Tuesday, September 29, 2009


There's seawater rushing up my nose, suddenly harsh and corrosive. My brain starts sending me danger alerts, reminding me that I have a nose, not gills, and I cannot breathe underwater. With the mask off, my eyes burn and I want to sputter and snort.
Instead I pretend like all is cool. Like I’m the cat’s whiskers and all that stinging water doesn’t bother me one bit. I swab a palm across my forehead as though wiping off sweat on a balmy summer afternoon, and look around at my teammates giving them the thumbs up.

All this time my brain been telling me I’m mad. It’s shrieking that I’m completely, utterly off my rockers; that I’m not supposed to be immersed underwater in the ocean and certainly not without my mask. Another part of my brain, the more logical one, is telling it to shut up. The regulator bringing oxygen to my mouth from the tank strapped to my back is still firmly in place, it says. ‘Stop being a chick’ it adds, sounding dangerously like an annoying colleague.

I slowly put the mask back on, tilt my head back and snort to clear it of water, and look to my instructor to see how I’ve done. She gives me the thumbs up and I can see she’s smiling. As she turns to the others, I give a smug nod to the jellyfish that’s been hanging around my shoulder. Minutes before, it’d been mocking me saying I had no business being here. I showed it, didn’t I?

To swim or to sink

When you’re learning to dive, the turning point between wondering whether you’ll be able to and knowing you will is the first time you take off the mask and let the salt water use your nose and eyes like a playground. This is when most people go gasping up to the surface, losing track of where they are and the equipment their life depends on. It's the part I was most skeptical about too. But get past this, and the rest just steps of a learning process. And getting past is easy if you can keep the urge to press the panic button under control, even every cell in your body is screaming in retaliation.

You'll discover, that the more annoying part is the way the compressed air from the tank dries up your mouth. Getting thirsty 12 m below the surface, surrounded by a crush of salt water and not quite able to swallow thanks to the big regulator stuck into your mouth, is more than a wee bit inconvenient.

It's a lifestyle

Staying at the Andaman Bubbles dive resort for the four days of the course, diving seemed more like a way of life than a sport. We woke early to get out while the tide was high and the sun still climbing the sky. By the time I came back in the evening I was too tired for anything more than a big meal and a night of sound sleep. Drinking and smoking are no-nos and everybody is fit and tanned, or on their way to getting there. The conversation revolves around the day’s dive, the conditions, the merits of the location, and the creatures spotted.

But before you're let into the water, there's the theory. Facts and figures about the underwater world and the principles behind the equipment that will allow you to navigate it. For the first time in the many years since college, I found myself studying along with breakfast so that I would be prepared for the day’s quiz.

For a holiday, it was quite hectic. I didn’t do the whole chilling by the beach, going for a swim then lying on a sarong and reading thing, and fell asleep two songs into the cool resort party I was invited to, live music be damned. But all worthwhile sacrifices for what I got in exchange.

Getting down and dirty

Once you get past the theory and get intimate with the equipment, you're finally allowed into the water. In the beginning, I felt graceless and bulky. I would either sink to the bottom, head down by the numerous weights tucked in my belt, or bob around on the surface, made buoyant by the air-filled jacket I was wearing. The mocking jellyfish was back, smirking translucently at me again.

The trick lay in figuring out that even the minutest change in the amount of air inside you can make a significant difference at a depth. When you're 12m below the surface at neutral buoyancy, (positive buoyancy makes you float, negative makes you sink, and when it’s neutral you’re a bit in water like an astronaut in zero gravity) swimming over a big boulder in your path is a simple matter of breathing deeply to rise up above it, and then exhaling to float close on top of the coral bed again.

All I remember after that is a vignette of moments that I will never forget. Like suddenly finding myself in the middle of a school of bright blue and yellow fish on my second dive, hundreds of them all around, above me, below me, beside me. Or shivering together in a huddle as the sunny sky slowly turned grey after our dive, and the boat crawled across an ocean that heaved and shook in rain that fell like heavy sheets. Till the clouds, suddenly exhausted, withdrew to let the sun back out, and two perfectly symetric rainbows made the day bright again. And then the most spectacular moment of them all – the ocean at night -- a completely transformed landscape full of bobbing, sleeping fish, and giant crabs skittering across the ocean floor. Holding the torch close to my chest to make the darkness total and then waving my hands in front of me so that the water came alive in a hundred thousand pin points of lights that swirled all around me (plankton baby, the fireflies of the sea).

But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on Spetember 19.

Photos courtesy Andrea Blasco


sindhoor said...

Now all that water in the nose is absolutely worth it when you see a giant grouper swim by you or a shoal of more than a hundred snappers completely surround you. Its a new world out there!

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