MY WHOLE LIFE has been about the experience. Sure, it’s nice to have a bit of money, for the comfort and security it brings, but I have never been about materialism (apart from my underwater camera!).
I have always strived to make the most of experiences, because to me the memories they evoke are the most valuable treasure in the world – one I can access anytime, anywhere or while I’m doing anything.
These treasures are highlighted by “Wow!” moments, bookmarks in time that clarify the mind, as in the sci-fi movie when every thought comes rushing towards to you in a moment of crystal-clear singularity.
Several years ago, I was in a shopping mall with my dear friend Barbara, who lives in the USA, when she had such a thought – the realisation that we were together in that place after knowing each other long-distance for so many years. She told me she would remember that moment for the rest of her life.
My diving career has been studded with “Wow!” moments, and I feel blessed still to be able to fulfil my belief in experience over materialism.
I STUMBLED INTO SCUBA-DIVING in 1996, and at once realised that this was the way I could build enough treasured memories to free my mind of worry and stress whenever I revisited them.
My first dive was packed with “Wow!” moments. I entered the early-April chilled waters of Lakeside Dive Centre in Essex, and my exclamation of “Wow! I can't believe I’m going to dive in such cold water!” was quickly followed by several expletives as that water seeped into my semi-dry, and several more shortly afterwards on descending to 2m in the murk and losing sight of my instructor momentarily before he grabbed my arm.
Then came the absolute “Wow!” moment when I surfaced, hardly believing that I had completed my first dive, or how amazing it made me feel.
Shortly after completing my Advanced Open Water I was practising navigation skills, again in Lakeside, with a buddy. The visibility was less than half a metre.
We had planned for me to follow him while he navigated to a jetty some 75m away, then to swap positions so that I would lead us back to the dive-centre.
I followed, literally, right behind his fins, keeping him in sight at all times. Successfully reaching the legs of the jetty, we changed round and I started navigating us back.
Concentrating hard on my compass and depth gauge, unable to see anything around us and with my hand extended in front of me, I suddenly came face to face with a huge pike. Lakeside was known for having the UK’s largest pike, and I believe this was one of the largest.
It was all over in a millisecond, but I remember my heart pounding fiercely and an incredible moment of clarity as I stared into that mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. I’m sure the pike had a similar feeling, as it looked as startled as I felt.
I guess the next time I felt “that” feeling was on my first overseas dive, following some 50 dives in Lakeside.
Giant-striding into the water in Mexico, I had an immediate sense of awe and a most definite “Wow!” moment as I realised that I could see for more than 40m in the gin-clear waters for which Cozumel is known.
That first all-encompassing view in 28°C water will stay with me forever. Seeing a beautifully colourful reef split by white-sand gullies, technicoloured fish darting about and a sting ray foraging in the sand was like a dream.
Completing the first dive with my two daughters Megan and Camilla after they qualified as Junior OWDs was an incredible moment too. I was full of pride and joy that they so clearly loved diving as much as I did, and watched them piggy-backing each other's tanks and somersaulting over and over with big grins on their faces and their eyes sparkling through their masks.
I had one “Wow!” moment not during a dive, but immediately afterwards. Training for my Dive Master qualification, I had limited time to complete the course before having to return to the UK.
One morning I woke with a stomach bug, but knew that I couldn’t miss the day’s scheduled modules because I was leading my first group of divers.
Dosing up on Imodium I hoped for the best, but halfway through the dive, with the group of four close on my heels, I had the most violent and unpleasant urge.
Oh no! What to do? With tourist divers so close behind me, I could hardly take refuge behind a coral boulder.
Clenching my cheeks and grimacing, I managed to complete a respectable 40-minute dive before leading them back to the boat. Hurrying them up the ladder,
I unkitted as I flew up after them and dived for the head – just in time. An unforgettable moment!
IF YOU HAVE FOLLOWED my previous articles in DIVER, you’ll know that I’ve been lucky enough to have had some amazing marine encounters and the “Wow!” moments these inevitably bring.
The feeling of being at one with the ocean as I flew the most exhilaratingly fast nine-knot current at Tubbataha in the Philippines. The wonder of the bull sharks of Fiji, and the feeling of privilege of encountering my first group of dolphins in Egypt.
Climbing out of the cage with a huge female great white shark lazily swimming around me, checking me out curiously without a hint of malice. And my first sight last year, after so many years’ diving, of a blue-ringed octopus in Lembeh Strait.
Diving the incredible and awe-inspiring stone structure for which Yonaguni island in Okinawa is famous was an emotional experience I will remember forever.
Feeling curious, I asked several fellow-divers about their own “Wow!” moments.
Marine biologist Jamie Watts contends that there is no such thing as a “best” moment, but picks just one stand-out: “Settling down onto a sand slope in north Bali to try to get a photo of a tiny pink-ear mantis, watching this tiny critter eyeball me, vanish into its burrow and then tentatively try other exits.
“As I watched, it tried three exits a foot or so apart – this wasn’t one mantis with multiple exits, it was three mantises! As you started to look you realised just how many there were.”
“I was diving in the Maldives,” said Jenny Rosenfeld of Cameras Underwater. “The group ahead of us pointed one way, the group to the side pointed another, so we went to where their co-ordinates met, if that makes sense. Mantas!
“We stayed very low over the rocks below us and the mantas – maybe five or six of them – swam above us in a vertical circle. It must have been a feeding or cleaning station – it was so calming and they were just oblivious to us. It seemed about 15-20 minutes that they were there. Wonderful!”
Egypt seems to impart many memorable moments. DIVER’s own Alex Khachadourian found his “Wow!” moment in Middle Gardens, Sharm el Sheikh, in 2009.
“I was completing my IANTD Normoxic course,” he said. “As we were about to ascend, my instructor pointed for me to look up and there, gliding effortlessly some 40m or so above us, was a whale shark, my first ever sighting! It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Rescue Diver Peter Phillips told me about his unexpected special moment.
“I completed my Advanced Open Water to do this one wreck – yes, we all know it, the Thistlegorm. It was my first proper wreck dive that didn’t involve a lake or a clapped-out car.
“Normally just seeing the wreck appear as you drop down the shotline would be enough, or maybe the lorries and motorcycles inside, but for me that time the real ‘Wow!’ factor came when I saw the point where the explosion had ripped the metal away, just like the top
of an old sardine tin.
“For one moment I was looking for the giant key that had been used to open it!
“It was a subtle ‘Wow!’ moment – recalling that moment of pure destruction that left the diving fraternity with one of the best playgrounds in the world.”
SOUTH COAST DIVER Graeme Pace told me about an experience on his first dive trip to the Maldives in 2010. “We had been briefed that the area we were diving was well-known for whale-shark sightings,” he said.
“After about half an hour of the usual trolling up and down looking for them from the surface, the guides suggested we just get in and do a dive anyway. It would be on a large coral bed at about 25m.
“After we descended we were bimbling along when the guide turned round and started to do some strange underwater war dance – arms, legs and anything else that he could shake frantically, gesturing to something to my left.
“Just before I had the chance to look up, someone turned the lights out! It was an enormous adult whale shark swimming only a matter of inches over the heads of Joanne and myself, literally within touching distance!
“I quickly fired off some pictures but it was that close that you couldn’t get the full impact. It swam over us and off into the distance, and both Jo and I had the hugest mask-filling grins on our faces for the rest of the dive.
“Once back on the boat, the Maldivian guide told us that he had never had a whale-shark encounter like this! – now that’s what I call a ‘Wow!’ moment.”
Divemaster Carol Miller reckons that every dive produces a “Wow!” moment, but one stands out: “The first time I saw dolphins under water I cried – tears of joy, not easy to do under water!”
LUNDY ISLAND IS where Brett Thorpe of Divelife had his finest “Wow!” moment. “The divers were back on the boat and the seals seemed less anxious, less skittish. They came closer in, twisting and winding, mother and pup, playing in the kelp, swirling in the surf, nibbling my hands, biting the dome.
“Their eyes were welcoming, accepting, inquisitive. It was as if they understood me, and for those moments alone under water I was at one with them, part of their family, their pack.
“On their terms, in their environment, this was as close to nature as I have been and will probably ever get.”
Instructor Lucy Agace waited 30 years for her best “Wow!” moment. “I’ve been diving since 1985 and travelled all over the world, but one of the most memorable and moving moments has got to be during a recent visit to Bangka Island off Manado, Indonesia,” she said.
“As the spotter dive-guide drew my attention to a beautiful and huge seafan
l thought, thank goodness he’s here, or l would never have seen even one, but there were two! Tiny pygmy seahorses of the Bargibanti variety, together with their tails wrapped around a branch of the fan, hugging. It was a heart-melting moment.
“And then l saw a smaller one. Smaller one? He couldn’t keep still and his dad
(I assume) kept a beady eye on him as he moved twice while l was there.
“I was mesmerised, and just for once decided not to take photos and instead watch these gorgeous cute creatures and enjoy their characters.” Lucy did video her experience, which can be viewed on scubachannels.com
Diving produces an incredibly diverse and plentiful source of “Wow!” moments. I wonder whether any other sport, hobby or pastime would induce this level and variety of awe-inspiring memories.
Next time you feel like a little pick-me-up, think back over your own diving experiences and recall your own “Wow!” moments.