Strictly to cow you down, to break you down, and make you feel like the "laddoo" beginners are called, you are taken for snorkeling sessions. The idea is to make you feel like a fool. But some people say it trains you for the dives to come. We walk to West Lagoon. We learn to kit up i.e. to wear masks, snorkel and fins. We learn the tricks of the trade, how to prevent the mask from fogging by rubbing it with spit, how to clear it of water. We duck dive i.e. take a deep breath and dive to the bottom, come up and blow hard into the snorkel to clear it of water. I choke, I gag, and, I hate the harshness of salt water that sticks to my throat. Anees, as an instructor, is excellent - patient, calm and emotionless. No negative feedback, only encouragement. Surprisingly, all three instructors have similar traits.
We try to perfect our finning, but it will be 5 days before I get comfortable, till unfamiliar muscles get activated and the finning motion gets locked into the neural pathways. We duck dive to a rock coral under which we try to entice a Lionfish, its poisonous spines waving "keep off". The Lionfish, also known as the Dragon and Scorpion Fish, is famous for its stunning fins and spines. These spines are poisonous, and we have been told to keep a safe distance. Its body is crossed vertically with dark brick bands and it's eyes is hidden by the colour pattern beneath a pair of hornlink growths. The first spines of the dorsal fin are patterned with light and dark markings. We are in shallow water, and little fish in myriad colours swim by. I will gradually get to recognise the ones in shallow water - angelfish, bannerfish, needlefish and anthea. Later, while snorkeling with my son in the lagoon, a large fish swims close and startles me. Adrenaline pumps through my system and I surface in alarm. I can relax; it wasn't a shark, only a rainbow runner, it's size appearing magnified underwater.
In the afternoon I take a snooze. I'm badly stressed out. Adding to the tension of learning new skills in a short time is the thought of the first dive to come in the morning. This is a 7-day course and at the end of it are the exams, both oral and written plus underwater practicals.
In all adventure sports your mind plays the most important part. It works overtime and your fears can get out of hand. However, it can be trained so that a new activity gives pleasure, not pain. This is the second day; I have not yet programmed my mind, so the stress completely takes over. It feeds on the feel of unfamiliar equipment, lack of knowledge of the ocean, thoughts of claustrophobia, of failing to do as well as everybody else, of memorising underwater hand signals, not finning properly, getting the buoyancy right. The fear feeds on things it digs out from the deep dark recesses of my mind. The one-hour nap helps and I wake up in psychologically better shape to handle the afternoon practice dive.
Diving is a buddy sport. For safety reasons nobody dives alone. I was buddied up with my instructor. We were to dive off a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). I had the tank on my back, fins feeling ungainly on the surface, the Buoyancy Jacket (BC) partially inflated, the mask tight enough to hurt and the mouthpiece firmly clenched between my teeth like my life depended on it. We are to enter with a backward flip (God), do a clean 5-metre descent, stay underwater for 15 minutes and generally get the hang of the whole thing.
Remember to breathe from your mouth is my last thought as we flip over. I bounce up, Anees signals thumbs down, I release air from the BC and we descend. The first unique experience that registers is the sound. It is the sound of breathing and is etched permanently in my mind. The low sucking sound of inhalation-ooooom- and then the exhalation- phruum. All other sounds are extinguished as we descend and enter another planet. There are a million fish, in all colours imaginable which ignore us as we fin by. Wonderful structures of coral in all shapes and sizes emerge into visibility. I practice buoyancy control. You can use your lungs like a balloon, inhale, they fill up with air and you ascend. Exhale and you descend. For the first time in my life I am weightless and I can fly. The feeling is unique and indescribable.
We do some practice exercises. It's a unique experience like nothing one has felt before. There are no distractions. My attention is so focussed that time ceases to have meaning. Everything happens as in slow motion. I watch Anees remove his mouthpiece and dribble air slowly from his mouth. The bubbles stream slowly up. The hand holding the mouthpiece is stretched fully to one side, brought back again to his mouth I watch with rapt attention, nothing disturbs my concentration - a shark could have swum by and I would not have noticed. I am determined to get the exercises right. I still manage to miss the position of the fingers, thumb on one side, three fingers on the other, the first finger presses on the purge button to purge it of water. I do the same, I dribble air from my mouth. I start breathing again. Cool wonderful air rushes to my lungs. We remove masks and I learn how to clear it of water. The water leaves the mask slowly as in a dream. Buddy breathing is next, when we share air from the same mouthpiece. 2-breaths each.
Anees gestures like a conductor directing the dive, in control of his underwater world and takes me for a guided tour of his underwater kingdom. He bows, this way please. We cruise. We come across a school of needlefish, gleaming green. We approach a sea anemone on the bed. I stroke it with the back of my fingers, it is soft and golden brown. It responds to my touch like a velvet balloon. A denizen of the land has made his first contact with a denizen of the deep. I am overwhelmed by the experience of another being responding to my touch in this alien yet wonderful environment. The dive continues. After this dive I will never be the same again. I am hooked and the ocean has permeated my consciousness.
Day-3 : The second dive
The tide is going out so we dive before breakfast. We descend from the jetty, we cruise, we glide. I try to fin like Anees but my muscles are not responding and I make cycling motions. After we finish he says, "relax, there is no competition, we are here to enjoy the dive, there is no hurry to get anywhere."
We have a wonderful snorkeling session before lunch. People are actually beginning to enjoy themselves. I wander off to view a staghorn coral. We try and spot a moray eel that is reputed to live there-no luck. The Moray is a nocturnal predator and is often found with his head protruding out of its hiding place during the day.
One of the instructors hands me a sea cucumber (an archbishop) which I touch and put back. I watch schools of little green anthea swim by and flood the water with their presence. I spot the most wonderful fish I have seen in my life and I follow it for 3 minutes. I am big and above it, and in the code of the sea I signal predator. It darts this way and that, while pausing to eye me warily and eventually disappears in a patch of seaweed. It has a vertical blue stripe just near the gills, and two diagonal gold and brown stripes. Really colourful. Later I discover it is aptly named-Picasso Triggerfish. In front of me is a baby turtle, 2 inches long, desperately making it's way to the ocean.
Day-4: The third dive
I enter the water. The ocean envelops me like the womb of an alien mother, feeding my spirit - welcoming, nurturing but not to be trusted. I live their by her rules now, not mine. I have to trust her and if I do things right I might have the experience of a lifetime.
I am weightless. I float. Want to fly to 10 meters "no problems" up I go. Want to descend, do a back flip, and just be...I do it - it's all possible. In my newfound freedom I fly over the continental shelf wall, I glide into a cave and out again, I chase lionfish and sea turtle.