We set off at two in the morning in order to catch high tides and avoid low reefs. The Fiji Diver was in the capable hands of Charlie and Charles, two tattooed Fijians. While they steered, ten expats snatched a few hours sleep, which was difficult as we rolled flat-bottomed through the night.
The morning dawned cloudy, and the whole weekend was to remain overcast and occasionally rainy. But no matter. At eight, as we lay in the lee of a small uninhabited isle the divers got ready to descend.
Buddies were paired and checks were done. Compressed air in back tanks, every bit of kit checked and accounted for, 50 minutes at 20 metres agreed, and down they went in two groups of three and four.
With Pauline opting out, that left Don, a Peace Corps volunteer and our troubadour, and myself to our own devices. There was little point in procrastinating. Toothpaste smeared inside my mask to prevent steaming up, socks on feet to prevent flipper sores, ancient T-shirt, not yet discarded, on torso to prevent sun burn on back, and inflated buoyancy jacket strapped on to prevent sinking.
There were no excuses left. So, right flipper forward, into the ocean I went.
And so began the love affair.
The divers dove six times, once at night. I snorkelled six times and more, though not at night. And what sights were in reach to behold from the surface.
The coral gardens bounded by walls of indeterminable depth. One moment over a bottomless blue, the next stroke, a kick of the legs, bringing one over bushes, beds and rocky outfalls. I know coral is animal, but one eyes spiky, rounded, soft, flat, ornate, simple plants, flora not fauna. Less surreal than Bosch, less hallucinatory than unfamiliar. Every alleyway a surprise. Swimming silently as if in a Star Wars alien land, slowly avoiding cuts and bruises or beasties lurking around the mushrooming bend. Yet not so much alien as comforting.
Floating in warm briny water is therapeutic: ask any physiotherapist or worker with the mentally handicapped. In spite of the need to balance the body against swells and currents, and the occasional need to clear accumulated sea in the snorkel – a heavy blow or staccato spit does this – physical exertion seems effortless.
Arms, legs, fingers and torso gently react as the eyes are engaged.
Floating over a puffer fish, sand coloured for disguise and inflated to make it a larger and less inviting bite. A temptation to play ball but something is nibbling my legs. Thin pipe fish, three inches of yellow and black looking for choice morsels on my thighs. Stop it, that tickles.
Darting in and out of the hollows and cracks of the reefs are a kaleidoscope of fish. Some plainly dark, others bright blue, almost flourescent. Tiny damsels glinting in the corner of one’s eye as rainbow wrasses and moorish idols, incandescent spots and stripes, parade around. Small clown fish cavort and dart away. Below, a mere arm’s length away, a flicker of a fin gives the lie. That is not part of the coral, although the mottled skin reflects the shadows. And part of the sandy hollow glides away to find another refuge.
Constantly shifting and shimmering, this is not TV or cinema verité, but a happening before your very eyes. A clam gapes, an undulating white porcelain rim, lips of a fleshy green. Drop a piece of broken coral. Above all, keep fingers clear as the shell halves snap shut.
Although becoming a part of the sea scape, we are apart. Disturbing little, one gets disturbed little. Not by the parrot fish whose bright garish colours were no match for Charlie spearfishing for our supper. Nor by the white-tip reef shark which passed 30 feet below me. Like strangers in the night, it swam along the reef wall in the opposite direction to me. I noticed its passing – oh, that’s the first time I’ve seen a shark in the flesh – with no time for phobias or fears. Besides, I don’t think it saw me.
The divers saw more. They had their own close encounters with white tips, and saw a fourteen foot ray on the sea bed relaxed like a blanket laid out to dry. Caves, terraces and gullies were there to explore. Their more experienced eyes and lungs found conches and other dwellers indigenous to Fijian waters. Denizens of the deep, their prowess aroused my curiosity.
I can now barely wait to be sufficiently weighted. Having been offered a spare lifeline, I now have to try. I doubt that the opportunity will come my way again.
Note: I did try and sank a couple of metres below the surface. Unfortunately, as soon as the thought came that I shouldn’t panic, I did, and so ended my one and only dive. But I kept the mask and snorkel and have enjoyed exploring many subsequent reefs, especially here in Indonesia.