Wake Up, Time to Dive
Updated: Nov 15, 2018
I'm floating weightless and upside down over an alien landscape inhabited by fantastic creatures. The only sound is my own breathing (well, Darth Vader's to be precise). I'm an invader from another planet but I feel completely at home. I drift peacefully on.
Suddenly, something grabs my ankle. I spin round, startled, but it's only my dive buddy, wanting to show me a honeycomb moray eel getting a makeover. We hang inverted above the cleaning station as tiny shrimp bustle in and out of the monster's gaping black-and-yellow jaws, removing scraps of food and dead skin. The diminutive dentists go about their work secure in the knowledge they will never be on the menu as long as their valet services are in demand.
Once the eel is discharged with a clean bill of dental health, the next client moves in. We could watch this beautiful symbiotic symphony all day, but we can't afford to drop behind. With a deft flick of our fins we glide on to catch up with the other volunteer divers. When we reach them they're excitedly taking photos of a sizeable potato bass. We're collecting species data from the Sodwana Bay reef system in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa. An apex predator like the bass is just what we're looking for.
Flash back four weeks and it's a very different story. Rookie divers sweat and curse in the sun as we shoehorn ourselves into uncooperative and unflattering gimp suits. Hearts racing and regulators clenched firmly in our teeth, we shiver in the pool as we struggle to master a range of skills (and try to forget that we're breathing under water!). In the ocean we fare little better, tumbling like trainee clowns as the current assists our inadvertent acrobatics. All around us, curious fish cruise effortlessly by, enjoying the show. I'd swear they are smirking...
Little by little, though, seven struggling spastics metamorphose into gracefully gliding mermaids. Once inept intruders, we become honoured guests. The reef is our temple, it's inhabitants our new gods. Everyone gazes heavenward as a green turtle descends into our midst like an angel from above. We seek out surreptitious stingrays as they slide along the bottom, and scan the coral for tiny hallucinogenic sea slugs. (The latter are surely the product of Hunter S. Thomson's imagination on a particularly bad bender.) We marvel as lithe white tip reef sharks circle in a cave, like dogs looking for a place to rest, before shyly slipping away.
We learn how to identify the different types of coral, how incredible it is (it's an animal!) and how much danger it's in. We memorise the unlikely names of, and hand signs for, multicoloured and multitudinous fish - parrotfish, rock cod, wrasse, goatfish, convict surgeon, chub, etc. etc. etc. Then we try to recall them at 18 meters below (now and again we even get it right). Attention spans exhausted, we forage for sharks' teeth on the sandy bottom, undeterred by the knowledge that the pristine white sand is largely composed of parrotfish poo.
On the surface, humpbacked whales play hopscotch in the waves as they chaperone young calves on the long migration back to the Antarctic. The long awaited dolphins even put in an appearance, slicing through the water ahead of us, guarding a baby of their own. A hawksbill turtle dismisses us with a wave of its fin before sinking below the waves.
When we find megafauna (turtles, rays, bass) we run their photos through the database back at camp. Our potato bass pulls up no matches, meaning he's new in town and we get to name him. After much argument, and for reasons too complicated to go into here, the unfortunate fish is eventually dubbed 'Bread'. It's possibly not marine biology's finest hour...
Cabin in the Woods
Our camp lies in a lush jungle clearing. Monkeys inhabit the trees, chickens the undergrowth and frogs the bathroom. Living in nature you are reminded of one universal truth: nature hates you. Each night we are lulled to sleep by the sounds of the jungle. And woken up by them at 3 am. Amorous amphibians serenade nightly from the pool. Poor timekeepers, the cockerels crow enthusiastically to greet not only the dawn but every hour of the f***ing night. The picturesque setting of my cabin, framed by foliage, loses its appeal when the wind rouses twiggy psychopaths to rake their nails across the roof in the small hours. I begin to long for the soothing sounds of home: the gentle lilt of pneumatic drills and the neighbours fighting.
On Sundays, the locals make their contribution by praising His name with the aid of a massive boombox (presumably in case He is deaf). You can't blame them though, when you literally have to scratch a living from a patch of grey dust it's either the Lord or the liquor (or both). We join them in patronising the local attractive cinder block bottle store (you know you're in a quality establishment when you get served through a grating).
'Town' has little else to offer bar a handful of eateries and dive shops. It takes all of five minutes to walk the single road end to end, including taking time out to get ripped off at the cash and carry. This delightful establishment has a flexible approach to pricing which we always seem to be on the losing end of. In an effort to avoid being completely fleeced, we attempt to blend in with the locals, peppering our speech with 'yas', 'sure' and 'ach, shame!' But we're fooling no one. Some volunteers go full native: barefoot from bed to bath to bar (one look at the shards of broken glass lurking in the sandy paths convinces me this is a bridge too far).
It's a daily battle to keep the outside out; sand gets in everything. I quickly throw in the (grubby) towel in and embrace my dirt (fortunately off white is my colour). Cockroaches reccie the bedroom, followed by the rats. Ants are evicted daily from the kitchen. I check my cabin for snakes and scorpions - minor irritations compared to the prospect of invasion by that most feared of South African creatures: man.
Old Testament thunderstorms deprive us of power and, ironically, water for hours on end. Collective groans arise across the camp each time we're plunged into darkness. People sprint for the safety of their huts with only the lightning flashes to guide them. Consistent Wifi, so taken for granted at home, becomes like dope to a crack whore. Ashen faced addicts crowd into the office for their daily fix.
For the millennials it's all vital, character-building stuff. At 47, though, it's a severe test of mine (as, at times, are they). In the early days I frequently question what I'm doing here. Surely my character is already built on solid foundations? Then again, maybe it's not a bad idea for some of the wings to undergo a spot of light renovation, before the facade crumbles entirely.
In the end, though, it's all worth it for the diving. In the water, I forget the fear and fly. My cantankerous carbuncle of a body becomes a precision Swiss instrument attuned to my every command. For the first time in two decades, I remember what it's like to forget it. On the days we don't dive, my skin feels too tight, my heart too dry. The natural order of things reverses: I mope through the weekends and live for Monday mornings. I lie awake at night listening to the ocean whisper in the distance, rocking in my bunk boat and counting the hours till I can go under the water again.
But my favourite time is always towards the end of the dive, when old age pays dividends and the younger, more energetic swimmers start to run out of air. Two by two they ascend to the bobbing rubber Ark, leaving the last buddy pair alone with the dive master. In these precious moments we're handed a VIP backstage pass to the ocean. Time thickens and slows. The sea swaddles us in soft blue peace. There's no one in the entire universe but us. Us and the endless clouds of fish.