Photo credit: Tarek Awad
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had that flying dream some of us get when we’re sleeping. In these dreams I’m able to will myself off the ground while in the upright position, levitate, and fly wherever I want. I’ve had this dream for so long that I’m almost convinced I should at least be able to levitate if I put my mind to it. I’ve just had so much practice at it up till now!
This past week I got the closest I’ll probably ever get to know what it must feel like to fly.
I have a rather long list of things I want to do in my life. Scuba diving was added to that list after an amazing snorkeling experience I had at Ras Muhammad in the Red Sea in Egypt.
No matter how many pictures and documentaries you will see about marine life, they come nowhere near to what it’s like when you see it with your own two eyes. Snorkeling brought me closer to that than I had ever been before.
So diving went on the list. And it stayed there for perhaps three years.
About a month ago I decided I needed to do something about that particular list entry. I live in Egypt, for goodness sake, where there are some of the best coral reefs in the world – and the best diving. I can hop on a bus or a plane whenever I want and get on with my business. So I did.
I hopped on a plane and went to Hurghada, a popular sea resort on the Western limb of the Red Sea.
Learning to dive
Tarek Awad was my PADI diving instructor. The first day of the course was spent watching several videos that went over diving basics. It turns out there’s much to know before you throw yourself in the sea with an oxygen tank on your back! After the videos, we went to the hotel pool and tried out what I had just learned in theory.
I was quite surprised at how heavy the equipment actually was. And there are weights involved! It turns out it isn’t easy to keep oneself down underwater. You need to weigh yourself down. The pool exercises went quite well and gave me confidence that my open-water dives should be successful.
Hurghada was freezing cold (for an Egyptian) for the first two days I was there. I was concerned I’d kill myself with pneumonia by jumping into the water. Tarek told me the wet suit would keep me warm. It did. So did the water. It can be strangely warm down there when it’s cold up above.
Jumping into the water for the first time with all the heavy equipment on my back and the awkward fins on my feet was scary. I had no idea what to expect. But I
Photo credit: Tarek Awad
immediately floated upwards after the jump. The wetsuit and regulator vest (BCD) are designed to keep you afloat. To submerge, you need weights. In addition to all the equipment I had about 10 kg of weights on me. You also need to empty air out of your BCD vest. Once I did that I was underwater breathing oxygen from the tank. Tarek made sure to put me into a meditative state from the start. We reached the bottom, sat on our knees, faced each other, and Tarek signaled for me to concentrate and just breathe in and out, in and out. He closed his eyes while doing this to add a sense of calm to the ritual. I followed suit. It worked. After an initial sense of semi-panic of being underwater, breathing only from my mouth, and completely dependent on a tank for air, I calmed down and went into meditating mode.
We swam 400 meters to the coral reefs. I found I needed to focus hard on gaining the ability to stay at the same depth, go deeper, or get higher. Hovering also required a lot of work. And all this is done by controlling the amount of air in your BCD vest and in your lungs. By filling your lungs up with air, you can raise yourself and by emptying them you can go deeper. Without this skill, I first had a tendency to crash into the sea floor every now and then or to start floating towards the surface against my will. With a little practice, I managed to swim around and hover over the coral reefs to watch the fish swim in and out.
I successfully completed four amazing dives on this trip.
The Red Sea Planet
Photo credit: Tarek Awad
It was another world down there. I felt as if I were discovering a world I hardly imagined could exist. It felt like visiting another planet.
One thing I’ve learned is that if you live in Egypt and you haven’t dived, you have only seen a very small portion of Egypt.
I have not yet learned the names of all the corals and fish I swam with last weekend. I hope to. They are all worth getting to know properly.
But among the things that most amazed me were, for example, the expanse of sea grass we swam over that was dancing back and forth, back and forth with the waves above it. We also swam over about 100 meters of small sand mounds, which, I was later told, are the homes of sea crabs. Every now and again a whirlwind of sand would appear above the top of a mound and then go calm again.
While hovering above one reef, Tarek pointed out something under it. I couldn’t see it. He gently pushed at it and out came an octopus! I think this was one of the most exciting things I saw down there. A frickin’ octopus in the actual sea! I’ve seen all types of fish and marine life in aquariums and documentaries. But seeing them just a few feet from your nose is absolutely amazing. This octopus was a rather shy fellow. He swam out from under the coral to avoid being pushed by Tarek, his color immediately turned from that of the coral it was hiding under – brown – to the exact color of the sand it was now swimming on. And it quickly eased itself back under another part of the coral to avoid being bothered again.
For two days we swam among the fish. Some of them seemed not to even notice we were there. Others seemed to look at us out of the corner of their eyes, curious as to
Photo credit: Tarek Awad
whom we were. There was so much life down there! And so much peace. There were fish as huge as Tarek and I. And others as small and thin as a shoe lace. And everything was so colorful and magical.
How not to panic
On our third dive, Tarek asked me to do our swimming pool exercises on the sea floor. Sitting on our knees again, I was to take the air piece out of my mouth, throw it away, find it again, put it in my mouth and breathe. I did this successfully. Next, I was to pretend I ran out of air and I needed to use Tarek’s alternative air source. After watching him do this once, it was my turn. I breathed out the air in my lungs while my own air piece was out of my mouth too quickly. I fumbled with Tarek’s alternative air source. And I panicked. I breathed in seawater. I quickly fumbled for my own air piece and put it in my mouth, ready to cry and spurt up to the surface. Tarek insisted that I calm down and just breathe. I shook my head and pointed the surface, signaling I wanted to go back up. He shook his head calmly and signaled for me to breathe in and out, in and out. I did. I coughed for awhile, getting the seawater out of my lungs, but I eventually calmed down as I rhythmically breathed.
The next exercise was the filling your mask with water exercise. I decidedly do not like this exercise one bit. The seawater stings your eyes and surrounds your nose. It is a most uncomfortable feeling and took quite an effort from beginner me to focus on the breathing and not on the fact that I could easily breathe in water again at any moment. But I succeeded. The exercises were over and we could go back to the fun again.
I LOVED the hovering. I just ADORED the hovering. Once I got the hang of controlling the amount of air in my lungs and in my vest it was so much fun keeping a short distance between me and the corals without crashing into them.
And after an amazing weekend, I am now an officially certified open-water diver! Next on my list is the advanced course so I can dive to even greater depths! And I hope not to keep this one on my list for more than a couple of months. Join me!