I have barely any pictures of my time on Tioman Island. The sea was turquoise and the creamy sand beaches swept along it, perfectly smooth and dotted with shells and sun bleached coral fragments. The low waves didn’t so much break on the shore as nudge it tenderly. The Jurassic Park jungle rose dramatically from the sea as it had been plucked upwards. Monkeys tussled along the side of the road. For a few moments every evening, the sun was large and heavy in the sky, deep red and gigantic, sat despondently on the horizon.
Underwater, coral quivered in the current as rainbow fish darted to and fro; a vertical turtle buried his bill in the seafloor searching for food. A cartoonish moray eel peeked its head from a hole in a rock. Sea cucumbers lay fat and bloated on the sea floor.
And yet all I can offer – photographically speaking – from the trip is a mirror selfie of me in the hotel loo with a gift shop t-shirt that sagely reads: “We are Hammerhead Shark.”
We first flew from Bali to Kuala Lumpur – a disorientating city where I got my purse and phone stolen in a bar and spent the next day on a bespoke law and disorder tour. After mistakenly trying to enter the police headquarters, we got taken by police escort to the tourist police to describe the event in intricate detail. Next we visited a mysterious ‘Inspector Diana’ at another office across town, crawling through thick traffic in a taxi to get there. We surrendered our remaining phones at the entrance and went up several million floors in a lift smelling of sour smoke. Inspector Diana sat in her plush-carpeted, floral-wallpapered office and quizzed me on even more details (What was my father’s name? What number sibling was I?) Surprisingly she’d been to the bar already to check the CCTV. “What, you actually looked into the crime?!” Unfortunately, the CCTV had not been set to record, so my second iPhone of the year is now irretrievably deep within the international criminal underworld.
That evening, we went for a great meal, wine and cocktails at Manja and promptly missed our night bus. We went sheepishly back to the hotel at 1am and were assigned the only room still available – the ‘premium’ batman/space theme room.
And then there was the morning rush hour mad dash back to the bus station. We took the metro and then the bus and then a ferry. The DVD menu of Fast & Furious 8 played over the speakers on repeat for an hour an a half before someone managed to select ‘Play Movie’ and it got marginally better.
We reached the island in darkness, and settled down to get through the PADI e-learning course which, yes, despite having three weeks to complete, had been left to the last minute. At 3am, with bleary eyes and a total and complete sense of being OVER IT, I took the final exam. Passed. Sure. Whatever. I had approximately four hours of sleep, then headed off to the dive centre in the morning to start training.
It was more intense than I expected. I envisioned a leisurely few hours each day, milling around underwater, doing some slow breathing, looking at some fish. Instead, I spent three and a half days telling myself over and over again that I wasn’t going to die. The anxiety was real. Each breath I inhaled from my regulator was a tentative one, convinced that it wouldn’t be air rushing into my lungs but salty water and imminent death. Every time I got a lungful of the crisp, metallic air that came from the tank on my back, I was surprised. My eyes would widen. It had worked. This time. Next breath. Oh god.
It was during the ‘skill’ challenges that the nervousness really began to ramp up. I felt the panic tighten in my throat as I took off my mask underwater and peered into the haze for sixty seconds, the salty water rushing up my nose and stinging my eyes. My heart refused to slow its frenzied pace as I took my last last laboured breath before having my air supply turned off temporarily. Minor irritation at not being able to connect a tube back into its proper place turned into twenty minutes of deep discomfort as I struggled to get my breathing back under control. Fundamentally, all the challenges were done in a relatively controlled environment but this couldn’t be communicated in a language understood by my pounding heart, air-hungry lungs and the primitive land-dwelling mammal part of my brain that just wants to be sat on the beach.
The anxiety wore off to some extent during the actual dives. By the final dive, I was able to relax more and survey the landscape around me. Apart from actually going to another planet (and who knows whether I’ll be travel blogging from space in a few years time), it’s the closest I feel I’ll ever come to an alien word. Fish have strange noses. Other creatures have weird legs. Things straddle the boundary between plant and animal. I could travel in three dimensions instead of two, having the freedom of not just going left, right, forwards and backwards, but up and down too.
I took deep breaths and felt myself begin to rise with the added buoyancy of air in my lungs. I exhaled sharply and the floor beneath me came closer and closer. I lay face down on the sand with eight metres of water above me, surrendering my limbs to the movement of the water, and focusing on the grains of sand and shell millimetres in front of of mask. There was something quite foetal about it. My initial highlights featured everything I could do to keep the roaring anxiety at bay.
But beyond that: the liberation of wading into to the sea from the beach and just keeping going: out out out. A frontier crossed. Tumbling from a boat and descending slowly, ever so slowly, into the oblivion beneath. Feeling my heart begin to race as the ocean floor takes shape. Establishing myself on Mars. Navigating a path through giant boulders blooming with coral. Witnessing the unexpected flash of neon as the sea-current lifts coral fronds to reveal its shocking underneath. Gliding unexpectedly into the path of an underwater super highway as grand shoals of fish travel with military precision across the vast blue.
And the ascent. Kicking slowly, slowly upwards for what seems like hours. Looking up to see faint speckles of light of the surface grow more and more intense. As my outstretched hand breaks through the surface, there is an elemental change as water becomes air. My face emerges and I blink back into the human world. I feel as if I have woken from a vivid dream.
Diving sits on the tiny balancing point between discomfort and exhilaration. It involves strange sensations, both in body and mind. It feels precarious. It’s something that I want to carry on doing.
I want to get more and more comfortable under water. I want to trust the technology of my equipment. I want to quiet the racing internal monologue screaming imminent peril. I want to continue to experience the weirdness underwater and learn more about how it works. For now, I need more practice. For now, I am not quite there. For now, I am not yet Hammerhead Shark.