Nights are for diving

I discovered the joys of scuba diving and the wonders that lie tucked away beneath the surface of the ocean in Venezuela on my first Discover dive. And I’m grateful that it was such a magical experience because, without it, I don’t know if I would have had any motivation to dive after my Open Water. If my first underwater experience had been the small indoor pool and the murky shallow water of a not particularly exciting Mediterranean beach on a very wavy day that were my diving grounds for my first PADI course, I don’t think I would have had much interest to keep on exploring any further. It didn’t help that my course was not particularly fun, with too many people, different instructors, and another student who kept panicking, rising to the surface and grabbing at my hair to stop herself floating up, making me struggle to stay down in the process. But thankfully, the warm waters of the islands of Los Roques had already shown me that the sea had a never-ending supply of magnificent creatures that I had yet to meet, so I carried on.
My travels took me back to South America, this time to Colombia. I was very eager to log my first dive as a fully certified diver, although as it turns out, just because you have a shiny new PADI card, it doesn’t make you as completely independent as I had hoped. I was travelling to Colombia for a wedding and arrived a few days early to travel around with some friends and visit the beautiful sights around Santa Marta. We stayed in the little fishing village of Taganga, which is about as picturesque as can be, and at that time there wasn’t a whole lot there in terms of tourism activities apart from a few hotels, and a couple of dive centres.
I often saw people walking around in wetsuits, and we walked past the dive centre in front of the hotel every day. Still, as always whenever I want to try anything new, I felt very inadequate and that everyone looked a lot more professional and experienced than I could ever be. So, I looked longingly at the divers walk by, wondering what wonderful beasts they would have encountered today, but I stuck to hiking with my friends in the breath-taking Tayrona Park, going to a coffee plantation, and going spearfishing. Or rather- trying to go spearfishing, getting the spear repeatedly stuck in the rock crevices, and having the guide spear some fish so we wouldn’t go home with an empty belly. Although the highlight of the trip was discovering the mystical culinary wonder that is arepa huevos. If you haven’t tried them, stop what you’re doing, get your bucket list out, and add “eat a freshly made arepa huevo from a street vendor in Colombia” to it right now. Seriously, go and do it. I’ll wait.
But after a few days of tiptoeing around it, and with a gentle nudge from my friends and that ever-present powerful incentive that is the fear of people knowing I’m a wuss, I finally decided to walk to the dive centre. I had left it to the last minute, so I felt reasonably sure that they wouldn’t be able to fit me in at such short notice. But as always, fate finds a way to shove you towards what you’re resisting, so when I stepped in the shop just to get information, they told me they were just getting ready for a night dive, so I could hop along with them. It was very unexpected, I didn’t even have time to get used to the idea, and I had a ton of reasons not to go. After all, it was months after my course, I’d never done a dive by myself, let alone a night dive, which I didn’t even know existed until that moment. But dive centres are used to hesitant customers, so they just said “naaaaah, it will be alright” at every single one of my doubts. For them, it was a simple dive, they just had one guest who was an Argentinian instructor on holiday, and one of their own instructors going as a guide. They’d be more than capable of handling a newbie between the two of them, no matter how useless I was. I told the guide that I didn’t have a single dive under my belt apart from my course, and I didn’t know if I could do it, but being an easy-going Latino, he just smiled and told me not to worry, that he’d be hugging me all the way through the dive.
Before I could realise what was happening, I was already on a boat, with all my gear on board, on the way to “El Remanso”, a nearby dive site. Everyone had done an excellent job calming my nerves until someone had the brilliant idea of asking me “You’re not claustrophobic, right?”. Actually, I am a bit… but more importantly, why was that a problem? “Oh… don’t worry, it will be ok” is not the most reassuring answer you want to hear at this time. So the butterflies in my stomach started fluttering again, my heart started pumping faster, my brain racing and wondering how I get myself into these situations that make me so anxious. I was regretting having ever got on that boat… until the moment I hit the water. Water is where I’m happiest, and you can’t get much better than floating on the surface with your dive gear, with the stars starting to appear above you as the sun sets, and the lights from the shoreline reminding you that all around, regular people are getting ready to have their dinners and go to bed while you are doing something spectacular. Only that unlike the other times I’d gone diving, the water all around me was completely dark, and we couldn’t see anything below.
Your first night dive can be a bit unnerving, and some people do get the feeling of claustrophobia with the whole ocean pressing against them like an unseen all-encompassing wall. But for me it was completely the opposite, it was enormously liberating. I’m not too fond of the dark, but for some reason underwater I felt completely safe and free, floating around completely supported by the water. It did help that as my buddy said, he held me all through the dive and basically carried me around, which meant I barely had to fin and could just concentrate on every little inch of the reef and every creature that my torch lit up. It also put my mind at ease that he could get me super close to all the action without me having to worry that I’d clumsily kick anything delicate or cause any damage.
And something I would never have expected was that at night, the ocean seems to come to life so much more than during the day. The corals had a lot more colour, with their little coral tentacles grabbing at the water to see what food they could catch. All the little crabs and lobsters that seemed to be asleep during the day all came out to play at night, crawling away hurriedly when we got our light too close to them. Some fish seemed to be sleeping peacefully in a crevice in the rock or a sheltered sandy spot, while others were swimming around actively, trying to find something tasty to eat. All the leisurely swimming during the day becomes a lot more frenzied when so many fish are on the hunt, and it’s exciting to see.
When your field of vision is narrowed because you can only focus on the tiny spot in front of you that the dive torch lights up, it truly makes you see all the details more clearly. You focus on every shape, every texture, every colour of every fish scale or polyp in front of you, and it really is superb. That night dive was already seared into my memory as it was, but then the sea always seems to reserve a little surprise to blow your mind when you think it can’t get any better. When we were ready to ascend, our guide did the signal for the safety stop, and we came up to a depth of 5 metres. He then turned to look at me, pressed his torch against his chest to dim the light, and signalled that I should do the same. I was very suspicious, as I had absolutely no clue what the hell was going on, and thought this was surely some kind of seduction ritual that scuba instructors had up their sleeves. But as soon as the lights were off and my eyes started getting accustomed to the darkness, I started to see very faint little flickers of light all around. Then he started waving his hand through the water, and the ocean seemed to come alive with his touch, thousands of tiny glowing dots shining a beautiful fluorescent blue, his fingers leaving trails of light through the water. I was so blown away that I wish we could have stayed in that spot until we had used up every last drop of air in our tank.
That was my first encounter with bioluminescence, something so spectacular that it was beyond anything that my brain could have imagined. But then that’s exactly what the ocean is, a container of all of the things that go just beyond the limits that my dreams can reach.

My first ever scuba dive

To begin at the beginning, I always wanted to dive, for as long as I can remember. Other children dreamt of flying, being rock stars, some even dreamt of having children, a house, and a white wedding, but I dreamt of the ocean. I was born in Santander, on the Northern Spanish coast, where the sea is wild and untameable and chills your bones but warms your soul with its beauty, so the ocean has always been on my mind. I remember feeling exhilarated when racing the waves that would knock me off my little feet and fill my mouth and nose with salty water. I remember feeling peace just sitting on a cliff looking out at the never-ending horizon and listening to the rhythmic sound of the shore break. I remember feeling mesmerised by all the little critters that lived in that place of limbo between the high tide and low tide, where life is sometimes dry and punishing, and at other times submerges under the surface and hides away from us land-dwellers. So all my dreams were naturally of the sea and of all the creatures that live in it.

Life took me away from the coast, but when I became old enough to start deciding what to do with my own time and make bucket lists of things I needed to do to consider I had lived a good life, scuba diving was top of my list. However, with age come distractions such as studying that took up all of my time, and boys who I found never shared my passions, so my bucket list was hidden away in a folder at the back of my bookcase, all of my dreams collecting dust with the passing time. It was only when I had moved away and started working that I found that list again on one of my visits home, and I saw that very depressingly I hadn’t done a single one of the things on it. So I signed up for samba lessons, I took a trip, and I vowed that I would take a scuba diving course… soon. Because then came the fears. I would say about 9 out of 10 students (if not more) tell me that they are afraid when they start diving. But of course, at the time I thought that everyone else was super brave, I was the only wuss, and diving was this massive, daunting task that I couldn’t see myself ever being bold enough to do. So I kept making excuses and putting it aside.

Of course, life always has a way of pointing you in the right direction of where you need to go, and it finds a way around your excuses. In stepped my Venezuelan friends who organised a trip for a few of us to visit the home country that they always talked so fondly about. The trip was really just an excuse to spend a fun Christmas break on tropical beaches, drinking together from sunrise to sundown, dancing, playing poker, and doing just enough sightseeing to make ourselves look respectable. But one of our stops was the picture-perfect Caribbean islands of Los Roques, where between the bottles of rum, it turned out that a few of my friends were going to do some diving. Again came the excuses, because obviously all my friends were certified, I was not, and you can’t fit a whole dive course into one morning. I was outwardly jealous and secretly incredibly relieved that I wouldn’t have to go through with it. Especially as my friends were going diving on the outside of the reef to try to find sharks, which sounded thrilling but I was convinced it was the last I was going to see of them (I mean, did you watch Jaws?). As I’ve always found in life, when I don’t want to take a step forward, it pushes me in the deep end. Hence, two of my friends decided to do a skill refresher course and a more comfortable dive, one because she hadn’t been diving in a long time, and another because he thought he was a diver, but PADI disagreed. As it turned out I could join them for a discover dive, where you learn the most basic of skills and then are dragged by the hand by an instructor, I had run out of excuses (because clearly admitting I was afraid was never an option for me), so I jumped in, literally and figuratively. We learnt our skills, listened to the instructor’s briefing, and got on the boat- all easy up until that point. Then came my fears screaming in my face and making my heart beat out of my chest.

What exactly was it that I was so afraid of? Embarrassing to admit now, but I was convinced that one of two things would happen when I jumped off that boat. One, I would crack my head open like an egg on the side of the boat when I rolled backwards towards the water, fall back and drown. Why did I think that would happen? This I haven’t seen in films, nor have I ever heard of it happening to anyone, plus I know through experience that the human head is designed to survive a bump, especially from a fall from a seated position. But for whatever reason, I was very much convinced that would happen and could envision it clearly. And two, if by some miracle I survived this feat and managed to keep my brains inside my skull once we reached the water, I absolutely knew my ears would not take the pressure and blow up inside my head. Once more, why on earth I would think that would happen is beyond me, but I was completely convinced this was a very likely scenario.

Again, thanks to the life-saving grace of not wanting to be called a wuss, which is an instinct that has catapulted me forward during most of my life to do things I would otherwise have regretted not doing, staying in the boat was not an option. So I put my gear on, took a deep breath, and rolled backwards into the water. My head did hit something, but much softer and wetter than I anticipated. I had rolled back perfectly without any problem as absolutely anyone in the world can do, and fell straight into the water with all my floaty gear to hold me up in the warm, turquoise waters. And then before I could gather my thoughts and start thinking about the next ordeal ahead, we were already underwater. I wasn’t doing much apart from finning and equalising my ears, as you do on a discover dive, waiting for the moment when they would inevitably blow up inside my head. Still, before I could dwell on the dangers too much, I started seeing magical, colourful groups of coral just a few metres below us. I couldn’t believe how far in front of us we could see in the tropical waters, and how much life there was thriving just a few metres below the surface that we could never have imagined was there from the boat. And of course, I was so gobsmacked by the magic of life underwater, that I didn’t give another thought to my ears during the whole dive (and in case you were wondering- no, they never blew up, and that’s not a thing that actually happens). I was so immediately captivated by everything around us that I thought it couldn’t get any better, but of course, the ocean always rewards divers with magic. A beautiful turtle swam in front of us as if giving me a little preview that it could get so much better, and that there was so much more to see than my limited human mind could comprehend or imagine.

I don’t remember a whole lot more of that dive, just the overwhelming realisation that life was so much better underwater, and that I should spend every minute I could exploring it and seeing all the other wonderful secrets that lurked under the surface. That’s where my love of scuba diving began… as well as my love of rum and reggaeton dancing in island bars- but that’s a story for a completely different type of blog.

I will be eternally grateful for Agnes and Marqués who shared that first underwater experience with me, as well as for all my friends on that trip because I think it’s one of the events that has changed my life the most. And for that chill, Venezuelan turtle that gave me a glimpse of what my life could be like. But most of all, I’m thankful for all the whimsical twists of fate that led to my being born on that wild Atlantic coast that shaped me so profoundly.