“…You’re not as brave as you were at the start.
Rate yourself and rake yourself
Take all the courage you have left
And waste it all on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head.”
Little Lion Man, Mumford & Sons
When you’re numb, the best way to feel alive is to live.
Swim with sharks.
Then it got dark again and it became just another date on the calendar. I told my mum that I wasn’t scared of the idea of swimming with sharks… but it was impossible to feel particularly excited about it, either. I messaged Erin the Jungle Girl the morning of my dive, confessing to her that a tiny part of me was wishing I would have a limb bitten off… just so I could feel something. Anything.
A bit of terror can be good for the soul. Enlightening.
On Sunday, I wore my swimmers under my clothes and presented myself at the Aquarium. I filled in my forms. Signed away liability for my own safety. The dive briefing is quick and light and funny. The instructional video makes a point of stating that mental fitness is essential for scuba diving.
I don’t really understand the relevance of that until later, but I’m glad there was some kind of precursor, an obligatory warning. This was to be an exercise of my own mental discipline. A test of the dozen different mental survival strategies I’ve acquired, useful for being stuck in places where I just may panic.
Scuba equipment is ridiculously heavy. I’m wearing a wetsuit, gloves and a hood, a diving belt stacked with weights, a buoyancy pack and a small canister of air. I’ve also got water shoes (disturbingly similar to the ones I wore canyoning) and a massive pair of sixty centimetre-long flippers.
Including the instructor, there are four people in our dive group. The hands-on skills session, to teach us the basics of goggles and respirator mouthpieces, takes maybe fifteen minutes. We stand on a platform attached to the side of the massive, seven metre-deep ‘ocean’ style pool we’ll be swimming in.
A huge black sting ray, easily two metre-wide, swims in lazy, fluttering circles beneath us.
I pop my mouthpiece in and plunge my head beneath the cool, salty water. The scene before me is amazing- the water is perfectly clear, the animals abundant.
But breathing through that respirator… it’s the most disorientating, subtly desperate feeling. It mimics the breathing pattern of an anxiety attack– deep breaths through the mouth, rich with oxygen. For a moment, my body is confused. My brain picks up on my breathing and floods itself with chemicals. Adrenaline shoots to my fingertips.
‘This is not a panic attack, this is not a panic attack. You have plenty of air. You are not accustomed to breathing through your mouth. You will be okay, you will be okay… you will be fine.’
I repeat comforting, no-nonsense sentiments to myself over and over. I force myself to breathe, in and out, in and out. Deep and regular.
A shark swims past my feet. My veins zing with electricity. I breathe out a massive, noisy tornado of bubbles; breathe in again. And I feel a steely, determined control clamp itself over my mind.
We swim from the training platform to a second, lower platform in the middle of the tank, slowly, one a time, eyes in the water. The world below is iridescent blue and spangled with fish.
It’s at that point I forget that I was panicking. This is insanely awesome.
The next time we move, it’s to descend. The instructor grabs me by my harness, deflates my buoyancy device, and I sink like a stone to the bottom of the aquarium floor. The Most Amazing Man and the kidlets have come along to watch me- the Shark Dive is held in the main tank of a public aquarium, so it’s completely a spectator sport. I spot my cheer squad and I’m so excited I smile with my mouth open and feel the spaces around my lips and gums flood with briny water. For a moment it feels as though I will breathe it in and I panic again.
But only for a moment.
The scariest part is being left, alone, laying on the floor of the tank while the instructor re-submerges to grab the next two and sink them into place next to me. Settled on my front, with fish the length of my arm swimming past… and that massive, gunmetal-grey stingray just two metres in front of me. He’s laying, as I am, on the gritty, sandy floor of the aquarium. He’s the size of a toddler bed and I’m stunned at his bulk. The middle of him, where intelligent black eyes gaze and blink at me, is as thick as my waist.
The stingray and I size each other up. He doesn’t move. Keeping a watchful eye on him, I press my hand up to the glass wall of the tank. My kids are on the other side. They’re bouncing, bubbling. The Most Amazing Man watches on, and I can tell by the look on his face that he’s proud of me.
The scuba instructor reappears beside me. He looks at me and points up. A grey nurse shark, three metres long, is cruising just a few feet above our heads. The shark’s stomach is pale and smooth, the cool grey colour of polished marble. His teeth are tiny, but sharp… and there’s just so many of them.
Sharks have dead eyes. Even close up, there’s no emotion behind their gaze. While the stingrays seem intelligent stubborn and inquisitive, and the fish appear observant but completely unfazed, the sharks are just… cold. If they feel anything at all towards us, it’s impossible to see it. Their eyes appear to be simply scanners, assessing each item they pass as to whether it be food-stuff or threat. They register not a flicker of interest in us. They give nothing away.
Bizarrely, the sharks seem almost static. Their tails flick in the tiniest, smoothest of motions. Other than that, they glide seamlessly and determinedly through the water. Cold and calm.
The diving instructor has a long white pole, used for edging the sharks and large rays away from divers. He’s pointing the pole at the huge stingray in front of us, but doesn’t touch him with it. The instructor uses his arms to gesture to the creature to move. The stingray slowly, stubbornly concedes to glide along the floor away from us. He moves only a few metres before turning to face us again, curious. The dive instructor shoos him once more and the ray darts up, over our heads and into the other side of the tank.
It struck me, during the briefing, how much these dive instructors clearly love the animals in their tank. They refer to each animal by name- the huge grey nurse shark is ‘Murray’, the potato sharks ‘Spud’ and ‘Mash’. The instructors seem to know the nuances of each separate ocean creature, informing us which animals are timid, which are feisty, and which are always curious of new people in their territory. The last group includes a 230 kilo groper fish affectionately known as ‘Mr G’.
Mr G cruises past us, looking exceptionally grumpy, on numerous occasions. We swim past swordfish sharks and cods. A school of silver fish, speckled with neon yellow, dart between us in a cloud. A bronze whaler shark glides by close enough for me to see where the name of the species originated- it’s skin is gleaming, the light reflecting off it a shiny light brown.
A guitar-sized, spotted leopard stingray is only a few feet from us when we first submerge, and follows us from a short distance away as we move around the giant tank. The three of us who are diving lay in a row on a platform deep inside the tank, looking over the ‘cliff’ at fish suspended in their underwater reality. The leopard ray glides up the side of the cliff and in between myself and the diver next to me. It skims it’s flat underside over my arm and I can feel the shiver of it’s wings, the weight of it, as it moves along my wetsuit.
This is the most visually intense thing I’ve ever experienced. That physical sensation aside, there is no other sensory input– you can’t hear, smell or feel anything, all you can taste is salt. But the world before me is blue and moving, alive with all forms of swimming mysteriousness.
There’s the odd feeling of having become the main attraction in the tank. People point and wave to us, small children give us high fives through the glass.
I know this feeling, it’s oddly familiar. Being in a fish tank. Watching normal people live their normal lives outside of it. Trying to communicate with them, but being unable to speak.
Half an hour in the water is long enough, but nowhere near enough time. My body is cold, my fingers frozen. But it’s so enthralling, so visually mind blowing. I could relax here, on this ledge, all day; watching fish and sharks slide by me. A silent, prosaic intrusion on their world.
We surface and I’m elated. My body is aching- the pressure of the water, the weight of the equipment, the high peaks of adrenaline interspersed with a that strange edgy tranquillity. But my mind feels a bit more alive than it did half an hour ago.
I meet up with the kidlets and the Most Amazing Man, and my kids are bursting. “We saw you in the tank with the sharks Mummy, we saw you!!”
There’s no nicer feeling than your children being visibly proud of you, being awed at what you’ve done.
I come home, take a hot shower. Babble on and on to the Most Amazing Man about what I’ve done, the things I witnessed underwater. I pull out my iPad. My pensieve.
And, for the first time in weeks, I lose myself in writing. I stay up late, fingers tapping on my flat screen keyboard, attempting to record all that I’ve seen. Trying to capture the blueness of that underwater world in words.
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