My first experience of SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving was in Cambodia 5 years ago, one of the lucky ones that learnt the ropes in water not dissimilar to bath water at 36℃. Getting to grips with the equipment was easy, donning the BCD for the first time I played with the device pumping air in and out of the vest, started to breathe through the regulator, conditioning my brain to accept that the mouth is how you breathe now – forget the nose.
Wading into the shallow water of Koh Rong Samloem my Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) was already inflated, effortlessly keeping my head and shoulders above the water once we’d got out further than I could stand. Our instructor told us to put our regulators in and purge them, this was it, my first period of breathing underwater for an extended period of time was about to begin.
Holding the BCD hose above my head I dumped the air that was holding me above the water and allowed myself to sink to the bottom, only a few metres down, there was no reason to worry about the bends just yet. As my feet touched the sand the world appeared to slow down, even turning my head took about four times longer than it should have. An eerie silence took over as well, there were some sounds but they seemed so distant that I’d never know what they were, all I could hear was my own breathing and the bubbles it created pounding towards the surface.
Instantly I knew that exploring the underwater world was something I could get along with, you may not associate the tranquil pace of gliding through the water in a kind of weightless safari with adrenaline filled activities but, you don’t always need to have a heart rate of a million BPM to make something worth doing.
Sometimes the experience of being in another world away from “reality” with nothing but your own thoughts and lost landscapes to explore can be all you need to provide a selfish escapism, in the same way that a skydive or bungee jump would. Putting you in a zone where you operate on a different level to 99% of your time, in my opinion the more time you spend like this, the better.
That’s not to say there are no dangers with SCUBA diving, the bends and ruptured lungs are real possibilities if you panic and surface too quickly. There are also strong down currents which can drag you far deeper than you should be going, into crushing pressures and a good chance of Nitrogen Narcosis, meaning that you would feel drunk and the chances of saving yourself are dramatically decreased.
These things shouldn’t put you off though. You probably won’t die and you’ll have a hobby that can take you all over the world and help you meet new people. Nothing helps you bond quicker than relying on each other for navigation at 30 metres and avoiding decompression sickness. It’s relatively cheap to get qualified, especially if you do it abroad and combine it with a holiday or travelling expedition, also the equipment is available to rent at pretty much every dive site, meaning you don’t have to fork out for your own gear right away.
My first real dive after completing the Advanced Open Water PADI course was a baptism of fire, the volunteer project that I was a part of had a target of preserving the number of seahorses in the surrounding waters of the island. This meant a lot of dives getting up close and personal with the sea bed scouring over little bits of foliage, looking for well camouflaged sea horses that often were no bigger than 3-4cm. This is incredibly difficult when the visibility is no more than about 30cm, there had been a ferocious storm the night before causing a strong current and kicking up silt.
To put it into perspective we had to follow the anchor line to the bottom so that we all ended up in the same place… Sticking close to my dive buddy suddenly became my top priority, fuck the sea horses, he was a more experienced diver, had the dive computer and the experience to make the call if it became too dangerous. Sometimes only catching a wisp of a fin across my face was the only way I knew that I was still heading in the right direction, fighting the current meant I was kicking my skinny little heart out so if I had headed the wrong way, I would have been lost real fast.
It was only about 20-30 minutes before it was decided that we couldn’t realistically do a survey under these conditions, it was surprisingly dark for 13 metres because of the silt and if you took your eyes off your buddy to look at the ocean floor, there was about a 90% chance you’d lose them.
On return to the boat everyone was on a high, talking about how little they could see, how tough it was swimming against the current and how scared they were on their first proper dive. THIS is how you make memories that will last a lifetime, I can’t remember what I did on Tuesday but this first dive 5 years ago, no problem.
There are other dives that I remember but for other reasons, once it felt like I was diving through glass. Looking to my right I could see my two buddies gliding amongst different coloured columns of coral, metres away with no interruptions. They were suspended as if in mid air, more experienced by this point our breathing was much slower, more controlled which meant that you could go a long time without seeing any bubbles, it was surreal… Time stood still.
These are the kinds of memories that I think everyone should have, not a lack of memories from Friday night because you “live for the weekend”. Live for exploration, live for fear, live for new experiences. There’s quite literally a different reality to explore and YOU have access to it, all you have to do it make it happen.