Initially it’s about what can go wrong. Not the best introduction, but this is the domain of adventure sports, wherein the genuine risk of death is present. Our instructor was level and cool. He smoked and spoke with a wonderfully calm English accent, the kind that might commentate a game of snooker. The instructees consisted of two French tourists and myself. We sat around by the shore, wetsuits on, talking about pressure, equalising and clearing from the back half. The instructor was working on many levels. There was also the thing about expelling water from the mask and regulator mouthpiece. We checked out some diving signals. You have no voice underwater but if you wave your hand horizontally, divers the world over will know you are in trouble. So if you see an average looking fish, don’t motion with your hand that it’s “Mmm, so-so.” The training session wasn’t actually that detailed. Mostly I remember the bit about removing the regulator mouthpiece (supply of air) from your mouth and letting it drop to your side, out of sight, before finding it again. It all seemed pretty straightforward on land. Twenty minutes later, ten foot underwater and suddenly quite fond of oxygen, it became more of a challenge. We waded out into the rocky shallows, found a sandy spot sloping away and began.
Things moved quickly. Immediately the instructor pointed to me and slid his finger across his throat. It reminded me a lot of the land signal for “You’re fucking dead”. He repeated the gesture with a little more vigour, so I pointed to my brain and thought back to him, “I’m not sure where you are coming from but I wouldn’t mind just doing the mask thing.” The third time he motioned, strongly, toward his ‘buddy’ regulator. Ah, it was time to lose my oxygen supply, as in totally, perhaps pretending a shark had chewed it off or something. I threw my regulator away and fumbled for his. Then I threw his away and tried to find mine, as a dog would its tail, all the time trying to remember to expel small amounts of air for some reason I couldn’t remember. Wow, I was looking forward to seeing some colourful fish.
‘Yeah I’m okay’, I motioned back, what the hell, I’m only breathing underwater for the first time in my life, sounding a lot like Darth Vader.
All this pretending to drown was getting me down, but I wasn’t alone. One of the French girls simply refused to remove her mouthpiece. Yes, we had all agreed to it on land, but it’s interesting how quickly the survival instinct kicks in. She subsequently invented a new diving signal, one more synonymous with female R’n’B singers in film clips where their unfaithful boyfriends come knocking for break-up sex. “Uh-uh, no way”, said her windscreen wiping forefinger. To the instructors credit he persisted, because let’s face it, one day the regulator is going to fall out of your mouth and you’re going to need to roll to your right, move your arm along the side of your thigh, sweep it past your buttock, collect the mouthpiece and re-insert it. There could be confusion, poor vision, bubbles—he was only trying to help. In fact, the more the young woman resisted, the more I wondered what she would do if my tank fell off and sunk to the depths. Imagine you are desperately in need of oxygen, slowly passing out, and the last vision you have is of a French backpacker waving her finger at you as if to say, “I know you slept with Casey and you ain’t getting no air”.
She would not relent, so common sense prevailed and she was escorted back to shore. This diving thing was a blast. Upon departure, the instructor swung around to give me two signals—‘you stay here’, and, ‘are you okay?’. ‘Yeah I’m okay’, I motioned back, what the hell, I’m only breathing underwater for the first time in my life, sounding a lot like Darth Vader and now my instructor is heading ashore. I’m great. I stared at the remaining French backpacker and decided to poke around a little. The thing that struck me about the fishes is that they totally accept you. One swam up to my mask and looked me dead in the eye. She was not scared. I guessed I was being accepted because I was in their world, not peering like a monster from above. No threat, just an awkward looking object lacking speed.
Our instructor returned and we slowly descended the sloping seabed, off into a world of giant starfish, colourful coral, schools of silver fish and exquisite caterpillars moving slowly and quietly across the dark, volcanic sands of the Amed coast. By the afternoon I had dived again and improved my breathing for more controlled flotation, like a fish. Lungs are amazing. You can totally regulate your buoyancy; exhale deeply, wait, then resume regular breathing but at a different altitude. And the opposite. Replace altitude with attitude and this could work for life on the land. The second dive was on the wreckage of the USS Liberty, a warship torpedoed off the coast of Amed in 1942. It was one of those great ‘fuck off’ moments, almost breathtaking but for the supply of oxygen. Eels rose from holes in the sand and waved like ribbons. Fish from the different oceans came together effortlessly. Divers ascended and descended around us, bubbles streaming from their faces. It was no cliché; this was wonderland, like a nature documentary, but with Darth Vader commentating instead of David Attenborough.
Back on land, I unloaded the weights from my waist and enjoyed a version of the post-surfing high. The calm speaking instructor, the one so enamoured with oxygen and lungs, offered me a cigarette. ‘Sure’, I said, why not. We sat and smoked and stared out at the calm ocean, with our French R’n’B backpacking colleague on a nearby rock looking to the horizon and thinking, nobody tells me what to do.