Many years ago, while on a Greek island, I tried scuba diving for the first time ever. It did not go well. Essentially, they said here's how you breathe, there's the sea, let's go! Scuba equipment includes an inflatable vest and you control it with a couple of buttons. Let air in, let air out, it is for controlling your buoyancy. The people in Greece said DO NOT TOUCH IT! When in the sea I sank to the bottom and watched everyone swim away into the murky water, leaving me like a bottom-dweller, panic-stricken. I breathed too much, too fast, not knowing how to get back, if I would ever be found, if I would die when the air ran out. It felt claustrophobic. The only way I could move was to pull myself over the rocks by grabbing at the seaweed. A horrible experience which I vowed never to repeat.
Fast forward 18 years and I went snorkelling in Bali and loved it. I wondered if I should try scuba again. Perhaps.
And then I found myself living over a scuba-diving place. A sign if ever there was one.
The "try diving" package includes a two hour boat trip to the famously beautiful islands of Koh Phi Phi (Google it, really), food, one dive with the chance of more, and pleasant company. We set off yesterday morning at 7 to collect more people and then headed off in a long-tail boat to the real boat, a large sea-going wonder that takes over 40 people, but there were just 9 guests, the Finnish guy who runs the school and five young Finnish girls who teach diving, plus the Thai crew. Mostly it was people from Finland (guests too) and I really wanted to tell you that I got into the sea and saw a fin in the water, a poorly disguised Jaws joke (I wasn't really going to do that. Really, I wasn't.)
As it turned out, I was the only one on the "try diving" trip. The others were either snorkelling or were already adept at diving, so I had my very own instructor. We went through the manual and she gave me instruction while heading for the island and when we got there I donned the gear and made ready to walk the plank. It did feel a bit like that. I stepped toward the edge of the platform at the back of the boat (my instructor and another Finnish girl already in the water waiting for me) and was told to hold my mask, hold my weight belt, and jump (walk forward till you fall into the sea, actually). And I really didn't want to do it. My last experience of scuba was terrible, the equipment weighs a lot, and you are about to fall into the sea. You know how The Mob tie concrete to bodies and dump them in the sea? It felt like that, but while still alive. At least in my "never again," mind. This time, though, something was different. All the girls were lovely, filled me with confidence, and M (I cannot remember her exact name I'm afraid, but it starts with M) said she would never, ever, leave my side. And so I stepped forward, fell into the sea, went under and bobbed back up again. The flood of information that accompanies any new physical task had swamped the fact that the vest had been filled with air. She told me, I watched her do it, she said I'd bob to the surface, and it had all slipped my mind amid nervous panic.
It was odd, floating on the water but breathing air from a tank. Part of my brain was convinced that the air wouldn't flow. Okay, THAT breath worked, but what about the next?
I held the rope from a buoy and with her hand on my shoulder strap we sank a few feet beneath the waves and stopped. It was time to do the three things I'd learned on the boat. Take out the mouthpiece and blow a steady stream of bubbles and put the mouthpiece back. Then remove the mouthpiece and let go, using the standard technique for finding it again. Then clear my mask of water. I'd learned the hand signals and we established that I knew what I was doing so far, and so with Captain Nemo determination we pressed the button the let the air out of our vests and together, her holding me, we sank down to the sea floor some 10 meters below. I breathed in. I breathed out. I didn't die, and she didn't let go of me.
M is young and blonde. We were accompanied by one of the other Finnish girls, who is also young and blonde. I felt like I was swimming with mermaids. Mermaids who, we established later, were about 5 years old when I last decided that scuba wasn't for me. But under the water, they were the ones with the years of experience, and I was a clumsy child, forgetting the simplest things while seeing wonders all about me.
M pointed things out to me as we passed them. Shoals of bright fish, coral that reacted when she wafted water over them, walls of coral reaching high above us. It was all colour and movement. She used hand signals to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to correct them. She tugged at my vest, adjusted my buoyancy, gave me a guided tour of a world quite dazzling.
And then she pointed up and I looked. It was hazy at first but I knew what it was. She'd said we might see one. Then it came back, closer, easier to see. It was a shark. Me, the underwater world's rarest and most ungainly creature was in the same water as a shark, and I was amazed by it. It was about 5 feet long I think, and very very shark-like. A harmless reef shark (unless you're a small fish), but not something I ever thought I'd see.
The dive lasted 50 minutes and it was such a positive experience I chose to do another. But, not being a young Finnish mermaid I needed a rest, so I chose to go on the excursion into town for coffee and shopping and sightseeing.
The town was washed away by the 2004 tsunami and quickly rebuilt because the islanders have nothing but tourism. It is a pretty place.
Back on the boat we headed off to another spot and once again I donned the gear. This time my instructor was Iris, who is fun and lively but takes the notion of diving very seriously indeed. They all do. This time, it being my second dive, I was shown how to control my buoyancy myself with the air in, air out buttons, and also something else. The vest, it seems, is the same size as your lungs. And so for fine control over sinking or rising, you can breathe deeper or more shallow (never forgetting to breathe of course), and I found this idea appealing. It works too!
And so there were moments in both dives when I experienced complete weightlessness. Moments when I could float meters beneath the sea and simply enjoy where I was and what I was seeing. Those moments were brief, but for the first time ever I knew why people scuba dive. It isn't being stuck on the bottom and being left to die! It's like being in space, surrounded by fish and mermaids.
The Raya diving school filled me with confidence and I want to do more. This trip is all about budget, so I'll see if, toward the end, I have enough money left to get my PADI certificate. I'd be pleased if I did.
One the way back I was talking to a Finnish couple on holiday in Thailand for a week. It's a popular place for Fins, apparently, and they said that the Raya diving school has a very good reputation. Indeed, they impressed the Fins during the Tsunami by tirelessly rescuing the lucky, and recovering the unlucky. Weeks of using their boats to help. I can imagine that.
One other thing about my terrible Greek diving experience. They did come to find me eventually, and I still have a photo they took of me looking unhappy and holding up some marine creature I was told to hold. On this trip to Phi Phi, however, I have no pictures of me under water. I wasn't holding a confused animal. Why? The mermaids weren't there to take holiday snaps of me. They were there to make sure I knew what I was doing, that I was safe, that the fishes were safe, and everyone ended up feeling good. I'm very glad I met them.
And I saw a fin in the water (I just had to say it, didn't I).
Moving with my dog to Slovenia.