When you descend into the deep, hyperboles fall short and you are your own Columbus and Marco Polo.Photo by author
Mountaineers and seafarers, they say, are given to tall tales. I had told my share as a mountain-born and an amateur mountaineer, having been on at least one major mountain expedition (Kanchenjunga).
Therefore, it seemed natural to turn to the polar opposite - the oceans. And it was just as well that my fascination for the deep began with the Maldives, a country usually described as 99% water.
A clumsy snorkelling dip here many years ago with a no-nonsense female Russian instructor set me on a blitzkrieg of diving and snorkelling across the Indian Ocean from East Africa to Indonesia.
But while there are ready mountain vocabularies to mythologise mountains, how do you mythologise a mythology? Oceans below their surface have, after all, hardly been part of the human experience. Our obsessions, our aspirations, our pursuits are all firmly on land. Oceans in stories across cultures have been long odysseys to undertake, to arrive with relief at some shore. We are content to live out our dreams on 29% of the planet.
Therefore, when you descend into the deep, hyperboles fall short and you are your own Columbus and Marco Polo.
Perhaps, a reason why diving has been described as something of a spiritual experience. Could it be a harking back to when we were not even vertebrates and yet to slither out to land from the primaeval soup?
Diving has also been compared with space voyages. The vulnerability, the strangeness of gravity, the Star Trek movements and the science fiction landscape are all the same. A reason why astronauts are dunked into water-tanks to simulate the weightlessness of space and practise their spacewalks. In fact, diving is the best pranayama. You no longer have to trick your 'monkey mind' to focus on the breath. Breathing is diving's main event.
In this second diving trip to the Maldives, I was in the southern atoll, with its relatively healthy corals. And once again, the epicurean delights on offer in the Island resort weighed heavily against any open-water escapades.
A new property offered all the hedonisms of an island resort, plus personalised pampering designed to make the resort your oyster.
Amidst all the mollycoddling, it's easy to forget that just beyond the placid lagoon and the infinity pools, just where the light blue of the ocean meets the dark blue, the coral reefs cradling Maldives's 1,190 or so islands in a protective embrace are crumbling. And that if global temperatures continue to rise, this El Dorado, barely one metre above the sea, would all be submerged.
Those diving for years can best gauge the coral's health from a few years before. The diving group I was with this time, however, was made of shark freaks. So, we ebbed along the crystal-clear waters, just off the island reef, waiting for the 'incoming'. The incoming tide hauls with it sharks, signalling the time to jump.
But despite plunging in with the 'incoming', we had to wait for the sharks, and it was only after descending to about 15 metres below water that we saw them skimming the surface in schools, ignoring us completely. The sharks in the Maldives, along with other creatures of the deep, are famously non-aggressive. It is as easy to swim with them as it is to take selfies with half-sedated felines in tourist traps around the world.
But I was there for one boring reason. Corals. And it is getting increasingly boring and depressing, what with the corals dying all around the world. In an event called 'coral bleaching', triggered by rising water temperatures, corals, as a defence mechanism, shed the algae that live on them, dying in the process. One can see wrecks of dead or half-bleached corals at almost all diving spots in the world.
To see unharmed corals, we had to drop deeper where the water temperature had remained comfortable for the corals to thrive. The fish here was the variety that came in shoals, and like a single organism danced and swerved this way and that without any apparent reason. It was eerie when the shoals swam below us and we floated as if on a fish carpet.
Among the reef's warrens, many unfamiliar creatures popped in and out to see the aliens. The dive instructor pointed to a piece of coral rock repeatedly. On the boat, he told me he was trying to show me a camouflaged scorpion fish. The ubiquitous clownfish were warier in these depths. They peeped cautiously from behind the swaying tentacles of the anemones.
Change of breath
But the sight rather unexpected and one that stayed was that of the turtle. The 'incoming' hauls them in, too, and we saw one giant green turtle swim along the reef just as we had used up the air in our tanks. I had seen green turtles slither painfully to the shore on a hatching site in Oman. The turtle is as nimble and graceful in water as it's awkward and cumbersome on land.
The 'spiritual' moment for me occurred, as always, when I was back on the surface and within the sight of the boat, and began to breathe as a human again. Just so. A spiritual experience is often a relief, a sort of catharsis from a preceding episode of physical or mental stress.
From Buddha to Jesus, mystics have documented their days and years of ordeal before entering a blissful state, which the followers called Enlightenment.
A mystical phenomenon of a dive is perhaps another tall tale told by a minority that knows it is something the majority would never investigate or experience.