Divernet

MY WIFE JESSICA WORKED FOR A TIME IN A GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT IN SEYCHELLES. One day, sitting in her office, she heard the unmistakable and heart-stopping sound of screeching brakes and rubber on tar combined with the thud of something being hit by a car. She ran down from her office and as she reached the road saw a car speeding off.
     In the road lay a small dog, its head gashed open and its body bruised and soiled. As Jessica bent down over the motionless animal it opened its eyes and stirred its head. Its hind legs were useless. On the pavement people passed by, unconcerned. Dogs have a miserable existence on most tropical islands and few people cared whether it lived or died.
     Jessica picked the animal up and took it to the only available veterinary surgeon, not expecting it to live. It did, and although we had nowhere to keep it at our home, she obtained permission for the animal to be kept at the office as an official guard dog.

The dog gradually recovered and when it could walk properly it bounded to greet Jessica every morning, its whole body shaking in concert with its tail. She would take it food each day, including at weekends when the offices were closed.
     The dog, who was named Fleuri, prospered. It was a happy animal, always anxious to please, and devoted to Jessica. One or two of the security guards at the building took an interest in the dog, particularly those on night duty who enjoyed her company when they had to patrol the premises after dark.
     Occasionally we would take the dog to the beach for a run, and we hoped that when we moved to a bigger house with a garden we would take her home to live with us permanently.
     One day as I was preparing for a dive the telephone rang. It was Jessica calling from her office. She was crying, almost too upset to talk. I knew that things at work had generally been going badly and that she felt she was being frustrated by petty office politics, and jealousy on the part of some of her colleagues. I also knew that she was thinking about resigning, but now there was anguish in her voice, and anger.

As i listened she told me what had happened. When Jessica had arrived at work Fleuri had not been there to greet her. She asked around and someone said she knew where the dog was. Jessica followed and was shown the back legs of the dog hanging from a rubbish bin. She was dead. Deliberately poisoned.
     I told Jessica to leave her work and drive to the diving centre. We would wait for her. She had to get out of the office. She arrived and I arranged for her to borrow a set of diving equipment. She had not been diving for very long and was still slightly apprehensive about the whole process.
     We were going to a place which none of the diving centres visited very often. It was a deep site, and subject to strong currents and heavy seas at that time of year. I urged Jessica to dive, feeling it was better for her than to stay at work, or go home and feel miserable until I could get there several hours later.
     On the long boat ride to the dive site Jessica was too upset to talk to anyone. She sat beside me on the boat, holding my hand and crying silently. The dogs death was a personal loss to her, but it was more serious than that, a symptom of the negative environment in which she had been working. Most foreigners who worked in Seychelles encountered the same sort of thing, a wall of resentment and suspicion from the islanders which made the daily routine of life tedious in the extreme.
     The other divers busied themselves with their kit, and took in the scenery as our small boat passed the beautiful coastline of north-west Mahé. Thick forests of palm grew on the rocky tip of the island and the waves washed against the smooth golden-brown flanks of its granite shore. We passed the broad sweep of Baie Ternay and headed onwards to Cap Matoopa, a jumble of boulders spilling from an uninhabited headland.

The twin engines of the diving boat thrummed loudly as we left the lee of the shore, the waves becoming bigger and drenching us with spray. Ahead lay the open sea with just the small bulge of Conception Island a mile offshore.
     We were heading for a patch of water on the seaward side of Conception, an unmarked spot where a collection of large rocks lay at about 35m below the surface. The exposed offshore location of the site and its depth meant it could only be dived when the weather was good. Because of the depth we would have a relatively short dive, a total time of 30 minutes underwater and a maximum of 10 minutes at the deepest parts of the site.
     Jessica and I formed a buddy team. We slipped into the water and waited on the surface for the other divers. A strong swell ran behind the boat and we submerged just a few feet to get out of it. Holding on to the boats anchor rope we looked down and saw the dim shapes of the rocks below us. They seemed a long way down and surrounded by dark deep water.
     Moments later everyone was in the water and we headed down the rope, kicking steadily for the shapes below. A group of large barracuda, perhaps 10 in all, hovered beneath us, moving out of the way as we passed. Twenty metres below the surface the rocks came into view more clearly. They looked like a city shrouded in fog, glimpsed from the air through a break in the clouds.
     The dive site was called the Arena. At one edge of the submerged rock group there was a large arch and all around it a bulbous plateau of boulders, with channels and fissures running across the top of the rocks like the streets on a city grid. The arch stood up proud of the other rocks, a cathedral to their office blocks and thoroughfares.
     As we swam towards the giant arch the visibility improved, but because of the depth everything appeared a uniform shade of blue-grey. Moving along a few feet above the rocks there were fish everywhere. In the crevasses of the boulders there were huge spiny lobsters, their fragile antennae twitching slowly in front of them like a samurai performing a ritual display with his sword.
     Beneath the boulders there were small caverns and overhangs, too narrow for a man to enter but perfect resting places for small reef sharks which turned circles in their dens as we peered inside. In another granite interstice there was a pair of green moray eels, writhing and turning around one another so that it was impossible to tell which head belonged to which body.

We swam across a flat bed of exposed rock and swam for the cathedral arch. From the deeper water at the edge of our vision, first two, then three grey reef sharks swam towards us, agitated that we had disturbed their hunting ground. They were shy of us. Another diver attempted to photograph them and at the sound of the high-pitched whine of his flashgun they were off, tails twitching as if electrified by the device.
     I checked on Jessica. She gave me a confident OK, and signalled that she was enthralled by the beauty of the under-water landscape. We left the other divers behind and made for the arch, swimming beneath the overhang, a shadowy chamber where a congregation of yellow stripe snappers (Lutjanus kasmira) hung head down as if mesmerised by something on the seafloor. We swam past, skirting them as though they were a group of old women kneeling in prayer.
     By the time we exited the chamber it was time to start upwards, using the cathedral pinnacle as our focus and ascending to shallower depth so as to avoid having to make a decompression stop. The top of the rock arch was illuminated by sunlight while everything below was blanketed in the steel shade of the deep.

A spray of blue darts cleared away from the rock wall beside us, blue and gold fusiliers, their electric-blue bodies tipped with a scissor tail of sun yellow, dozens of them moving in a vibrating cloud. The rock wall reached up towards the light, its upper reaches covered in stumpy fingers of the hard coral Pocillopora.
     In the lighter upper layers there were the smaller, brighter fish, the threadfin anthias (Nemanthias carberryl), bright orange slivers with erect dorsal fins, hovering in the current headfirst to pluck food from its stream and darting between the coral fingers for shelter when their courage failed.
     A sea fan stood out from a small cleft in the rock face, a maze of purple branches spreading from the root in smaller and smaller bifurcations as fine as a cross-section from a human lung. We reached the top of the pinnacle and looked up. Another 10m to go to the surface.
     We swam through the sea on a horizontal path, aiming for the anchor rope of the diving boat. When we reached it we held on, making a safety stop for three minutes as an added precaution for having dived below the 30m zone, albeit briefly. Down below us the rock city had become a ghostly mirage again, its shape and life another world, busy and vibrant, unaltered by our fleeting visit. It would be weeks, if not months, before divers visited here again.

Back on the boat, we talked about the dive. Jessica said it was the most beautiful place she had yet seen under water. As the boat turned into the wind to begin the journey back to Mahé she squeezed my hand. A tear ran down her cheek, and I knew that she had been deeply moved. That night Jessica told me that the dive had been a revelation to her. Seeing that place has put things into perspective, she said. Im giving up my job.
     The adventure of diving had worked its spell, freeing her mind of clutter.

  • Tim Ecotts book Neutral Buoyancy is published by Michael Joseph, price £12.99.