Previously, I talked about writing Going Alone, a creative non-fiction book about travelling alone, hiking alone, living alone, and being alone. So that you can see the kind of thing I mean, here’s a chapter I wrote the other day about a real-life incident on a dive boat in Western Australia in 2004. It’s long-ish, but I hope it’s entertaining and thought provoking enough to keep you reading. Enjoy 🙂
Exmouth, June 2004
It’s Friday mid afternoon and we’ve spent the morning at other Lighthouse Bay sites, diving at Blizzard Ridge then Gullivers before anchoring here at the Fish Hole for our third dive of the day. Natalie and Julie have one more dive to finish their Open Water course, and Dave and I are watching protectively after the freak out Natalie had on day one. That day, as we knelt on the sand at about three metres to practice skills, a biggish potato cod ambled by and Natalie panicked and bolted for the surface. This sometimes happens with new divers. I haven’t been a dive master trainee for long, but I’ve already seen it a couple of times on open water courses. Dave was fast though, grabbing Natalie’s fin, slowing her, and gesturing to breathe. Dave’s an experienced diver and an experienced prawn fisherman, with quick reflexes and slow smiles. He calms Natalie and later shrugs off any heroism. Rushing to the surface and holding your breath, while instinctive, is one of the things about SCUBA diving that can kill you.
Notoriously, also, sharks can kill divers, although this risk is famously overstated. Sharks are a much bigger risk for surfers. They attack from below, and those on the surface create a silhouette that might, to a shark, look like a turtle or a seal. Usually, though, sharks do not try to kill swimmers: a bite is their only way of finding out what this new, oceanic curiosity might be. But they have a bad press, not least here in Western Australia, where there are a couple of shark fatalities every year. And so although we regularly see distinctive reef sharks and occasionally striped tiger sharks and earth-toned bronze whalers on dives out of Exmouth, I have learned to keep my calm.
A bigger risk to safety is dodgy gear, and at Village Dive, where I’m interning as a divemaster trainee, some of the equipment is in dangerously bad shape. There are buoyancy control devices (BCDs) with inflator buttons that routinely get stuck, regulators that leak, and pocket-style weight belts so in need of repair that the weights drop out onto the floor or onto the corals, sometimes causing divers to shoot upwards. Bad gear is also uncomfortable: many of the wetsuit booties have broken zips and Pete, the owner of Village Dive, gets us to tell customers just to tuck them into their wetsuits. This causes a lot of blisters. People also get cold. The women’s wetsuits come in just three sizes: Scubapro medium, Mares medium, and what we call “Japanese”, that is to say tiny. Only a few very small-framed, usually Asian, women ever use these wetsuits. They’re too small even for most kids. That leaves, effectively, only medium-size women’s wetsuits, and everyone else gets cold, the water sloshing around inside the suit rather than getting trapped as a layer close to the skin and warming up. But Pete’s pockets open strictly one way. A year or so later he will sell the business entirely, but for now it is clear that he intends to invest no more in the crumbling Village Dive.
This dodgy gear, and the problems that regularly result, translates among the dive shop crew to a culture of blame. The week before this Friday afternoon, two English guys turned up unbooked at 7.20am still needing to hire gear but wanting to dive that day. ‘Quick, quick, get them kitted up’, Yvette tells me, and I do. They need large-size BCDs, and Yvette helps me pack their kit bags. On the boat, there’s a problem: the inflator hose connector is missing, and OK, I go to the spares box, but there’s only a small there. I take it and I’m on my way back to switch the parts over when Yvette intercepts me. I ask:
- —Oh, hey, is it easy to change a connector over from one BCD to another?
I explain. And Yvette’s first question is nothing to do with solving the problem. Instead, she asks:
- —Who kitted them up?
- —You know fine it was me. You saw me doing it. In a hurry, this morning. You packed one of the bags. I didn’t notice it, and nor did you.
Fire with fire. But this backfires spectacularly, and Yvette is pissy with me for days.
Of course, though, the problem is eventually solved. These are paying clients, and we are all very used to finding kit-related work-arounds. But I am an interning dive master and Yvette is an established diving instructor, and she seems to enjoy reminding me of my place in the hierarchy, which is to say that she sees me as lower than the red dust on her shoes. In turn, Pete fires diving instructors for the tiniest infractions: Daryl was slightly late one day and ‘smells of booze’, so Pete fired him. Pete regularly reminds Yvette and others that her role is precarious, and so Yvette kicks out at the dive master trainee. Village Dive’s management is easily as shonky as its equipment.
But back to that Friday morning. We’re bobbing around aboard the Warrior Princess, the aging tub that Village Dive insists on running even though Mick, the skipper, has a dummy spit every now and then about the engine that won’t stop breaking down. As skipper, if something goes wrong it’s his fault, legally. At least it’s a gray area, he tells us in the Potshot one night.
The Potshot is one of two pubs in town: a sign on the door says ‘patrons must be properly dressed’, which means that you need to be wearing at least a singlet and thongs as well as the shorts that are the uniform here in Exmouth. The Potshot serves up enormous schnitzels with chips, and cold beer flows. And, ravenous from diving, hauling tanks, and rinsing piss-soaked hire wetsuits, the diving crew eagerly wolf down this fare, night after night. I’ve been in Western Australia a couple of months and I’ve actually lost weight: this very physical diving job burns a lot of pub dinners.
The waves are choppy this Friday afternoon at the Fish Hole: little white caps ride the current that pulls strongly on the anchor chain as we guide it out with a rusty hammer. As with so much else on the Warrior Princess there’s a cheap workaround, a fix. The anchor chain is no exception: let it be and it will tangle, so one of the dive master’s jobs is to sit up front with a hammer as Mick anchors. Facebook is yet to be invented, but the photos we take of each other doing this —against big blue skies and clear, blue water— would be our profile pictures. As it is, we pose for posterity: we are the ship’s ironic figurehead; we are the scene from Titanic; we are literally interpreted hammerhead sharks: hammer held aloft, teeth bared.
Now that the boat is anchored, we can feel the powerful swell. Hurriedly, we check our gear and roll into the water; if you feel sick on a boat, getting into the water will immediately cure it. Straight away, the current tugs at us as we swim to the anchor line and signal a final OK back to Mick, who stands on deck writing our descent times on a clipboard. OK: that diving gesture, the circled thumb and forefinger, the other fingers splayed out. At this stage, we are still OK. Then we raise our left arms and descend. The seabed comes into view, the sand grey at first then forming itself into rocks, a turtle picking at algae. We set off towards the start of the reef, noticing that the current is strong down here, too: we are immediately pulled sideways.
Dave and I are both navigating, partly because my navigation is still terrible and partly because he knows this site much better than I do. All too often on dive sites that aren’t Labyrinth —because I know Labyrinth with my eyes closed—a version of this gestured, wordless conversation will occur:
- Me: waves to get your attention, points to you, points to my head (do you know…) gestures with two hands cupped, then a shrug: …where is the boat?)
Of course, if I’m supposed to be navigating, the answer is usually a shake of the head. And so the next line is this:
- Me: points to you, points to the sand: (Stay here…) points to me, points upwards (… I’m going up…) gestures looking around, gestures with two hands cupped (… to look for the boat.) Circled fingers. (OK?)
For this reason, Dave is navigating our Fish Hole dive too. And while the reef gives us features to navigate by, after a while one coral looks very much like another, all bommies look the same, and the sea fans seem to be laughing at us: shape shifting, imitating each other, conspiring to confuse, looking alike. As a result, after half an hour we’re both fairly sure of the direction of the boat, but neither of us realises quite how far we’ve drifted.
Julie’s air is low and the waves are kicking up some sand now, so we surface. And what we find is that, although we were both right about the direction of the boat, it is a just tiny speck in the distance now, maybe a kilometre away. The waves are much bigger, too, so to us the boat is visible then gone, visible then gone, as the water surges up and down, sometimes lifting us up but concealing the boat, sometimes raising the boat but hiding us, and sometimes bringing both us and the boat up on top of the waves at the same time so that we can momentarily signal to Mick: we are OK. We raise our arms in a circle over our heads this time, and the different OK signal, the one for use over a distance, reminds us just how far away we have drifted. We are OK, though. Can Mick even see us?
Usually, when this kind of thing happens, the boat comes around to pick up stray divers. If the divers surface closer but still far away, the boat lets out a mermaid line: a long rope with floats on the end that drift in the current, taking the rope to where the divers have come up. In fact, it’s not unusual, in Exmouth, for divers to surface far from the boat if there’s a strong current. The diving here is still fairly wild: big currents, poor visibility, and very few other divers. In fact, that was part of Exmouth’s appeal when I decided where to train as a dive master. I’d dived in parts of Thailand where so many divers on the surface looked like dumpling soup. But Exmouth is properly remote: it is the furthest I’ve ever been from a city. Perth is 1250km away; Broome is 1370km. Galahs and cockatoos shriek in the trees, emus bury their heads in your rubbish bin, kangaroos graze in scrubby, red-earth town gardens, and 3000 people cling to the edge of the desert, the edge of the ocean. The TV advertisements, beamed up from pasture lands much further south, ask Having trouble with your sheep dip? The supermarket receives fresh vegetables on Thursdays. There are ATMs but no optician; you need to go four hours to Carnarvon to buy clothes. It is properly remote.
The seas around Exmouth are incredibly remote, too. At Lighthouse Bay, on that Friday afternoon, a sweep of ocean leads up past Bundegi reserve to the top of an uninhabited peninsula, the so-called Outback Coast. And then: nothing. Sweep up past the end of the peninsula and there’s simply nothing at all. Or, there’s the Indian Ocean, there’s plenty of it. But there’s no land until you reach Indonesia, 1650km away. Later, Dave whistles and remarks: it’s a thousand miles.
For now, though, it’s a kilometre to the boat. A kilometre would be a short walk or a long swim. But, we quickly discover, today it is an infinite swim because we’re trying to get there against a strong current that is running faster than we can swim. So the more we kick, the further away the speck of the boat gets. The occasional glimpses of the boat from the top of the waves get less frequent. And then, after a big wave, the Warrior Princess is gone entirely. Or rather, we’re gone, because, as Mick tells us later, at that point he thought we had drowned: we were gone, swept away. And once you get swept away by the current up here, there’s nothing out there, nothing but big blue skies and clear, blue water.
And because we have drowned, there were tears on the boat, Mick tells us later. He was tearing up himself, he confesses, this burly skipper, because he is legally liable. Because the Warrior Princess, it turns out later, has broken down again, its engine finally given up. He couldn’t bring the boat around. And, because of this, we, apparently, have drowned. He had told Village Dive about this; he had complained so many times about the engine. But, needing a paycheck, he had taken the Warrior Princess out again anyway. Soon after this day, Mick will quit his job. We have drowned and he is to blame.
Only we haven’t drowned, of course. We are the only people in hundreds of square kilometres of empty ocean that know this, but we are OK. We are OK, only now there is no-one to signal this to. We would descend again and swim back to the boat underwater, only Julie is on 50 bar of air and it is not enough. So we drop our weight belts and, through our masks, watch them snake away through the water, quickly out of sight in the churning sand and poor visibility. Then we inflate our BCDs, take off our gear except wetsuits, masks, snorkels, and fins, turn everything else over like a raft, and we each half crawl onto our own vest-sized rafts. And we kick.
At one point in the long afternoon, I put my masked face into the water and watch, with interest that turns to horror, as a turtle speeds past much faster than I have ever seen a turtle move before. What is it chasing? And then I feel a chill. Or what is chasing it? I don’t tell Julie and Natalie what I’ve seen. I keep kicking.
At another point, Dave and I are swimming behind and he reaches for my arm, catches my eye, and does a shooting-himself-in-the-head gesture, reminding me of the trouble we’ll be in with the dive shop as much as we are in trouble with the ocean. He tells me quietly that he’s worried sick he’s going to be blamed for bringing us up miles down current of the boat. ‘Ach, rubbish’, I tell him. ‘Why this culture of blame? Let’s just get out of this mess’. He’s right, though: everyone is turning on one another. Someone will be blamed for this. I’m worried, now, about this too. We keep kicking.
Then Julie starts whimpering. She has seen a shark’s fin; she’s sure of it. Something brushed her leg. Something big. This is entirely possible as we’re well away from the dive sites in very open water, the place of pelagics. But we downplay her worries, telling her, ‘no, no, you can’t have seen a shark. It must just have been a fish. There’s nothing to worry about. Just keep kicking’. She clearly doesn’t believe us, but doesn’t argue.
In the distance, on the shore, we can see the tops of three red masts of the naval base, and we use these to track our progress against the current, towards the boat. And for the first hour we make no headway at all. We started opposite the third mast and, after a long hour, we are still opposite the third mast. We are almost keeping pace with the current, but we are getting nowhere. The boat is still nowhere to be seen. And we’re tired. My feet are chafing and blistered. My face feels hot with sunburn, salt water, and exertion. I’m thirsty.
And so I suggest that instead of trying to swim to the boat, we should swim across the current and, instead, try to get to shore. There is nothing at all on the shore opposite where we are, though. Indeed, it might well be that the edge of the ocean opposite our location ends in a cliff face. And if so we will have slightly different problems: getting out and getting found where we are not meant to be. But at least we’ll have a better chance if we’re on land. This I argue, and Dave agrees. Julie and Natalie look relieved, even though we’re an enormous swim away from land, five kilometres at least.
We cut across the current and immediately start making much faster progress. The three masts we can see in the distance stay relatively constant, relative to where we are, so we know we’re no longer being pulled out of the bay by the current. Perhaps the literal and metaphorical tide is turning? We keep kicking.
In the distance, we start to be able to make out what looks like two black rocks. We aim for them, a specific landmark, and we keep swimming. As we slowly get closer, the rocks resolve themselves into the carcass of a shipwreck. This feels much more motivating than swimming endlessly and exhausting ourselves: we are parallel to the red masts and the shipwreck is coming into focus.
In the meantime, Mick has radioed the dive shop and told them the position of the stricken Warrior Princess and the fact that divers are missing. And so Sue from the front desk has driven down to the beach to search for us from shore, and Pete is out in his fishing boat doing U-patterns, looking for us.
This matters because, with a flash of sudden realisation, I remember we’re carrying safety sausages. These are long, thin, bright orange plastic bags that divers keep rolled up in their BCD pockets for an emergency like this. I’ve never had to use them before. I get mine out. Dave sees me and follows with his. We unfurl them and inflate them with some of the remaining air from our tanks. Stupidly, neither of has thought of this, and neither of us says anything, at the time or since, to each other or to anyone else, about this important error. After several hours in the water, we simply hoist the large, orange markers. Later, we will brazen it out, saying we’d had them up for ages, conscious of the culture of blame in the dive shop and of not getting into trouble for forgetting. Yvette would make the whole incident about our incompetence if she could. Pete would like nothing more than to blame us. Dave is rightly worried he would be fired. As it is, we say nothing.
Thanks to how close we are, and the fact we are now holding large, orange markers aloft, Sue soon spots us from the beach. She radios to Pete, who comes and picks us up in his fishing boat.
Pete’s boat swings into view when we’re only a few hundred metres from shore and can now clearly see the details of the shipwreck. At last we stop kicking. Pete pulls Julie and Natalie into the boat first, then me, then Dave. We are all shivering and Pete finds us blankets and sun-warmed bottles of water, which we gulp. The light is golden, the sun an hour or so from setting. I shudder to think about our chances if we had been out after dark. But as it is Pete takes us to the Warrior Princess, which is still broken down and still at anchor where we left it. The trip on Pete’s fast boat to reach the Warrior Princess takes a satisfyingly long time, reminding us just how far we came.
Pete has radioed ahead to Mick to say we are found and safe, so the reactions on the boat are relief rather than surprise. But it has clearly been an awful day on the boat, too: seasickness at anchor and so much worry: we are coming back from the dead. I’m actually glad to have been among the group that knew what was going on; uniquely among us, Dave and Natalie and Julie and I never thought we had drowned. There are lots of hugs. Yvette gives us chocolate.
And then everyone from the Warrior Princess boards Pete’s fishing boat and we have what he jokingly calls a ‘sunset cruise’ back to the marina. We arrive, still in wetsuits, salty and sore, at around 8pm. My dive computer is not working: too much salt in it. My lips are chapped and bleeding. My legs will ache for days.
Pete takes us all out to the Potshot for a celebration that Dave and I privately call ‘please do not sue us’. Out of Natalie and Julie’s earshot, Pete tells us that we did all the right things: we kept calm; we got ourselves found. He tells us he’s sorry and that it was a unique set of unlucky circumstances: the boat’s engine breaking down, and the current, and the novice divers. This is not how Mick describes it later, when he calls Pete a ‘criminal who nearly had your blood on his hands’. But, still salty and almost falling asleep in the Potshot, we don’t argue.
A few weeks later, I finally qualify as a divemaster and immediately I’m offered an actual, paying job with another dive company in Exmouth. Word travels (despite my lousy navigation skills). Seemingly I’m a divemaster who knows what she’s doing. The job is intriguing: it’s on a whale shark boat as a ‘shark spotter’. The company takes me out for an incredible day of whale shark snorkelling, and up-close humpback viewing, to try to entice me to join them. After the Warrior Princess, their boat feels luxurious.
Exmouth is famous for diving but also for whale sharks, which are the ocean’s gentle giants: the largest fish on the planet and harmless plankton eaters. The whale sharks that migrate past Exmouth every year are part of a conservation effort, and tourist dollars help pay for their protection. Individual sharks are monitored by their unique patterns of spots, and a dive master on the boat I visit tells me that she has come to know the personalities of individual whale sharks through swimming with them every day.
This new job involves no actual diving, just snorkelling. Divemasters do the boat safety briefing, talk about fish, and generally help out (although they don’t need to wield a hammer at a rusty old anchor chain, another dive master tells me, laughing). One of the main things a ‘spotter’ does is to get into the water with the tourists and ‘spot’ those struggling with snorkelling or with the adrenalin of an up-close giant animal encounter.
But there is, inevitably, a catch. The whale shark company offer a no-whale-shark-sighting-no-cost guarantee. And so, to find the whale sharks, they rely on light aircraft whose pilots radio down to the boats with the exact location of the sharks. The problem is that from the air it is easy to mistake the distinctive shark shape of a large whale shark for the distinctive shark shape of a large tiger shark. And so part of the role of a ‘spotter’ is to be the first into the water to check that the shark does, indeed, have spots and not stripes.
But you know what? I’m done with being scared. I’ve had enough of open-water surface swimming. And so I think about the job briefly and then I say thank you, but no thank you, to the shark spotter job. I enjoyed interning for a short time in the diving industry and I enjoyed the badassery of a town as remote as Exmouth. But as much as I would enjoy dining out forever on the fact of having been a whaleshark spotter, I decide against it.
After many years of working in the precarious but travel-friendly English teaching industry, I’d thought I might be able to replicate a similar globetrotter existence through diving. But this experience has made me realize that English teaching is wonderfully low stakes. The worst thing that happens is that your students leave the classroom scratching their heads, not entirely sure how to use the present perfect. In contrast, on a bad day in the diving industry, people die. Exmouth gave me a strong sense of the risks we may choose to take, or not take. And this, of course, applies in life as well as diving.