Thirty five years ago, almost in another world, another life, I went to the Maldives to take part in a WWFN funded study on blue and sperm whales. I flew in over the scattered dots of coral atolls, shaped like turquoise cats’ eyes in the deep indigo of the tropical sea. There was a boat ride from the airport to the marina where the boat was moored and as I stepped over the gap between the dock and the boat, a cloud of sergeant major fish, little zebra striped diamond shapes, swirled under my feet. Even though by then I’d spent two summer studying humpbacked whales, living on board small boats and camping on uninhabited islands it had all been in Northern sea, dark opaque, impenetrable. This glimpse through gin clear water into the underwater world of a typical reef was instantly entrancing.
I was desperate to see more. So I snorkelled off the marina where the water was filmed with engine oil. Corals were surviving on the sea-ward edge of the harbour wall- pale branches tipped with pastel green, yellow, pink, mauve; blue surgeon fish and parrot fish tootled about. Even with the floating turds and sunken rubbish, it was amazing. It was like being given a key to a fairy kingdom or being able to walk around at will in your best dreams.
When I finally snorkelled on a clean, un-polluted fringing reef a few weeks later I thought my soul was going to expand beyond the limits of my skin and burn me up. I let the wash of the waves waft me back and forth over the reef crest to experience to hallucinogenic, addictive vertigo of crossing over the drop off, where the atoll edge plunged three thousand metres to the sea bed. I hung in the water gazing at fish, flying between the coral heads, completely ignoring my presence. The sensation was one of having left my physical body behind and just being let lose to drink in the loveliness around me. The tiniest details were ravishing. I remember being mesmerised by a shoal of little fish fussing around some floating sea grass leaves. The green of the leaves was dappled with shell pink of algae, the fish, tiny silvers of life,were electric orange and the ripples above them fragmented and pattered the light as it struck them through the water. Still, half a lifetime later I can call up that image and its sheer beauty fills me with sunlight.
In the years that followed I got the chance to make brief visits to that dream world of underwater and enter into that out of body state – snorkelling in the Seychelles and the Caribbean even off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Then life got in the way and the only time I entered that world was through the dissolving wardrobe-back of my sleeping life.
But this February I flew to Indonesia, to the long skinny tip of Sulawesi, to learn to scuba dive, to do the underwater world properly. I chose Sulawesi as it’s the dead centre of marine biodiversity for the whole of the Indo pacific. I was nervous. I’m not a brave person and I wondered if the whole tanks / face mask / breathing through a regulator would freak me out.
It didn’t. Underwater my heart rate dropped. My breathing slowed. I felt, sort of at home.
And what I saw was so, so, so much more than I’d seen snorkelling in the top few brightly lit metres of under water.
My first open water dive was on a wall, part of the Bunaken Underwater nature reserve. We dropped into the water from the back of the boat, that deep indigo sea and grass green island on the horizon- a simple bright picture. But one of the most fabulous things about entering the underwater world is that the porthole to it is so simple: blue sea reflects the light, open sky. You have no clue that the very second you put your face mask through the surface, everything is different. You enter a three dimensional existence. In normal life we can go forwards and backwards and sideways. We live in two dimensions. Underwater, you live in three and it feels profoundly different.
On my first dive there had been rain and wind. The water was full of suspended sand and plankton. So as I passed through the surface the visual change was simply that the indigo grew depth instead of just being surface. But as we sank the reef came up towards us, and we dropped over its edge and began to go down alongside the wall.
This was nothing like the ordered garden of the reef crest – the neat heads of branching and brain corals, like the pruned trees in an arboretum. This deeper part of the reef was like entering the subconscious mind, full of unfettered shapes and ideas, strange and marvellous. Huge sponges, massive fans of soft corals, blooms of basket stars, washes of fish shoals and the punctuated details of pairs or little groups of fish attending to their particular niche on the reef.
Like the orange fish on the pink and green sea grass, so many of the details of that first dive are printed on my mind: a sleeping turtle the size of my garden barrow resting pale and serene on a ledge- above it a bed head of brain coral, at the end of the ledge a pink fan of soft coral, like a tiffany lamp; triangular bat masked banner fish staring down the chasm of a huge sponge, with a look of existential gloom on their faces; emperor angel fish, impossibly striped in deep glowing neon blue and yellow.
But the truly astonishing thing was the big picture. At 18 m or so we stopped and looked back up the wall. this is a view films and photos don’t show because its hard for cameras to see through several meters of water. Pictures of reefs show sunlight details, or artificially lit close ups of tiny wonders, not the big scale landscape.
Here’s what I saw looking up.
Imagine looking up at a wall six stories high, a wall that extends in both directions for as far as you can see. Below you are six more storeys disappearing into darkness. The wall is covered with huge three dimensional shapes – columns, vases, tendrils, laminate petal formations – each one between the size of a human and a small car. They are coloured in dull pink. duck egg blue, forest green, olive and ochre, accented by electric yellow, black, white. Its as if Grayson Perrys maddest pots had been duplicated and assembled here in some huge fiesta of the mind. Among the pots, between and in and out swim fish – striped, spotted, splashed – yellow, blue, pink, mauve. In the crannies and nooks of the pots, in the tiny details of their surface finishes, are yet more creatures – tiny shrimps shaped like pom moms, little fish that dart over the glazes as if attached by strings. Creatures so camouflaged, so like part of the pots themselves, that only when they move, do you realise they are alive.
After two weeks of dives like that, I had a lot to process: a night dive when we sat on the bottom, turned off our lights and watched the bioluminescence blossom round us like galaxies being born; a huge puffer fish buzzing around the reef like a mafioso collecting protection money; clouds of red toothed surgeon fish with their trailing tails describing balletic patterns in blue neon. I came home realising I had to find a whole new language to describe what I’d seen and experienced. I haven’t found that language yet. I’m working on it, thinking of fiction and non fiction that could communicate that largely unseen, unsuspected and undervalued universe of beauty and wonder. Because we need to know about it. We need to cherish it, for itself and for us- the oxygen in three out of your last four breaths came from the ocean.
But perhaps I don’t need to think too hard. Perhaps just telling it like it was is enough. Just after getting back I described my first dive to an audience of year 5 and 6 children in a school. When I’d finished, a hand shot up
“How old do I have to be to learn to dive?”
I don’t very often think ‘job done’, but I did then.