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Littoral truths

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Have you ever tried scuba-diving? Perhaps your experience was better than mine.

I’ve always liked the notion of the sea. I like to be close to it, to see its endlessly variable and enchanting response to the light, wind, tides and weather. When I was a child I used to love to swim in the sea but I seem to have fallen out of love with all that, not all in one sudden clean break but in gradual stages that years. I suppose finding myself swimming next to a condom was one part of that process. Becoming less tolerant of discomfort and inconvenience was another. It is, after all, horribly cold until you get used to it, at least around British shores, and then getting dry afterwards, unevenly covered in damp sand are other considerations. I remember, as a ten year old running up the beach on a summer day and simply rolling on the hot sand to get dry. And then there was scuba diving. In the south of France, back in the eighties, I thought I’d try my hand at this. In the UK, even as far back as that, you were required to learn about the process and demonstrate proficiency in a swimming pool before you were let loose on the open ocean. My initiation into this took place in the bay of St Tropez where I found myself on a boat with half a dozen or so others with varying degrees of experience. There, after a few instructions, largely performed in mime, the paying customers had an oxygen tank strapped on their backs and were dropped over the side of the boat. My tank, when I tried it, seemed unwilling to dispense oxygen. ‘Il ne marche pas,’ I said, in my best schoolboy French. One of the crew, a huge oleaginous fellow with a Gauloise on his lip, took the tank from me and whacked the valve a couple of times with a big spanner. Then, having tested it to his satisfaction he handed it to me with a nod. ‘Voila!’ he said cheerfully, as though all my anxiety must now be dispelled. An older, more confident version of myself would certainly have objected to this form of mechanical intervention but since everyone else had already taken the plunge I could not find it in me to say no. Anyway, at least I had a buddy diver to go down with me as we worked our way slowly down the anchor rope to the sea bed. I remember glancing up. In the few moments before my mask filled with water I recall thinking that the bottom of the boat seemed worryingly distant. My buddy showed me how to blow air into my mask to clear at least some of the water, before gesturing around to introduce me to the wonders of the submarine world. ‘Observe,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘Here is a shell, and over there a small rock. Let us swim to it.’ I had somehow formed the notion that I would be visiting a fantastic coral reef, with glittering shoals of coloured fish. Here I found myself in marine equivalent of a desert, with featureless level sand reaching out in all directions. This was disappointing, but my main concern was whether I was imminently going to die. Whatever I was sucking out of my tank didn’t seem to be doing me any good at all, so I kept on gulping more of it. I thought, ‘If there’s forty minutes of air in this tank I’m going to have used it all up in four. And then what?’ My scuba buddy seemed keen for me to have a bit of a swim with him but I could not be induced to leave the security of the anchor rope. Perhaps he could see the rising panic in my eyes. I was soon swarming back up that rope as fast as he would let me. So ended my one experience of scuba-diving.

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