There were some beautiful pictures of deep sea photography in one of my favourite online papers, this morning. They inspired me. They also reminded me of a time, many years ago when I went scuba diving. It was in 1990-something. It was in The Maldives.
It’s not what you think. I didn’t have a lobotomised awakening from disquieted delirium and decide to plunge myself miles beneath the sea’s surface. I allowed myself to be persuaded, as I so often do, that it would make really great shots for a TV programme that I was working on. It was the finals of the Miss Sandton Beauty Pageant. Yeah, I know. ‘Village Walk’ sponsored the pageant. Village Walk, back then, was a very high-end shopping mall. Today it’s lustre is somewhat less illustrious.
I was working for a TV show that highlighted glittering and glamorous events. I guess Miss Sandton must have fallen into that category because there we were covering it for the show. I was the presenter. They wanted the girls to do adventurous things in the Maldives and that meant Scuba Diving and snorkelling and hanging out on posh boats. I say ‘posh boats’ because they weren’t exactly yachts, but they were very nice and almost glamorous. I was to scuba dive with the beauty pageant girls. I’ve always been game for a challenge; even one so very completely outside my vast range of musings. I said, “Sure, why not?”
We trained in a swimming pool. It’s nice because any time you feel uncomfortable you just stand up in the pool. The water is not salty. Home is just a few miles down the road. It’s completely congenial and everyone has a good time. We tried out the diving equipment, which is a really heavy gas tank that you have to carry on your back, and a plug type thing that you have to put in your mouth to breathe through and then you must put goggles over your eyes and sit at the bottom of the pool and make scuba-lingo signs at each other. Forefinger and thumb pressed together forming a circle with pinkie held aloft meant ‘I’m OK’. If you wobble your hand from side to side it meant ‘I’m not OK’. There were others. I hardly remember. We learnt some of the jargon. It was fun and really interesting. I enjoyed it.
The Maldive Islands are beautiful. Some Islands are beyond beautiful. They are spectacular. We weren’t 5 Star, but that didn’t matter.
You walk out of your hut and onto white sand and into a diaphanous sea where millions of the most colourful, beautiful, glamorous fish you’ve ever seen go about their busy business.
The weather is divine, the water is embracing, and tuna is the perpetual cuisine. I remember thinking someone should write a book “10 000 Ways To Cook Tuna”. We had tuna for breakfast, lunch and Dinner for five days and never out of a tin. Always fresh. Always cooked in a new, unique way, but it was tuna for every meal. I like tuna as much as anyone, but………… You know?
To Scuba Dive in a swimming pool with an empty tank on you back is fun. It’s a different story when you get into the sea. We had more training. This time it was in scuba suits. They are difficult to get into so you have to make sure you’ve done the loo run before you dress, then goes on the tank full of air and gauges and stuff and stuff and then the goggles, and flippers and etcetera. I found it all very uncomfortable. They took us to shallow water and we practiced. Something that had not happened in the swimming pool was the goggles filling up with water. “It’s not a problem”, they said. You must do a manoeuvre of tipping your head slightly back and lifting the goggle and the water will pour out. You do this while you are under the water, surrounded by water. I wasn’t convinced. We tried. It worked after a few practices. It worked inconsistently. I’ll be OK. No problem. They said we should breathe normally through the tanks. We breathed normally. We were still in shallow water, so when it became uncomfortable I stood up. “You must stay under”, the instructor said. “You can’t stand up when you’re deep diving”. Hmm! I started to contemplate the wisdom, or lack thereof, of doing this scuba diving thing.
We went out for the shoot in what looked to me like a fishing trawler. Some people did this backward roll thing we’d been taught falling back first into the water. Others took what seemed like a worthy “huge step for womankind” off the boat and into the water. I was among the latter group. Fall backwards? Me? I was too nervous. We were given partners who we were told never to lose sight of, and we went under. We passed all the pretty fish and entered the realm of coral. It was dark. I didn’t like it.
They said, “Breathe normally”. Really? How? What is normal about this situation here? How’re you going to breathe normally? You are God knows how many freaking leagues under the sea. You can’t see normally. It’s dark. You have this totally unfamiliar equipment all over you. You are surrounded by water. You have a gazillion survival instructions milling about in your head, and your idiot diving partner keeps making signs at you which mean absolutely nothing but you can’t ask her what she’s trying to communicate. Nothing is normal. How the hell are you going to breathe normally? I sucked deep on that tank of air like it was my line to life. It was.
And then my goggles filled with water. I was blinded. I tried the technique they’d taught us. I tipped my head. I lifted the goggles. I sucked even harder on that air. The goggles didn’t clear, my eyes were burning, my nose got water up it and I thought;
“Sod this for a lark”.
I did what we had been told several times not to do lest we burst our lungs. I shot upwards through the water toward nitrogen and oxygen and hydrogen and helium and whatever else the atmosphere of the natural human habitat is made up of. If my lungs were going to burst let them burst where I can see the sun and feel the air. I’m not a fish. I’m not supposed to be down there any more than I’m supposed to be on Mars. What was I thinking?
The instructor followed me and when she caught up with me on the water’s surface, she ‘told me off’. Whaaat? I’d just come through a near death experience, and fear makes me temperamental. I lost it. “Don’t you yell at me,” I yelled at her, and while still treading water I told her, emphatically, where she could stick her instructions and I suggested, graphically, what she should do with them once she’d stuck them there. Bloody cheek!
The guy on the boat said I should calm down and then go back under the water. He said he’d accompany me. I smiled sympathetically, but I made no response.
I was divinely high on all that bottled air, and he was obviously out of his mind.