For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of the water. My mom tells me I was fine with it when I was little until, one day, I was sitting by the shore when a monstrous wave came and bowled me over. I don’t know if the tale is true or not, but it would explain a lot. Putting my head below the surface always felt to me like being smothered, the sting of water in my nose overwhelming. Being in any way out of my depth was as panic-inducing as being lost at sea.
Until I was 12, I refused to take a shower. The jets of water were too violent and unpredictable for my liking: I preferred baths. When it came to swimming I was, unsurprisingly, a fish out of water. People tried their best to teach me over the years, but I was always quickly established as a lost cause. “You’ll float” sounded about as convincing to me as “the earth is flat”. I point-blank refused to lie on my back or go where I couldn’t stand easily. This was before being a snowflake was acceptable, by the way. My fragile disposition was tempered with tough love and false promises. I quickly learned that, like in Titanic, people are usually lying when they say they’ll never let go. People’s sink-or-swim tactics didn’t work on me, either: I never learnt to swim. In holiday photos from college summers, I can be seen ruining aesthetic lakescapes propped up by my trusty ring float (which is covered in cartoon dinosaurs, because they don’t market swimming aids to people over the age of seven).
When I was in my final year of college, I figured it was time to tackle the fear. It was a painstaking, but ultimately successful, journey. After weeks of flailing about in the shallow end of the Trinity pool, putting my head under the water no longer filled me with terror. I was even so bold as to doggy paddle around the deep end, while swimmers in perfect form did lengths in the neighbouring lanes.
But swimming pools are one thing. Oceans are an entirely different animal. It’s not that I don’t like the water from a safe distance – far from it, in fact. I love the ocean and the creatures that live there. I could talk all day about orcas and mantis shrimps. Shark lady Eugenie Clark is a personal idol. The oceans are mysterious in so many ways, and it is this sense of infinite possibility that both awes me and strikes fear into my heart. When it comes to the vast oceans, physical fear combines with existential dread to create the most perfect of terrors.
When it comes to the vast oceans, physical fear combines with existential dread to create the most perfect of terrors
For this reason, I had always assumed that Blue Planet II was as close as I’d ever get to exploring under the sea. That is, until my night at Dublin University Sub-Aqua Club’s (DUSAC) introductory evening.
Held in the Sports Centre, the event is free and open to all. When I first arrive, all I know about scuba diving is that it seems like my personal version of hell. But Maureen Williams, the club’s training officer, who greets me when I arrive, is starry-eyed when she tells me about it. “It’s just a very calming experience”, she says. “It’s very zen.”
“Zen”. When I think of diving, “zen” – and I mean that in the most culturally appropriated sense of the term – is not the first word that springs to mind. Like the rest of the world, I had anxiously followed the journey of the boys recently trapped in a cave in Thailand. The boys’ story, of being left alone in the dark for days without food or hope, captured the world’s imagination. When the rescue plan was finalised, mental images of children being shepherded through dark, narrow underwater caves sent chills down my spine – and, I’m sure, most people’s. You don’t have to be an aquaphobe like me to be horrified by the idea, and by the treacherous mission endured by the divers rescuing them.
I concede that not all diving is so life or death. Jacques Cousteau had a great time exploring the ocean’s many treasures. He even made groundbreaking films about it. But the thrilling suspense that I associate with descending to the depths of the oceans, uncovering wrecks and consorting with sharks – hardly “zen”.
Just the smack of chlorine and the cold, tiled surfaces of swimming pools draw an instinctive shudder
Queuing up on the pool deck alongside several dozen others, waiting for my turn to take my first “dive”, I’m already out of my comfort zone. Just the smack of chlorine and the cold, tiled surfaces of swimming pools draw an instinctive shudder. The heavy-duty equipment being foisted onto people’s backs brings to mind some sinister marine corp operation.
Most people aren’t as wary as I am, and chatter away happily. It’s a good turnout for the club, and a great chance for people to get a free lesson from experts who know the sport inside out. This year, the club will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and many of the instructors leading tonight’s dive have been volunteering here for decades.
Trevor Woods, a Technical Officer in the School of Pharmacy who has been with the club for 12 years, is keen to instil a deep love of the sport in the new generation. It’s hard work preparing for a dive, he explains, but the payoff is worth it in the end. “You get to go to parts of Ireland that you never even know existed”, he says. He tells me about some of the wrecks he’s seen, like the U-260 submarine in Cork. The boat was used by the Germans in World War II and sunk in 1945. But Woods’ favourite dive, he tells me – “because I’m a big Star Wars fan” – is the Skellig Islands off Kerry. As well as being Luke Skywalker’s personal temple, they are also home to an abundance of wildlife and underwater cliffs down to 60 metres.
For Woods, there’s a social responsibility element to diving, too. DUSAC are the first club in Trinity to ban single-use plastics at social events. “We’re the ones who see the plastic underneath the water”, says Woods, who brought the motion to the club this year. “Plastic is causing a massive problem in the ocean, but doing it from the ground up like this makes a difference.”
“Plastic is causing a massive problem in the ocean, but doing it from the ground up like this makes a difference”
For Williams, a PhD student studying aquatic parasites, the wildlife is a big part of what draws her to diving. Originally from California, she’s enthralled by the diversity of creatures found in Irish waters. “I am a sucker for octopus”, she says. “I’ve seen quite a few.” Like many diving rookies, I don’t understand why she’s not deterred by the possibility of danger. Octupuses and sharks may be beautiful from afar, but I’m not sure I fancy meeting either face to face. However Williams assures me that humans aren’t the target prey for most animals in Irish waters. “About the only thing you could get into an altercation with is a seal,” she says. “Usually they bite your fins because they’re colourful. They’re very playful animals.”
The magnificence of the sport is hard to deny. In theory, I’m convinced. How things will transpire in practice is another matter.
When it’s finally my turn, the volunteers help me to track down a pile of equipment: tight wet boots, face masks, goggles, huge penguin feet. Sitting by the pool decked out in all my gear, I’m already struggling to stay balanced. My instructor makes jokes to relax me. I don’t think my laughter translates well through my bulky mask, but inside I’m appreciating his efforts. He explains that diving doesn’t require the skill of an Olympic swimmer. Diving, he says, can be compared to darts: it’s for lazy unfit men in pubs, not athletes.
Diving, he says, can be compared to darts: it’s for lazy unfit men in pubs, not athletes
I clumsily get into the water and drop face forward on his command. I know the equipment is there to keep me safe, but it runs counter to every instinct I have to let myself fall into the water weighed down by so much tackle that I can barely stand, even in the shallow end. The equipment tilts me to one side and I trip over my own feet.
Eventually I manage to surmount the inelegance enough to appreciate what draws these dedicated divers in. As Williams told me, it’s not really like anything else. Being completely submerged and not struggling to breathe, seeing other divers twirl through the water with crystal clarity, controlling the rise and fall of your body in the water with the squeeze of a valve, all the while not being able to hear a thing: it’s close to an out-of-body experience.
We don’t even go into the deep end, to be fair. I don’t want to risk getting the bends. But it’s more than I could have hoped for that, instead of finding the experience terrifying, or at the very least, adrenaline-pumping, I see that maybe it could be “zen” after all.
I remember what Williams told me: “It really centres you, and it gives you some time to really reflect. You’re just supported by the water all around you. You can’t talk to people. You’re just breathing on your own.” I know it’s no deep-sea expedition, but for me, it still feels like a big – albeit flipper-clad and clumsy – step.