The Pool is Open

Posted on April 24, 2017

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It’s been almost two weeks since my bags and myself were weighed at Nadi airport before I boarded the tiny plane to SavuSavu. As it soared over the turquoise blue landscape I was filled with excitement about plunging back into the warm water for the next ten weeks.

The Drummer (my new flatmate/manager of the dive centre) and his team have been wonderful in welcoming me into the fold and I feel very happy and fortunate to have the support of everyone at Jean-Michel Cousteau Diving.

I live a short ten minute walk from the resort and my day is full on. I am up at six every morning making my packed breakfast (two hard boiled eggs, mixed nuts and dried fruits) and lunch (salad of beans, carrots, cucumber, avocado and beetroot). In work by 7.10am and swim training by 7.20am. That’s definitely the worst part of my day. I am not a strong swimmer neither am I fast and by the end of my term here I will have to be both for my in-water skills exam. I have seen improvement in the last 12 days but it is slow progress. Some days I just don’t want to do it at all. It brings back horrible childhood memories of my swimming teacher Mrs Norman who was a dragon. But like every obstacle in life if it was easy to overcome where would the challenge be?

My spankle (ligament damage to my right ankle) is now 100 per cent fully healed. Finally after almost three months and it’s been tested to the max diving in several strong currents. By 8am I’m checking the daily dive schedule on the office board and helping the guys to kit up the boat for the first dive at 8.30am. There are usually only two dives a day but we also train a lot of first time divers in the pool. Compressing tanks is dull but necessary as it is what lets us breathe underwater. If I have any energy left at the end of the day, I practise yoga for an hour at around 5.30pm at the resort looking out to sea. Then before the light disappears i walk home and up the mother of all steep climbs. Homework involves reading and text book questions; I cook dinner and then do more reading before crashing into bed by 9.30pm.

So far the diving experience has been a mixture of extreme highs (marine sights and good dive buddies) and some lows (some people’s attitude in the water). I ironically find myself looking more at our clients than at the fish and marine life. This internship while making you into a better diver is also about reading people’s behaviour on land and underwater. It’s about anticipating problems before they occur and finding solutions fast. I must admit Alpha males are the ones that require the most diplomacy, patience and tongue biting.

In my first week I had one family with me for a few days. The mother was not confident and I spent the first dive holding her hand for 30 minutes. I don’t think I’ve held my own mother’s hand for thirty minutes ever. This woman was nervous and  terrified. But as she became more relaxed, her confidence grew and with encouragement she turned out to be pretty good in the water. Her younger daughter was a precocious teenager and didn’t listen to dive briefings and at times was ahead of the instructor leading the way. She kicked too fast and too hard and was rarely horizontal. Her father, a rather arrogant air-guzzler liked to stand bi-pedially on the ocean floor. “It’s diving mate, you have a floatation jacket, use it,” I would say in my head. I swear he was trying to walk at one stage. He had no buoyancy at all. It was like watching him go up and down stood upright in a glass elevator. Within 25 minutes he had sucked up all his air and was out of the water. He did however share in the excitement of seeing shoals of fish and rather comically would peer down in-between the coral and wave at the fish. Yes, wave, and with gusto. It was like he was greeting old friends. Bizarre!

Then there was the novice 40-something diver who wanted to dive with his newly acquired diving mates he’d met at the resort. He had no buoyancy either. He would breast-stroke his way through the water. I called him the “floater” because there were many times I had to hang onto his BCD (dive jacket) or weight belt and yank him back down for either a safety stop or just to get him down deep enough. His enthusiasm made him likeable though and he recognised his flaws and was so apologetic whenever I had to exit the dive early with him while the others carried on.

We had a doctor and his wife try diving. Another Alpha. He would parade around the pool with his chest puffed out like a rooster. In the water he was more interested in using his go-pro than being marine aware. Up and down he went. Another one on an invisible fairground ride. On his first dive he was cart-wheeling his arms backwards like a roller skater about to lose his balance. I could almost see what was about to happen, but I didn’t have enough time to gently nudge him forward. His huge arm came crashing down and smashed into very delicate pretty branching coral. The fragile blue clusters shattered immediately. Decades of growth gone in a flash. I let out a yelp, distraught at what I saw. He checked for his go-pro and carried on. His karma. He got cut. Coral can give divers nasty cuts and scraps another reason to stay away and keep a safe responsible distance. Tourist divers need better eduction about dive etiquette and I fully intend to make that my mission. We are already losing the battle to climate change. The reefs need all the help they can get.

For me diving is a privilege. Humans shouldn’t be underwater and yet we have found a way to be amphibious thanks to SCUBA. We need to show more respect to that environment. I remind people please don’t touch, take or harass the wildlife and marine environment. If you get bitten or cut it is probably because you are doing something you shouldn’t. Be spatially aware. It’s very easy to forget what’s around you.

The best bit of the job is seeing people who love or have a curiosity about diving improve and then shine. The longer they remain underwater the more chance they have of seeing cool creatures like sharks, turtles and my favourites the Humpheaded Wrasse and Manta Rays. There’s nothing like sharing your dive experience with another diver. You bond.

This weekend I went out with a Nitrox diver who had recently qualified as a Dive Master and his young son, a newly certified Open Water diver (beginner). They chartered the boat to go to Manta Mount. It was the best dive of my life. The journey to the Namena Marine Reserve is far and it can be rough. The boat takes 45minutes and it is a trip that will only happen if a guest is wiling to foot the bill. It is not one of our regular dive sites. It was my first visit to this particular site and although like every dive you always want to see mega fauna, there’s never a guarantee.

Fifteen minutes into the dive we began our ascent up from the shelf which was around 30m. Above us we saw them. Their large cloak like shadows making shapes as the sunbeams refracted the light. Three pelagic manta rays. They circled and tumbled for us. A spectacle that is etched in my memory forever.

We reached 17m and gently held onto the dead coral swaying and bobbing in the current as one Manta glided over to us within touching distance. Up and over it’s beautiful body flipped, like a large silk scarf in a washing machine. It’s shiny, white underside glistening like a freshly peeled lychee and it’s glossy ebony back arching. Surrounding us were dozens of adult and some baby sharks – white tip and reef – circling closely. Spanish mackerel darted past and even the teeny tiny clownfish (anemone fish) made an appearance peering out of the tentacles of the coral.

The performance lasted six minutes and how I wished it were for a full hour. As quickly as they had arrived they vanished. Gracefully disappearing into the big blue, leaving us in awe. All of us stared wide-eyed and smiling at this incredible sight. Not every dive delivers this kind of euphoric high but my god it’s so worth the wait. The experience was the only thing I talked about on Saturday until The Drummer was rolling his eyes in agony and envy.

I am hoping over the next two months there’ll be more of these types of memories to carry with me on my oceanic journey this year. There is still so much exploring to do out there. The pool is most definitely open!

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