If you are not yet a diver but thinking of becoming one, don't read this. It might put you off. Antonella Gambotto didn't enjoy her early learning curve in diving, and all we can say is, we don't believe her experience is typical!
I wish I could say I couldn't wait to leap into the deep and make like a born wobbegong, but the fact is, my knees were castanets at the prospect of being submerged for what seemed far too long for someone without gills.
Diving? I am to adventure sports what Jacques Cousteau was to embroidery.
And yet how difficult could it be? I knew skilled divers with the IQ of mentally impaired stoats. Perhaps they had been intellectual giants before diving-related accidents had atrophied parts of their brains, but this was a thought I rejected. Eventually.
The days leading up to the course were spent madly swotting. I lay in bed, mummified with horror as I memorised the symptoms of DCI and nitrogen narcosis, wondering what the hell I would do other than panic were any of my fellow-divers to develop oddly coloured body parts.
The possibilities were stunning. What if my buddy suffered a cardiac arrest and then a shark mauled my tank? What if a fish-hook caught in my mouth and ripped half my face off?
What if a giant squid with eyes the size of dinner plates suddenly appeared and I shot to the surface, over-expanding my lungs only to find that my buddy had forgotten his first aid?
Would my semi-dry be visible to police helicopters, or would they confuse me with a discarded inner tube? Would my brain shrivel like a nipple in a snowstorm if I accidentally held my breath 18m under? I would end up selling pens from a wheelchair outside metropolitan train stations!
Rolled into my bath like a walrus, I would stare into space, vaguely recalling what it was to have a life.
As if for my first day of school, I appeared on time, neatly dressed and still amazed that I had passed the medical. ("Are you sure?" I kept asking the doctor.)
After weeks of sunshine, a cyclonic storm had hit the previous night, laying great trees to waste and stirring the seas to the consistency of mulligatawny.
My fellow-students trickled into the classroom. I was one of two women. The Instructor was tanned, bored, had bandy legs, roamed around saying nothing and then wrote his name in big letters on the board. I earnestly copied it and awaited his instruction, which consisted of spurts of elaboration between videos.
We were shown the first three modules of the PADI course. In each, winsome women and muscular men frolicked under water in fluorescent wetsuits, only to emerge laughing and shaking diamond-like sprays of water from their hair. Diving, it seemed, was fun. It was easy. All that was required was a sense of responsibility and the application of Certain Principles: the underwater realm would then be mine.
The Instructor repeated the basic points. Being asked a question more than once irritated him, and his monotone rose to a whine. His sense of humour was aggressively puerile. In giving us mnemonic devices for BWRAF, he suggestively smiled. "The ladies might remember it better as Big Willies Really Are Fun." I exchanged weary looks with Yoko, the only other woman in the class.
Poolside, the Instructor held a weightbelt. "See this?" he said, indicating the buckle. "This is the female end. It's the female end because the male end [indicating the belt's tongue] goes right into it. You'll find it easy to remember Ð it's the male end because the male is always right. Got it, Antonella? The male is always right."
The smallest and weakest member of the class, I had enormous trouble coping with the weight of the equipment. John, Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko geared up and were under water while I was still floundering at the surface, trying to adjust to the sensation of having what felt like a table strapped to my back, planks glued to my feet and a mixing bowl pressed to my face while rasping into an exhaust pipe.
Whenever I submerged my head, my long hair escaped and waved around my face like a kelp forest. My puny arms were the antennae of a dying insect.
I kept toppling over. My mask was permanently Ð and inexplicably Ð half-full of water. I tried to avoid inhaling it while breathing into my regulator, struggling to master neutral buoyancy and attempting to equalise an intermittently blocked right ear.
The Instructor indicated that he wanted me to join the others at the bottom of the 10m pool. I descended.
My mask filled with water; all was chlorine. Panicking, I finned to the surface, emptied my mask, readjusted it and looked back into the water.
The Instructor was gesturing violently. My heartbeat was wild. I was genuinely frightened. My unfamiliarity with the equipment made it difficult to remain calm. I tentatively descended.
My right ear blocked, unblocked, and again blocked. Recalling the sign language, I pointed to my ear.
The Instructor mimed blowing his nose. I blew mine and slowly descended. The mask filled with chlorine.
My mind ignored the fact that I could breathe through the regulator and instead registered only the water in my nostrils. I must be drowning! A perfectly natural mammalian fear. Panicking, I shot to the surface.
The Instructor grabbed one of my fins and yanked me down to the bottom. Terrified, I broke free and finned to the shallow end of the pool, struggling not to cry. The Instructor surfaced. "Get back in the water," he ordered.
I was the last to crawl out of the pool.
After a broken night's sleep, I confronted the Instructor. "There are problems with my mask," I said. "Either there's something wrong with it or I wear it incorrectly, because it was constantly waterlogged. I'm also a little nervous because I once nearly drowned off Rarotonga."
Instead of using this information as a springboard to communication, he stiffened. "Well, you weren't drowning in the pool yesterday, were you?"
I was the second to complete the final exam. John still hadn't finished after half an hour, and had a number of questions left. "Oh, just tick any of the boxes," the Instructor said blithely. "You have a one in four chance of getting it right."
I scored 49 out of 50, which buoyed my spirits. Just as I was about to leave, he looked up. "I don't care how well you did in theory, it's the prac that matters."
In the pool, I left the Instructor to adjust my waterlogged mask. He finned up to me and, with one swift movement, pulled my fringe out of the skirt so violently that it felt as if he had ripped strands from my head.
His eyes were furious. Determined to find the source of my difficulties, I remained in the shallow end, feeling the mask and experimenting with the way I adjusted it.
My hair was a problem, but I realised that the main problem was the angle of the mask strap. I had been adjusting it up near my ponytail, allowing water to enter. Simple. I adjusted it to sit squarely on the back of my head.
On land, I was unable to turn my tank on. "What's the problem now?" the Instructor asked.
"I can't turn the valve," I explained. "It's stuck."
"It's not stuck!" he cried. "You haven't emptied the second stage of air! The pressure's making it impossible! You're hopeless!" Marching over, he tried to empty the second stage. It hissed wildly. "The valve's stuck," he muttered, struggling to turn it.
"I believe I told you that a minute ago," I said.
I awoke, dreading my first ocean dive. Yoko drove me to the sea, which was awash with sediment. There was surge, there were currents, it was choppy, cold, and raining intermittently. The tableau was as appealing as an attack of shingles.
Once everyone had arrived, we geared up. "My tank's registering 50," I said.
"Of course it's registering 50!" the Instructor bellowed, without checking. "It's registering 50 because you haven't turned it on!"
On examining the tank, he grimaced. "It's empty."
"Yes," I sighed, "that's what I said." Yoko, responsible for packing our tanks, remained silent.
Visibility in the water was minimal. There was no sunlight. We sank to the bottom, perfunctorily performed our exercises and then knelt on the sand, exploiting the whole two feet or so of grainy visibility and taking turns to stroke the scales of a small and mildly skanky blue grouper.
George spent the period on his knees, cold, clutching at his neoprene torso. Paul and Ringo, my 14-year-old buddy, drifted aimlessly about. On land, it poured with rain. The clothes I had packed beneath the picnic table were sodden.
During the second dive, the others descended swiftly. I, of course, could not achieve neutral buoyancy. Deflating my BC, I aimed my head low, equalised, and my backside bobbed about, cork-like. My frustration was nuclear.
After five minutes or so, I somehow managed to achieve neutral buoyancy, which is when my right ear blocked.
I thus remained a foot or so below the surface, blowing like a whale.
Eventually I was able to descend and knelt on the bottom, rasping into my regulator. Yoko suddenly rocketed past me towards the surface. On the way home, she said that the Instructor had tried to force her to tolerate water in her mask. He had apparently ripped her mask off under water, which is when she shot upwards. He grabbed her fin, and she kicked him so hard he released her.
Having solved my mask problem, and with a temporarily functioning right ear, I successfully executed my exercises. The Instructor seemed surprised.
At this point, my ear began causing real problems. I ascended, tried to equalise, failed and tried again, ad nauseam. The Instructor and the others vanished. Ringo, who liked to trumpet the fact that theory was an alien concept, joined them, leaving me alone in the cool grey chop.
Minutes passed. I grew uneasy. Inflating my BC, I tried to fin back to the dive flag, but the current worked against me. Two kayakers passed. One rowed me back to the flag.
Yoko and I were the first to arrive. She bristled at the thought of seeing the Instructor, whose monotonic bullying had almost caused her to quit the course.
After he repeated that he would be tearing her mask off under water whether she liked it or not, she had told him to go forth and multiply.
By now, I had a relatively good grasp of the equipment.It was the last day, and I was in a good mood until I realised that Yoko had again loaded two empties.
The Instructor came over and tested the tanks. He addressed me without asking whether or not I was responsible. "You packed empties. At lunchtime you can have them filled." A spare tank was found for me. It was all I could do not to scream.
Instead of asking us to take the ramp into the water, the Instructor told us to walk over a shoreline of slippery, rounded rocks. Virtually unable to bend my knees while wearing the full scuba unit, I had to sit slowly down on the edge and, with help, again stand to make my unsteady way to the water.
Once in, we practised a few exercises (compass, orientation, cramp removal) and began our descent. The week's disastrous weather added to stress had resulted in a relatively constant blockage in my right ear. I could not equalise.
Ringo promptly dematerialised. My last underwater memory of the Instructor was of his eyes framed by his mask and his OK signal.
Signalling OK, I indicated that I was having trouble equalising; he mimed holding his nose; I held mine and blew; he disappeared. Despairing at the thought of being left at the surface for the rest of the dive, as I had been yesterday, I again attempted to descend. My ear squeaked loudly. Alarmed, I stopped.
I rubbed the pressure points on my face, hoping this would clear my ear.
No luck. Quickly finning to keep pace, I followed Ringo's ever-more indistinct fluorescent fins. Eventually he vanished and I was left following streams of mercury-bright bubbles. I seemed to be finning forever, seeing nothing with no one in the middle of nowhere.
Storms and an absence of sunlight had reduced the sea to gravy. Frustrated beyond belief, I again attempted to descend. In the process, I lost the group.
I struggled to discern the silvery caps in the gloom. Nothing. I breathed deeply. Remain calm. I popped my head out of the water, orientated myself, and then dipped below. My reasoning? I would fin to the headland, clamber out onto the rocks, and wait for the rest of the class on land.
So I finned and finned, periodically popping my head out of the water.
As the sea grew shallow, I inwardly rejoiced. Expanses of rock were visible. The increasing surge only consolidated my resolve.
Still battling the current, I reached the ledge. My fins made it impossible to balance on the sloping, mossy rocks. The surge was dangerously strong.
I raised my head and, without warning, found myself slammed against rock. Startled, I realised I was trapped in surf.
Still breathing heavily into my regulator, I lifted my left hand out of the water and grappled for a hold on the rock.
I had not realised that the unit's weight in air would prevent me from climbing ashore, and that its buoyancy in water would drag me seaward. I forced myself to remain calm. A deep half-inch cut was freely spilling bright red blood from my finger.
The strength of the surf intensified and I turned, breast-deep, which is when the regulator was torn from my mouth and I choked on a mouthful of water.
Now seriously alarmed, I reached for the regulator, lost my foothold and found myself struggling for air. The regulator slammed back and forth with me against the rocks.
I spat out sea water as I fought to keep still long enough to undo the BC. The weightbelt slipped from my hips, confusing me with yet another change in buoyancy.
Coughing, I was slammed headlong into the rocks. My hands trembled. The headland was empty; the Instructor, nowhere.
Tearing at the BC's strap, I managed to undo the buckle. I could not shake the sleeve from my right arm; the waves made it impossible. My struggle grew violent as the sleeve continually slipped back over my shoulder. My rate of breathing increased with panic. I can't remember how long this struggle lasted; all I know is that it was at this point that I realised I was drowning.
At that moment, a Japanese rock fisherman walked around the headland. I screamed, and he cautiously approached me. Placing his equipment down, he stood at a safe distance from waves which the Instructor would later declare to be inconsequential.
Gasping and shaking, I scrambled up onto the glassy rocks. My mask was spattered with bright blood. Three of my fingernails had been ripped jagged.
I asked the fisherman to hold my hand while I pulled my BC and weightbelt from the water.
Violently trembling, I sat down. Yoko, Paul, and Ringo emerged after 10 or so minutes by the ramp. They had lost the others. When the Instructor emerged, we walked back to our meeting point.
Still shocked, I told him what had happened. Vocally opposed to the "mollycoddling" of students, he grew irritated and said that the second dive would be "better". I told him I would not be partaking in the second dive.
Back in the classroom, the change in his mien was dramatic: all smiles, charm and saccharine warmth, he handed out evaluation sheets. "This is where you get to evaluate me," he chuckled nervously, "so let's not be too honest, guys!"
"Thought you didn't believe in mollycoddling," I said quietly.
He paused. "Well!" he cried, "who feels like having a drink after we've finished?"
Oddly enough, no one did.