Plumbing The Depths

Sharks and deep water terrified Gareth Mason – so he enrolled on a scuba diving course off the coast of Mexico. Positive thinking or seaside suicide?

The island of Cozumel in Mexico claims to be the world’s most beautiful diving spots. After a couple of months backpacking through central America, I was tempted by its exotic Caribbean waters and budget-priced scuba diving courses at rock bottom prices. Mexico’s best, according to the guidebook, offered me the chance to confront two phobias: sharks and deep water. It was fuzzy logic from the ‘confront your fears’ school of thought.

Shortly into my first day’s training, laden with pipes and tanks, I wobbled unsteadily into the sea at Villablanca beach. After all, learning in a swimming pool with this wealth of underwater richness would be like hiring Pavarotti to play the spoons. Just six feet under and a new world exploded into life. Bright coloured, strange-shaped fish, sponges and gargonians drifted lazily past me with only half an eye on the floundering, clumsy figure who had joined them. Everything the ocean cradled seemed to sweep right up to the shoreline.

Cozumel’s waters are known for the intensity and shades of blue but the tableau becomes more dazzling when you dip beneath the surface where the brilliant sunshine illuminates the wide expanse of life. Snorkelling, let alone diving, is a spectacular experience. Those I recognised included a moray eel coaxed by my instructor Luis from beneath its rock-home and a barracuda with its dentist-free zone of razor-sharp teeth. These had gained local notoriety after the recent death of a woman snorkeler whose twinkling necklace was mistaken by the barracuda for the silverfish it usually dined on.

Underwater, my vocabulary was reduced to a dozen or so hand signs steered the chat more to ‘See that!’ and ‘Me no breathe’ than intelligent debate. One time, 30ft under, I was internally debating how to say to Luis: ‘You appear to be switching off my air supply. Can we can discuss this?’ His smile while I signed ‘out of air’ didn't encourage me. Fortunately, it was Part 3 of my latest test and he turned it back on soon after my breathing became laboured. In water, my mind struggles to retain more than two instructions. I learned to recognise Luis shouting underwater without hearing the words or seeing the lips. It was in the eyes and usually followed my latest attempt to drown the pair of us.

Around 20 years ago, I’d sneaked into Jaws underage. I still carried the mental scars. I'd find bungee jumping into a pit of giant cockroaches more appealing than being lost at sea wondering what just scraped against my right foot. But the first time I gently settled on the ocean floor, it all changed.

Cozumel’s stunningly clear waters offer visibility up to 80ft while water temperature, averaging 80 degrees Fahrenheit, matched the sweltering and humid temperatures above the waves. With the depths unveiled, there was no unknown to fear. And once comfortably gliding back and forth, the false gills of my aqualung seemed almost natural. A crap fish, perhaps, but a fish nonetheless. An off-shore hammerhead drifting in for a spot of gringo baiting would not have fazed my new-found confidence. Luis humoured me by telling me how to face an aggressive one. I practiced shark nose-bashing enthusiastically. Whether this aquatic machismo would have lasted if faced with anything bigger than the one which came with my action man deep sea diver, I may never know.

After three days training at the beach, we took the boat out to two of the 30-odd reefs to plumb the depths. The first, Palancar, is probably Cozumel’s most popular and like most of the island’s reefs is a drift dive. It’s around 30ft deep before disappearing into the gloom. The second at Chancanaab varied between 50-90ft before sharply cutting down into an abyss. Amid the scattered coral and sponges, shoals of small fish twitched this way and that dodging the larger mouths of indigenous creatures such as sea turtles, rays, groupers and amberjacks. Elsewhere, lurking out of our sight was the nocturnal Toadfish, unique to the island’s shores and a myriad of evocatively named associates from the Honeycomb Cowfish, Queen Parrotfish and Trumpet Fish to the Foureye Butterflyfish, French Angelfish and Cherub Fish.

Once I’d cast myself blindly off the boat, and worked out which way up I was, I drifted slowly down into the underwater kingdom – awed by its scale, stillness and silence. The dark, looming corrals and rock formations were palaces and homes to creatures of which I’d never dreamed. The overhead hum of the motorboat drifted off till all that was left was my steady inhalation of breath and the streams of escaping air.

Here as we slowly circled down I remembered my botched attempts at a controlled emergency ascent. Ascending from 20ft my lungs had emptied barely half-way up. So, what would happen at 60ft, I wondered, if some freakish accident befell me? I recited my options, decided four consecutive disasters were unlikely to follow and descended to new depths. I knew one moment of madness could book me an unpleasant session in one of the island’s two hyperbaric chambers. This helped focus the mind. Indeed, I might have worked harder at school if I’d been told that otherwise my lungs would swell to the size of a small hot-air balloon and my blood would fizz like Cola.

Spielberg’s monster is now banished from my nightmares – I'm a far greater threat to myself. And who knows, one day I may yet laugh in the face of a Great White. But I might want to work up to that.

Commissioned for Scuba World 2000