Travel is about curiosity, the desire to discover new places and experience the extraordinary. It is often about pushing boundaries, extending our comfort zone to the point of challenge and beyond in the hope of discovering something new about ourselves and the world.
In today’s episode, I’m talking about scuba diving and the wonder of traveling beneath the waves and even if you’re not a diver yourself, I hope you find it interesting.
Why I learned to scuba dive
I love the ocean and being near the water. We didn’t live by the sea growing up but I learned to swim young and even enjoyed competing at my school — until puberty hit when my body changed, my confidence dissipated and I started wearing thick glasses for short-sightedness. From then on, I avoided swimming but since I was always a quiet, bookish child, I preferred to read or study rather than do sport anyway.
But I still loved the ocean and so, in my late teens, I did a sailing course and wore my glasses strapped against my head with one of those rubber bands around the back. Super sexy! When I took them off to clean the salt off at a break, one of the boys sat on them and broke the arms. I actually had to tape them up with plasters and I still remember the shame of it. That experience led to me getting contact lenses at aged 19, which I’ve worn ever since — and also rekindled my determination to get back into the water.
Fast forward to the year 2000. I was 25, working in London, burned out by the workload as I talked about in Episode 3: Why I Travel. I relaxed by drinking and although I went to the gym, I certainly didn’t do anything that would be considered physically fun. So when I left my job, I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to experience the world in a new way. I wanted to change my life and do something that I’d never done before. I wanted a physical challenge and a new form of fun.
I flew to Perth in Western Australia in May 2000 and booked a PADI Open Water course. You can learn to dive closer to home, but I was down under for a year out and learning to dive was how I intended to start living differently.
The night before the course, I went to the markets in Fremantle and listened to a band playing Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens covers and drank VB (Victoria Bitter beer) and got a henna tattoo, even though the next day I knew it would wash away. It was somehow the first step in a new me. I wanted to mark my skin, and I wasn’t about to get a real tattoo because I’m Gen X and it was still relatively frowned upon back then, not to mention a stupid idea before going scuba diving!
That first morning, we put on our wetsuits and entered the swimming pool, sinking underwater while breathing on a regulator for the first time. I’m pretty sure they get newbies under as fast as possible to weed out those who can’t hack it or have ear issues. Some people just can’t equalize and a couple of people dropped out that first day.
I was scared but determined to make it through the course. My heart pounded the whole time, I got a headache really quickly, and it was cold in that pool despite the thick wetsuits. Down south in Western Australia is not that warm, especially in May when I learned to dive, autumn in the southern hemisphere. People assume Australia is all beaches and sun but Perth has a temperate climate, which is why there are so many Brits there.
Back to the pool, and the full-body 3mm wetsuit felt tight on my body which of course, it needs to be to keep you warm but it’s also constricting if you’re not used to wearing one. If you learn to dive in tropical waters, you’ll probably just wear a shorty or a light stinger suit but I appreciated learning in more difficult conditions because if you get used to it, then diving in the tropics is easy-peasy.
I remember being super aware of every breath, trying to regulate my breathing, keeping it long and slow and regular, but also sensing the rise and fall of my chest which affected my buoyancy. Breathe in, your lungs expand, you rise in the water column. Breathe out and you sink down again. When you learn to dive, you struggle with so much at first — the different gear, your breathing, where you are in the water, where your buddy is, following the guide. It’s sensory overload.
After a few sessions in the pool, we went into the ocean, first offshore at Fremantle and then out to Rottnest Island. The visibility was terrible and most of the group were fighting buoyancy adding and dumping air, bumping along the bottom. There wasn’t much to see, a few fish eating from rocks and the sound of cracking and popping, the swoosh of the waves above. It’s not silent underwater, especially when your breathing is ragged and you’re aware of every breath.
We had to do some technical skills and in the movement of the surge back and forth, I was petrified to take my mask off, which is one of the things you have to do to pass your PADI Open Water. I wore my contact lenses under a normal mask so I couldn’t open my eyes underwater. Later, I got a mask with prescription lenses, which I recommend as a better option, but I didn’t know that back then and overcoming the fear of taking my mask off was a huge hurdle for me. To be honest, I never got over that fear and just checked my mask super well every time I dived from them on.
If it sounds intense, it really was. But traveling is about immersing yourself into a different environment, experiencing new things and scuba diving is a perfect example of that. Perth, Australia might have been the opposite side of the world to London but the culture is not that different, so it was going underwater that was the real travel experience in those first few weeks.
On leaving Perth, I went north to Exmouth and did my first dives after Open Water on Ningaloo Reef. I snorkeled with whale sharks in my first days there which was surreal, like being in a National Geographic film where these huge sharks with wide open mouths swim past.
I did the Navy Pier dive, one of the Top 10 dive sites in Australia. Pier dives are fantastic because they’re generally shallow and teeming with life because of what the fishermen throw back. Lots of nudibranchs and sponges and coral life, schools of snapper and wrasse, wobbegong sharks which look like shaggy carpets, stingrays. I remember a huge Queensland grouper on that dive, absolutely massive, a turtle, and a Spanish Dancer, a beautiful red and white nudibranch, like a flamenco dancer, in mid-water.
Diving really is a different world. So often when we travel, there’s a sense of culture shock — the language being different, unusual food, different ways of behaving and social rules. When you scuba dive, you can’t speak so you use sign language, you have to follow certain rules, you see things from a new angle, you even breathe in a different way. When you sink beneath the surface, you’re in another world and after Ningaloo, I was hooked!
Wonder and discovery
Once you know how to dive, the physical aspect becomes more natural and easier with more bottom time. The excitement becomes about seeing new things, different sites and sea creatures and trying new skills. You can do dive specialties like underwater photography, underwater navigator, or cave diving as well as experience levels that enable you to work in the industry. I went as far as PADI Divemaster, but more for safety and self-confidence than anything else.
The truth of diving is that over time, you may do hundreds of dives, and many of them will be unremarkable and unmemorable. But you continue diving because of those peak moments where you see something you haven’t seen before, or you learn something new, or you discover things that you didn’t even know existed.
For example, I went to Perth Aquarium before that first diving course. I remember gazing into a glass tank wondering what was in there. Then I saw it. A weedy sea dragon, cross between a sea horse and a piece of weed. It’s a crazy looking creature. I didn’t even know weedy sea dragons existed until that day, and I decided I had to see one in the wild. They’re hard to find because they’re hard to see, but a few years later, I dived at Flinders Pier on the Mornington Peninsula in Melbourne and saw weedies in the wild. It was magical.
Another occasion at the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, I was doing a safety stop at the top of a pinnacle at five meters and saw this crazy looking creature, a huge yellow sea slug, much bigger than anything I had ever seen. I knew my nudibranchs by then, which are small colorful sea slugs, but this was something else. I was so excited. I thought I’d discovered something new and could barely contain my excitement.
On surfacing, I told the Divemaster about it and he said it was a sea hare. It wasn’t new, just new to me — and that’s the cool thing about diving. There’s the thrill of possible discovery on every dive, even if you’ve dived at that location before.
Some people dive for the big stuff like sharks but I preferred diving where you can go slowly and focus on tiny worlds, where you can gaze at wall life, nudibranchs or colorful anemones, or Christmas tree worms which are like little bottle brushes in coral that pull away as you come closer.
You can spend hours underwater peering out into the blue and never see a shark or a big creature. For example, I spent a week diving in Tonga during the whale season and we dived to the sounds of whale song the whole time and never saw one underwater. But you can gaze at wall life and discover a new universe.
Another encounter I remember distinctly, I was diving near a place called Jan’s Tunnel at the Poor Knights in New Zealand. I turned around from the wall and there was a huge octopus just a meter or so away hanging in the water on its way somewhere. It must have been five foot long from the end of its tentacles to its enormous head. It stopped and looked at me and I felt a strange connection to an incredible intelligence.
I wrote about that encounter in my crime thriller, Desecration, and also in Deviance. My character, O, has a full body octopus tattoo and she performs at fetish clubs like the Torture Garden in London. I gave her my memory of the encounter in the book. I haven’t got that tattoo, but I won’t eat octopus and I sometimes wear an octopus bracelet to remind myself of that day.
Many of diving memories are scattered through my books but one in particular, I gave to Morgan Sierra in Stone of Fire, when she talks about seeing God in nature rather than in man-made places.
I was diving off the coast at Moeraki Boulders in the South Island of New Zealand. It was super cold and we were diving in kelp forest which meant that even though my buddy was close by, we couldn’t really see each other. It was dark down in the kelp and the dive was more about rooting around looking for octopus and tiny creatures.
On the way up at the safety stop at five meters, I turned on my back and looked up through the kelp. The sun broke through and shone down through the water. It was like being in a cathedral with green fronds arching up over my head. If you’ve been to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it had that sense of majesty. My bubbles rose up towards the sun and I fixed that moment in my mind, just super happy to be alive and experiencing those few minutes of peace and natural beauty.
After nearly two hundred dives, those moments of wonder and discovery still stand out.
Camaraderie, shared experience, and a common language
Like many sports and hobbies, scuba diving has a certain camaraderie and a common language that marks out those who practice it. Divers will assess each other with questions about sites and experience, and even your gear will mark you out as a newbie or someone who knows what they’re doing.
The discussion on a dive boat will be about what you will see, the dive site, the viz (visibility), and the conditions. There’s the excitement of coming up from a dive and telling each other what you saw because you can’t speak underwater. The buddy system means you look after each other underwater and even if you go on a dive trip alone, you will always be buddied up. There’s the ritual of checking your gear, checking each other’s gear, and the agreed sign language that you use to communicate.
Of course, everyone knows each other quite well after a day out on a boat getting wet and semi-naked! After initially struggling with my body image, I found scuba diving liberating. There is no way to be sexy in a 3mm wetsuit, salty hair, no makeup, marks around your face from your mask, or projectile vomiting off the side of the boat from seasickness. Bodies on dive boats are just bodies. Plus, there’s no drinking on the boat or before diving so no altered perception of attractiveness. I didn’t wear makeup for most of those years and in fact, I only bought makeup when I started speaking professionally and for my (second) wedding in 2008 when my mother-in-law suggested that perhaps it was time!
After the corporate world of suits and conversations that revolved around business projects, it was fantastic to be immersed in a culture of nature-lovers and those who valued experience over things and rarely talked about work.
An edge of danger
Modern scuba diving can be really safe, especially if you go with a qualified school with good instructors and well-maintained equipment. Plan your dive, dive your plan. Dive within your limits. Listen to the dive briefing and look after your buddy. Follow the rules and you’ll be fine.
But of course, part of the attraction is the edge of danger. You’re underwater breathing from a finite tank of air. If you’re diving in an overhead environment, a wreck or a cave, there’s potential to get trapped. You can lose visibility, you can lose your buddy. Plus, you’re scuba diving in nature, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote. There’s a lot of violence in the ocean. Not usually directed at you, but happening around you and you are choosing to go into that.
Weather is often the biggest danger, although sometimes the storm can be raging outside and underwater is the best place to be. You also realize the fragility of the human body when you dive. I remember one dive at White Island in New Zealand, a volcanic island with incredible reefs and biodiversity because of the warm vents. The day we went out was wild with big surge and the boat was rolling and basically, I was seasick, vomiting on board and even once I got in, I experienced vertigo in mid-water. But ten meters down, it subsided and the dive was memorable for the contrast.
I’ve done a few shark dives in Fiji and around Australia, and night dives with sharks can be exhilarating but the scariest encounter I had was a pack of giant barracuda on a night dive on the Barrier Reef which I wrote about in The Dark Queen, a short story about an underwater archaeologist diving on the buried city of Thonis-Heraklion. You can listen to me read you The Dark Queen if you fancy trying the audiobook.
Wreck diving can be scary, but they can also be fantastic if you plan it well and go with an experienced guide. I have an obsession with memento mori, remember that you will die, and wrecks are evidence of the end of things but also how life continues after we’re gone. Wrecks are death and resurrection in one dive.
In the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, you can dive on the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship blown up by the French in 1985. The hulk of the ship is starting to collapse now so you can’t go too far inside but it’s now a reef, the hull covered with rainbow anemone, fish darting in and out the portholes, huge crayfish making nests in the crevices.
I’ve done a few other wrecks including the Waikato out of Tutukaka which is quite big and sunk deliberately to form an artificial reef. With wreck dives, water will surge through the openings so if you’re inside, the best thing to do is wrap your arms around yourself so you don’t hit anything with your hands or get tangled. Then relax, and go with the surge. When it pulls you back, don’t kick against it, just relax and let it drag you back. When the surge moves in the direction you want to go, kick with it and you’ll accelerate forwards. Super fun once you understand how it works!
I remember trying to fight the surge in a wreck once and beginning to panic. Then I had this moment of realization that I had to just let go. The water would always be more powerful than me. Once I relaxed into it, the wreck was a whole different experience. So often with travel, you can’t control everything. Sometimes the best thing is just to relax and go with the flow.
In recreational diving, you should never dive without a buddy, but of course, experienced divers do and enjoy the solitude.
I’d been out on the boats a lot one summer in New Zealand and did a few shallow solo dives so it wasn’t that big a deal, but one particular time, it was incredible viz and I went down to around 40 meters, near the edge of the recreational dive limits. I remember hanging there in mid-water and wanting to stay. I was most likely ‘narked,’ with the euphoria of nitrogen narcosis. I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to stay down there. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, but I didn’t want my time underwater to end. I returned to the surface because I’m responsible and I was working and needed to get back to the boat — but I never dived alone again after that.
Mindfulness and living in the moment
Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment rather than dwelling in memory or planning or worrying about the future. Scuba diving is great for mindfulness because you have to live in the moment, you have to focus on breathing in and out, at experiencing the world around you and accepting your physical reality.
When you scuba dive for recreation, you usually have one tank of air and that’s it. You have to monitor your air levels and if you’re nervous or worried, you’re going to breathe faster and use up your air more quickly. You can tell new divers because they suck their air super fast whereas more experienced divers can last a lot longer at the same depth. Of course, you must never hold your breath, so you’re always breathing in and out, and the bubbles rise to the surface in a kind of meditation.
There are also moments of physical sensation that are hard to find anywhere else. Flying off the edge of a drop-off is like that. Get your buoyancy right so you’re weightless and fin off the edge of a coral reef over the deep blue. It must be the closest that we can get to flying. I’ve been lucky enough to do that in Australia on the Barrier Reef, in Fiji and Tonga, where the visibility goes down a long way and the deep blue could be the sky.
I also appreciate the feeling of insignificance. Again, it’s memento mori. When you scuba dive and look at the fish and the world beneath the water, you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re there watching it, or whether you’re dead, or whether the world ends. This life will continue without you. Some might find that morbid, but I love the perspective. It makes me happy to know that the world will continue, even if I don’t.
What’s so interesting, looking back now as a writer, is how little I wrote of those moments. I have my travel journals and my dive logs, but the moments I’ve shared live far more strongly in my visual memory. Because of course, you can’t write when you’re underwater, you can’t usually take a picture — there’s better tech now, of course, but inevitably underwater pictures never give you the scope of the experience and nothing visceral. So you have to capture those moments in your mind and here I am, many years later, sharing it with you.
Why did I stop scuba diving?
I did the bulk of my scuba diving in Australia and New Zealand where I lived from mid-2000 to 2011 when I moved back to the UK. It’s easier to scuba dive when you live near the ocean and only a few hours from some incredible dive sites. If you’re in New Zealand, definitely go north to Tutukaka and the Poor Knights Islands.
I also married a scuba diving instructor in 2001 and we divorced in 2004, so the years we were together had a lot of diving. He was also a skipper so a lot of my diving was free or subsidized. We even had a diving business for a little while. When we split up, I carried on diving, but I also found new interests and then met my second husband, Jonathan, who is also a diver, but we enjoy doing other things together like walking, cycling, yoga, and also cultural adventures.
You need to dive regularly if you’re going to get the most out of scuba diving. It’s a bit like driving — you can lose confidence if you don’t do it regularly and a dive isn’t always perfect so you need to book multiple days and it can be pricey. Over time, without practice, the fear creeps back. Body confidence is lost. Like any physical skill, the more you do it, the more comfortable you become.
It all comes down to choice. How do you choose to spend your time and money?
In moving back to Europe, I chose culture — museums and art galleries and architecture and theatre — and other experiences over days out on the boat and scuba diving.
So will I scuba dive again?
I don’t know. It feels like a special part of my life that has passed and that’s okay. There are phases to life and change is the only constant. I love to snorkel, and I will possibly dive again in tropical waters where I don’t have to wear a thick wetsuit. But scuba diving gave me what I needed back then, a way to refocus on enjoying life, discover new things, make new friends, and learn more about the underwater world and, ultimately, myself.
Even if you don’t want to scuba dive, you can still experience the wonder of traveling beneath the waves by visiting aquariums or watching shows like Blue Planet. After all, travel is about wonder and discovery as well as experience.
If you have thoughts or memories of scuba diving, or any questions, please do share in the comments.
Books featuring scuba diving
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves – James Nestor. A voyage from the ocean’s surface to its darkest trenches, the most mysterious places on Earth, plus an exploration of human potential and why we are drawn to the deep.
100 Dives of a Lifetime: The World’s Ultimate Underwater Destinations – Carrie Miller. National Geographic scuba diving porn!
The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration – Robert D. Ballard. One of the great scientific and archaeological feats of our time has been finally to cast light on the “eternal darkness” of the deep sea. This is the story of that achievement, told by the man who has done more than any other to make it possible.
Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World – Tim Ecott. A guided tour of the history of undersea exploration and the emergence of diving culture.
Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels frequently feature scuba diving. Try Deep Six.
The Dark Queen, an underwater archaeology short story – J.F.Penn. A sunken city. A lost goddess. One last dive to risk it all. [Audiobook narrated by J.F.Penn]
Deep Shadow – Nick Sullivan. Scuba divers travel from all over the world to visit the little island of Bonaire, with its crystal-clear waters and a host of beautiful marine life. After three years in the “Divers Paradise”, divemaster Boone Fischer thought he’d seen it all; but on a routine afternoon dive, he spots something that will turn his tranquil life upside down.
The Reef – Nora Roberts. A marine archaeologist and a salvager join forces to search for a legendary treasure in this novel that takes readers to the depths of the Caribbean and the heights of passion and suspense
Submerged: Adventures of America’s Most Elite Underwater Archaeology Team – Daniel Lenihan. The remarkable story of 25 years as founder and head of the Submerged Cultural Resource Unit (SCRU)—ranging from ancient ruins covered by reservoirs in the desert Southwest to a World War II submarine off the Alaskan coast.