Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Adventures Never Stop - Scuba Diving

It is said that "the greatest fear you will have is fear itself". I have long feared what lies beneath, but I have never really understood why. I was always a great swimmer, so it was never because I was concerned that I would drown. I suppose that I was just as traumatized by the Jaws movies as everyone else.

So when the opportunity to learn how to dive came knocking, I initially hesitated. What if my fear got the better of me? What if I felt claustrophobic? What if i went into panic while under the water? What if I get into a situation that I cannot stop? What if I find out exactly what my fear is and never go back into the water again?

I then stopped and remembered that this was the year that I would challenge myself. This was my year to do all of the things that I have always wanted to do but never have. Triathlons, traveling Asia, bike riding, going to the Carribean. I never wanted to let fear get in the way of anything.... and so I agreed to sign up to do my Open Water PADI Dive Course.

After doing a session in the local pool, and a couple of nights studying the PADI Dive Book, I was ready to go and try scuba diving in the open water. My flatmate, Bart, who is a dive instructor, happened to be going out to Pulau Aur, Malaysia and so of course i took up the opportunity and joined him.

On the Friday, I was so excited about trying scuba diving that I sat at my desk at work with my face mask and snorkel on, much to the amusement of my work colleagues! When the last hour of the work day finally ended, I quickly gathered my belongings and raced off to the Bus Terminal at Tanjong Pagar to meet the rest of the dive crew who would be heading to Pulau Aur.

We set off on the chartered bus, with two dive crews and a few independent divers, up out of Singapore and through the tiresome customs (both at the start of the bridge that joins Singapore to Malaysia and then the Malaysian customs at the end of the bridge). The bus, once out of Singapore, headed East across the bottom of Malaysia to the port of Mersing. It was already midnight by the time we reached Mersing and while I had tried to get sleep on the bus, it was a task that proved difficult. You see, our driver thought that he was a driver in the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix, rather than a driver of a chartered bus full of scuba divers. Every time I would just get to sleep, the bus would take a corner far too quickly and i would get pushed either against the bus window or across onto my friend who was sitting beside me.

We made it to Mersing in record time, i expect, and there we waited for the Ferry to arrive to take us on a long five hour ferry ride out to Pulau Aur, which was 60km away (do the math - the ferry didn't travel very fast at all!!). We were all very tired, but the anticipation of the weekend ahead made us enthusiastic to get the ferry ride over and done with. We all climbed aboard and into the cabins, ready to find a place where we could curl up and grab another five hours sleep. However, once we all found our place inside, the heat was unbearable and many of us prayed that air flow would happen once the Ferry commenced its journey.

The Ferry set sail and the heat continued. Quiwen then had the idea of dragging the mats that we were sitting on downstairs up onto the roof of the Ferry, where we could try and get some sleep out in the open. This ended up proving to be a marvelous idea. We all slept up on the roof of the Ferry and many of us drifted away into a peaceful, calm sleep as the Ferry rocked its way across the South China Sea towards Pulau Aur.

I did not fall asleep immediately, as I do not sleep very well on transport. Instead, I sat quietly, looking across the South China Sea and the full moon that was casting its light across the sea. It was one of those moments in life that you wish you could bottle. It is when you are surrounded by such peace and serenity that you want the moment to last forever. The air was warm, the breeze was only slight, and the humidity had dropped to a comfortable level. It really was a special time, one I will no doubt remember, along with the other special moments that I have experienced in my years of travel.

I eventually drifted off into a light slumber, succumbing to the gentle sway of the Ferry. We awoke about an hour or so out from Pulau Aur, when the heavens opened and rain fell upon us on top of the Ferry. We swiftly got back into the boats cabins and spent the next hour either dozing or chatting quietly.

We arrived at Atlantis Bay Resort at around 5am, and it was still dark. We could not see the beauty surrounding us, but we all knew that it would only be an hour or so before it revealed itself to us. For those who did not get very much sleep during transit (such as myself), we all went to our allocated cabins and slept for another couple of hours. Some others sat and watched the sunrise.

We were all awoken at 9am, ready for our pre-dive briefing and some breakfast. Beauty was all around us, with palm trees, crystal blue waters and yellow sand that you would expect on a tropical island. I was in awe of the paradise that surrounded me.

We all then loaded the boats and set off to the first dive site, Pulau Lang. After getting all kitted up (as we had been taught in Dive School), we found ourselves about to enter the open water for the first time. I would have expected that I would have gone into a bit of panic meltdown but a strange calm came over me. It never came. In fact, I was the first one to dive in, eager to start the dive experience. I did not fear the water, because the water was so clear and you could see the reefs underneath us. I realised that at that point, I had nothing to fear but I had plenty to gain by getting in there.

At the first dive site, we practiced entering the water and dropping down near the sea bed to obtain the neutral buoyancy needed to swim along the reef. We all managed to get this right and soon enough we were taken on a tour around the pristine reefs. We were surrounded by curious tropical fish, brightly coloured coral and many other sea creatures. I loved every moment of it. It was as though a totally new world was there for me to explore. It was like going to a new city or country, a place where there was so much to discover, so much to learn.

The dives that followed that day were mainly skill-based dives, but I still loved being under the water and it felt so natural. The breathing felt easy, the movement in the water was controllable and I felt safe - something i never expected to feel when 18 metres under the sea.

That night, we were all so very tired from our adventure that day, however, I was still needing to do my PADI exam in order for me to become officially certified the following day. A number of the others had already done the exam a couple of nights prior, but i was not feeling the best so i delayed it until the Saturday night (as it turns out, the night of the exams would have been the first indication that i was getting shingles - if i knew what was coming!!). I ended up getting through the exams and passing with a decent score. To be fair, I did race through the exam because I was so exhausted from the day's activities.

I woke up the next morning, eager to get back onto the boat and into the water. I was so eager that I was waiting on the beach, ready for the boat to arrive. That morning, though, I had noticed a strange set of (what i thought at the time) bed bug bites. I tried not to pay too much attention to them, accepting that it was just part of staying on a tropical island, a small price to pay for staying in such beautiful surroundings. At that point, they were itching but i tried to ignore them as best as I could - and I succeeded!

We managed to squeeze in two more dives, at a place called Rayners Rock, and then back to Pulau Lang again. I remember looking down at my oxygen tank on the last dive, knowing that it was soon time to head back to the surface. I recall feeling sad, knowing that I would not be able to dive again for a little while. The disappointment soon disappeared and a feeling of pride came over me - having conquered my fear and at the same time, opening myself up to a whole new world of adventure.

I knew in my heart that I had found something that I will do over and over again in the future.

We left Pulau Aur at midday, and made the trek back to Singapore. We managed to stay a little ahead of time and we got back home at around 8.30pm, our bodies weary but smiles on our faces. Not only had we had a great weekend of diving, many of us formed friendships that will last a long time.