My first experience as an open water diver, in Fiji, wasn´t much different from those formative years in school. I signed up to do a dive course with a man for whom taking a student seemed to be a bit of a burden. He was intent on getting me through the course as fast as he possibly could. When an instructor is telling you to speed up through your training while simultaneously explaining you that if you ascend from a dive too quickly your lungs might explode, it is only natural to feel a little bit of apprehension. Then loading up with 20 lbs of scuba gear and an extra 12lbs to make sure you sink to the bottom, it feels like you are being lead into uncertain death by a man who takes it all just a little too casually.
I could do all of the things I was asked to do, like take off my mask and regulator and put them back on underwater. It could be done, but not comfortably since I felt like I was doing it in a big rush and at a great inconvenience to the man showing me how. To top off the experience, I managed to swim through a pod of sea lice, a group of nasty little jellyfish to which most people react slightly, but to which I am more sensitive than most.
So there I was, feeling a little shell shoked and covered head-to-toe in hives, ready to throw in the neoprene and take up a sport on solid ground.
Seven years passed before I decided to try again.
We arrived on Utila with a plan to stay for a few days and dive. After diving uncertified a few times with renegade Cuban divemasters, Kieran decided it was time to do the PADI open water course. We investigated every dive centre, explaining that Kieran was keen and I was a little nervous (secretly terrified, even). We settled in at the Bay Island College of Divers where Kieran did his course and I signed up to do the SCUBA-tune up. All it took was a man named Robert - patient instructor with a good understanding of the process and an ability to communicate and I was there. And it helped that with his mask on and his regualter in, his lips puckered up to look just like Val Kilmer. Adorable! Feeling comfortable.
On the first dive, Kieran took to the water like a fish and I didn´t die of a massive embolism. All good. I did however encounter those pesky little sea lice again, only this time I was wearing a full wetsuit with booties so they only got my neck, ankles and hands. Still feeling determined, I got back in the water again. It only got better from there.
Everyday we saw something more - sea turtles and sea horses, eels and sharks. We saw fish hiding in brightly coloured corals and things that looked like rocks but then got up and swam away. Somedays the sea was so choppy that my stomach churned while I was on the boat, but each dive brought more experiences and I dont feel seasick under water.
The enthusiasm on the island is infectious, everyone all excited about whatever they saw on their last dive and looking forward to the next. And while I take absolutely no credit for any of these photos, these are amongst the many amazing fish and colourful coral we saw. (Click here for more photos by Adam Laverty) Adam´s ability to ID fish based on our vague descriptions of colour and size made each dive that much more meaningful. Until now, my fish-spotting skills have been much the same as my bird watching - big fish, colourful fish, stripy fish, disguiso fish...
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Kieran is now certified as an advanced diver and I have the confidence to breathe underwater for as long as there is air in my tank. More importantly, I love it and I am excited to do it again. We arrived on Utila for four days, and ended up spending two weeks. We had contemplated staying and becoming dive masters and instructors and living there for the rest of our lives. The Bay Islanders are great fun - loud and colourful Caribbean people, but the town´s two streets are narrow and there aren´t enough horizons to keep us entertained for long enough.
We´ve made our way to Guatemala, all the way up the Rio Dulce. We are heading north tomorrow to a town close to Tikal with the intention of setting out on a five-day hike to explore Mayan ruins in remote places. While I have overcome my fears with diving, I still have several creepy crawlies and vicious predators to face in the jungle.