There exists a misconception that scuba diving, like skiing, is as glamorous as it is expensive. Two groups of suave, slick humans hijacking a tumultuous element of nature for their own high-risk high jinks as the sunlight glints off their designer eyewear. Tally ho, off we go! And don’t forget to pout on the way down!
But I tell you now, pound for a pinch of snuff, that there is nothing remotely glamorous about yanking a mask off to reveal half a pint of mucus that is devotedly attached to your face, like one of the extra-terrestrial offspring in Alien. Neither is there anything elegant about trying to shoehorn yourself into (or indeed out of) a neoprene wetsuit – no matter how advantageous your bust-waist-hip ratio, or how haute couture the underlying bikini. A diver waddling along, weighed down by 30 kilograms of equipment and hampered in the foot department by fins, is about as pleasing to the eye as a foie gras goose during its final days of gluttony. And the sight of this person upon their return – flopping with fatigue, and still plastered in snot as they attempt to haul themselves back into the drop-off boat – is only debonair if the same can be said of an upturned dung beetle on a mission to right itself and get its shit together after being flicked into Kingdom Come. And all the while trying to sustain an air of nonchalance and pretend that its face isn’t grotesquely distorted by olfactory detritus! It’s enough to give ‘phlegmatic’ a whole new meaning.
Then there are the unavoidable occupational hazards, such as having a fish disgorge the contents of its bowels in your face with impeccable comic timing, and the fact that when you gob into your mask to prevent it from fogging up mid-dive, there will inevitably be specks of whatever you last ate present within your spittle (and thus in front of your peepers) as you oggle the corals. Biscuits, spaghetti bolognese, tuna mayonnaise, garlic bread… the biscuits alone are bad enough. Is this a squid I see before me, or the claggy topping of an Egyptian Wagon Wheel? The fun never ends. Basically, for skiing to be anything like diving, a bunch of stuff would have to be added to the piste, from gunge machines to evil-eyed people armed with prodding implements. Time to get Pat Sharp from Fun House on the case, pronto. It’s all a bit of an unsavoury circus. To summarise: diving calls for a strong stomach, Trunchbull hamstrings, and a borderline obsession with looking like a bit of a dingbat.
Now that’s out of the way, there are obviously there are some verily excellent things about diving: the rush of weightlessness achieved by neutral buoyancy. The WELL HELLO THERE NEW FRIEND! sensation of staring a turtle in the face. The astronautical act of diving at night in a swell of pitch-black anti-gravity, huffing and puffing your way through the uterine cocoon of liquid, guided only by the beam of your torch. And last but not least – the juvenile hilarity and experiential mindfuck of “penetrating” the engine room of a century-old shipwreck.
Yet the devil of diving, as any tiny shred of coral will hammer home to you as you watch its blossom-like buds and tendrils open and close like miniscule eyelids, is in the detail. The life forms abundant in this topsy-turvy environment launch a full-scale attack on the unsuspecting novice diver in an endless onslaught of titillation, from the neon green brain-like structures of hard corals to the intricate fractals of a pale lilac soft coral as it unfurls its fronds in the swell of the current; breathing, living, inviting you to reach out and touch. Except don’t touch, of course, because it will shoot fluorescent napalm into your ears, or something similarly despotic, the little blighter – just pootle around, keeping yourself to yourself and maintaining a healthy distance from anything too ugly or too beautiful (it’s an imprecise science, but a good rule of thumb for avoiding anything a close encounter of the terminal variety). The ocean conspires to create a world abounding with a glorious array of psychedelic technicolour graphs. It is simply staggering.
When the time comes for you to bid adieu to the underwater flora and fauna and ascend to the surface, there is a large volume of nitrogen dissolved in your bodily tissues that needs to dissipate TOUTE DE BLOODY SUITE, unless you want to end up squealing in agony and ensconced in a decompression tank for hours on end. Or indeed dead. This less-than-ideal outcome is avoided by following protocol in terms how how long you spend underwater, how deep, the speed at which you ascend, and so on and so forth. Grim Reaper stuff aside, one feature of this phenomenon is that your skin fizzes like a Sherbet DipDab on exiting the water as the nitrogen dissolves through your outer layer of skin. Shove any random part of your body towards your ear and you can literally hear it crackle.
If you’re the kind of soul who doesn’t believe in moderation, you’ll probably end up on a liveaboard dive boat at some point. Complete with all the madcap paraphernalia of diving equipment required to keep the lungs ticking over for twenty-odd dives, liveaboards also harbour enough food and booze to ensure that stomachs are filled and spirits are high for a week at a time. Despite the fact that divers come from all walks of life and all socioeconomic backgrounds (true words! There are some overdraft-friendly package deals out there that would blow a Club 18-30 all-inclusive in Zante out of the water), the thing that unites these people is a mindset that can be distilled into a combined love: a love of challenges, adrenaline, nature and the planet at large, and a not insignificant addiction to laughing till your diaphragm goes into anaerobic respiration. There’s also a healthy emphasis on giving a crap about your fellow fin-wearing compadres – because if your own air supply were to fail 30 metres down below, you sure as hell hope someone else down there in the deep will give a crap about you.
Perhaps the most striking element of scuba diving, though, is the endless recursion. The dalliance of one-upmanship between mankind and nature. Before you write this paragraph off as a product of nitrogen narcosis, hear me out: a World War Two vessel sinks, its captain thwarted by an unseen reef – unseen because the weather conditions conspire to turn the water’s surface into a mirror, impossible to gauge depths, navigation systems thrown out of the window – and it plunges to its watery grave, swallowed up by the insatiable appetite of the tide. But the attack continues. Seemingly dead metal offers itself up as a habitat for plants and creatures that defy description; organisms that see, in the ship’s rusty bows and sterns and holds and gangways, the warm invitation of a “Welcome” mat. New forms of life thrive on the wreck and its cargo within a matter of years. Where once the captain lorded over his vessel now lives a bulging moray eel as thick as the trunk of an oak tree. Nature 2: 0 Mankind. Round three, however, is won by the losing side: humans hack the system and infiltrate the watery depths with their tanks and fins and breathing regulators, launching a counter-invasion that allows us to go where biology dictates that we should not be able to go. The whole shebang feels like staring misty-eyed at an M. C. Escher painting.
In short, it is the grim stuff as much as the grand stuff that makes diving into such a singular experience. Take the rough with the smooth? The suave with the snotty? Yes please! Tally ho, off we go! Put that biscuit down! And before you swipe the slime from your cheeks, do bear in mind that neoprene isn’t the most absorbent of materials.