I knew this was going to be the toughest living list challenge yet as soon as I saw the first dorsal fin cut the surface of the aquarium tank. It did a quarter turn to the right, then thrashed back, causing a little splash, like the shark changed its mind in what direction it ought to be moving. During the course of our thorough safety induction into the world of scuba diving, including videos and demonstrations, I admit I kept getting distracted every time a fin cruised by, or seeing the side of a ray skimming the edge, as if it was doing a lazy high-five.
The forms we filled out prior to the dive, including the sheet with our brief medical histories, were pulled out for us to go over again. Any answers that had been flagged were highlighted in purple. My sheet had a few.
Jon, our bouncy and exuberant instructor, leaned over next to me.
“It says here you take antihistamines for hayfever. You didn’t take one today, did you?”
“Good. You’ve also put down here that you have experienced panic attacks before.”
“Not recently. It’s been a few years.”
Jon nodded. “Okay.”
Once we had changed into our super-tight wetsuits it was time to get fitted with our masks, tanks, gloves and wet shoes. Then we were taken to the one metre platform that you can see here.
This was where we were taught the last of our skills (how to expel water from the mouthpiece if it gets dislodged underwater, the hand signals with which to communicate to each other) and how the next forty or so minutes were going to be played out. We were to swim from this platform to another from which we would descend to the four metre level.
It was at this point when I started to get very, very uncertain about this whole business. And that was before the giant swordfish coasted by. It was funny, but once I was in the water, the sharks were the least of my concerns. Little ones, even the big three metre grey nurse (“Mitchell”) didn’t phase me. It was the other stuff, the numbers that ran through my head: how many litres the tank contained, the pressure on your body for every metre you go down, and the extreme discomfort I felt from having to breathe purely from the mouth. (Apparently, for us heavy nose-breathers, it can take a little getting used to.) The extra twenty-five kilos on my back was the kicker, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would sink straight to the bottom, even though there were measures in-built to stop that happening.
I managed to swim across to the second platform. That’s me in the picture, on the left.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, Adam and the kids were there to take photographs, and they were waiting right underneath that second platform.
See, there I am, waving!
One after the other, my co-divers then descended down to the bottom. I was left up the top and was quite happy there. I couldn’t go any further and felt like a bit of a failure, especially when I saw the rest of the family making a ‘down down’ motion with their hands, urging me to go the rest of the way.
The instructor, Amy, came up to me and gave me the ‘okay?’ symbol.
I did the ‘shaky’ motion of my hand which means ‘no’.
We surfaced and I apologised, saying I couldn’t go further.
“That’s okay,” she said.
She turned to go back underwater to give her fellow instructor the signal to go on without us. I watched my co-divers head away along the bottom of the tank while we remained up top.
“It’s not for everyone, this happens,” she said. “We’ll just stay here, we’ll still see a lot.”
I felt such a profound gratitude I wanted to kiss her. So I shoved my mouthpiece back in and stayed just beneath the surface, still, watching all the marine life go past. There were reef sharks. Baby rays insolently went right past my face and I got a great eyeful of their long tail. It was a visual feast, and I got a big surprise when I got the tap on my shoulder telling me it was time to get out. The time went so quick.
Although the water is a comfortable twenty-three degrees, I admit it was nice to hop into a hot shower afterwards. As I was getting out, the woman diver who made it to the bottom came in.
“Couldn’t do it?” she asked sympathetically.
“No. How was it down the bottom?”
“It was very cool.”
I’ve no doubt that it was, because from where I was it was very cool too.
I would like to thank the amazingly supportive crew and staff at Melbourne Aquarium for making this ‘Living List’ goal possible. In a happy coincidence, this week is Shark Week. Its aim is to get visitors “to learn all about sharks, including the threats they face, where they live, and lots of other fascinating facts for both children and adults alike.” They’re also after 100,000 signatures from people who are willing to pledge to be Fin Free. If you’re against finning, you to can sign the pledge (just like I did) and help with the cause.