I knew that E had become a keen diver during her stay in Fiji. Her birth sign is Cancer, the crab. Being a typical Aquarian, i.e. I don’t believe in astrology, I had surmised that for her this activity was atypical. Obviously I was wrong, and her invitation to me to join her and some friends for their Easter weekend was greeted with a sense of paranoia rather than gratitude.
Dammit, I don’t even like to put my head underwater even in the shower and you’re asking me to submerge myself for an entire weekend?
Not that I’d be expected to procure a set of diving gear – tank, depth gauge, compass, watch, wet suit, a miscellany of tubes for slotting into my mouth and other orifices of tank and jacket, plus – and most alarmingly – a set of lead weights to keep me below the waves.
I’d heard about the bends and decompression chambers and lifelines becoming entangled in wrecks, and I’d seen the film Jaws and the Poseidon Adventure. I’d also seen TV documentaries of Jacques Cousteau plumbing the depths of several oceans. His vision of undersea cities is totally loony, yet glimpses of tropical fish swimming past my living room screen, a video aquarium, were strangely tantalising. So the weekend was to be a personal challenge, if only not to appear unsociable.
The first stage to underwater exploration is to wear a mask and snorkel. According to the Collins English Dictionary (what else, eh?), this is a device allowing a swimmer to breathe while face down on the surface of the water, consisting of a bent tube fitting into the mouth and projecting above the surface. the word is apparently derived from the German word schnorchel and is related to the German word schnarchen: to snore.
Snoring is what sleepers do, usually when sharing a bedroom; because when nasal passages are blocked, breathing is done through the mouth. When snorkling, and diving, a mask is worn over the nose and eyes, hopefully forming an air- and water-tight seal. In other words, if the mask is adequate, it becomes impossible to breathe through the nose and you can see underwater.
All that sounds so logical. I purchased a mask of such shape and size that my dismantled spare pair of spectacles could fit snugly inside. With tube in mouth and borrowed flippers on feet, I launched myself into Suva’s Olympic swimming pool.
Controlling breathing, in through mouth and likewise out, proved difficult. Getting an airtight seal around the eyes and nose proved even more so as the hairs of my moustache served as capillaries letting in enough water to submerge nasal passages. Also, as I had intuitively known, the effect of keeping one’s face down in the water was claustrophobic. Furthermore, leaving the secure comfort of the poolside rail only induced panic and worry about the strength of my heart muscles.
So E drove us to the Coral Coast and the Man Friday resort where I noticed a plate of water melon costs $3.40 (c.£2). Isolated and expensive, there were few tourists.
The small beach shelves shallowly and small patches of coral lie just beneath the surface. That is more interesting that the blue chlorinated waters of a swimming pool. Little fishes darting in the garden. Purple starfish and the actively poisonous crown of thorns gobbling the coral. Gradually, like a child learning to ride a bicycle, confidence came and I went a bit further and eventually found myself floating, still head down, feeling smug at being out of my depth.
All it took was a bit of practical practice. Once the mind loses the need to rationalise each movement, once visual perception supersedes the over-riding concern for survival, with the mind and body synchronises and relaxes, then what was once seemingly insurmountable becomes not only possible but also tempting.
A trip later that day out to the Suva reef with E’s dive club showed me one other fear to be conquered. Jumping into water with a depth of 60ft and more was jumping into the unknown. Little matter that the reef was poking flatly out of the water a mere 50 feet away. Maybe it was a small splash for mankind, but it was a giant leap for me.
However, good news was in store: for the Easter weekend dive trip to the reefs off Kandavu, buoyancy jackets were to be provided for the three non-divers, presumed snorkellers, in the group.
At least I wouldn’t sink.