it out again, and there is no difference in sound.  I worry about being a bad student, an unnatural diver, a clumsy human.  But of the two counts by which I was nervous about today, only one remains.  I want to go back.