Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Here is a sentence I have never written before: today, in my lunch break, I went scuba diving.
I’m training to a be Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI)-qualified open water diver. It was one of my goals for making the most of being in the Maldives, a chance to literally immerse myself in island life and explore the deeper aspects of Soneva Fushi. So, after a busy morning in the bookshop, I cycled over to the dive school to start my lesson.
My instructor, Francy, has been a diving instructor here for ten years so she knows the water better than anyone else on the island. She became a diving instructor eighteen years ago and, after working in Italy and Sicily, moved to the Maldives, which she tells me is the undisputed dream diving destination. Not only was I in very good hands in terms of her experience, but Francy’s energy, positivity and fun made her the perfect diving buddy to calm my nerves and get me excited for the descent.
We began by preparing the equipment and checking that our buoyancy aids were working properly. Then we went on to do the same with our weight belts, as well as checking that everything was securely fastened to the tank and that the regulator was connected to the flowing air supply. Loaded up with all the equipment, I felt heavy and hot as I wobbled at the water’s edge. Finally it was time to put on my goggles and regulator, and then after a step, rather than a jump, into the water, we descended.
Anyone who has been scuba diving will tell you that being eighteen metres underwater is like leaping into another world. Gone was the surface heaviness and tension, and instead I felt lighter, cool and calmer as the steady sound of the regulator forced me to breathe a little slower. As my breath evened steadily, I let go of my whirring thoughts and began to notice the teeming underwater world around me as I became more present.
Francy gestured down and we released a little more air from our buoyancy aids as we descended further. Below the surface is a buzzing environment, an underwater city, bursting with life. Thousands of fish, of all arrays of colours and sizes, surrounded us. We swam through shoals of redtooth triggerfish – vibrantly blue, their tails like lyres – as butterfly fish and angelfish came to greet us. A shoal of tiny bannerfish peeped out from the piece of bright orange coral and danced in the currents of our flippers before hiding once again. On the floor of the reef, a large, sandy sting ray rested while parrotfish searched for food around it. As we swam gently with our arms folded, Francy came to a halt and made a small signal eagerly.
In that moment, I caught a glimpse of a fleshy, colourful creature before it disappeared into the reef. ‘What was that?’ I asked Francy when we re-surfaced later on. ‘It was a huge octopus,’ she replied.
After the octopus, we spotted a giant moray eel, poking out of a ridge. Moral eels are commonly blind, but it seemed as though it was looking directly at me, warning me away with its menacingly blank glare, and suddenly the water felt colder. I checked my pressure gauge and noticed that I was nearly half way through my air. My training told me that the time had come to turn around. Although it only felt like I had been under for a few minutes, it was actually closer to a half an hour. Like our bodies, time was suspended under water. I didn’t want to leave this peaceful place; a soundless haven of shining colours.
As we headed back our time-keeping was rewarded as we encountered a turtle swimming vertically along the reef, serene and majestic. It’s not the first turtle I’ve seen here as many have their home on the island’s coral reef, but every encounter is magical. Despite their size, turtles can be hard to spot as their shells are so well camouflaged with the reef, but this one was gliding through the open water, along the reef’s edge. It didn’t seem to notice us, or if it did it was undisturbed.
I glided slowly past a rainbow of soft corals, suspended as though flying, weightless and free. As the current guided me along, a red and white striped fish caught my eye. Its colourfully striped body was enough to catch my attention, but its array of spiky fins made me gasp. It was a lionfish, famously venomous, their whole body a warning not to touch. Striking, beautiful, and fierce if provoked, this was one of the most intriguing fishes I had encountered yet.
Later, as I swam amongst the technicolour fishes, a dark shadow passed beneath me, catching my eye. A reef shark, certainly larger than me, was drifting just below. When I’d entered the water, I hadn’t imagined encountering one of the world’s largest predators, but rather than feeling fear, my body tingled with excitement. Reef sharks aren’t known to be violent towards humans, and this one didn’t seem interested in me at all; there was a whole banquet for him eat here. As I followed it through the water, I couldn’t believe this was my home, that these creatures had become my neighbours.
As the shark drifted out of sight, a spectacular apparition appeared. Thousands of shiny silver fish curved their way around the reef, like a glistening version of the yellow brick road, leading us towards a coral cavern. When we arrived at the entrance it was every bit as wonderful as Oz. The water around me was twinkling as though I had stepped into a vault of diamonds. The fish parted when I moved my hands towards them, sparkling against the sunlight. When we finally looked away, a pack of Eagle Rays were gliding above us. This was a sea safari, a majestic, abundant universe below the waves.