If you haven’t seen the Blue Planet documentary series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s stupendous, brimming with wonderful cinematography, poignant music and fascinating stories of life in the deep. And obviously it features lots of fish.
It was one such fish that had caught the attention and affection of my 13-year-old son Sam, as we sat together on the sofa watching TV. Sir David hadn’t even noticed the fish was there, swimming around in the background of a coral-reef scene. He was too busy narrating the hunting prowess of a pack of reef sharks. But my son had fallen in love with the little fella immediately. Turned out it was a white-spotted puffer fish.
“So where can we see one?” Sam asked later, to which Google replied, ‘Somewhere up in KwaZulu-Natal’. And so off we went to the warm waters and untouched beaches of Sodwana Bay, a fishing, diving and seaside holiday enclave in the middle of the World Heritage Site of iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
How hard can it be?
Sodwana is a beautiful place, to be sure, what with its coastal forests, hornbills, samango monkeys and boundless rolling dunes. It’s also renowned as a world-class SCUBA-diving destination due to the presence of numerous near-shore coral-reef systems.
Home to five of the world’s seven marine turtle species, a plethora of cetaceans, whale sharks, mantas, and a variety of corals to rival Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Sodwana is a must-visit destination for anyone with an interest in sea life.
And crowning it all, as far as Sam was concerned, was the white spotted puffer fish that you might see there. “Ja, you probably won’t see one of those if you’re just snorkelling,” said Tiaan van Vuuren, a young dive instructor from the Coral Divers resort.
We had booked into one of their chalets, and had planned on going no further than Sodwana’s tidal rock pools to search for the little puffer. But Tiaan had thrown a spanner into the works. “You’ll have to go SCUBA diving and visit some of our reefs. That’s where they like to hang out.”
Dutifully we signed up for an Open Water Diver Course, a theory and practical-training programme that would, according to the manual, ‘Open up a world of endless underwater adventures and vocational possibilities’. ‘Piece of cake’ I thought.
‘How hard can learning to dive be?’ It looks so effortless and easy when you see it on TV.
A world of dangers
That first morning saw us sitting in a dive-shack Sodwana classroom where Tiaan played an introductory video that was supposed to endear us to that aforementioned ‘world of underwater adventures and vocational possibilities’. But if truth be told, it just scared the hell out of us.
The video, which featured a team of attractive American divers who smiled a lot and had nice hair, cheerily hurled a barrage of quick-fire information at us, roughly translating to, ‘There are hundreds of novel ways to die underwater’. We learnt of the dangers of exploding lungs or our eyes being sucked out from their sockets. We might overheat in our suits on the surface or else get hyperthermia, even in warmer water.
There was also drowning to worry about, nitrogen narcosis, little air bubbles in our veins and brains, boat collisions, getting lost, running out of air, faulty gear, ears bursting, deadly currents, and the risk of sinking into a bottomless abyss. And all this before they mentioned sharks, fireworms, or jellyfish. “But don’t worry guys,” Tiaan told us jauntily. “We’ll teach you how to avoid it all.”
We stuck it out and, come that evening, had progressed through three instructional modules, and had sat a series of multiple-choice exams, as well as a physical test that had us swimming 20 lengths of a pool followed by ten minutes treading water. All this we had to complete without drowning or having a heart attack.
“Good,” said Tiaan, smiling as we pulled ourselves, exhausted, from the pool. “Today you have shown that you are capable of absorbing information, and that you are not a complete liability in the water. You are fit and ready. That night, we slept like anaesthetised babies.
I resemble a dugong
On the second day, we learnt about the various pieces of equipment that needed to be mastered while in Neptune’s domain. First, there was the wetsuit, a tight-fitting neoprene onesie almost impossible to get into. One must physically fight with it, preferably with an assistant on hand to tug on the tight bits and help squeeze the flabby bits into submission. Once the zip is up, you’re in. Possibly for the rest of your life.
Sam, with his young, lithe body, looked like a superhero in his costume. I, however, resembled a dugong. “It will keep you warm,” said Tiaan, as I gasped for breath in the confines of my spandex prison. “And once in the water, it won’t feel so tight.”
And then there is the actual diving kit, a series of mysterious-looking devices that at first sight appeared more complicated than a Hadron Collider particle accelerator. There is a special vest that inflates and deflates at the push of a button, which helps you maintain neutral buoyancy in the water. There are tanks and straps and levers and screws, and dials and readouts and all manner of pulley and pushy things to concern yourself with.
There’s also the regulator which is a mouthpiece that simultaneously allows you to breathe while regulating airflow. This is handy because, without it, the pressurised air from your tanks would blast your eyes and brains out through your ears, nose and wherever else.
But as overwhelming as this all seemed at first, Tiaan was there to walk us through putting it all together, taking it apart and then putting it all together again (and again and again until we got it right).
That afternoon, once we had mastered our gear, the fun really began for us, with a series of sub-aquatic competency lessons in the pool. Just being able to breathe underwater was a thrilling experience and, when Tiaan instructed us on how to control our buoyancy, it was as if we had learnt how to fly.
Clued up and ready to go
We spent the next two days practising and learning, alternating between pool sessions and sitting through more educational video modules. When it finally came time to sit our final exam, Sam and I were both pretty clued up on how to safely SCUBA dive.
But there was one final set of tests before we could call ourselves qualified divers, and for that we had to enter the very real world of the very deep, blue sea. I don’t think either of us slept well that night, so worried were we about our first expedition into and under the great Indian Ocean.
The following morning we were taken to the beach at Sodwana Bay to be met by dozens of dive students kitting up and getting ready to hit the reefs, and numerous boats toing and froing, packed to the gills with fellow aquatic adventurers. In high season, Coral Divers resort can be home to hundreds of SCUBA scholars, and can launch up to 30 boats per day.
Unfortunately for us, the seas were unusually rough that day on the Sodwana bay, and our trip out through the breakers to the nearest reef was tumultuous. As I glanced at all the other first-time students packed onto our boat, I was reminded of those old movies I had seen of the D-Day landings at Normandy. Everyone looked terrified. Some were mumbling prayers. Others were kissing pendants and crucifixes. Sam had turned green. Tiaan was holding his hand. I wanted him to hold mine too, but daren’t ask.
Before long we were positioned over the reef and, one by one, like Navy Seals, we exited the boat and began our descent to the ocean floor. Down there, the swell wasn’t so noticeable and our nausea subsided.
But it was still pretty scary. We were surrounded by tons of colourful fish and picturesque corals but hardly noticed them, so focused were we on staying alive. Sam and I clung to each other like a baby monkey would its mother. Tiaan had to prise us apart. But being the consummate professional that he is, he managed to calm us down with a series of hand gestures that said, ‘Dudes. Calm down and remember your training’.
So that’s what we did.
Dude calm down
One by one, we repeated the exercises we had perfected in the pool. We demonstrated that we could clear our masks should they become flooded. We showed off our emergency procedures and verified our ability to control our underwater buoyancy. Then, back up at the surface, Tiaan clapped us on our backs and loudly pronounced that we had passed all the tests, and were now bona fide SCUBA divers. Sam and I threw up over the side and, lo, the fish did rejoice and consume.
We did another three open-water dives in Sodwana after that one, all in calmer conditions and all with a feeling of serenity born of the confidence that we knew what we were doing down there. In such state of mind we could truly enjoy the business of SCUBA diving. Marvel at the coral and the sensation of slow flying underwater, and watch in awe the creatures that swam around us. It felt like we were there with Sir David Attenborough, in an episode of Blue Planet.
But then, part way into our final dive, my son started to leak bubbles from the corner of his mouthpiece and thrash his arms and legs. Horrified, and assuming he was in big trouble, my training kicked in and I grabbed him and tried to stuff my emergency air supply into his mouth, but he just shook his head and gave me the hand signal for ‘Dude-Calm-Down’.
Pointing to a small cave beneath a particularly beautiful piece of fan-shaped coral sat an innocuous little fish with large doe-like eyes and peppered with white spots. It gave us with a pensive gaze. I could see Sam beaming, even with his regulator in his mouth. There it was, the reason for our adventure in the first place. The white-spotted pufferfish.