Back in September, I told you about how I Faced My Fear of heights by taking up rock climbing. Another of my phobias is the sea, although I don’t believe that this fear is entirely irrational. I didn’t learn to swim until I was eleven years old, and I had a scary experience at the beach when I was just six. Where I grew up on the North West coast of England, the Irish Sea is a wild and dangerous stretch of water that only the bravest, or craziest, swimmers tackle. Unlike the calmer shores of the southern and eastern seaside resorts in the UK, Blackpool and it’s surrounding coastline is attractive for its sandy beaches and bracing air rather than it’s water. About 8 miles north of the bright lights of Blackpool town centre, my village has it’s own little stretch of beach that my dad used to regularly take me to as a child. It was on one such visit that I was caught by a freak wave and dragged out to sea by the current. Luckily, very luckily in fact considering that he can’t swim that well himself, my dad managed to rescue me, but it put me off swimming in open water for life. I remember my dad sitting me in the front of the car to try and dry me off and warm me up, and thinking that I hated the sea. I also remember my dad suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t tell my mum about what had happened when we got back to the house, and me pointing out that she might question why I was soaked through with seaweed sticking out of my hair.
So that, along with a dislike of swimming with fish (I have no idea where that one came from), is why I have a phobia of the sea. Just like with my phobia of heights, I decided to tackle this one head on. My chance came when I went to work in Rhodes in summer 2004. One of the benefits of working as a holiday rep is that you get to experience a lot of the excursions that you sell as part of your job. In Rhodes, one of our most popular days out was scuba diving with Waterhoppers.
From absolute beginners to qualified PADI divers, Waterhoppers are a great school to dive with. Even if you don’t want to dive, it’s still worth going along with those in your party who do. You can have a go a snorkelling, or just chill out on the boat and sunbathe. The Waterhoppers team encourage all the reps to take their PADI course whilst working on the island. Not only does it give you an in-depth knowledge of the sport to be able to sell the excursions, but it also gives you the opportunity to work for the diving school yourself someday. Although I never got round to taking the course, I did have a go at the introductory day.
Working as a holiday rep is incredibly hard. You’re on 24 hour call seven days a week, you work long hours and you have to deal with every situation that you could possibly imagine might happen whilst you’re on holiday. So, when you only have one day off a week, dragging yourself out of bed in the earlier hours to go and meet the diving boat isn’t easy. The first up in our building was Steve. Steve was always the first up in our building. Before becoming a rep, Steve was in the army and had not got out of the habit of tackling everything with head-on military determination. He forced the rest of us out of bed, including Neil who wasn’t actually diving but just wanted to come along and laugh at the rest of us in all the gear. We grabbed a quick breakfast on the way to try and head-off our hangovers from the night before. The diving instructors had told us not to drink alcohol the night before we dived, but on our one night off of the week that instruction and been forgotten about by the time we finished work at 9pm. Refuelled, we headed down to Kalithea Bay where we would be meeting the boat and diving from. ‘Kalithea’ means ‘beautiful view’ and the bay is situated just north of Faliraki, the famous party town of Rhodes.
We boarded the boat and joined a group of holidaymakers for our briefing. After learning the basics of diving, what signals to give when and what safety aspects to be aware off, we were split into smaller groups and sent off to relax on the beach until our designated time. Relax is probably the wrong word to use. Steve had dived before, so he was far too excited to relax, and the rest of us were more than a little nervous. By the time our group were called up, I’m sure I was the same colour as the seaweed.
The first time you put on a wetsuit, before you’ve learnt that trepidation is not the way to go about it, is always interesting. Especially when you’re on a boat that’s bobbing back and forth in a small bay. After about twenty minutes of wrestling ourselves into the suits that looked half the size of us and constantly bumping into each other in the process, our group were all zipped up and ready to get into the water. Even though we were on Rhodes, known as the sunniest island in Greece, this was early May and the water was freezing. Afterwards, one of the instructors commented on how good my diving posture was because I wrapped my arms around my body instead of using them to try and swim. I omitted to tell her that I was only like that because I was desperately trying to keep myself warm in the water, good diving posture was the last thing on my mind.
Before I tried diving, I’d always assumed the hardest part for me would be swimming so far under water with all those fish. Weirdly, once I was under the water I was absolutely fine and all fears of being in the sea completely disappeared, Instead, what I found incredibly hard was just putting my face in the water with my regulator on before I even properly got into the water. I felt so stupid. All I had to do was put my face in the water and breath, but it was the hardest thing in the world to do. Even though I knew I could just pull my face out of the water again if I had to, it took me ages to fight against my instinct and breath through the regulator. Once that was out of the way and I’d acclimatised to the temperature of the water as best as I was ever going to, I was away. Steve, as always, was like a kid in a sweet shop, zigzagging across the seabed every time he saw something that remotely looked like a fish or a stone. He was kicking up sand in everyone else’s faces, the instructor desperately trying to hold him back with the rest of the group. Due to the underwater sandstorm that Steve was creating, I wasn’t able to see much for the first part of the dive. Help came in an unlikely form. Another of my colleagues, James, had incredibly white legs (which were still the same colour six months later after a whole summer of Greek sun) and under the water they were so bright that I was able to follow them through the murky sand. I don’t think I would have seen much on that first dive, anyway, I was concentrating so much on just breathing and being in awe of the fact that I was actually scuba diving. I loved it, though, and signed up for the second optional dive as soon as I got out of the water.
The second dive was much more interesting, and Steve had calmed down a lot by this point so we were all able to see a lot more. The instructor took us to a cave that has a hole in the top of it that opens up above ground. The sunlight streams through the hole and into the water, and from your underwater perspective it really is the most incredible sight.
Although I loved my day scuba diving, I never did go back again. Unfortunately I was diagnosed with sinitis shortly afterwards, and my doctor forbade me from diving again that summer because I would be unable to equalise. Equalising is when you hold your nose and mouth shut under the water and blow. I have to do it a lot when I’m skiing, due to the altitude and my useless sinuses, and when I was diving I was almost constantly equalising. I had to resurface at one point as well because the pressure was hurting my head too much, and as I was being lowered back into the water the photographer chose this point to take my picture so my souvenir photo isn’t as cool as everyone else’s. I’m very proud to say that I have got my photo, though, and that I tried scuba diving at least once.