At what age should one stop having adventures? Frankly, never in my opinion. Which is why I found myself at 51 winging my way towards the Indonesian island of Bali.
My Mum would attest to the fact that as soon as I was able to walk, I was off seeking out thrills and adventures. At the age of 2 I climbed over the 6-foot fence in our front garden and took myself off to my friend’s house around the corner. At 3, I used to think it was great fun to ride a tea tray down the stairs, only coming to halt when I had scooted through the lounge door and hit the wall opposite. At 8, I scaled the 30-foot-high wall of the local quarry. I was like a monkey when it came to climbing. A girly girl I wasn’t. I was a tomboy, permanently grubby and covered in bruises and grazes and I loved it.
I never had any fear but that’s not to say I was reckless. I always weighed the situation up, working out the best route up a tree, whether my brakes were in good order before I hurtled at breakneck speed down the local steep hill or what the chances were of the pony with the evil look in its eye, depositing me on my bum shortly after mounting.
My favourite daredevil antics have often included water. My parents used to swear I had gills and I learnt to swim very early on. When I was small I had two favourite TV programmes. A very early Japanese anime cartoon called Marine Boy, because of which I would spend hours in the bath furiously chomping Wrigley’s Spearmint in order to breathe underwater, as he did with his special, oxygen giving gum. How I longed for a pet dolphin called Splasher and a mermaid for a best friend. The other was Barrier Reef, an Australian kid’s drama about marine biologists, of which a large part was shot underwater.
My hero was Jacque Cousteau and I watched his programmes avidly, dreaming of the day I could join him on the Calypso, sailing the seven seas and diving with sea creatures. I totally knew that one day I would don a wet suit and a scuba tank and experience the marine world for myself. I eventually learnt to dive in my 30’s and as I knew I would, I totally fell in love with it. Even doing my open water exam in a flooded, freezing, silty Lancashire quarry was magical to me.
As part of my trip to Bali I went to the Gili Islands, just off the coast of Lombok. Which involved a very hairy ferry trip, I use the term ferry loosely, across the Lombok Straits. Prior to the trip, I had found a dive school I liked the look of, Manta Diveand booked in for 2 one-to-one afternoon dives. Sadly, I missed the first day due to Bali belly. A word to the wise, be very careful what you eat at the night market, it tends to fight back.
The following day, still feeling a little queasy but determined, I arrived at the dive school on a bicycle borrowed from the hotel. There is no motorised transport on the Gilis, only horse drawn taxis, bikes or your own two feet. However, the islands are tiny, so it doesn’t take long to get anywhere.
As it had been a few years since my last dive, my lovely German instructor put me through a refresher session in the centre’s pool, before letting me loose in the open sea. Totally the correct and safe thing to do. Any dive centre that would just let you straight into the big blue, after a few years off, is obviously more concerned about their bank balance than your safety. Diving is a dangerous occupation and the ocean is unpredictable, so safety should always be the first concern, for everyone. I was glad to do the session for my own peace of mind too. Scuba equipment is complicated and with diving there is a lot to remember.
Once declared fit to dive again, a group of us headed off to one of the dive centre boats; a traditional Indonesian outrigger long boat and climbed aboard with our equipment. My tummy was full of nervous butterflies and the adrenaline was flowing. Woohoo! During the short trip to the dive site one of the instructors gave us a briefing on the position of the site, the conditions to expect and what wildlife we might see. This included black tip, white tip and reef sharks. I’m a child of the 70’s, I hate sharks but I always feel far safer being under the water with them, as opposed to being on the surface.
The boat anchored, we made our final equipment checks and waited our turn to enter the water. After a few minutes it was my go and my butterflies turned into a full blown murmuration of starlings. I sat on the side of the boat, back to the water, BC inflator in one hand and gripping my face mask and regulator with the other. 1, 2, 3…and I fell backwards in to the warm ocean. A quick blast on my inflator and I surfaced. All of a sudden, the nerves calmed and I felt the peace that being in the sea brings me. My instructor bobbed up at the side of me and after a last safety and dive computer check, time is of critical importance, we began to slowly let the air out of our BC’s and disappear under the waves. I was only a few feet beneath the surface when a hawksbill turtle quietly slid by us and disappeared into the sun dappled blue. Magical.
One of the first things to strike me when I first started diving in the sea is just how noisy it is. There are clicks and whistles, the sound of the currents moving pebbles, fish chomping the coral, outboard motors overhead, excited squeals when divers spot something. Quite a racket really. Off the coast of Menorca once, I have heard the bubbling of hot water escaping the tall flues on the sea bed. It made me laugh because it sounded like a jacuzzi on overdrive. The ocean is calm and calming but it is by no means quiet.
My instructor led the way over the reef to the drop off point. To those that have seen Finding Nemo, yes, this a real thing. It is where the reef drops away, often vertically, into the lower depths. I am qualified as an open water diver so cannot go below 18m, so we contented ourselves with peering in to gloom. Frankly that’s deep enough for me, as I struggle to equalise the pressure in my ears as it is. Plus, most of the interesting stuff is in the first dozen metres or so anyway.
As we followed the curve of the reef I was sad to see the state it was in. Parts of it were dead or dying. Discussing it later with my instructor, it appears that global warming and over-diving were the main causes of the devastation. I was partly to blame. It made me so sad.
However, there was still quite a lot of species calling the reef home and I squeaked with excitement when I saw quite a few Nemos, or clown fish as is their correct name, peeping at me through the waving fronds of anemones. There were clown fish in a different colourway living in a soft coral, that frankly looked like a bathmat. There was a very large moray eel, half in and half out of his cave, mouth open waiting for prey. A small stingray glided past, seemingly in no particular hurry to get anywhere. Scorpionfish blended in with their surroundings. Their venomous spines primed and ready. Comical looking parrotfish chipped away at the coral with their ‘beaky’ lips. Hawksbill and green sea turtles occasionally appeared out of the gloom. Then I saw it. A shark. Yes, an actual, bona fide, white tip shark. Ok, so it was a baby shark, about two-foot-long and it was hiding from us in a little overhang of rock, but it was the closest I have ever been to one. Thankfully I didn’t bump into its mother.
Eventually, we had to turn and make our way back in the direction of the dive boat. It was just before we started making our slow ascent to the surface that I had my best interaction of the trip. We came across a hawksbill turtle, grazing on the coral. We swam around him and to within a couple of feet of him and he just carried on doing what he was doing. I suppose he was used to the strange two-legged fish that invade his home several times a day. It was really tempting to touch him, but you should never touch anything under the sea. As my Grandma used to say, ‘Look with your eyes, not with your hands.’ However, if the turtle chose to touch me that would have been fine, but he didn’t, he was having his lunch and quite happy thank you very much.
The instructor and I surfaced, inflated our BC’s and our dive balloon, which we waved to attract the attention of the boat. We had a bit of a wait because they had several groups to pick up before us. We were last in the water, so we were last out. This is the bit that always makes me nervous because I can’t see what’s below me, without sticking my mask back on and sticking my head back under. We were hauled back into the boat and I was on such a high, it was several days before I came back down. Once back at the dive centre we had a debrief, including getting my dive log stamped. Always a nice memento of your time in the big blue and then I grabbed my bike and pedalled back to the hotel.
It was 10 years since my previous dives and 20 years since I learnt to dive so, how did I feel after, being so advanced in years? Well, I was tired but then diving does that to you, whatever your age but physically and mentally, it was no different to when I was in my 30’s. Diving is still the most incredible experience to me and I want to keep doing it for years to come. Will I carry on having midlife adventures? Hell yeah! I may no longer be able to spend days hurtling down black runs in the Alps or spend all day on the back of a horse but everything in moderation I say. Even hurling myself off the top of a Turkish mountain while attached to a quite an attractive gentleman and a parachute. But that’s a whole other story.
Photos: © Is It Warm In Here. Do not reproduce without permission