Dive #1: The One Where I Drown in My Own Mask
Shaking off water and shivering with cold and embarrassment, I dragged my gear-laden body up the stairs of our dive boat, anchored in the middle of the Coral Sea. I was on vacation visiting a good friend from my university days, Ian, who studies medicine in Queensland, Australia. We discovered that we were both passionate though inexperienced divers, so we did what most logical amateur extreme-sports enthusiasts would do: we booked a two-day, seven-dive package on the Great Barrier Reef. And that is precisely where I found myself on the morning of April 21st.
I hadn’t dived in exactly one year, since my trip to the Mantanani Island in Borneo, Malaysia the previous April, but I waved off the dive guides’ offer of skills re-testing, as I was confident that muscle memory would kick in and that my natural grace and coordination would come back as soon as I hit the water. I was proven wrong at exactly 11:45 am.
“Ready?” our guide asked me a little impatiently. I was fussing with the straps of my mask a little more than his liking, and the other three members of our group were waiting for me.
“Yep… my mask is just leaking a little.”
The guide, a tall, severe man with a heavy accent from an indiscernible European country who we’ll call John, descended with Ian and the rest of the group while I treaded water at the surface, still attempting to adjust my mask. But no matter how I played with the irritating, neon-green plastic straps, water would flood my face every time I descended.
After a few more minutes of this amateur ridiculousness, John came back up to the surface. “Are you ready? Everyone’s waiting!”
Against my better judgment, I nodded and descended with the guide. But after a minute, my mask again flooded, filling my eyes and nostrils with warm, salty water, and I re-surfaced in a panic. John came up after me, and after I attempted a few mask-clearing techniques to no avail, he gave up.
“Ok… the rest of the group is waiting, so I have to leave now. Why don’t you go back up and find another mask, and then I’ll come back for you later.” And with that, he left me by the edge of the boat, like a sad, abandoned puppy in a PETA advertisement.
It was only our first dive, and I had already had a small panic attack, proven my incompetence in front of a group of strangers, and been left behind on a boat while everyone else was most likely playing with turtles and swimming with stingrays. If this was a competition, Anne Robinson would have already eliminated me from the team with her acerbic yet appropriate, “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”
However, despite my underlying fear that John et al had left me for good and I would have to find an abandoned volleyball to draw on and befriend à la Tom Hanks, he returned. I had changed my mask and confidently decided that my previous panic attack and display of gross diving incompetence were wholly due to the leaky piece of equipment on my face.
“I figured out why my mask was leaking before! There was a –“
“That’s nice,” John cut me off, exhibiting the same enthusiasm I have when people show me pictures of their alien-esque newborn babies.
“Let’s go.” And we were off.
Dive #1.5 – The One Where I Meet Wally
After barely passing a much-needed diving skills re-assessment on the scratchy ocean floor, John took me on a private tour of the Troppos site of the reef. A few minutes later, I forgot about my leaky mask, my rusty diving skills, and being abandoned on the boat. We made our way carefully along the reef, swimming over garden eels, honeycomb moray eels, anemonefish, and batfish. I was hyperventilating due to my over-excitement at finally being under the surface of the water, surrounded by red, green, and blue coral and fish of all sizes and colours, and I incurred the silent irritation of John, as he signaled me to Calm The Hell Down.
After a few minutes of this giddy underwater exploration, I noticed an intricately patterned blue fish approaching us. Its big pouty lips and sad bulging eyes grew disturbingly large in my depth-distorting mask, and three thoughts immediately ran through my head:
- This fish is the size of a small pony.
- It kind of looks like one of my uncles.
- It’s going to eat my face.
I resumed my hyperventilating. I was in attack mode, ready to underwater-Muay Thai this creature, which I later found out was a Napoleon Maori Wrasse, if he tried to eat me. Then, John lifted his hand up. Quickly and deliberately, the giant changed course and headed straight for his outstretched hand. As I watched, the wrasse gently hit John’s hand with its oversized lips, circled around, and when John lifted up his other hand, repeated the motion. I was incredulous. The wrasses, all affectionately called Wally by the dive staff, had become so comfortable with the consistent presence of divers that they had invented a game with them, the rules of which were known only by the regular divers and the Wallies of the Great Barrier Reef.
As we ascended, Wally circled us entreatingly, reluctant to let the game end so quickly. We had come up a little early – I was running low on air, a side effect of being overly joyful while in a low-oxygen setting. But I didn’t mind – I was still reeling from my first (mostly) successful dive in a year and from the sight of an irritable European playing with a fish with the eyes of a hungry child and the lips of Angelina Jolie.
More to come soon…
For more underwater photos, please check out my flickr album!