Swimming with the Fishes

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This was written shortly after I started diving, with all the enthusiasm of a new convert!

Swimming with the Fishes


Here in north-east Scotland summer is a very moveable feast: you’re never quite sure when it’s going to happen, nor how long it will last.  For me, summer 2010 began both literally and metaphorically in mid April when I made my first open-water dive into 15 feet of North Sea.

To be honest I didn’t see much – one starfish was the total “haul” of my first, short, underwater safari – but it was a revelation.  Normally one sees seaweed as dead, dried-up stuff, clumped ungainly on the beach by the ebbing tide.  But, even in the green and rather murky waters off the Aberdeenshire coast, in its natural habitat seaweed is beautiful.  Stout fronds of kelp cling to the rocks; maroon strands of dulse float, mysterious as a mermaid’s hair, in the current; bright green sea-grass coats the sea-floor; and sea lettuce looks good enough to eat (which, indeed, it is).

Anyone who’s seen photos of sub-aqua life will know that there are some pretty weird things down there, and they get weirder the further down you go.

To watch a scallop escape your teasing hand by clacking the two halves of its shell together like a pair of crazy false teeth; to see an octopus lurking at the back of a crevice like a slinky roll of PVC, preserving its energy for the night’s hunt; to observe a starfish crouched over the shell of a crab to suck out the contents, or a sea-fan vanish into its tube at your approach – is to open up a totally new world, unexpected and beautiful.

I saw all of them that summer.

Better even than the North Sea was a visit – only a weekend, far too short – to the West coast of Scotland, near Oban, where the water is crystal clear.  [By my then standards, at least; the Red Sea and tropical waters are better yet.  I’ve been there since….]

The only thing that got me out of the water at Oban was the need to refill my air cylinder.  However much one could wish it were, scuba equipment is not equal to gills, and the gas bottle lasts only about 45 minutes.  Such a short time to see so much!

I’m now happily addicted: I live for my Wednesday evening and Sunday “fixes”.  There were moments during my training when I wondered whether I was really cut out for this – the time I came up feet first springs vividly to mind – but now I know.  This is what’s worth doing.

When I’m diving the week’s frustration vanishes; the water around me and what’s in it are all that matters.  The elusive hunt for words, the garden that needs weeding, the lawn that desperately needs mowing, are all irrelevant.  Even my dogs, for once, get second-best.  I feel like John Keats, who wrote in “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer”:

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken”,

or like the first traveller in a new continent.

I know, intellectually, that lots of other people have seen all this stuff before, but I haven’t.  It’s exciting… fascinating… stimulating… extraordinary.

It’s my new planet and I want to discover everything there is to be known about it.

It’s extraordinary to realise how little is known about it.  People have only been exploring the underwater world for less than a century.  The sea covers 71% of our planet, we’ve travelled across it for centuries, its health is vital to our very existence on Earth, and yet we know less about it than we do about the moon.  How strange is that?!?

Reading books about marine life, I’m always coming across comments like “it is thought that…”, “probably…”, and “further studies are required to prove or disprove” this, that or t’other.  So much is still not understood about the ocean that surrounds us; who knows how many species may be down there, waiting to be discovered?  There’s so much to learn, even about what everyone else already knows….

I haven’t been able to dive for two long weeks (my drysuit turned into a wetsuit – not a comfortable situation! – and it’s been away to be fixed) and I can’t wait to get back in the water.

Tomorrow I’ll be down at the boatshed by 11, getting the three inflatable boats on their trailers out of the shed, down across the shingle and into the water; sorting out gear, both my own and other people’s; hanging on tight as the boat slaps across the waves to wherever we’re diving; kitting up.

And – at last, with a huge grin on my face and my regulator firmly clamped between my teeth – rolling backwards into the briny to see what surprises Mother Carey has produced for me this time.

That’s what summer’s all about – sun, sea and boats.  Not to mention cephalopods, bi-valves and algae (or octopuses, shellfish and seaweed, if you prefer), and fish small or large, pretty or ugly as sin.

Never mind the hair that turns to straw with the sun and salt; never mind that the tan stops at the throat and wrists; never mind the ignominy of clambering back into the boat at the end of the dive, more like a stranded whale than an elegant flying-fish.  None of it matters.  What matters is under the surface, 15 to 65 feet down in my new world.

What matters is “swimming with the fishes”.

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