I reluctantly scoot my bum to the edge of the seat on the boat. I’ve checked, double-checked, buddy-checked and just in case – checked all my dive gear again. My mask is spit-clean and I hear the skipper call, “3, 2, 1, GO!” My mind stalls, “Nope I don’t think you should go,” she says, but my body goes. I let myself fall backwards into the ocean in a nice tumble. Mia, my dive instructor tells us, “Fall back and let the ocean hug you.” The ocean did hug me. It was fresh, cool and exhilarating. And then, it shoved me.
In the last few weeks I’ve been restless. I wanted a shake-up. I wanted to be released from the hamster wheels in my mind and from the drudgery of knowing just what to expect. A friend of mine says I overthink everything. He’s right. I needed something that allowed me to feel without knowing what to feel. And so, I went down to Scottburgh in KZN to do my Open Water diving course.
Diving is one of the most technical sports I’ve ever experienced. Everything is designed around safety and yet every single part of the course reminds you of the vast menu of ways in which you can die. So, on that Friday morning, in Aliwal Shoal, as soon as we started to deflate and go under, all I was thinking of, was ways of not dying. The first stress I felt was when it took me a while to equalize. Thoughts of bursting ear drums and shrapnel of exploded inner-ear floating alongside me was what my mind was conjuring up. An overactive imagination and a penchant for drama do not necessarily suit the diver’s mindset, I soon learnt.
Finally, I make it down to 14 metres. Mia is the most amazing and intuitive instructor and her passion for the ocean is contagious. Sensing my stress, she indicates to me to look at the amazing underwater world around me. Like Dory, I’m soon distracted and begin to calm down. That is, until Mia asks me to perform my ‘regulator release’ skill. Now, this is a concept that seems entirely contradictory to living. It’s ludicrous to be asked to let go of the very thing that allows you to breathe!! Nonetheless, I have practiced this in the pool many times. But the difference between the pool and the ocean is like the leap from story sums to advanced mathematics in one day.
At first, I’m not ready and Mia lets me be. Later on, after seeing a Trumpet fish and a Potato Bass, all feels well in the underwater world. So, Mia comes up close to me and asks again. I release the regulator and lean to the right but for some reason I don’t lean far enough and can’t retrieve it. Immediately panic sets in. Forgetting that I have an alternate, I start hyperventilating and swallowing water. Mia immediately gives me her alternate. But I’m so panicked that I can’t even get it into my mouth. I don’t remember doing this but Mia says through all the mayhem, I managed to communicate the sign for “Something’s wrong! Take me up!”
Mia held me and made eye contact, trying to calm me down but I just couldn’t breathe properly. As we were ascending, I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m not going to make it to the top. This is how I go.”
Clearly, I’m alive and well now, relaying this story, and so Death be kind. Now I can chuckle at the idea that I thought I had reached my Life’s full stop. But in that moment, I didn’t trust the knowledge or the equipment, and I didn’t believe in the little black and white sticker that says, “Everything’s going to be okay.” I came to the top gasping for air, Mia talking to me all the time. She lay me on my back and unzipped my wetsuit as I floated, gasping like a Shakespearean gutted fish, crying my soliloquy to the audience in the sky, “I can’t! I can’t!”
About forty-five minutes later, I was back in the ocean, thanks to the firm persuasion of Mia and the head of the dive school, Nico. This time, I held onto Mia’s hand as if it was a new kind of life source, a fool-proof regulator. I only let go when she had to release the SMB – Surface Marker Buoy (which is not the same as the SPG or the BCD or the DIN, just so you know and don’t get lost in the sea of acronyms).
Diving is unlike any other thing I’ve ever experienced. I have a new respect for the dive community. Yes, the ocean is magical and tranquil but it’s also where you face your own insignificance. Something about it has always scared me. Maybe it’s because my mom and dad taught me to feel humbled by the mightiness of nature – mountains and ocean. Maybe it’s because my father took me to the sea and would raise me up onto his shoulders as soon as the waves licked my little ankles. Or maybe it’s because even as an adult, I would always swim where I could still see him sitting on the shore waiting for me. And maybe it’s because a family friend – a beautiful, adventurous woman, full of joie de vivre – died while diving.
Whatever it is, there is a strange feeling that I need to go back to that washing machine called Aliwal Shoal. They say if you can dive there, you can dive anywhere in the world. Harry, my brother’s father-in-law, says, “When I’m on a dive, the ocean is my church.” I’m still figuring it out but for this past week, the deep sea is the place that has taken up all my dream time. Slowly descending, slowing ascending, never dying… and always coming up with positive buoyancy.