In my earlier mention of Australian wildlife, I didn’t even dare touch the sea. I didn’t go into the 4000 types of fish, the whales, dolphins, turtles, the 182 types of shark, 30 seagrass species, the 1700 species of coral. There are other worlds that lie out there in the Australian oceans.
I’m not a huge sea goer. I quite like being in the water, but I have to constantly put my thumb over my imagination as it drifts into, ‘I wonder what’s down there…’ I’m not the strongest swimmer. Fish kind of freak me out. They have weird eyes. And there are an alarming amount of things that can kill you in Australian seas: the box jellyfish; the sharks; the stinging stonefish; where just the pain of a sting is enough to kill you; the southern blue-lines octopus, which has one of the most toxic venoms on the planet; and probably a hundred other things I don’t even know about.
I was at the Great Barrier Reef. And adventures are all about pushing boundaries. Boundaries are like a muscle, if you don’t stretch them they become tighter, less efficient, and eventually constrain you.
I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to be thrown into the great unknown. I had become stale and dull. Boring and thus bored. I was letting my fatigue get in the way of my dreams. I was letting myself get in the way of myself. I wanted to see Australia. And there ain’t nowhere else in the world you can see the Great Barrier Reef.
So I went. I figure that if something scares you, it’s probably worth doing.
On the way out to the reef, a bumpy two hour trip, we ran through the diving course. I had made a last minute decision to try it, and as he began the safety instructions, was not entirely sure it had been a good one. He started talking about all the equipment we were going to be wearing, and how the breathing worked, and what could go wrong. And he talked about everything so lightly. I could feel my tummy turn as I tried not to feel sea sick. But I looked out the window and just kept breathing.
Finally the cruise liner pulled to a stop and a few divers jumped down to cordon off an area for us to swim in. We were in the middle of nowhere. Yet the waves were breaking over the edge of the reef as though there was a beach there.
Whilst listening to the diving talk, I had completely missed out on the snorkelling one. Presumably, most people who were diving had been snorkelling before. I was not one of these.
But I put my mask on and didn’t say anything. I got the gist, and the only problem I had was this fear that kept wriggling up inside my chest and trying to choke me. I just had to get in the water, then I’d be all right.
I sat on the edge of the boat for a little while, relieved that they weren’t making me go in backwards like the experienced ones were. Just after all the brave ones were in, I took the plunge. I flailed about in the water for a few moments before I remembered that I did actually know how to swim, and flippers and a mask weren’t going to change that.
Now, I have always had a fear of putting my head under the water. I hate it. I learnt to front crawl with some spasmodic method of tossing my head from side to side and never letting it sink below the surface. I never swim underwater. I jump in occasionally and always frantically haul myself back up to the surface as quickly as possible. I cannot dive. I have tried and tried but my body does not want my head underwater, and every reflex screams to pull it back where it can breathe.
But I immersed it now. And hey! How cool was this! I could see! I could breathe! What’s more, it was incredible! There were hundreds of bright fish and intricate fingers of coral. This whole world right beneath my feet. Then I took another breath, my mouth filled with water and I panicked, pulled up and began my flailing again.
This kept happening. Every few breaths my mouth would fill with water. This is the bit that scares me about being underwater. The lack of breath. Fairly reasonable I’d say – we all need breath. But I panic way before I actually need breath. Just the inability to draw one breath frightens the hell out of me. Even though my head was just below the surface, and all I had to do was pull it up, I still was gasping and flapping about every time my mouth filled with water.
I kept on it, over and over, thinking I would get it. But I was growing ever more frightened to put my head underwater. Eventually, I went to one of the lifeguards and asked for help. Said I didn’t know how to snorkel and I kept panicking. He looked at me kindly and said in a strong Chinese accent, “you are already a great snorkeller. You can float, and you are not scared of being in the sea.” I’m not sure how he deduced this lack of fear, because I think my heart was slipping out of my mouth at this point. But he sounded wise, and he took my mask and adjusted some parts of it.
After that, I got it. The water stopped going in my mouth so much, and when it did, I learnt to pull my head out and just drop it out. So I was free to roam this undersea world.
It was the sound that really stuck with me. Whatever was going on above the sea, you couldn’t hear it underneath. It was that great whirring underwater noise that I only really know from the bath; so serene, only the occasional sound of my own splashing about and the little clicks of fish as they gnawed on the coral.
After that, I knew I would be fine with the diving. I had one small moment of panic: I kept floating away from the group because I had different equipment to everyone else and was weighing totally different, and I couldn’t really see where they were because of the tunnel vision of my goggles. But then I gathered control of myself and started to love the feeling.
I think it’s hard to discern what is fear and what is your gut. If it’s your gut telling you not to do something, you ought to listen to that, but fear is the white noise that stops you hearing what it’s got to say. This was fear. Once I knew that it was OK. I may have had to sit on the deck in 28 degrees wrapped up in jumpers and towels and shaking from shock after, but I bloody well did it, and I bloody well enjoyed it. Ha, take that, fear, I’ll weaken you before you weaken me.