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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Taking the Plunge: Scuba in Jamaica

Written by Gary Pearson
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Take deep breaths and whatever you do, don’t panic.

Scuba diving instructor Sinan Halacoglu conveyed the imperative message prior to my first plunge into the deep blue.

“If you panic you are done,” the veteran diver reiterated, his formidable, uncompromising shark-like gaze penetrating my defenses.

Though powerful, direct and of the utmost importance, Halacoglu’s message was of little comfort. That should be easy enough, I thought, still trying to absorb other tidbits necessary for a successful maiden dive.

Dressel Divers, set in front of the lavish backdrop of the Iberostar Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, provided the opportunity for my maiden scuba dive. The area is renowned for its serene, picturesque landscape. A stark contrast, however, subsists. Within a stone’s throw of the elaborate, ornate resorts, locals’ dwell in rows upon rows of decrepit, structurally unsound houses; a juxtaposition Halacoglu has come accustomed to.

“No one cares about locals, it’s all about five-star resorts for tourists; there is no balance here,” said the 30-year-old, his tone laden with anger.

Although Jamaica is synonymous with Bob Marley and the popularisation of reggae, its warm, laid-back culture, unmistakable slang, enviable accents, lightning-quick sprinters, exotic landscape and distinct coffee – cultivated in the Blue Mountains – visitors are often unable to fathom the hardships locals endure on a daily basis. According to Country Compass – a USAID analytical support project – Jamaica suffers from the highest per capita murder rate worldwide, while 69 per cent of rural inhabitants live under the poverty line.

“I have three kids, work 12 hours a day, six days a week, but it’s all good man,” said Rennae Gayle, who coordinates events for tourists on behalf of Iberostar.

Gayle, 26, smiled like the Cheshire Cat, showing off her pearly whites as she ambled along the beach. Regardless of personal strife, she maintained a sunny disposition. It was infecting, like an air-born contagion.

After the inspiring chat, and a quick informative classroom session, myself, along with two fellow Canadians – Shira Hutton and Mike Perrin – and one Englishman – Danny Kelleher – yanked, stretched and pulled our wetsuits snug.

The Sun, although blanketed by dense cloud cover, quickly heated the foamed insulated suits, rendering any movement exhausting and slow. Like an overheated penguin, I waddled to the pool and toppled in, finding instantaneous relief.

A crash course followed: equipped with flippers, a regulator (breathing piece), a compressed air tank, a mask and a weight belt – to ensure stable buoyancy was maintained – Halacoglu imparted some practical underwater knowledge. From learning how to inform fellow divers all is well – by forming a circle with your index finger and thumb – to alerting others of a depleted air supply – by slicing across your throat in a decisive, deliberate manner – I exited the pool bursting with confidence.

Halacoglu, who recognised my unwarranted hubris, smiled cheekily, recollecting his first dive when he too brimmed with undeserved confidence.

“When I first start I think I was the best,” said the 30-year-old, whose career started commercially, building garish underwater hotels for Turkish soccer clubs. “I think I know everything, when I realise that underwater everything can happen in a second and you can die.

“I had a couple close calls, not knowing where up, where down is. That changed everything.

“She (Hutton) is only one ready for dive.”

My confidence, along with my air-filled jacket, deflated. Prepared or not, the dive fast approached.

Hutton pulled me aside.

“I don’t feel ready,” the 24-year-old Canadian said. “I feel claustrophobic when I am underwater.”

Overcast skies and slightly blustery conditions made for a challenging first dive. Good underwater visibility is all weather-dependent, Halacoglu said, favoring, due to water’s amenability to refraction, crystal-clear blue skies.

After double and triple checking the equipment, and air supply – 250 bars for a full tank on the metric system – we shuffled across the silky, cushioned sand, bypassing numerous least grebes, whose chatter paused briefly, as if our presence interrupted an important parlay.

The waves, gentle and uniform, caressed the beach creating a serene sound, a sound I often use to combat temporary insomnia.

As we jumped aboard the six-meter boat, anxiety, excitement and the prospect of encountering sea life ensured I remained wide-eyed. Our mercurial diving instructor’s expression mirrored my own.

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Halacoglu, whose vast experience has seen him sojourn to nine countries in as many years, including Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Indonesia, Mexico and currently, Jamaica, still retained a youthful glow. Over 3000 dives and 7000 hours submerged, he still exuded a boyish exuberance.

Looks, however, can be deceiving. Life as a nomad has forced the impassioned diver to make innumerable personal sacrifices. Relationships are built, but upon relocating, quickly implode.

“My life is like being in prison,” he said, staring vacantly into the distance. “No relationships, no friends, no Playstation – just diving.”

Scuba diving continually restores his faith. While underwater he clears his mind, longing for nothing but an endless supply of oxygen. He lives for diving. Below the surface nothing else matters; he achieves tranquility and inner peace. 

“I will play with the animals, this I do for free,” he quipped. “How you know if they don’t like to be touched until you try. Some love being touched. Some not so much.”

I suppose it’s a fairly logical thing to say, in a convoluted sort of way.

“They call me the shark diver,” he continued, raking his hands through his scraggly, wispy beard.

Sharks posing no threat to humans, he said, are easily wrangled when sleeping, albeit fleetingly. Typically blacknose, Caribbean reef and lemon sharks are most commonly spotted in the Caribbean Sea. Halacoglu, who embodies a mixture of fearlessness and foolhardiness, enjoys most the company of blacknose sharks – a species stretching to over a meter in length. 

“I’ll come over, a couple of my friends seen it before. I hug and he (the shark) cannot go anywhere,” he said, frantically embracing the air. “He shakes me but I have all the control, for a second anyway.

“You cannot do it with a bull shark or tiger shark, they are going to kick you ass.”

Halacoglu, dubbed “Turkish” by his colleagues as his nationality reflects, was not always so blasé about shark encounters.  While diving the notorious Andaman Sea off Thailand’s coast, he was forced to draw from maneuvers in his then-inexperienced repertoire to evade a fully matured nurse shark. Halacoglu’s sightline was blocked by a school of barracudas. The shark speared through, appearing only meters from the startled diver. 

“The shark came within a whisker,” he said, animated as ever. “It was the first time I saw one. I don’t remember. I just react. I just swim away.

“People was laughing at me.”

Reassuringly, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida has recorded only six shark attacks in the Caribbean since 1997, 17-fold less than in North America. However comforting the numbers, I had every intention, if the situation arose, of letting sleeping sharks lie.

With fears heightened and curiosity piqued, the boat propelled forth to the dive site, which is known as the Canyon. 

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Two other more experienced groups hitched a ride. Packed on like sardines, the three instructors went about their daily routine, robotically cleaning the masks.

Passing beach-goers wading in tepid, 29C water while sipping Dirty Bananas –consisting of rum cream, Crème de Cacao, milk and aged bananas – and parasailers dangling precariously above the ocean, the weathered boat bobbed up and down, darting through shallow cyan and azure hued water. The further we traveled from shore, a darker shade of blue the ocean turned. The captain reversed the throttle. We had reached the Canyon. 

Noticing her apprehensiveness, our wily instructor asked Hutton what the matter was.

“I don’t feel comfortable,” she retorted without hesitation. “It feels unnatural.”

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Hutton, a 24-year-old university student from Canada, was in the same boat as the rest of the group, both physically and mentally. She, however, was the only one with enough guile to speak out. It, too, was her first dive. The tension could have been sliced with a shark’s fin.

“Just remember to equalize,” Halacoglu enforced sternly.

Somehow amidst the frenetic scene, I almost forgot what it meant to equalize. Pinch your nose and blow as you descend, I remember him saying during our brief stint in class. Your ears will pop, neutralizing the effect of increasing pressure. 

Pressure injuries, referred to as barotrauma, can be painful and potentially fatal, but are uncommon as long as proper procedures are adhered to.

Just as Hutton and the others appeared at ease, our forthright and candid instructor imparted some last-second words of wisdom.

“Stay calm, if you panic you are done,” he said, snapping his mask into place as he disappeared over the boat’s hull.

Easier said than done.

As I shuffled to the boat’s edge, his parting words circled my mind like a shoal of sharks.

Richard Hooker’s famous proverb, “he who hesitates is lost”, hit me like a bag of bricks, compelling me to leap.

The first of the group to reach the rope connected to the buoy, I watched the others jump cumbersomely overboard. In unison, we started our descent.

The need for constant equalization became immediately evident. Pressure accumulated rapidly, compressing my head like an excavator crushing a defunct Toyota Corolla.

After descending cautiously and meticulously, we reached a depth of 10 meters – industry standard for a first dive – and kneeled on the seabed awaiting our leader’s instruction.

Perrin kneeled across from me, our eyes locking. He gestured, giving me the universal OK sign. I reciprocated.

Finally, I was awarded a chance to scan the unfamiliar surroundings. The coral reef was teeming with plant life, resembling an underwater rainforest.

Conscious of maintaining a composed breathing manner, I inflated my vest a touch as to reach a suitable equilibrium. Again, I tapped the inflation device. This time, however, I overcompensated and rose like a helium balloon. Like a missile, Halacoglu darted to my aid. After deflating my jacket a tad he motioned to his flippers, demonstrating how to properly ascend.

It dawned on me. I must simply kick my flippers. Slightly embarrassed, I faulted the Halacoglu’s classroom lesson for neglecting to teach common sense.

Hiding behind my mask, I quickly forgot about the slight blip and followed the others through a labyrinth of narrow passages. Arms stretched out, I could touch the reef on both sides. Some parts were mossy and soft, while others, like a porcupine’s quills, were hard and unforgiving.

French grunts, yellowtail snappers and ocean surgeonfish seamlessly scoured the reef, popping in and out of the coral’s porous foundation.

Swimming free of the confined passage, Halacoglu motioned to the sandy seabed. I thrust forward, attempting to gain a better vantage point. Its beady eyes barely visible, a stingray blended into the clayish canvass, exhibiting its aptness for camouflage. As promised, the shark diver cradled the resting stingray. It lay motionless, appearing to be in the midst of a mid-afternoon siesta. This was my chance. In his element, Halacoglu delicately handed over the stingray, like a newborn being passed from mother to father for the first time. Praying the baton pass didn’t set off its venomous defense mechanism, I carefully held on to tropical dweller. Slippery and rubbery, its skin was comforting to the touch. The stingray suddenly stirred and wiggled free, fleeing into the murky abyss. The moment, however fleeting, will be perpetually inscribed to memory. 

“Don’t chase the marine life,” I recalled Halacoglu saying before the dive.

I didn’t need to be told twice.

This is how Halacoglu must have felt when he swam with whale sharks and manta rays. Well, maybe not, but I was still on Cloud 9. No one was going to burst my bubble, except maybe my depleting oxygen supply.

My air supply stayed steady at 50 bars, the minimum level permitted underwater. It was time to swim to the surface.

As we hopped aboard the bobbing vessel, the experienced diving groups boasted of their encounter with a blacknose shark.

“We must have just missed it,” Halacoglu despairingly pronounced. “But we touched a stingray and there is always a next time.”

For the first time I related to the conflicted instructor’s sentiment. Nothing else matters while exploring a world so mysterious, unusual and perplexing.


© Gary Pearson



Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012