I am drowning, hitting the ocean ground at great speed. I try very hard to swim up to the shore, but just can’t, I have already swallowed litres of water, helpless, I give up, close my eyes and let myself go…
I woke up with a start. It was my second night at pristine Unawatuna beach in south Sri Lanka. The nightmare was a result of my
stupidity earlier in the day, at my first lesson in open water scuba diving. After a two-hour-long training session, kitted out in a wetsuit, carrying a 10-kilo oxygen tank and wearing blue fins, my instructor had taken me on my first dive in 10 feet of water. As we swam deeper, towards the ocean bed, all noise disappeared and I became increasingly conscious of my breathing – every time I exhaled, water bubbles released from my mouth. I panicked. Surely there must be something wrong, I figured. So I took off my diving mask to clean it.
To my horror, water entered my nose and I panicked some more. My instructor was frantically gesturing at me to put on my mask again. But I took off my regulator instead (the instrument that delivers oxygen into your mouth) and all hell broke loose. I couldn’t see, worse, I couldn’t breathe. My instructor dragged me back to shore and seemed to have no sympathy for my continuous coughing. “You never, ever panic under water,” he yelled and walked away. Then he turned back and yelled again, “What on earth were you thinking? Why did you take off your regulator?” I had no answer.
The incident killed any excitement I might have had about learning to scuba dive – my main motive in visiting Sri Lanka. I spent the rest of the day thinking about whether I should go back the next day for further training.
To my (and my instructor’s) surprise, I did. We headed to shallow waters to hone my basic diving skills again. To breathe underwater through the regulator, to locate it if it falls from your mouth, and to bite down on it again without panicking. Another skill to learn is how to ask your diving buddy (it’s always recommended that you dive with somebody) for their spare regulator. Each diver has two sets if your tank runs out of oxygen. The skill I found most tricky was how to remove the face mask and clean it underwater – continuous breathing can make it foggy – and to don it again.
On my second dive, which lasted 17 minutes, my instructor corrected my breathing technique, recommending deep breaths so that I consume less oxygen and do tire too soon. But the third dive tested all my leaning and discipline. The water was around 30 feet deep and I was really nervous. I plunged in, determined to stay under for at least half an hour without making a scene. I was praying constantly… and suddenly I saw a clownfish!
Sea of tranquility
I had come to adore the orange striped fish after Finding Nemo. The tiny fellow swam behind the coral and came out from the other end, looking at me with curious eyes. It hid again and popped up very close to my eyes. I smiled underwater. My instructor had asked me not to – he feared that I might loosen the grip on my regulator and panic again. But it didn’t happen and there was enough to smile about several times for the rest of my time underwater.
When you’ve got something to smile about, other fears don’t seem to matter. I stopped worrying about the possibility of my tank running out of oxygen; being attacked by a whale; losing my way in the ocean and being swallowed up by an ocean monster. I also started to really like the feeling of weightlessness underwater and the joy of experiencing the world fish inhabit – so different from our own. It was surreal to be surrounded by rays, eels, Moorish Idols, and other colourful creatures in the watery silence.
Back on board
All too soon, it was time to head back up. Back on the boat, my instructor told me that I had clocked 40 minutes underwater and my joy knew no bounds. I had achieved what I had set out to – overcome my fear and panic and earned my scuba diving certificate to boot. It was a high like no other – one that will keep me afloat for a long time.
* You need to spend at least three days to master the introductory course to scuba diving, which costs around R18,000 and includes the scuba diving gear.
* Then comes a written and an oral exam to entitle you to a scuba-diving certificate.
* There are flights to Colombo from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata (via Chennai).
* Unawatuna beach is a three-hour drive from Colombo city.
From HT Brunch, October 14
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