Sunday, July 12, 2009

Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea...

I have always been a water baby. My parents made sure I learned to swim around the time I learned to walk so that if I accidentally fell into a pool I would know what to do. Years of swim team made me appreciate the value of swimming laps (especially butterfly, surprisingly my favorite stroke) and when I got to Berkeley, the heated marble pool set against the backdrop of the Berkeley Hills, invited me daily to take a swim in its waters. My kilometer/day swim was a welcome distraction from all the pressures of grad life: teaching, writing, studying; and it served to calm my mind and relax my body. This daily ritual is probably one of the things I miss most when on the road as six months is a long time to forego any sort of exercise regime. However, venturing into the unknown means that other opportunities await and diving is one of those I’ve seized.

I decided to get my PADI license in Ko Tao, Thailand. Perhaps learning to dive in Thailand is clich├ęd but rightly so. Beautiful waters, cheap courses as diving is an excessively expensive hobby, relaxing atmosphere. I was let in on a secret, yet another from the Wiseman Smiley (if you have been following my blog you will remember him from Siem Reap, Cambodia), about Scuba View Resort and Dive, nestled on the opposite side of the island, far away from the mammoth diving schools near the ferry dock. It seems that this place relies on word of mouth as the only way to get to this part of the island was to be shuttled there by the staff. Making a reservation in advance was your passport to an alternate dimension where Scuba class teacher-student ratio is 1:1, where your confined water dives are actually done in a cove that opens up in the ocean allowing you to instantly see a myriad of aquatic life, and where you are given a whole bungalow overlooking one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever laid eyes upon, all included in your class price. The sun also rises here and flaunts itself in front of my window, showing off its gorgeous orange and red hues and giving Carmen Miranda a run for her money. Just writing about my experience there, two months after the fact, catapults me back to that week of grasping a new world of underwater bliss.

Since Ko Tao, I’ve not taken many opportunities to dive. The impression of the diving in Zanzibar was less than stellar as visibility was low at the moment I was there so I decided to pass. In addition, I don’t have the luxury to dive everywhere I go as my scuba budget lacks a healthy diet. However, when I arrived to Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi last week, I knew that a dive was in store. It is one of the few opportunities to do a freshwater dive and one of a handful of places that still allow night dives. My magic touch when it comes to animals apparently holds true in the water as I got to see the most amusing spectacle. An otter kept swimming around me, jetting back to the rocky outcrop and then returning, obviously curious to why I was there. In all the time the dive instructors have spent at this sight, they have never seen an otter underwater, and only once saw an otter at the surface. They applauded my special animal powers. That night, after studying for my night dive, I embarked on one of the most eerie adventures ever. While people tell you that diving at night is nothing like diving at day, you figure they are just exaggerating. However, a night dive is almost surreal. Your bearings really are turned on their head, the dolphin fish follow you because your torch is the catalyst for their dinner, and the immensity of the ocean becomes almost a non-entity as the darkness envelops you snuggly. Albeit a little cruel, it was fun to shine my light on unsuspecting fish and watch the dolphin fish feast on them. The giant crabs were almost comical as they sat perched on their rocks, leering at you. Oh, aquatic life.

My final dive spot for this trip was in Tofo, Mozambique, famous for its manta rays. While my animal powers faltered for the first time ever, leaving me without a manta ray in sight, I did leave as a qualified deep water diver, now able to descend to 30m. Even better, on the way to the dive site, I had one of the most fascinating encounters ever, a swim with a 10m whaleshark. After grabbing my fins, mask and snorkel, I slipped into the water as stealthily as possible in order to not scare her and approached cautiously until I realized she was thoroughly enjoying the attention and the company. She slowed down and remained near the surface so we could accompany her. Her curiosity led her to the boat where she positioned herself vertical under it, trying to size us up. She was longer than the boat so didn’t seem too bothered. Bored, she continued her swim with us on either side of her. I was hovering around her eye, which was on the side of her head, but got ahead of her at one point, peering into her enormously long mouth. Even though she wasn’t much of a threat to us, her immensity was quite disconcerting. I, therefore, quickly resumed my position at her side, relishing in this singular opportunity. Who knows the next time I will get to dive. I need to get a real job before any illusions of a diving lifestyle can manifest themselves.

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