At the end of March, nine Mauritius-based members of the Seeing Blue team decided to dedicate their Saturday morning to a routine-breaking, hands-on team activity: a scuba diving initiation. Our group consisted of one experienced, PADI-licensed diver; three girls who'd gone on one or two dives before; and five neophytes who were as excited as they were scared.
We chose the dive centre Ocean Spirit in Péreybère, on the island's northwestern coast, because of its large and professional team. While our two instructors, Menon and Vishal, were super chill, full of smiles and jokes, they were also rigorous and patient in briefing us over the basics of how to handle our gear and “behave” underwater. What should I do if saltwater infiltrates my mask? Do I paddle like crazy? (Answer: No. Paddle gently but consistently, with your legs straight yet not stiff). How do I say “OK” and “Uh oh” with my hands? How to you call this special jacket (BCD – Buoyancy Control Device)? What is this “thingy” dangling by my right knee (emergency regulator)? And the most recurring question – how do I breathe? Our fears were what you'd expect them to be: There won't be enough oxygen in this large metallic cylinder (which one of our neophyte mermaids, Teenah, found to significantly heavier than her frame). The regulator (i.e. mouth “thingy”) will slip from my mouth and I won't be able to put it back in place (You will. You'll blow into it to remove the water – or press on the button that expels air – and plop it back in). My
lungs aren't strong enough. Etcetera.
We split into two teams because the boat couldn't handle the weight of all of us. While the first batch headed for the open sea – breeze in their hair, neon fins on – the rest of us were kindly invited to the nearby house of the dive center's owner, Jill, to look at photos and videos of local marine species. We went to the dive site “Ti Corail” (“Small Corals,” as bad English translation), the easiest one out of the center's eight choices, where we'd be going down to only 7 meters. No pool for us: we're grown-up kids who are expected to be brave enough to jump directly into (or rather, tumble backwards into – see below) the wide, wide blue.
Krishnee, Sid and I (Ameerah) found this tumble to be the most daunting part. You don't have eyes at the back of your head. It's a moment when you need to quietly trust gravity and the waters. If you're bottling stress from work/school/relationship or family drama or are weighed down by regrets heavier than your lead belt, this is a potentially psychologically powerful moment, when you corporealize your feelings and literally “let go” (thinking of that annoying song from Frozen also helps). You sink for a few seconds, then rise back up (thanks to the BCD that the instructor has adjusted – only with more experience are you allowed to fiddle with it yourself). Like Krishnee later said in a Facebook post, even if she was scared “out of her wits” for her first three minutes in the water, “ships are safe at the harbour, but that's not what ships are made for.” :)
We then slowly descended with the help of a rope that'd been tethered to the bottom.
The pressure increases with each few centimeters. You have to equalize your ears so they don't pop. Hold your breath, pinch your nose, push the air against the inside of your ear canals. Repeat. I hadn't expected the surrounding water to feel so heavy – it really was like entering an elementally different world. The heaviness was compensated by the freedom-inducing “boundless lengths of sea” visible 360° around you, to quote Sid (another first-timer). She remarked that, as a bipedal, terrestrial human living in the urbanized 21st century, a large part of her daily view of the horizon is obstructed by buildings, wires, trees, etc. Under the sea, this wasn't the case, and she could truly sense the largeness of the world (oceans cover 71% of our planet).
As an asthmatic person (I had to get a medical authorization letter to do this), breathing underwater reminded me of being on a nebulizer. I had to pay attention to every breath. It was strangely peaceful. I was constrained, yet liberated. Like ghost-like jellyfish, bubbles rose up, shimmered faintly in the sunlight, then dissipated. Sid – who, above sea-level, is over-energized and hasty when it comes to work and a disco queen in her free time – said that breathing underwater forced her to take things slowly. Not only in inhaling and exhaling, but also in moving around, observing a fish slowly swim in a straight line, just being. Being intimately aware of your basic bodily functions in the now. And being aware of how you're sharing the same space with these strange fish, ancient polyps, quiet starfish, stripped snakes who exist in their own right, inhabit a body distinctly different from your own but an ecosystem that interacts with yours.
Learning to breathe underwater is an exercise in trust and patience (both Sid and Teenah had difficulty with it at first, one feeling her mouth dry up from her nitrogen in the bottled air, the other having to be brought back to the surface for a moment after forgetting the technique). But it is also an exercise in acknowledging that we share the same sub-atmospheric environment with other living things, who are always there under the sparkling azure you see from the beach, creatures with nervous systems, colourful fins, tentacles, and lungs which have the same right to breath as us, us silly and (oftentimes) selfish homo sapiens. After all, the overarching purpose of Seeing Blue and our diving initiation is to make us more intensely aware of the existence of this life – and determined to share the #blueplanet in a more intelligent, empathetic, and respectful way with it :)
As island-dwellers, the sea should be an important part of our identity and consciousness. As young people, the future of the ocean's health concerns us even more than other sections of the population. This is why Seeing Blue 2017 is bringing together the youth of two small islands (Mauritius and Seychelles) in a safe space where they can:
◦ empower themselves with ocean-related knowledge and leadership skills;
◦ come in direct contact with the sea through activities like this diving initiation;
◦ meet like-minded young people who are passionate about the intersections of environmental + social justice;
◦ meet experienced mentors (eg: oceanographers) who can guide them in creating projects for protecting the ocean and joining the marine industry (hey, the traditional “doctor/lawyer/HS teacher” jobs our parents tend to pressurize us into are quickly becoming saturated – whereas other areas deeply relevant to our island-nations lack professionals!!)
◦ get the project management skills and access to financial resources to set up the aforementioned projects.
◦ become assertive decision-makers when it comes ocean-related issues, potentially influencing policy on the national, regional or even international scale.