Sitting in a Male’ coffee house, I smiled to hide my embarrassment. Yet again, I had been asked how I could possibly not be a diver. “But your husband is a diver. All your friends are divers. You live in the Maldives, for goodness sake!” exclaimed my new acquaintance. He was right, too. It didn’t make sense. I had been living in the Maldives for over two years and I was yet to complete my Open Water certification. I mumbled something about snorkelling being just as good and swiftly changed the subject to wriggle out of my awkward interrogation.
On paper, the conditions for an extended love affair with scuba diving were perfect. Everything was at my disposal. Wherever you are in the Maldives, the ocean is no more than a stone’s throw away and I was surrounded by willing instructors. I’d been snorkelling and glimpsed the beauty of the Maldivian reefs but each time I donned Scuba apparatus, the sparks just wouldn’t fly. Instead, the equipment seemed too heavy, the skills daunting and the instructions somewhat ludicrous. You want me to flood my mask with water, underwater? That wasn’t going to happen in a hurry. I wondered whether I might be immune to the diving bug. I realized that if I was going to catch it, I’d have to work at my contagion.
My first experience of the sport was undoubtedly my worst. I was a freshly fledged English teacher who had recently travelled almost five and a half thousand miles to reach her new equatorial home at a luxury island resort. I was enthusiastic about embracing a new, aquatic way of life and readily signed up for the staff scuba course. On the morning of my first session, the usually limpid lagoon was abnormally murky. My buddy for the day was a colleague from the security department who was roughly the size of small car. At five foot tall, by his side I must have looked like a somewhat nervous child he was about to take swimming. As we emptied our BCDs and sank to our knees on the sandy bottom, it became apparent that we could see very little in the agitated water. The crystal clear waters of tourist brochures, this was not. As I could barely make out the signals from my instructor, he started to creep forward until he was inches from my face. My instinctive reaction was to lean backwards to maintain my very British personal space boundaries. My oblivious instructor on the other hand, assumed that the weight of my tank was pulling me backwards. He signalled to my beefy buddy who cheerfully began holding me down so I wouldn’t bob away or (as I began to want) escape. After violently flailing my arms around and finally being liberated, I surfaced and headed towards the shore. My course attendance had lasted a little under ten minutes.
I wobbled out of the water somewhat abashed at my speedy resignation towards the dive centre as bemused water sports staff looked on. The cherry on the top of my humiliation was yet to come, however. As I started to climb the steps towards the hut, I began to feel the weight of my scuba tank pulling me backwards. I began to teeter unsteadily and I could only look helplessly towards my audience for assistance. Just as I was resigning myself to fall, an attendant who looked not much bigger than a twelve year old grabbed both my wrists and hauled me towards him. Respectfully, the rest of my colleagues waited until I was out of sight (but not out of earshot) to start laughing. My spine had survived the incident intact, my dignity had not.
After that, I became a challenge to the island’s scuba instructors. Certifying me would be like capturing the white whale; a symbolic achievement to prove they were truly worth their salt as PADI professionals. Each in turn endeavoured to acclimatise me to the scuba gear and (looking back with hindsight) the ridiculously simple skills. Yet try as they may, I could never quite accept that if I flooded my mask underwater I would not, in fact, die. I dutifully watched the laughably out-dated PADI videos featuring an array of 90s haircuts which were enough to put even the keenest enthusiast off diving. I obediently filled out the knowledge reviews and convinced myself that next time, next time, I wouldn’t manically surface in the hotel’s infinity pool next to a woman who was on estimate probably 60% silicon and spit copious snot in her direction. No, next time would be different.
It wasn’t. My enthusiasm dwindled and I resigned myself to a life at the surface. Bobbing alongside tourists in lifejackets was clearly my destiny.
Along the way however I fell in love with and promptly married my very own diving instructor. The fact that he married me before ever trying to certify me was probably a smart move on both our parts. As my daily life continued to be populated by divers, I would continually hear incredible stories of underwater encounters and my Facebook timeline was bombarded with pictures of exotic reefs and marine life. I greeted my friends as they returned from dive trips and listened to the tales of what they saw. I learnt the names of all the popular dive sites and knew what you might be likely to find there. Nonetheless, two years into my marriage I was still uncertified. Things had to change.
My determination began to gather once again and as the Eid Al-Fitr holidays came around last year, I decided I wasn’t going to waste them. Four empty days were spread before us and I wasn’t going to sit around stuffing my face with hedhikaa, tempting though that always is after thirty days of fasting. This time I would make it all the way to certification. My ever-optimistic husband certainly didn’t show his apprehension as we headed over to Hulhumale’ to spend the day in the lagoon although he did matter-of-factly ask that I “try not to be like his wife today.” I assumed he meant that I actually had to listen to him. Well, I thought, I could make the exception just this once.
After that, I’m not sure what changed. Maybe it was the joyful feeling in the air that Eid brings. Maybe it was finally having an instructor that I trusted. Maybe it was feeling encouraged by the friendly team at Into Scuba who we dived with. Whatever it was, I performed each skill without a glitch and dare I say, actually enjoyed myself. As we descended to the sandy bottom of Maagiri reef on the first of the day’s dives, I gripped my husband’s hand and for some time refused to let go. Yet as the schools of brightly coloured fish began to drift by and the gentle current carried me along, my fingers loosened and I let go. There is so much to see and be marvelled by underwater that you forget everything and become lost in wonder.
As each of the dives progressed, I felt certification becoming a reality. On my second day, as I knelt beside a manta cleaning station and watched a 5 metre-wide ray glide overhead, I knew that here at depth was where I belonged, not on the surface looking down. On the last of my four dives I was enjoying myself so much that I momentarily convinced myself that I was euphoric from nitrogen narcosis. I calmed down when I remembered that I was only at 18 metres. This from a girl who actually cried when asked to perform a giant stride entry for the first time. Something had clicked. Something had changed. A month shy of my third year in the Maldives, I’d finally caught the bug.
After that, I decided to make the most of my new-found enthusiasm and completed my advanced certification the following week. As we sat on the boat, preparing to jump, my husband turned to me and smiled. I knew why. Banana Reef is his favourite dive site and he was finally going to show me around. He once told me that if I were to bring him a rock from the reef, he would tell me where I had found it. “You’re going to enjoy this one,” he grinned. And he was right. I did. As we paused under a deep-set overhang to admire the countless yellow snappers gliding down from above, I finally understood why hundreds of thousands of tourists come back year after year to experience Maldivian waters. Like all good treasure, the Maldives’ bounty is at the bottom of the sea. And glimpsing it is addictive.
My love affair with diving had (no pun intended) a rocky start. It’s now almost two years later and I’m a certified rescue diver. Yet had it not been for my unfalteringly patient husband, I would no doubt still be the one sitting in the harbour waiting for the boat to get back. Some divers fall in love at first (dive) site; this diver took a little longer. It was worth the wait.